Merry Christmas, readers and moviegoers.

It would be good, in these days of frenzied merchandising, to remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, which he included in a letter to his son Michael in 1962: “Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no ‘commercialism’ can in fact defile — unless you let it.“

With those words, I greeted moviegoers on January 5, 2002. Writing for the faith-and-culture website The Phantom Tollbooth, I was reflecting on what I had seen just a few weekends earlier, on December 19, 2001: the first film in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Anne and I had an extraordinary opening-weekend fellowship for our first viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring: (l-r, standing) Danny, Nathan, Sarah, Wayne (l-r, seated) Kenny, myself, Anne

That review continued:

Likewise, the greatness of The Lord of the Rings as literature cannot be defiled by merchandising or mediocre movies, unless you let it. Tolkien’s beloved saga will remain one of the most influential fantasy stories — and probably the most popular — for a long time to come. And no matter what moviemakers leave out, no matter what shows up on a collectible Burger King glass, nobody can rob the books of their greatest strength: their language.

But, for better or worse, the film series has begun, and it’s time to determine how they stand as adaptations, as entertainment, and as art.

That’s how it started.

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]
Here, if you want to read the whole thing, is a link to that original review, with the addition of notes on the Extended Edition that I published upon the release of that momentous revision.

I find it fascinating to revisit these first impressions that I submitted. I remember what a joy it was for me, a lifelong disciple of Tolkien and his vision, to write about these adaptations and offer my perspectives — not only here on my website, but also on platforms as influential as Christianity Today. I felt like my whole life as a film enthusiast and a writer had led to those exciting opportunities. (I had no idea that I would soon have the chance to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps and share my own epic-fantasy storytelling with the world.)

Looking back, I cannot deny that the films have been among the most influential cinema in my life. Writing about them was the greatest challenge I’d yet faced as a critic, and it represented a huge step forward for my career. But enough about me: More importantly, I think Jackson’s trilogy raised the bar for fantasy filmmaking as a genre in ways that made moviegoers around the world take fantasy more seriously. What’s more, it kindled curiosity about Tolkien’s imagination and religious beliefs. The Lord of the Rings is an epic poem about God’s providence and grace. It’s also about humankind’s temptation to strive for immortality, and about the destruction that such vanity wreaks on creation and on souls.

I agree with Steven Colbert, who thinks we should be throwing Jackson’s trilogy a bigger anniversary party than Harry Potter is receiving.

“I cannot describe the magnitude of these images” — early buzz that made Tolkien fans dare to hope

My review of The Fellowship of the Ring was not the beginning of my writing on the trilogy.

Before it opened, the film had been inspiring buzz for many months. Way back in May of 2001, I was tracking it in my weekly column at Christianity Today, “Film Forum.”

It’s pretty wild to look back at this, when I was as skeptical as I was excited. Here’s what I wrote:

The rest of the world is only now beginning to feel the tremors. J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, have been feeling them for a while. The buzz has been building, and last week, a veritable explosion rocked Cannes Film Festival, sending a shock wave to Hollywood and beyond. Fantasy fans have always known that the only known epic with the potential to eclipse Star Wars at the movies was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, if only it could find the right director. It appears that the right director is Peter Jackson.

A select audience was treated to a 26-minute preview at the Festival in Cannes, France, last Friday. The footage was so astonishing that it has eclipsed the dozens of films in competition to become the event’s most talked about exhibit. Even the toughest skeptics are now eagerly anticipating next Christmas, when the first of three installments — The Fellowship of the Ring — reaches theaters. “The best movie at Cannes isn’t in competition,” one reporter announced. The Age, an Australian newspaper, reported, “Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: ‘I can’t wait to see more.’” “Watch out, George Lucas!” said more than one of those who saw the footage.

It must be a great relief for the folks at New Line Pictures, who have watched the cost of the trilogy climb to $270 million dollars. Robert Shaye, founder of New Line and CEO, personally presented the preview. A seven-minute summary began the preview, introducing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin), and other major characters. Then came a fourteen-minute piece from The Fellowship of the Ring, the chapter in which the heroes journey through the Mines of Moria, assailed by terrifying armies of orcs and, finally, a winged devil called a Balrog. “Startlingly scary,” wrote one viewer. The preview concluded with a three-minute collage of moments from the second and third chapter.

