Politics & Policy

Give The Hobbit a Break

The Lifetime-ization of Tolkien.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains spoilers about The Return of the King. Proceed at your own risk.

Poor Frodo Baggins. He just can’t catch a break.

It’s not bad enough that many literary critics and readers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are always elevating one supporting character or another to the position of hero, completely overlooking the gentle, unassuming hobbit at the heart of the story, the one who has to carry an evil, burdensome, corrupting ring to be destroyed. To add insult to injury, whenever a dramatic adaptation is made of The Lord of the Rings, the adapters can’t seem to resist the urge to tamper with the character.

It happened years ago with the BBC’s prestigious radio dramatization. Ian Holm–who, by the way, plays Bilbo Baggins in the current film adaptations–gave a strong performance as Frodo, at least at the beginning. But by the time they got to the halfway point, whether at the behest of the writer or the director, he was as snappish as if he’d somehow picked up a bad case of PMS along with the ring.

Now, much the same thing has happened again with Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations. Though I’ve enjoyed these three films, I have a bone to pick with the director and his team, a weakness that many other viewers have observed as well. Let me put it this way: Jackson never errs in the direction of making any character nobler. So while watching the second movie in the series, The Two Towers, I started to worry about what they were doing with Frodo, one of my favorite literary characters. I hadn’t a fault to find with Elijah Wood’s performance; he’s been consistently good throughout the films (and, it now turns out, extraordinarily good in the latest installment, The Return of the King. Wood communicates so effectively with his eyes in certain scenes that I’m inclined to think he made an extensive study of Jimmy Stewart’s famous wheelchair-bound performance in Rear Window). Again, it was the adapters who just couldn’t keep their hands off the character. Though the ring Frodo carries is notorious for driving people crazy, it seemed to me he was going crazy too early and too often.

So I wasn’t surprised when, in The Return of the King, Jackson and company added a scene that completely deviated from the book. Here Frodo’s mind is so addled by the ring that he believes the lies of Gollum, his monstrous, corrupt guide, about Sam, his faithful servant and friend, and sends Sam home. Jackson has said that his intent was to punch up the “psychological drama” of the story, a phrase ominously reminiscent of a Lifetime Channel movie. And the scene is dramatic, all right. But it not only weakens the portrayal of one of the strongest, most trusting friendships in literature; it also diminishes Frodo’s character. It’s no wonder that many viewers are thinking of Sam–who follows Frodo at a distance and (as in the book) eventually saves his life–as the real hero of the piece.

The need for psychological drama may also be the reason why Jackson repeatedly stresses the possibility that Frodo might become as possessed by the malevolent ring as Gollum is, whereas Tolkien only provided the occasional intriguing hint in that direction. The story goes that Jackson even shot a scene where Faramir, the young captain who helps Frodo (and whose own sterling character undergoes some shoddy treatment in The Two Towers), has a vision of Frodo turning into a Gollum-like creature. In the end, Jackson left the scene out for fear of confusing the audience, but it hints at another reason for the liberties he took with the story: It may be that he finds evil more fascinating than good.

If this is the case, he’s hardly alone. Our culture is sadly unused to fully realized portrayals of good characters. So was Tolkien’s, in fact; when he created his hobbit hero, literary anti-heroes were very much in vogue (which may help explain why his own books were so popular). As he put it, “Goodness is . . . bereft of its proper beauty.” Now we’ve gone so far down that road that, for the most part, we seem to have run out of the resources we need to portray a really heroic hero. We find our heroes much more palatable–or so the entertainment industry assumes, anyway–with a few major flaws thrown in, perhaps to make us more comfortable with our own.

So in the movies, though we still get a brave and good-hearted Frodo, we get less of a sense, for instance, of exactly why Sam is so devoted to his master and friend and why he looks up to him. Tolkien, on the other hand, had no trouble at all explaining it, in passages like this: “It had always been a notion of [Sam’s] that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. Of course, he also firmly held the incompatible belief that Mr. Frodo was the wisest person in the world.”

Tolkien’s original Frodo, though he starts out a bit naïve, is a morally rich, exceptionally mature character. As he struggles against the ring’s control, he actually grows in wisdom and moral stature, reflecting what Tolkien called in a letter the theme of “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.” And though he is not always able to be as steadfast as Sam, the often overlooked truth is that Sam doesn’t have to fight the same battle Frodo does. Which is why I’ve always thought that honoring Sam over Frodo–honorable and faithful though Sam is–is a bit like honoring Simon of Cyrene over Christ.

The comparison isn’t such a wild exaggeration as it may appear. The truth is that Frodo has many of the characteristics of a Christ figure, chiefly a willingness to sacrifice himself, to forgive others, and to bear an awful burden for the sake of others. And that hardly means a lack of drama. When the ring takes control of Frodo one final, terrible time at the climax of the story, it is in such sharp contrast to what we’ve come to expect from him–especially without our having been subjected to the kind of foreshadowing so dear to Peter Jackson’s heart–that we fully grasp the horror of the situation. As Baylor University professor Ralph C. Wood puts it in his new book The Gospel According to Tolkien, “Tolkien demonstrates that the mightiest evil can summon forth the very highest good in a character like Frodo, even as it defeats him.” Moreover, as the scene plays out, we grasp three truths that are fully in line with Tolkien’s deeply Christian imagination: that moral strength can carry us farther than we could have imagined possible; that even the greatest human moral strength cannot stand against the strongest evil (a Christ figure is not Christ, as Tolkien would have been well aware); and that there is a Power in the world greater than we can understand, great enough to save us when we can’t save ourselves.

Tolkien emphasized qualities in his hero–an iron will, unfathomable courage, humility, selflessness, and wisdom–that help to make these points. Jackson and his writers, though they did include all these qualities in some degree, chose to deemphasize them for the sake of their modern conception of “psychological drama.” Their movies, moving and powerful as they undoubtedly are, are nevertheless the poorer for it.

Gina R. Dalfonzo is a writer for BreakPoint and a graduate student in English at George Mason University.

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