Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 1 – Introducing the Topic

This is part one of a multi-part post that I plan on putting up over the next few days.  This is an adaptation of one of the papers I wrote in seminary at Biblical Seminary as part of a course on Theology, Film and Culture.  You can read more about my approach to film at Finding Christ in Film.  Join me in this exploration of the epic films based on The Lord of the Rings.

Introduction and Personal Motivation

The three volume novel by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien titled The Lord of the Rings has been a main source of personal pleasure for a number of years.  As I have stated verbally numerous times, I have read the entire trilogy at least two dozen times including the prelude The Hobbit.  I have also immersed myself on occasion in the various other stories that Tolkien wrote as the mythos on which his main work was built including The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales.  I use the term “immersed” because that is precisely what I end up doing when I read these tales.  The rest of the world around me fades out and all my attention and devotion is given for a time to the struggles of the numerous characters depicted in the novels.  I cannot say that any other book has moved me emotionally and spiritually as Tolkien’s work has barring the Word of God as we have in our Bible.  Early on in my experiences with these works I recognized, at first unconsciously, that within the pages of these books were subtle ideas and ideals that the author intentionally meant to portray.  As my own maturity of the understanding of God increased, I began to recognize these as the same truths portrayed in Scripture.

When the rumors started circulating in the late 1990’s that a film version of the The Lord of the Rings was in progress, I felt both elated and skeptical.  The elation came from my desire to finally be able to immerse myself in a film media version of the books in much the way that I dove into the books themselves.  The skepticism grew from my experiences with previous versions of the book on film.  These previous films, while to some extent faithful to the texts, did not inspire me to the same depths of understanding and truths as the texts did and so, other than for nostalgic reasons, I ignored them.  My skepticism was shaken when the first scene of The Fellowship of the Ring was played before me and was, for the most part, laid to rest when the last credit rolled on The Return of the King.  I had to wait almost a full year before more of my doubts were laid aside when the extended edition DVD sets were released.  On the surface, in my opinion, these three films, especially the extended edition DVDs, are at least on par with Tolkien’s fantastical works of literary fiction as works of the art of film-making.

In retrospect, though, with the understanding that filmmakers, when adapting a book for film, may need to alter the elements of the story to fit with the dictates of the consumer market that is ultimately the target audience, I began to recognize the alterations of Tolkien’s ideals and truths he wove into his narrative.  While the films are still excellent films at preserving Tolkien’s theology, the filmmakers, due to the nature of the film medium and the ultimate purpose of the film industry, ended up altering the presentation of these themes and, potentially, changing their final meaning.

What are some of the themes that you found in the film? In the books?  Were there overlaps?  omissions? What books or films have spoken to you?

11 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 1 – Introducing the Topic

  1. I recently got a copy of A Hobbit Journey, by Matthew Dickerson, and it covers a wide range of topics that come up throughout the story, e.g. the ethics of way, torture, wisdom, human freedom and creativity, moral responsibility, and others. I haven’t completed it, but the sections on war, particularly Gandalf, are excellent. Not sure if you were aware of the book, but it seems like it’d be of interest given this cool series you are starting.


  2. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 2 – Sub-Creation and Eucatastrophe « Abnormal Anabaptist

  3. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 3 – Providence « Abnormal Anabaptist

  4. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 4 – Redemption: Overcoming Evil with Good « Abnormal Anabaptist

  5. Pingback: Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 5 – Conclusion: An Enduring Truth « Abnormal Anabaptist

  6. Great stuff here. Great analysis. Do you have any thoughts on less explicitly Christian films? What films are particularly good at confronting modern western people either with the bankruptcy of our own cultural myths or with the transforming beauty of the biblical narrative? Or are the particularly good scenes for these ends in movies that you have explored? Keep up the good work!


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