The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Afghan Mordor

Toward the end of Annie Hall (1977), Alvy tells Annie to “never take a class where they make you read Beowulf.” Despite the fact that Alvy is to blame for all the couple’s problems, I think he’s right on this one: medieval fantasy (and, as I’ll demonstrate, its 20th Century incarnations) are dangerous to one’s cultural well-being. Fantasy is by definition a retreat from a horrendous lived reality, and epic fantasy consumes massive personal resources in effecting such an escape.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, first published in the mid-1950s, but conceived and drafted in England during World War II, is the 20th Century’s most dangerous example of the apolitical nature of fantasy. In a European world brought to the brink of annihilation by war machines, Tolkien, a pedantic scholar of medieval languages, allegorizes the destruction of the bucolic world of hobbits by the industrial forging of rings of power. Tolkien’s novel bombards us with the minutiae of the lives of elves and hobbits, so that we may escape into their world and eschew the responsibilities to our own.

By the 1960s, America began to embrace Tolkien’s work with a cultish following. Grass roots activism—spray painting “Frodo Lives” in the New York City subway, for example—demonstrated that a culture torn by social strife would rather live the dream of make-believe dwarf kings than face the nightmare of the bloodbath in Vietnam.

Epic fantasy—as perfected by Tolkien out of medieval legends like Beowulf—arises at times of social crisis to reassure and passify its victims.  This fact is nowhere more pressing for understanding American cultural history than the case of George Lucas’ Star Wars, the most financially profitable epic in human history. Star Wars grossed over a hundred million dollars in 1977 while Annie Hall won multiple Academy Awards but grossed a mere $11 million.

While Annie Hall suggested that personal relationships were all but dead, Star Wars told the feel-good tale of a plucky George Washington-cum-Luke Skywalker who stood up single-handedly to the Evil Empire and won. This reduction of complex political history to an adrenaline-pumping climactic assault on the Death Star correctly read an American populace’s discontent with the intellectual politics of Jimmy Carter. This wave of facile fantasy swept the Reagan/Bush ticket into power, who then proceeded to use the film’s metaphors to dream up a “Star Wars” defense shield that would protect us from our own “Evil Empire,” the Soviet Union.

And so now here we are, living under the heel of King George II, who still dreams of his father’s defense shield and uses the built-up military to hunt phantoms in the Afghan desert. And in the midst of this crisis, The Lord of the Rings again rears its ugly head. The first of three yearly installments, The Fellowship of the Ring is the blandest, most incompetently plotted film I’ve ever seen. A group of hobbits, elves, and dwarfs—led, of course, by white male humans—run for a while, fight a creature, rest, run some more, fight, rest, and so on. This absurdity goes on for some three hours, much to the regret of my aching derriere.

In the war-torn world in which we live, when every ounce of our energy should be devoted to understanding human evil, both “theirs” and “ours,” I can’t imagine a more immoral film. The film’s faulty ethics are perhaps only surpassed by that of a guy who wasted his energy in writing a gargantuan novel about make-believe dwarves and elves while Jews were being stuffed into ovens. This bland, faithful adaptation of the novel is perhaps most upsetting because it could have been made so relevant to our desperate political situation today. A bunch of guys wandering around nature questing after the end of evil is not, after all, so far off the track from George Bush’s mad military quest for Osama bin Laden.

But Peter Jackson is patently uninterested in “ruining” the fantasy in this way.  He is beholden instead to the cult’s worship of the novel’s “charming” details. This is especially disappointing given that Jackson’s claim to fame is the otherwise pretentious Heavenly Creatures (1994), which at least reflects upon the dangerous relationship between fantasy and lived social reality (two girls escape their dysfunctional family into a world of claymation fantasy, returning to reality only to commit murder).

The Fellowship of the Ring retreats from every facet of what made Heavenly Creatures provocative. While Creatures focused on how teenage girls suffer at the hands of patriarchy, Fellowship gives us “manly” men who fight and kill for passive (and deified) women. And whereas Creatures reveals the horror of colonialist whiteness in New Zealand—which breeds murderousness—Fellowship is a white supremacist’s wet dream, with a set of ethnic others—tiny hobbits and overweight dwarves—led by rugged white guys and beautiful Aryan elves.

The “Teutonics” of The Fellowship of the Ring brings me full circle. Alvy’s great triumph at the end of Annie Hall is that he has educated Annie to the point that she brings her new boyfriend to see The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), Max Ophuls’ astonishing four-hour documentary about Nazism. Conversely, rather than acknowledging the real human suffering in Nazi-occupied Europe, Tolkien provides a retreat into a 20th Century Beowulf. Peter Jackson’s latest incarnation of this flight of fancy reveals that we have learned precious little about what we need to know to improve our all too fragile humanity.

– Walter Metz