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On Providence: Peter Jackson vs. JRR Tolkien

May 17th, 2007 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One of these days I’m going to do a thorough comparison of the crucial differences between Tolkien’s version of Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s film adaptation.  The differences illuminate much, I think, about our contemporary values in very interesting ways. But today is not that day.
Whenever we want some mind-numbing entertainment, my wife and I inevitably turn on one of the films.  We love them and have seen them numerous times.

Only tonight did I realize the conspicuous lack of providence in Peter Jackson’s version.  In one of the most important scenes in the books, Gandalf explains the history of the ring to Frodo as a means of convincing him to take the Ring out of the Shire.  The conversation is replete with references to a force outside Middle Earth that is guiding history.  “Why was I chosen?” cries Frodo.  Gandalf describes Bilbo’s finding of the Ring as “the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring.”  While Tolkien describes the Ring as “wanting to return to its Master,” it is clearly juxtaposed against what can be described as Providence.  Frodo clearly recognizes he is not capable of taking the Ring to Mordor, and consequently takes it only on the council of Gandalf and on the strength of Providence.  It is his vocation.
In Jackson’s retelling, this important scene (which sets up the whole journey) lacks any notion of Providence.  The only will in Middle Earth that isn’t attached to a Being is the Ring’s will, the will to do evil.  There is no greater Power at work in the world–there is only what the characters are, or are not, able to do.  Frodo is not chosen for his task and it is accidental, rather than intentional, that the Ring comes to Him.  What in Tolkien’s world seems contrived but is ultimately Providential, in Jackson’s world is simply lucky.

Most people, I would think, resonate more with Jackson’s than with Tolkien’s.  Which is sad indeed.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.