Translating Tolkien to Film: How Visions Intersect and Clash

If J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t know the perfect word to describe something, he often created his own word or even a completely new language. The climax of The Lord of the Rings, he decided, was a “eucatastrophe” — blending Eucharist and catastrophe.

From Salvation to Elvish Poetry

The scholar of ancient languages defined this as a moment of piercing joy, an unexpected happy ending offering a taste of God's Easter triumph over sin and death. Tolkien thought this sacramental element was at the heart of his new myth.

Thus, Greg Wright of asked Peter Jackson how members of his team handled this in their movie trilogy. When they wrote the scene in which the one ring of power is destroyed, did they discuss Tolkien's theory of “eucatastrophe”?

“No,” replied Jackson. “What's it mean?”

It wasn't a normal Hollywood question, but Wright wasn't involved in normal press-tour interviews. In 2002 and 2003, Jackson and other artists behind the films sat down for roundtable discussions with religion-news specialists and critics from religious media. The questions ranged from the nature of evil to computer-generated monsters, from salvation to elvish poetry.

A Conversation Between Past and Future

Now the extended edition of The Return of the King is done and the trilogy is complete, at least until some future extended-extended anniversary set. For Wright and others Tolkien experts, it's time to ask how these movies have changed how future generations will perceive these classic books.

Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, knew that Tolkien's traditional Catholic faith had deeply influenced The Lord of the Rings. Their goal was to keep the “spirit of Tolkien” intact, while producing films for modern audiences. They said they had vowed not to introduce new elements into the tale that would clash with Tolkien's vision.

“You would have to say that these are extremely gifted people and that they showed incredible dedication and integrity,” said Wright. “But the questions remain: What is the spirit of Tolkien? How well do Jackson, Walsh and Boyens understand the spirit of Tolkien?”

It helps to know that Tolkien never expected these books to reach a mass audience. He thought they would appeal to his friends and scholars — who would quickly recognize his Catholic images and themes. In his book Tolkien in Perspective, Wright argues that the author eventually realized that millions of readers were missing the point.

Now, millions and millions of people are seeing what Tolkien called his “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” through the lens of artists who knew the importance of his beliefs, but did not share them. Wright discusses these issues at length in his new book, Peter Jackson in Perspective.

Noble Sentiments or Eucharistic Faith?

Take, for example, Tolkien's conviction that all true stories must somehow be rooted in the reality of evil, sin and the “fallenness” of humanity.

Jackson was blunt: “I don't know whether evil exists. You see stuff happening around the world and you believe it probably does. I think that evil exists within people. I don't know whether it exists as a force outside of humanity.”

Walsh and Boyens emphasized that the books are about faith, hope, charity and some kind of life after death. What about sin?

“You don't fall if you have faith,” said Boyens, and true faith is about “holding true to yourself” and “fellowship with your fellow man.” The Lord of the Rings, she said, is about the “enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others in small acts every day. That gives you reason to hope that it has significance for all of us as a race, as mankind, that we're evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that.”

These noble sentiments do not match the beliefs that inspired Tolkien, said Wright. In these interviews, similar misunderstandings emerged on Tolkien's beliefs about truth, providence, salvation, death, heaven and hell. However, commentaries and documentaries included the final Rings DVD set do address some of these issues from Tolkien's perspective — including that mysterious concept of “eucatastrophe.”

“I think that you can find Tolkien's vision is these movies if you already know where to look,” said Wright. “But if you don't understand Tolkien's vision on your own, you may or may not get it.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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