Tolkien, creation & sin

NEW YORK -- Screenwriter Philippa Boyens gets a tired look in her eyes when she recalls the surgery required to turn "The Lord of the Rings" into a movie, even a sprawling trilogy of three-hour movies.

"It's so hard," she said. "It's hard, it's hard, oh God, it's hard."

One agonizing cut in the screenplay removed a glimpse of the myth behind J.R.R. Tolkien's 500,000-word epic. In this lost scene, the traitor Saruman is torturing the noble Gandalf. "What," asks the evil wizard, "is the greatest power?" Gandalf replies, "Life."

"You fool," says Saruman. "Life can be destroyed. Did I teach you nothing?"

Trying again, Gandalf says, "Creation."

"Yes," answers Saruman, "the power to create life."

Millions of readers and now moviegoers have seen "The Lord of the Rings" as an epic tale of good versus evil.

Many have tried to pin labels on each side. The dark lord Sauron and his minions represent Nazi Germany and the armies of Middle Earth are England and its allies. Wait, said scribes in the 1960s. The forces of evil were industrialists who wanted to enslave Tolkien's peaceful, tree-hugging elves and Hobbits. The dark lord's "One Ring to rule them all" was the atomic bomb, or nuclear power, or something else nasty and modern.

The reality is more complex than that, said Boyens, after a press screening of "The Two Towers." Director Peter Jackson's second "Lord of the Rings" reaches theaters on Dec. 18.

"This is not a story about good versus evil," she said. "It's about that goodness and that evilness that is in all of us."

Anyone who studies Tolkien, she said, quickly learns that the Oxford don rejected allegorical interpretations of his work.

Nevertheless, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his goal was to create a true myth that offered the modern world another chance to understand the timeless roots of sin. Thus, even his darkest characters have mixed motives or have been shaped by past choices between good and evil. Even his virtuous heroes wrestle with temptations to do evil or to do good for the wrong reasons.

The dark lord Sauron, noted Boyens, "was your basic fallen angel. If you go back even further within this mythology, you have a world that begins with Iluvatar, who is the One, who is basically God."

Iluvatar created the world through music, noted Boyens. But one angel, Melkor, was "jealous of the power of creation" and struck a note of discord, shattering the harmony. Yet Iluvatar did not destroy his creation. Instead, he gave his creatures the freedom to make choices between darkness and light, between evil and mercy.

It is hard to put this level of complexity on a movie screen. Nevertheless, Boyens and Jackson stressed that the "Lord of the Rings" team tried to leave the foundations of Tolkien's myth intact. The ultimate war between good and evil is inside the human heart.

"We didn't make it as a spiritual film, but here is what we did do," said Jackson, who is a co-writer and co-producer as well as the director of the project. "Tolkien was a very religious man. But we made a decision a long time ago that we would never knowingly put any of our own baggage into these films. ...

"What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien, but without really emphasizing one thing over another. We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

The goal is to retain the timeless quality of the books, said Jackson.

Most of the filming for this three-movie project was done before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he noted. The director had no way to know his movies would reach theaters during such tense times. Once again, many want to match headlines with events in Tolkien's masterwork.

"You sort of get the impression -- which can be depressing -- that Tolkien's themes really resonate today and that they're probably going to resonate in 50 years and then in 100 years," said Jackson. "I don't think humans are capable of actually pulling themselves out of these basic ruts."