Jeffrey Weiss thinks that Peter Jackson doesn’t understand the moral universe of J.R.R. Tolkien.  That’s a thesis that I wholeheartedly endorse.  But not quite in the same way that Weiss does, or at least not with the same bit of evidence.

For instance, Weiss contends that Jackson turns Frodo into a hero at the end of his quest to destroy the ring:

In the movie, after Gollum bites off his finger, Frodo heroically launches himself at Gollum and hurls them both over the side. Gollum falls with the Ring into the lava but Frodo is barely saved by Sam.

I’ll grant that Jackson’s version is more exciting, in the same way that loading Ophelia with a suicide vest and having her blast herself to smithereens center-stage would liven up a production of Hamlet. But that wouldn’t be Shakespeare.

Here’s the key for Tolkein that Jackson ignores: Frodo fails in his quest but the quest succeeds. Jackson, however, has Frodo win.

To put it in Tolkien’s Christian framework, salvation in the book could not be achieved even by the most heroic efforts of men (or hobbits). To a secularist, Gollum’s fall might be read as an accident. To Tolkien, it was always providential, an act of grace.

It’s true that Jackson alters the story and that the alterations suggest he misses Tolkien’s point.  But Jackson’s changes are wrong in a different and more subtle way that Weiss suggests.

In point of fact, Jackson doesn’t seem to interpret Frodo’s final charge as “heroic” at all.  (You can watch the final scene here).  Frodo’s face is quite clearly still set on attaining the Ring and when he accosts Smeagol he goes straight for trying to wrest it back.  Nor is it at all fair to say Frodo “hurls them both over the side.”  They both go over, but again that’s a side-effect of Frodo’s struggle to get back what he’d lost.  Even to the very last, as the Ring sits on top of the lava, Frodo looks longingly at it and feels the temptation of it one final time.  Sam even has to say, “Don’t you let go.  Don’t let go” before he hoists him up.

frodo ring

Contra Weiss, then, Frodo clearly doesn’t “win” here.   At all.  But Jackson still misses Tolkien’s vision, albeit in a more subtle way:  Frodo’s failure isn’t quite absolute, but is intermixed with resisting the Ring’s calling one final time.

Yet that difference also misrepresents Tolkien’s moral universe by obscuring the “providence” at work in Gollum’s fall.  Despite the Ring’s inevitable destruction, Jackson allows a final act of resistance to its allures.  Frodo feels every bit of the temptation and, with the voice of exhortation from a friend, turns away from it.  (He is perhaps too literally “white knuckling” his resistance to temptation.)

Of course, Tolkien does have characters who are able to resist the Ring’s power.  Most prominently, Tom Bombadil seems to be wholly uninterested in the Ring due to what we might describe as a moral immaturity.

And then there’s Faramir, who avoids the Ring’s temptations because of his own moral purity and prudence.  It is Faramir, if anywhere, where Jackson’s failure to grasp Tolkien’s moral world is the clearest.  In his most significant departure from the plot of the books, Faramir actually tries to take the Ring and then rather than sending them on their way with gifts takes them with him to Gondor, where they only narrowly escape.

That is a question that I suspect Jackson has no plausible answer for, especially given his inability to understand Faramir’s “purity of heart.”  Which is to say, the one character that Tolkien presents as having the moral fiber to resist the Ring Jackson portrays as grasping after it.  But while Tolkien destroys the Ring without giving Frodo the chance to resist it one more time, Jackson provides the false consolation that at the end Frodo had enough goodness in him to not follow Gollum to his doom.  Whether Frodo would have actually had the internal resources “not let go” in a parallel-Tolkien-universe is to me something of an open question.  He failed to resist it once:  why should we believe that as long as the Ring exists and he can see it, he wouldn’t go after it even to his own destruction?

