It’s helpful to think of the three-hour epic The Fellowship of the Ring as the first act of a three-act play which includes the films The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Middle-earth, with its diverse population of men, elves, hobbits, dwarfs and wizards, stands at a crossroads. For generations, these races and tribes have battled to keep the dark lord Sauron at bay. Insulated from this ongoing conflict are the hobbits, a carefree, simple-hearted colony of little people too busy farming the land, enjoying food and raising families to care much about the ominous occurrences outside of the Shire. But their pastoral existence, indeed the future of all Middle-earth, is threatened when Sauron, obsessed with recovering an evil ring that would give him supreme power, learns that his prize is somewhere in the Shire.
Of course, one might assume that a righteous hero could use the potent ring of gold to thwart Sauron’s mounting forces. Not so. Many have tried . . . and failed. Created for evil, the ring can only be used for evil and corrupts whomever wears it. It can yield no good. That’s why fate has chosen a virtuous hobbit named Frodo Baggins to guard the ring until it can be thrown into the fiery bowels of Mount Doom where it was forged.
After learning about his destiny and the dangerous ring’s history from a wise wizard named Gandalf, Frodo embarks on his journey alone. He’s barely out of the Shire when he gets company. His hobbit pals Sam, Merry and Pippin join him, though they have no clue what they’re getting themselves into. A series of scary scrapes and narrow escapes lead the youths to a pub where they connect with a mysterious wanderer named Aragorn. Pursued by black-clad Ringwraiths (mounted, sword-wielding spectres) and a growing army of orcs (hideous, screeching goblins), the young heroes head for Rivendell, where representatives of Middle-earth’s inhabitants form a fellowship to escort Frodo on his perilous mission to Mount Doom. The fellowship is made up of Frodo, Gandalf, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Aragorn (revealed to be heir to the throne of Gondor), Boromir (a warrior of Gondor), Gimli (a burly dwarf) and Legolas (an archer elf). After three hours of thrills, chills and impressive visual effects, the fellowship is broken, and these characters chart separate courses in the protection of all that is good.
positive elements: Tolkien’s novels reflect a distinctly Christian worldview, and although much is lost in their translation to the big screen, some of those themes come through loud and clear. For example, evil is seductive and all-consuming. Bilbo Baggins, who has possessed the ring for many years, seems almost addicted to it. His obsession manifests itself in unpredictable, unattractive ways. Furthermore, characters tempted to use this instrument of evil for positive ends meet with frustration or their own destruction. We see how dark forces can prey on mortal frailties. As for selling out to the dark side, Gandalf warns a betrayer, “There is only one lord of the ring who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power,” implying that those who give their souls to the enemy will be enslaved by him. Diverse communities of creatures band together to overcome otherworldly evil despite occasional prejudices (which actually reveal the trivial nature of bigotry). Members of the fellowship put their lives at risk to protect Frodo and their noble quest, and two pay the ultimate price. Self-sacrifice leads to redemption. Nuggets of wisdom range from pithy statements (“Even the smallest person can change the course of the world”) to solemn warnings, such as not to be too eager to deal out death and judgement since man can’t see enough to make those distinctions. Sam models the power of a promise in his friendship with Frodo. Frodo wishes aloud that the ring had never come to him, and learns that we all have burdens we’d rather not bear, given the choice. Mortals realize they must make the most of their time on earth.
spiritual content: In addition to the portrayals of good and evil mentioned above, Arwen seems to pray over the wounded Frodo when she utters, “What grace is given to me, let it pass to him.” There are obscure parallels to biblical truth throughout the film, though Tolkien has said his saga is not a Christian allegory (families interested in specific examples related to the literary source material should read the book Finding God in The Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware). However, without the novels’ broader context, the movie’s sorcery is unsettling in its ambiguity. Gandalf simply comes across as a “good wizard,” a spry cross between an elderly Obi Wan Kenobi and Harry Potter‘s Dumbledore. Also, the corrupt Saruman relies on “seeing stones,” which perform a function similar to a crystal ball.
sexual content: None.
violent content: Foreboding imagery and brutal battle scenes are common. Hideous monsters are decapitated, shot in the face with arrows, run through with swords, stabbed in the neck with daggers, etc. The fellowship is attacked by a giant octopus, a huge ogre and a fiery demon. Sauron breeds an army of frightening beasts and sets them loose to destroy the ring-bearers, a sequence that ends with one human getting shot multiple times with arrows. In the middle of the night, the Ringwraiths find the three hobbits’ beds and stab them fiercely with swords, only to learn after a tense moment that they’ve been skewering pillows. The dark horsemen plow through a heavy gate, crushing a watchman on the other side. A Ringwraith gets set ablaze. Saruman and Gandalf square off in a knock-down, drag-out fight between sorcerers. An innocent hobbit strolling down the street has his head lopped off by a galloping ghost (implied). Frodo gets stabbed on two separate occasions, once seriously. In an early Middle-earth history lesson, the filmmakers show one of Aragorn’s ancestors severing Sauron’s finger, which allows him to obtain the ring. Shortly thereafter, we’re shown the man’s fate as he floats in a river, bleeding from the arrows sticking out of his back. A creature named Gollum is tortured by the dark lord. Admittedly, Tolkien’s novels are also quite violent, but books are only as graphic as the reader’s imagination chooses to make them.
crude or profane language: None.
drug and alcohol content: Hobbits sip ale and smoke pipes. A rough-and-tumble crowd carouses at a pub called The Prancing Pony.
other negative elements: More a matter of storytelling than content, it remains to be seen whether audiences will be frustrated about having to wait a year for the next act to begin, and two years to see how things finally turn out. Lord of the Rings would have worked better as a TV miniseries aired on consecutive nights, though the economics of Hollywood make that an impractical format for a trilogy carrying a $300 million price tag.
conclusion: The Fellowship of the Ring is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a story that reflects the author’s Christian worldview. What viewers take away from this legendary adventure will depend to some extent on whether they’ve read Tolkien’s classic novels. Lacking the context of the entire trilogy, Fellowship leaves many questions unanswered. There’s also uncomfortable ambiguity in the area of spiritual content. Much of that gets ironed out as the saga continues, but families who have read the books will benefit from an even richer view of Tolkien’s fantasy.