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

This is the fourth part 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.  Part 1 can be found here.  The second part can be found here and the third here. The paper continues now by examining Tolkien’s presentation of the hope of redemption and where this comes out in the movies.

Theological Analysis

Redemption: Overcoming Evil with Good

The same Romans passage earlier can be seen as a message of redemption as well as divine providence.  To assume that “all things work for good” implies that even those things that are not intrinsically good can be redeemed and have the hope of being overcome.  The previous chapter in the book of Romans implies that the human condition, by itself, is hopeless.  Paul cries out after a hopelessly true description of the human nature “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 NIV)  The answer, of course, is the Spirit of God as Paul explains in Romans 8:

…because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering (Romans 8:2-3 NIV)

While this is not explicitly pointed out in the text of the books, Tolkien does express a redemptive power in the universe.

In the discourse at Bag End concerning the origins of the ring and how it came to Bilbo and subsequently to Frodo, Frodo makes a statement to the effect that it is a pity (meaning in this case a shameful failure) that Bilbo did not kill Gollum at the time.  Gandalf counters that “’It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity and mercy: not to strike without need’”.  (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 92)  Tolkien’s use of the word “pity” may seem strange to our ears because we hear it as a shameful failure.  Gandalf, however, is standing in for Tolkien the linguist in giving a truer interpretation of the word in that pity, rather than a failing, is a virtue that is exercised in mercy and forgiveness.  Even further, this mercy is given counter to justice.  While justice dictates that there is a punishment that comes to all evil, the dealing out of that justice is to be done with mercy.  Echoes of Christ’s words in the Gospel of Luke can be heard in Gandalf’s dissertation.  Christ warned to not judge or condemn because, by that same standard, we will be judged and condemned.  Gandalf gives the same warning:

‘Deserves it!  I daresay he does.  Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends…the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many-yours not the least.’ (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 93)

Frodo, when he finally does encounter Gollum, realizes the truth in what Gandalf spoke.  Tolkien quotes his own text when Frodo first confronts Gollum in the Emin Muil and Frodo relents and does admit pity for Gollum.  If Tolkien had not quoted this passage, Frodo’s pity would have seem to have been not the merciful gesture that it was.  In that context, though, Frodo recognizes that Gollum’s state is neither one of his own choosing nor even a state that Gollum wishes to maintain.  We get a glimpse of Gollum’s mind on this when Frodo questions him.  Gollum slips from the whimpering and hissing creature that he is to a piteous, pained, and weary soul.  “Leave me alone, gollum!…I don’t want to come back.  I can’t find it.  I’m tired.” (Tolkien, The Two Towers 282)  This glimpse of the humanity of Gollum sets the stage in the reader’s mind for the potential that Gollum can be redeemed and brought to peace.  Gollum’s statement “I’m tired”, though, is echoed by Frodo numerous times over the course of the second and third books.  Because of this, the reader can see that Frodo’s mercy and pity of Gollum is also motivated by his own hope.  If Gollum can be saved through mercy, pity and, ultimately, through the destruction of the Ring, then Frodo can also find salvation.  Frodo’s own hope for release is tied up with Gollum’s plight.

While pity was the motivation, ultimately, it was love that truly moved Gollum, now called Smeagol, to act differently and help the hobbits.  While Tolkien does not explicitly say that Frodo loved Smeagol, Frodo’s treatment of Smeagol follows the agape love of the New Testament.  When trust was not deserved, Frodo gave trust.  When patience was not prudent, Frodo gave patience.  This ultimately transformed Smeagol into a different creature.  We see this creature on the stairs of Cirith Ungol and, in a scene that brings a lump to my throat, we see the creature transformed.

…slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee – but almost the touch was a caress.  For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. (Tolkien, The Two Towers 411)

While there are many other descriptions throughout the books that give credence to the idea that unconditional love can change even the worst heart, this is probably the most true to that theme.

The films do give Gandalf’s dissertation on mercy, justice, and deserved punishment.  Gandalf in the film gives this dissertation, again, in the “Journey in the Dark” through Moria.  Word for word, Gandalf presents Tolkien’s theme faithfully.  In fact, the special director’s commentary feature on the extended edition DVD set of The Fellowship of the Ring has the director, writers, and producer commenting on this being a central theme to the books and even a very Christian theme.  We are led into a deeper understanding of Frodo in the films as, earlier than in the books, Frodo starts to comment on the increasing burden of the Ring.  So, when Frodo finally does confront Gollum in the Emin Muil, we understand immediately his motivation for his pity and mercy to Gollum.  In this, rather than using literary juxtaposition as Tolkien did, Jackson uses the juxtaposition of Frodo’s personal struggle with the Ring and the confrontation with Gollum to express the same idea.

