The Fellowship of the Ring is the Most Important Movie of My Lifetime
We won't see another movie like it anytime soon.
If I were a more disciplined writer (and perhaps a more efficient husband, father, and employee), I would have begun months ago researching and preparing an expertly crafted essay on the seismic effect on pop culture in general and evangelical culture in particular that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had twenty years ago this December. Such a piece has been sitting in my mental drafts folder for most of the year, ever since I realized that 2021 really does mark two decades since I left the Malco cinema in Owensboro, KY, on a cool winter night with my buddy Matt, and we pumped our fists in the air because of how much we loved what we’d just witnessed.
And it wasn’t just us. If you’re old enough to remember what you were doing when the World Trade Center collapsed, you might be old enough to remember that evangelicals in the US were very interested in The Fellowship of the Ring. The reason? We all believed it to be a very Christian movie. “The Fellowship of the Ring is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a story that reflects the author’s Christian worldview,” wrote Focus on the Family in their review, just a few weeks after criticizing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for potentially stoking a modern interest in Wicca. Christianity Today covered not just the film but other reviews of it, recognizing quickly that FOTR was an “event film” for Christians. WORLD magazine (to which I am an opinion contributor) was effusive in its praise. “The ring makes a potent symbol in the context of our current age of moral relativism,” wrote Gene Veith, who fascinatingly commended the film for being even more explicitly Christian than the books.
Focus, Christianity Today, and World make up a pretty solid representation of American conservative evangelicalism, especially if we’re talking about the early 2000s. Not everyone was on board, of course, but the consensus among the most influential and formative evangelical content outlets was clear: This was a good movie, and one that matters for believers.
Time has rendered that verdict correct. I can’t prove this, but I believe with all my heart that Jackson’s trilogy did more to awaken evangelical interest in literature, fantasy, and pop culture than just about anything else around that time, and perhaps since. It’s almost impossible to read a prominent evangelical talk about their favorite books without seeing them mention Tolkien. I’m sure some of these people read the books in college decades before the films, but I also believe some of them didn’t, and also that some who did wouldn’t think about the books or about the place of Christianity in fantasy if Jackson’s movies had never been made.
The director at HarperCollins told Reuters a while back that he estimated 150 million copies of the books have been sold, with 50 million of those coming after the movies released. I think that’s a pretty conservative estimate of the film’s effect on sales. Even if not, that almost certainly means Jackson’s films had a momentous effect on public awareness of the books. The notion that American evangelicals became way more interested in literary fiction after Jackson’s movies is not just the sum of my personal anecdotes; here’s an interesting post about evangelicals and Tolkien scholarship:
After college, it occurred to me that I’d found some great pre-2000s academic books on Tolkien as a Christian fantasist (Christian Mythmmakers by Rolland Hein, Colin Manlove’s work, etc.). However, the best popular books I could find (such as Devin Brown’s Christian World of the Hobbit) didn’t seem to have arrived until the early- to mid-2000s. This was not only the period right after Peter Jackson’s movies; it was also the period when the indie Christian Spec Fic market started.
Again, I just don’t have the data to prove convincingly that the Tolkien and even Lewis-ness of Reformed evangelicalism happened because of the films. But for various reasons I tend to think the evidence for it is high, and that the “flavor” of much modern evangelical writing and scholarship is downstream from how Jackson’s triogy was celebrated and embraced by our theological tribe.
“Fine,” you say. “But who cares what your little tribe thinks?” Fair point. But it’s also fair to observe that, twenty years out from FOTR, we are now in a space in American filmmaking where the divide between artistic merit and popular appeal seems to run deeper than the chasm beneath Khazad-Duhm. There was evidence that this chasm was starting to expand in the 1990s, particularly when unlikeable tripe such as American Beauty won Best Picture and Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan.
Of course, we know what happened in the early 2000s. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy ignited the run on comic book heroes, and Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and the renewal of interest in China’s market sealed the tentpole era. But between the insufferable couture of the Oscars and the endless stagnation of the Marvel era, there stood The Lord of the Rings: lavishly produced, 3-hour epics with a who’s who of British legends for a cast, based on a beloved but aggressively traditional book by a cranky Catholic philologist. They’re too scary for little kids, but not profane enough for the HBO crowd. They contain absolutely no sex (even implied) but numerous decapitations. Tons of characters, tons of locations, lots of dialogue, lots of imaginary stuff that happened thousands of years ago on a mountain that doesn’t exist, lots of physical effects, people in expensive suits riding machines, huge sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape—does that sound like a movie Kevin Feige would make?
What The Lord of the Rings did was stand in a gap of American culture and almost single-handedly prove the viability of art that appealed on both a technical and spiritual level. The series won many Oscars; The Return of the King matched the all-time record with 11 wins, including Best Picture. The Fellowship of the Ring was indeed a moment for Christians, because it was a gorgeous adaptation of a story riddled with spiritual meaning (though not allegory!) that suggested an imaginative exit from the despair of the sex-soaked 90s and the brutal reality of September 11. The Fellowship of the Ring is about a mostly powerless hobbit who wishes “none of this would have happened,” but marches on, face set like a flint, toward his seemingly inevitable doom for the sake of the place he loves that’s threatened by unfathomable (but also intoxicating) evil. It’s not hard to see why an anxious America and and a rattled evangelical culture both would have found redemptive meaning in a story like that.
As did I. The Fellowship of the Ring movie delighted me as no film had before. I went to Books-A-Million as soon as I could and bought paperback tie-in editions, which I devoured. The Rings books were not the first fiction I enjoyed, but they were the first books I ever read that blended epic structure and mythic scope with an overwhelmingly hopeful spirit. To this day, Tolkien is the only fantasy work I can and do quote by heart. I know some other folks for whom that is true, and one thing we all have in common: We owe it to Peter Jackson.