Tolkien’s universe has much starker moral lines than Jackson’s story—and the difference matters.  In the movies, we cling to goodness with our fingernails.  Only at the last second do we somehow, presumably from within ourselves, find the strength to overcome our previous bad decisions and do the right thing.  But the books are a world where goodness holds us and overcomes our failures.  It is a world where we stand in need of grace—but where grace also transforms us and makes possible a genuine moral purity.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Steven

    “But the books are a world where goodness holds us and overcomes our failures.” Well put!

  • JeffreyWeiss

    Thanks for the shout-out! I’d say we agree on much more than we are split on our few quibbles. Let us agree that Jackson’s version is at least ambiguous about Frodo’s involvement in the final destruction of the ring where JRRT was utterly clear. And I’ll point out that he offered at least two additional characters who explicitly turned down the Ring: Gandalf and (in a wonderfully dramatic exchange) Galadrial.

  • David Strugar

    It’s very, very hard to dramatize the workings of Providence in a story without it coming off as deus ex machina. If your audience has spent all this time rooting for your main character only to see them relieved of their responsibility at the end by some sort of “chance” working it all out, it can feel like a cheat. Tolkien mitigates this with Gandalf’s speech early on in LOTR, which Jackson includes in the films, “There are other forces at work in this world besides that of evil, Frodo…and that is a very encouraging thought.” (And, by the way, Ian McKellen’s delivery in that scene gives me happy thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTlwkg25rsE).

    I don’t think Jackson pays off that speech the way Tolkien does, although I admit that the first time I read LOTR in junior high, I didn’t get the ending either. Many years later in life and in my Christian walk, I appreciate much more the situation Tolkien presents. Frodo tries for as long as he can to do the right thing, and even though he doesn’t have the strength to make it all the way, what matters is that he makes it as far as he can. God–in whatever form he takes in Middle-Earth–handles it from there.

    Of course, Tolkien also has the Great Eagles swoop in from time to time to save the day when there aren’t any other options. They’re even more obvious as a plot device at the end of Jackson’s first “The Hobbit” movie. Nobody’s perfect.

  • Robbie Crouse

    Matthew,

    Thanks for this post, but I have to take issue with your interpretation as well. You say, “Even to the very last, as the Ring sits on top of the lava, Frodo looks longingly at it and feels the temptation of it one final time. Sam even has to say, ‘Don’t you let go. Don’t let go’ before he hoists him up.”

    I just reviewed the scene and I don’t see Frodo looking longingly at the ring. First, the ring is a gold object about a hundred yards away in orange and red lava. I don’t think he’s going to see it (even in this make-believe world). Second, and more importantly, Frodo tries to grab Sam’s hand even before any kind of “look” down. Not to be overly detailed, but the sequence is: 1) the camera pans to Frodo on the cliff; 2) Sam reaches his arm out; 3) Frodo tries to grab on but misses, causing him to slip and look down; 4) Sam cries out, “Don’t you let go.”

    The point is that Frodo’s “look down”– if you even want to call it that– has more to do with giving up on life than thinking he could just let go, fall down into the lava and get the ring. Sam’s call to him is not trying to pull him away from the ring, but to drag him from his despair.

    Frodo already discerns that this quest will most likely take his life (in the movie as well as in the book). His reaching for Sam is an act of hope. It is a refusal of suicide.

    I personally think there is a great Christian truth embedded in this. Despair does not have the final word. This is a kind of resurrection, a this-worldly vindication of hope and life.

    So in my opinion, rather than destroying the entire moral world of Tolkien (a little hyperbalic anyway), I think Jackson affirms Tolkien’s moral world, though in a different way than it was originally written.

    Thanks,
    Robbie

  • Robbie

    By the way, Jackson and the other writers affirm my interpretation in their comments on the movie and in the extra interviews. They point out that this is Frodo’s choice of death or life– not a choice about the ring’s temptation. There is nothing “heroic” about this, unless one thinks of Christian faith as “heroic.” Neither does it say anything Pelagian about Frodo’s not being tempted by the ring at that moment.

  • Jackson’s portrayal of Faramir nearly ruined the movies for me. He and Tom Bombadil are my favorite LOTR characters… I suppose I should be grateful Faramir even appeared in the films.

  • Robbie