Longtime fans of the series, many of whom went in harboring grave reservations about seeing their favorite stories brought to the big screen, came out stumbling over their words as they attempted to describe what they had seen. On one web page, a viewer who had never read The Lord of the Rings wrote, “This film looks like it will make…incomprehensible money worldwide. I thought I was interested in seeing the new Star Wars. I’m not anymore. I was so impressed I have decided to go out and buy the books. I really want to know the story, and the characters I only got glimpses of. I really think the films… deliver more than people are expecting, let alone hoping. I can’t describe the magnitude of the images.”

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]

Even if the movies are as profound a cinematic achievement as many predict they will be, perhaps the best thing we can hope for is that the films will draw a new generation to the books themselves. Tolkien’s storytelling, like C.S. Lewis’s, does not last merely because it offers frightening conflicts, memorable characters, and dazzling settings. Dozens of fantasy novels are compared to the works of Tolkien every year, and very few remain popular a decade later, while the saga of the Hobbits is as strong as ever more than fifty years after publication.

What sets The Lord of the Rings apart? I would venture to guess that it lasts largely because the writer’s devotion to his Creator infused his work with an awe of Creation. It lasts because Tolkien had a deep understanding of the power of unconditional love, evident in the story of the faithful hobbit Sam Gamgee. The importance of respecting and loving all kinds of people is demonstrated in the story of Legolas and Gimli, an elf and a dwarf who learn to work together in spite of a grudge between their peoples. Perhaps the strongest theme of all in Tolkien’s work is loss — as in the stories of the Entwives, or in the passing of the age of Elves to the age of Men. These chapters remind us to value what we have, and to strengthen the things that remain.

[Image from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s trailer for the 4K Ultra HD release.]

Most heroes in fantasy stories overcome evil by cleverness, by magic, or by sheer willpower. Tolkien illustrates something else. His readers are assured that heroes can be brave and virtuous, but they are not enough on their own. Magic, like any great power, corrupts. Willpower is not always enough. But there is a greater power, a deeper power — like the power associated with Aslan and the Stone Table in The Chronicles of Narnia — that is innately loving. Anyone who traces the forces of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings to their origins, stories told in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, will find further evidence that Tolkien was profoundly influenced by the Creation story, the story of Satan’s fall, and the history of God’s working out humanity’s redemption through history.

Tolkien did not fashion stories to preach, to propagandize, or to sell millions of copies. He wrote for the love of what he called “co-creating,” using his imagination for the sheer pleasure of it. Like a traveler returning from another world, he was compelled to share, in excruciating detail, what he beheld there. Whether or not the movies succeed, his stories will continue to draw readers and believers just as he himself drew inquiring truth-seekers to his side. Once, a man walked with him, asking questions, and found himself accepting Jesus Christ because he could not deny what Tolkien illuminated for him. That man was C.S. Lewis. If the movies do succeed, Peter Jackson’s achievement will be a giant signpost pointing the way to some of literature’s finest mirrors of God’s truth.

While my perspective on Jackson’s trilogy has evolved over twenty years — I remain profoundly impressed with The Fellowship of the Ring, conflicted about The Two Towers, and frustrated with quite a bit of The Return of the King — I’m relieved to see that the films continue to draw attention to Tolkien’s work. And I still enjoy so much about them.

It’s a shame that Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy represented tarnished his legacy with its excesses and its fundamental misrepresentation of that beloved story’s characters and themes. And things are likely to get worse. Soon, Amazon’s Middle-earth television series will either rekindle the enchantment we felt watching The Fellowship of the Ring, or — and I fear this is more likely — it will become a demonstration of the very failings Tolkien’s epic warned us about: it will exploit the treasures of Middle-Earth for the sake of money and power, distancing us further from a clear apprehension of Tolkien’s Christian vision.

I hope my fears prove unfounded. After all, I had similar fears before I saw The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, and yet it remains, for me, the greatest epic-fantasy feature film ever made.