Jeffrey Mallinson, Assistant Professor of
History and Religion
Union College, KY
According to Tolkien, the profound significance
of fantasy literature cannot translate to drama. After determining
the three main aspects of Tolkien's books - archetypal characters,
eucatastrophe, and myth-creation - one wonders with the late master
of fairy stories whether cinematic adaptation of The Lord
of The Rings necessarily obscures the original medium's religious
value. Nevertheless, once we consider the influence film has
upon a culture's imagination, the translation process seems possible.
Over time, the film adaptation can perpetuate a shared myth and
encourage audiences to transcend the cinematic images, allowing
them to contemplate the archetypes and eucatastrophe of the original
 Vampires, they say, have no reflection in
a mirror. Could it be that, in a similar way, the fairies of
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are unable to reflect from
the silver screen? New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson
help us answer this question. With the financing, thoughtfulness
and technical effects of this trilogy, we have perhaps the best
case study in which to see if it is possible for film to convey
the religious significance of secondary worlds like Middle-earth.
We will examine three essential elements of Tolkien's story -
archetypal characters, eucatastrophe, and myth-creation - and
then determine whether Jackson translates these to film.
 The difficulty at hand is distinct from
the snobbish contention that books are always better than movies.
To be sure, when novels are adapted for Hollywood, commercialism
often forces out details and alters plots; but the addition of
visual and aural elements to a narrative can also be effective.
The list of novel-based films that boast Best Picture Oscars includes
Forrest Gump, Schindler's List, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Gone with the Wind. It
is arguable that these stories were no less influential upon the
Western psyche as movies than they were as novels. Further, The
Lord of the Rings films draw new readers to the original Tolkien
texts, in search of minute details and background. For example,
sales of Tolkien's books have continued to soar since New Line
Cinema first announced their production of the trilogy.
 Likewise, our investigation must not be
confused with Tolkien purists' obsessive insistence that all details
of the screenplay must correspond to the original. Jackson says
he presents an interpretation(1)
of the film that remains as close as possible to Tolkien's novel.
The one bold liberty he takes - adding material concerning the
character Arwen - is meant to enhance the narrative's supernatural
themes. Jackson explains that, "To be able to show the essence
of our story, which is the love of an immortal for a mortal man,
we have had to create more material for Arwen."(2)
This alteration, he adds, is legitimate since it makes use of
Tolkien's own appendix. Incidentally, Liv Tyler's portrayal of
Arwen is compelling, especially in the "non-canonical," but strongly
religious scenes, such as when she prays for grace to pass from
her to the wounded Frodo, or when she calls upon a supernatural
flood to stop pursuing Ringwraiths.
 We can let filmmakers and litterateurs debate
whether a novel can get through Hollywood without playing the
harlot. Our question is: Does the religious significance
of Tolkien's masterpiece survive the translation from text to
celluloid? For those who hope such cinematic translation
is possible, the challenge is daunting, in light of the grim fact
that Tolkien would have abhorred any dramatic adaptation of his
books. He writes:
Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy,
even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when
that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted.
Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up
as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they
do not achieve Fantasy.(3)
Moreover, while one might argue that the digital
effects possible today can overcome the drawbacks of drama, Tolkien
would not have been so satisfied. Rather, he would see sophisticated
effects as part of the problem:
Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted
a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic:
the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in
a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the
 In other words, a director might be trying
his hand at the wrong kind of magic when he pays attention to
visual effects. Tolkien is clear throughout his essay "On Fairy
Stories" that Farie (the technical term he uses for such
tales to distinguish them from nursery rhymes) express truth,
not delusions, though via a special, literary manner. The true
magic is the enchantment of a reader's imagination. Cinematic
magic does all the work for the audience, bypassing the imagination.
Moreover, the images presented by a film can even drive out the
pictures painted by the imagination, which would be at odds with
Tolkien's original purpose.
 Criticism since deconstructionism has made
it difficult to investigate a writer's original intent. Fortunately,
however, Tolkien made his purpose explicit: he wanted to convey
the "philosophical and mythical implications" of a story without
"detracting from the surface 'adventure.'"(5)
In other words, he deliberately intended to achieve the religious
significance common to all "true" fairy-tales. This significance
pertains especially to those in the postmodern world who seek
to justify religious belief via a subjective approach rather than
the objective approach common to such theologians as Thomas Aquinas.
 Tolkien explains that fairy-tales deal with
a kind of Magic. But this is where mistakes often creep in.
It is not a playful, silly magic. It is certainly not special-effects
showmanship. It is something solemn. And it has an end greater
than itself: "The satisfaction of certain primordial desires."(6)
These subconscious desires bubble up to the conscious surface
of a culture through literature, in the form of archetypes.
