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A R T S    A N D    C U L T U R E
Ringing Endorsement
Emily Grant • A review of the film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
January 2002

Over Christmas vacation, the first part of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, was released. Critics and audiences adored the movie—it told a good story, made excellent use of special effects, employed good actors, and had breath-taking scenery. 

The storyline is complex—it took over a thousand pages for Tolkien to unfold the plot; the screenwriters performed a remarkable feat when they managed to edit down the first third of The Lord of the Rings into a movie that was only three hours long. The hero, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), inherits a ring when his uncle disappears. His wizard friend, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), discovers that this ring is not only a magic one, but is also the One Ring of Power—the ring that contains all of the evil power of the Dark Lord, Sauron. If Sauron comes to repossess this ring, then all of Middle-Earth will fall to him. Sauron, understandably, wants to get the ring back from Frodo. He sends out the nine Black Riders to hunt down Frodo and to take the ring. Gandalf instructs Frodo to leave his home, promising to meet him in a nearby town. 

Frodo and three of his hobbit friends follow Gandalf’s instructions, but the wizard is nowhere to be found. Trusting a man named Strider (Viggo Mortensen), the hobbits safely arrive (after many close calls with the Black Riders) to an Elven palace, Rivendell, where they are reunited with Gandalf. A council of all of the free peoples of Middle-Earth is called, and the council decides that the ring must be destroyed—but the only place where this ring can be unmade is in the Cracks of Doom, in Sauron’s country. Frodo is appointed to carry out this task, and the three hobits, Gandalf, an elf, a dwarf, Strider, and a man named Boromir (Sean Bean) are appointed to assist him.

But the strength of The Lord of the Rings is not merely its superb acting or exciting plot. The movie distinguishes itself by its unique presentation of evil. Recent movies (Harry Potter springs to mind) have a tendency to present “the bad guys” as simply people who stand in opposition to the hero. The Lord of the Rings manages to break free from this simplistic conception of evil, and instead presents evil as a perversion of the good. 

The strength of The Lord of the Rings’ presentation of evil lies in the fact that the bad guys all have history behind them—they are not presented as simply seeking to foil Frodo; they are seeking an immediate good—mostly power—for themselves.  This portrayal of evil is more compelling than usual because it is more true to life—a man will not kill his own mother merely because it is an evil action. A man kills his mother either because it is expedient (he may stand to inherit) or because it gives him pleasure. In other words, he performs an action that is objectively evil not because he loves evil, but because he loves himself. Seeking an immediate good for himself, he does not care about the larger ramifications of his actions; he only desires what is expedient. 

Evil as a perversion of the good can be seen very clearly in the case of Boromir. From the beginning, Boromir wants to use the power of the Ring to save his own city, Minas Tirith, from the armies of Sauron. His ends are good—the safety of innocent people; it is his means that are bad—the use of a power that is fundamentally evil, is beyond his control, and will consume him if he attempts to use it. He does not heed the advice of Gandalf, who tells him that he cannot use the Ring for a good purpose, and the idea of using the Ring dominates his thoughts. He makes an attempt to take it from Frodo, causing their company to fall into disarray and to be open to attack by the Orcs (fallen Elves in alliance with Sauron). He recalls his duties when the Orcs attack, and fights to the death to defend the hobbits. The time he buys with his fierce defense allows Frodo enough time to escape.  

However, Boromir’s failing is not only pride—that he ignores the advice of Gandalf and attempts to use a power that is beyond his ability to control. It is also that he seeks the safety of Minas Tirith above the safety of the whole of Middle-Earth—he wants an immediate good rather than an objective good, the destruction of the ring. 

Boromir’s fear for Minas Tirith’s safety is not unfounded—later on, Minas Tirith suffers severe losses in the war against Sauron’s forces. However, Minas Tirith’s losses buy time for Frodo to destroy the ring, and lead to the freedom of Middle-Earth. The suffering of Minas Tirith and the difficulty of Boromir’s choice show the depth of the depiction of good in The Lord of the Rings. Many movies (again, Harry Potter springs to mind) show the good choice as the easy one—or at least greatly downplay the amount of suffering involved. 

In translating The Lord of the Rings from a book to a movie, the screenwriters had to edit out parts of the storyline. The failing of the movie is that there is not the same character development as in the book (mostly due to time constraints). Nonetheless, the strength of the movie is that the audience does understand that the characters are motivated to make incredible sacrifices. The success of the movie is due to the fact that the screenwriters did not water down Tolkein’s deep conception of evil, or his understanding that often goodness requires a great deal of sacrifice. 

Emily Grant is a former Editor of the YFP

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