Tolkien and Providence

Jeffrey Weiss recently argued that Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are based on a worldview very different from Tolkien’s. Here he discusses the differences in the climactic scene of The Return of the King. (Spoiler alert for the rest of the post and Weiss’ article.)

Weiss notes that while both Tolkien and Jackson portray Frodo falling to the ring’s temptation only to have Gollum take the ring (and Frodo’s finger with it), Tolkien has Gollum slip into Mount Doom while Jackson has Frodo push him in. Weiss continues:

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.

Tolkien wrote about this moment a lot in letters collected and published after his death. He addresses Frodo’s failure here:

“No, Frodo ‘failed’. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”

Frodo’s failure, Tolkien writes in several letters, is “inevitable.” As is the eventual victory granted by means not seen.

This failure/triumph is the fulcrum upon which Tolkien’s entire story turns. By changing that moment, Jackson’s version turns upon a different fulcrum. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it essentially different.

Hat tip: Peter Leithart

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3 comments

  1. That is fascinating — not only regarding the elimination of Tolkein’s significant symbolism, but also regarding the nature of chance and human choices as reflections of God’s will… and how we represent it in stories.

    I like Tolkien’s ending better. It seems more complex, even from a secular point of view.

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