 Tolkien's world is a land where archetypes
of the collective unconscious roam freely.(7)
To better understand religious importance of archetypes, consider
Carl Gustav Jung's understanding of dreams. Jung argued that
dreams are attempts on the part of the unconscious self to break
through to the conscious mind. In particular, dreams "puncture
rationalism" and "break the ice of intellectual resistance."(8)
In a similar fashion, the archetypes of Tolkien's stories assault
a rationalistic mind, i.e., one that refuses to consider the supernatural.
Like dreams, stories can awaken an otherwise unreligious person
to religious possibilities. Montgomery explicitly draws this
connection in relation to Tolkien and his literary circle: "As
a dream while asleep can touch the depths of our being, could
not the literature of wakefulness shower with light and supreme
power the landscape of religious concern, and provide the subjective
attestation of Christian truth for which men long?"(9)
 Just as Tolkien believed his stories could
arouse primitive religious archetypes, and open up a new world
to rationalists, he believed his stories could create in unsuspecting
readers a spark of profound joy. This joy, which he says is essential
to all true fairy stories, he calls eucatastrophe (literally,
the good catastrophe). It is "a sudden glimpse of the or truth
For Tolkien, this underlying reality is the Christian Gospel.
He explains that, in this secondary world of fictional joy, "we
see in a brief vision that the answer may be ... a far-off gleam
or echo of evangelium in the real [primary] world."(11)
The connection between fiction and the biblical history of Jesus
is one of longing and fulfillment:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of
Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the
story of the Incarnation. ... There is no tale ever told that
men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical
men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of
it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is,
of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.(12)
 The non-religious may chide Tolkien for
getting so caught up in his fantasy world that his judgment is
clouded concerning "real world" facts. But make no mistake: Tolkien
contends that the Great Eucatastrophe is true in the primary world.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar
excitement and joy that one would feel, if any especially beautiful
fairy-story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative
to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical
or allegorical significance that it had possessed. ... The
Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it
is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite)
high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true.
Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men
- and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.(13)
 Now, if we properly understand eucatastrophe
and archetype for Tolkien, we will also understand that neither
can be achieved without the creation of myth. For, without this
secondary world, we care little about the characters who allegedly
live there. Without the secondary world, we fail to find a sense
of joy when the eucatastrophic "turn" in the fairy story is supposed
to take place. "Myth," says one scholar, "arouses desire for
escape into a higher reality, generates a recovery of appreciation
for the world we know, and entices with the ultimate consolation
of a just, eternal reward."(14)
 Because secondary world-creation is the
ostensible purpose of cinema, and in this way is congruous with
Tolkien's purpose, let us first consider whether archetypal characters
and eucatastrophe survive Jackson's translation. After this,
we will consider whether Jackson's secondary world is strong enough
to make up for any deficiencies in translating archetypal characters
Archetypal characters on film
 According to the Christian doctrines of
the Incarnation and the Sacraments (doctrines affirmed by Tolkien),
God uses matter - even humble forms of matter - to convey His
sublime mysteries. To argue that religious archetypes cannot
work on film simply because the medium employs earthly instruments
betrays a Gnostic disdain for matter. No, if film is unable to
convey the archetypes of Tolkien's saga, it is not because matter
gets in the way as matter.
 Poor special effects may detract from archetypes
by ending the "willing suspension of disbelief." But far worse
is an over-reliance upon special effects, something Tolkien would
call "bogus magic." Peter Jackson's decision to make The Lord
of the Rings look very much like a historical epic, rather
than a clichÍ-filled fantasy film is prudent in this regard.
So is his decision to make Gandalf's powers subtle rather than
spectacular. This is consistent with Tolkien's literary approach,
as described by one scholar: "In fantasy literature, the world
is not simply left behind for pleasing visions of wonder. ...
The promise of Farie for Tolkien is a return to the world
from which we have become estranged."(15)
By restraining his use of visual effects, Jackson leaves at
least some room for imagination, for providence behind images,
for Magic behind actions.
 Directly representing an archetype is fatal,
according to Tolkien. Doing so is exactly what he calls "a potion
When The Lord of The Rings - in print - asks you to imagine
a cave-demon like the Balrog, your unconscious mind calls upon
an archetype, perhaps one you have neglected for too long. However,
when The Lord of the Rings - on film - depicts the Balrog,
it does not ask you to recall that archetype, it provides an image
for you. Here, the cinematic image may obscure the archetype
Tolkien intended you to see and, hence, nullify the most essential
element of his narrative.
