LOS ANGELES -- Faced with the end of his world, even the cheery hobbit Pippin lost hope.
"I didn't think it would end this way," he tells Gandalf, as they watch the forces of evil advance in Peter Jackson's epic "The Return of the King."
"End? No, the journey doesn't end here," replies the wizard, who has already had one near-death experience and been reborn. "There's another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and it will change to silver glass and then you see it."
Confused, Pippin asks: "See what?"
With a wry smile, Gandalf replies: "White shores and beyond them, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
This speech is based on some of J.R.R. Tolkien's most beautiful language at the end of "The Lord of the Rings" and poetically expresses his belief in a life to come.
Yet there are other ways to interpret this scene and the whole 500,000-word trilogy, noted the actor inside those wizard's robes. As an openly gay atheist, Sir Ian McKellen said he had no problem putting his own spin on Tolkien's visions. The key, he said, is that this is a work of cultural myth, not Christian allegory.
"The interesting thing about Hobbiton to me is that it doesn't have a church," said McKellen, during a blitz of interviews hours before the premiere of "The Return of the King" in Los Angeles. "It's appealing to me that people like these stories and yet there isn't an archbishop and there isn't a pope telling you what to believe. ...
"Despite being a Catholic, I don't think he was trying to write a Catholic parable, so I don't think we were meant to draw conclusions about faith from it. But I am sure that other people disagree."
Yes, they certainly do and the global success of these movies -- $3 billion at the box office is a safe guess -- only raises the stakes in such debates.
Many Christians quickly quote Tolkien's claim that his trilogy was a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Others criticize its lack of clear, evangelistic Christian content and distrust his love of magic and myths. Meanwhile, some readers prefer to embrace its elves, wizards and back-to-nature themes.
Almost everyone involved in the movies believes "The Lord of the Rings" contains "spiritual" or even "sacred" themes. But they struggle to define these words.
Facing a circle of reporters from religious publications, members of Jackson's team emphasized that they strove to avoid personal agendas that might betray Tolkien. Yet they also stressed they did not believe Tolkien had a dogmatic agenda.
The central "tenet that is underlying the story is his Catholicism, which is at the heart ... of the book," said Fran Walsh, a producer, screenwriter and mother of two children with Jackson. "In the end, if there is anything to be taken from the film it's that it's about faith." The story is also about death and the knowledge that its heroes "will endure in some form" after their passage to another land, she said.
So this is a story about "faith," "hope," "courage," "decency," "sacrifice," and even eternal life. It's about the triumph of "simple goodness." But it is not, as screenwriter Philippa Boyens put it, about moral absolutes that proclaim, "This is good and this is evil! And this is what you must do!' "
Yet the final outcome -- the destruction of the one ring of power -- depends on key characters making agonizing choices between good and evil.
The tormented Gollum chooses poorly and reaps what he has sown. The noble Frodo chooses poorly as well, yet is saved by his earlier acts of compassion toward Gollum.
"It was Frodo's destiny to accept this ring," said Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo. "But it's Frodo's mercy that actually destroys the ring. The ring is not destroyed by any person's will. I mean, it is the will of Frodo that gets it to where it needs to go. But it is indeed his mercy for Gollum that allows Gollum to meet them at the Crack of Doom and to stop Frodo."
The whole thing, said Wood, is "a bit of a puzzle piece."
The movie's director was asked if the word "providence" might apply to this mystery.
"Yes," said Jackson.