‘Rings’ films convey dangerous simplicity
By MJ Robinson
Newsday.com – March 26, 2004
Just when one thought it had become safe to go to the movies without hearing about Hobbits, elves or Middle-earth, the sweeping of the 76th Academy Awards by “The Return of the King” again ignited the imaginations of the critics.
With this achievement, the film tied “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Titanic” (1997) for the most Oscars won in a single year – 11 – and spawned further arguments about the ways in which “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy purports to represent our contemporary struggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote to his American publisher: “‘The Lord of the Rings’ is not ‘about’ anything but itself.” Yet, since 1954, debates have raged about the allegorical nature of the trilogy, its attempt to reconnect with a Christian-humanist tradition after the destruction and devastation of World War II, and the way in which all three books are a response to the increasing secularization of the first half of the 20th century.
The same has been true of the film versions. The films have been read as contemporary allegories of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S. military action. (Certainly the syntactical similarity between “The Two Towers” and the Twin Towers was lost on few.)
Sauron has been described as a fantasy version of either George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein, depending on the political orientation of the critic. Interpretations of this type are comforting and escapist and invite viewers to consider the Hobbits and their quest as not that much different from our own, painting the complex dilemmas of our time in the broad strokes of the epic.
Unlike the chaos of the world in which we live, the land of Middle- Earth can be mastered – its geography, creatures and languages are knowable and finite. From the beginning, viewers know that ultimately good will triumph over evil, which makes even the most fierce battle exciting rather than threatening. It is a fantasy world that can be paralleled to our own without the real-world complications of a war in Iraq, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, political unrest in Haiti and South Korea, or what promises to be a hotly contested and ideologically charged presidential campaign.
The comfort the films offer hinges on their moral simplicity and their invitations to see ourselves as their heroes – and to read our own world in unambiguous and undiplomatic categories of innate good or innate evil. This, in my opinion, is their most essential appeal, responsible for our culture’s obsession with the trilogy as well as its enormous success in the global market. It is also what makes the films’ popularity so tremendously dangerous.
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