 Thus, the paradox, when attempting to translate
literary archetypes to film, is this: The extent to which a
film directly depicts an archetypal character is the extent to
which the archetype is obscured. Conversely, the extent
to which a film understates an archetypal character is the extent
to which the archetype is preserved. Granting this, even
if we share Tolkien's apprehensions regarding drama, Jackson succeeds
in conveying archetypes (though to a diminished degree when compared
to the book) by presenting his fantastical characters behind a
veil. Jackson's relatively subdued approach is thus in accord
with good fantasy writing, which treats, as one scholar describes
it, a "longing for something which can only be glimpsed, but never
found, in the story itself."(17)
To be sure, many glimpses of magic are spectacular in Jackson's
film. Examples include the brief exhibitions of power by Gandalf
and Lady Galadriel. According to our formula, these might go
too far. Nevertheless, displays of spectacular magic do not saturate
the film, and this allows archetypes to survive the translation
to some extent.
Eucatastrophe on film
 A filmmaker can recreate literary eucatastrophe,
provided audiences care about the characters and their fate.
An effective example of cinematic eucatastrophe is the Coen brothers'
O' Brother Where Art Thou? This film successfully depicts
unanticipated grace. The protagonist, "a man of constant sorrows,"
constantly runs from the Law's hounds and faces a barrage of trials,
only to receive a legal pardon, evade the damning Law, and find
salvation through a flood. Another example is the eucatastrophe
of Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (Lola rennt). In this
film, a lover races against time and death for her beloved. After
she offers a prayer of desperation, Grace accomplishes not only
the reversal of death, but also a state of blessing that surpasses
all previous expectations. Each of these films achieves eucatastrophe
by using deus ex machina not as a cop-out, but as the story's
 To convey eucatastrophe, The Lord of
the Rings must have a bittersweet conclusion, something that
cannot be accomplished until the third installment's release.
If successful, it will be sweet when characters find redemption
and grace in the shadow of doom. It will be bitter, when
the audience remembers that life does not work that way in the
"real world." Life - they will say - ends like the film noir
U-Turn, not like a fairy tale. Jackson must scandalize
the audience by tricking them into believing, if only for a moment,
that there is such a thing as divine rescue. As the audience
sighs, "If only that were true!" they must confront a very tough
theological question. How do things turn out? Are stories
of grace and redemption merely fiction? Effective eucatastrophe
gets adults to think like children on a kind father's knee, hearing
about elves and eternity. Later, they may laugh it off as unhealthy
escapism and regret their momentary apostasy from nihilism, but
at least they will have heard rumors of a Great Escape.
 Although full eucatastrophe must wait until
the final film of the trilogy, there is evidence Jackson will
succeed at this level. Arwen's rescue of Frodo gives us an indication
of what is to come. This example of unexpected deliverance from
evil is complete with tears and talk of grace and an elf reminiscent
of the Virgin Mary. Most important is that the escape is not
only from death, but also from a form of damnation. The poison
killing Frodo, we are told, would also turn him into a hollow
spirit or wraith, without the aid of elvish medicine. Another
brief but moving example of eucatastrophe is the scene in which
Gandalf is rescued from imprisonment by a giant eagle. Scenes
like these are striking even for those familiar with the books.
 Thus, we affirm that Jackson is able to
convey both archetype and eucatastrophe. While archetypal characters
on film will always be inferior to archetypal characters on the
printed page, eucatastrophe suffers from no such handicap. Especially
for younger generations, film may pack more eucatastrophic punch.
Nevertheless, the foundation of this whole edifice is myth-creation.
Without this, the potential value of archetype and eucatastrophe
 Most people born after the 1960s share
a common mythology in the Star Wars episodes. While few
can identify Perseus or Osiris, virtually no one is ignorant of
Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. These films are not always consistent,
nor do they score the highest marks for dramatic achievement.
Nevertheless, they successfully won over the Western imagination
and created a modern myth. In doing this, they developed a secondary
world. Had Jackson failed to captivate audiences where Lucas
succeeded, he would only have profaned the sacred.(18)
Jackson's creation of a commercial winner will redeem any shortcomings
in his conveyance of archetype or eucatastrophe. Let us see how
this is so.
 To begin, Jackson successfully facilitates
escapism. "Escapist" was often hurled as an insult at Tolkien's
work. The author, however, took this epithet as a compliment,
citing a universal need to escape. He asks, "Why should a man
be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out
and go home?"(19)
Tolkien identifies "prison" as human existence in the midst of
death. Thus, stories provide hope for the "fugitive spirit" and
point us to "the Great Escape: the Escape from Death."(20)
Thus, for Tolkien, a good secondary world-creator is obliged to
evoke the primitive desires of the fugitive spirit. The mythmaker
must convey the whole story as true in a "secondary" sense.(21)
The key phrase Tolkien used to describe a well-crafted fantasy
story is the inner consistency of reality. When this consistent
secondary world is presented in a commercially successful film,
popular culture obtains a common myth and, hence, a fertile ground
for cultivating other religious aspects of Tolkien's work.