In addition, while we do not have the poignant scene of Smeagol’s private expression of love, we do get a glimpse of the internal transformation of Gollum into Smeagol.  The scene titled “Gollum and Smeagol” presents an insight into the split mind of this wretched creature.  On one side, we have the wicked, devious, and fully evil character of Gollum.  On the other is the trusting, almost lovable character of Smeagol.   The computer modelers tasked with presenting these two halves of the same soul did so ingeniously.   While in Tolkien’s text, we can see the softening of Gollum’s features as he shows his love to his master, in the film the computer generated Gollum shows this by the pupils of the eyes and the lines on the face.  The evil Gollum has pin-point pupils and many lines of supposed anger while the good Smeagol has eyes that have wide, dilated pupils and softened corners on the eyes and mouth.  In the director’s commentary on the extended edition DVD, this is described as a scene to represent the potential for redemption within Gollum, that there is a good within Gollum that can be brought out and that there is hope that Frodo will be successful in his goal to redeem the both of them.  Our hopes are later dashed in the film version when Gollum reexerts himself after the apparent betrayal at the forbidden pool.

While for the most part this redemptive theme is excellently preserved, there is a problem in the internal context of the film.  In the books, the character change of Gollum into Smeagol occurred immediately following the Taming.  In the films, though, this glimpse of the redeemable Smeagol comes much later.  The effect this has is that our ability as viewers to forgive and, therefore, hope for Gollum is reduced.  Our hopes are not given the chance to mature and extend as they are in the book.  The scene on the stairs in the books, then, occurs even after the betrayal at the forbidden pool showing us as readers that even a betrayal such as that cannot quench the potential for salvation for such a creature.  In the films, though, even the good Smeagol is subjugated to the wicked Gollum and joins in the plans for ultimate treachery in Shelob’s lair.  Ultimately, the films seem to say, “once evil, always evil” while the books hold out hope, even to the slopes of Mount Doom, that Smeagol can be redeemed.  Sam observes as he contemplates ending Smeagol’s life that he “now dimly guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief in life again.” (Tolkien, The Return of the King 273)  We are not given such a hope in the films.  Once Smeagol’s trust is broken, the evil Gollum returns and Smeagol can never again be free.

How well did Tolkien express this idea of redemption in the books?  Did the film follow suit?  Why or why not?


Cited works

Overstreet, Jeffrey. “Lost in Jackson’s Translation.” November 2004. Hollywood Jesus. 28 May 2008

Rutledge, Fleming. “Commentaries: The Return of the King: Best Picture, Perhaps, But Not Best Version.” 23 February 2004. Christianity Today. 28 May 2008

Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

—. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

—. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth. Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

—. “The Lure of the Obvious in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King.” 1 December 2003. Christianity Today. 28 May 2008

5 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Theology on Film: Preserved, Changed or Ignored – Part 4 – Redemption: Overcoming Evil with Good

  1. I think that in the books, there is more room for subplots and development of characters. In the films however, things like these often suffer the chop – Jackson knew that the people want huge battles and epic scenes as opposed to the changes among characters. I think that in the book, Tolkien has to keep Gollum close enough to redemption that Frodo keeps him with him out of more than a need of a guide. This also gives us something to hold faith that the power of the ring might be undone.


    • Yes, the medium changed the emphasis on the theme somewhat…however, that redemption focus is still present..I think in the film Frodo’s struggle for hope in redemption was emphasized more than in the book.

      Culturally speaking, this resonated well with the US culture at the time, trying to find some hope “Good will in in the end” post 9/11…I think, in a way, US culture is still looking for that.


      • Of course, the film is more focused on Frodo’s struggles, as he is the poster boy for the film; and if he wasn’t at all psychologically effected by his journey it would be wrong, so of course we see evidence of Frodo looking for redemption.

        I am not suggesting that Tolkien was unwavered by 9/11, as an English writer I don’t think it would have stirred and inspired him.


        • Perhaps 9/11 wouldn’t have rattled him as much as a US citizen at the time…but considering Tolkien’s view of war post WWI, I think he might have had something to say about the jingoism and such that hit the international scene in the following years.

          Perhaps the filmakers did the adaptations they did in order to bring out more of that message. One interesting theme in Tolkien’s work that I didn’t touch on was the rather subtle theme that war and conquest of evil by military and national means are futile and it is the little things and the little people that ultimately will change the world. I believe Peter Jackson specifically pulled out that theme in many of the trailers an such.


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

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