 Several factors help Jackson succeed as
a mythmaker. First and foremost, he is blessed with Tolkien's
ready-made world. This depth is difficult to achieve when a film's
story is developed "from scratch." Second, realizing the importance
of characterization to Tolkien's writing, Jackson cast appropriate
actors. Had Ian McKellen been unable to represent Gandalf as
simultaneously jovial and frightening, the archetypal significance
would have diminished. Had Elijah Wood been unable to relate
Frodo's sincerity, we would care little for his eucatastrophic
rescue. Third, Jackson had the funding to complete all three
films. Had this not been the case, "consistency" in the film
would have been hindered. Actors might have died or walked out
on their contracts. Since the trilogy is complete, everything
from casting to post-production will remain seamless.
 Jackson's ability to provide the "inner
consistency of reality" for a wide audience is the key to his
translation of Tolkien, since it offers an exciting possibility
regarding archetypes. Indeed, myth-creation may be the only antidote
for "a potion too strong." Consider once more the Star Wars saga.
Because it has found a place in Western popular culture, it has
taken on a life of its own. Ben Kenobi may have insufficiently
represented an archetype on film. But characters like Ben Kenobi
now live in the cultural imagination, evoking archetypes that
may have been latent when the film premiered. By becoming part
of a new myth, Ben Kenobi may have merged with Merlin and Gandalf,
though he only resembled those wizards when Alec Guinness first
played the part. Similarly, Jackson's ability to create a popular
secondary world will produce a cultural familiarity with the Tolkien
myth. Archetypal characters will now merge with archetypes hidden
in the collective unconscious. This, along with increased sales
of the books, is producing a situation in which Jackson's films
will do more to convey than to obscure Tolkien's religious significance.
 In sum, Jackson's interpretation of The
Lord of the Rings proves it is possible to translate Tolkien
to film, but with varying degrees of effectiveness. Archetypal
characters survive the process only if they are understated; even
then, their power is diminished. Eucatastrophe is conveyed via
film with relative ease, and for some audiences, its power may
be augmented in that medium. Vital to all of this is Jackson's
ability to create a consistent secondary world. Once the myth
conquers the culture's imagination, the problem of weakened archetypes
is overcome and eucatastrophic elements are immortalized. In
terms of the original question, translating Tolkien to film may
at first be "a potion to strong," but as its religious significance
is diluted throughout the culture's imagination, it becomes a
(1) "You shouldn't
think of these movies as being The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings is, and always will be, a wonderful
book - one of the greatest ever written. Any films will only
ever be an interpretation of the book. In this case my
interpretation." (Peter Jackson, in an interview August 30, 1998
Jackson, in an interview on the official film website, www.lordoftherings.net.
Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (New
York: Ballantine, 1966), 49.
"On Fairy Stories," 51.
Purtill, "Myth and Story," in Harold Bloom ed., J.R.R. Tolkien
(Modern Critical Views (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2000),
151. As Purtill notes, Tolkien is referring to a work by C.S.
Lewis, but also communicates his personal philosophy.
"On Fairy Stories," 13.
(7) See Timothy
R. O'Neill, The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the
Archetypes of Middle-earth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).
(8) From "On
Syncronicity" in J. Cambell ed., The Portable Jung (New
York: Viking, 1976), 512. On Jungian theory and film, see James
F. Iaccino, Jungian Reflections within the Cinema (Westport,
CT: Praeger, Conn., 1998).
(9) John Warwick
Montgomery, "The Apologists of Eucatastrophe," in J.W.
Montgomery ed., Myth Allegory and Gospel: An interpretation
of J.R..R.. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams
(Minneapolis: Bethany, 1974), 20-21.
"On Fairy Stories," 71.
"On Fairy Stories," 71.
"On Fairy Stories,"72.
"On Fairy Stories," 72.
Hein, Christian Mythmakers (Chicago: Cornerstone,1998),
Sandner, "'Joy Beyond the Walls of the World:' The Secondary World-Making
of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis," in George Clark and Daniel
Timmons eds., J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances:
Views of Middle-earth (London: Greenwood, 2000), 137.
"On Fairy Stories," 52.
"Joy Beyond the Walls of the World," 134.
"profane" I do not mean blasphemy. Rather, I refer
to the distinction between the transcendent and the mundane in
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion,
Willard R. Trask trans. (Harcourt, New York: 1972).
"On Fairy Stories," 60.
"On Fairy Stories," 67.
"On Fairy Stories," 37-38.