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By Doug Brunell | April 1, 2004

Now that all three The Lord of the Rings movies are out, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Never before has a movie franchise (with the exception of the Star Trek universe) inspired so much adulation over nothing all that special.
I’ll admit to appreciating the movies, and I thought the last one was the best of the bunch. They just weren’t the grand spectacles every other critic claimed them to be, and the more I watched, the more I became convinced that Peter Jackson wasn’t as good a director as people thought.
The rest of the world disagrees.
The die hard hobbit fans loved the three films. I was even told by one grown man that he cried during the first movie. “It was my dream, right on the screen,” he told me. I almost laughed in his face. Why aim for the stars when you can see a movie, right? What really puzzled me, however, was average filmgoers’ reaction to the film. It seems they loved it, too, and I needed to know why.
As I was leaving the first film, a woman behind me commented, “They left that open for a sequel, didn’t they?” I heard similar things from other people, too. It then dawned on me that most of the people who went to see this movie really didn’t know much about the story. I think the majority knew there were three parts, but I don’t think they knew much beyond that. The fact that the trilogy has done so well despite that is … strange.
When I watched the films, I tried to do so from the viewpoint of someone who knew nothing of the story. That way I wouldn’t be looking for all the differences between the film and its source material. Looking at the films on their own merits — like that of an audience member who never read the books — raised some troubling points.
Besides the length problem, the first two films are fairly unemotional. There is some feeling there, but it always comes across as kind of alien … at least until the last film. The story, while rich, is also very complicated and downright confusing at points. The special effects looked good when they were in background, but often looked too computer generated up close. And as far as action goes, when it happened it was quite incredible (especially in The Return of the King), but there was more exposition than sword and sorcery.
These things should’ve added up to a movie that just didn’t do much for the average audience member. I could understand the first film doing well, as people wanted to see what the fuss was all about. But all three movies did far beyond what anyone should have expected from them. Why?
The cynic in me likes to think that people either watched them because they wanted to follow what their friends were doing, or that Tolkien fans just didn’t have anything better to do and went to see the movies eight times each (and I do know people who did that). That’s the cynical side of me, though. The rational side, the one that keeps me from shooting people at the mall, saw something else.
People truly liked these movies because they loved the characters and what they represented. They liked the fact that this unlikely band of heroes would make the hardest journey of their lives to save the world. They liked the fact that little Frodo could not be stopped, and they appreciated that his own worst enemy was often himself. They also understood the theory of absolute power corrupting absolutely. For one shining moment, there was more to the movie experience than explosions, breasts and improbable car chase scenes.
That said, I don’t think these movies would’ve have done as well under Clinton’s administration, especially not his first term.
Regardless of whether or not you think the current president is doing a good job, all except the willfully ignorant will agree that this country (let alone this world) is a far worse place to live in then it was about a decade ago. America lives under constant terrorist threat level alerts (warranted or not), and many people feel our own president is an out of control tyrant who wages wars on defenseless countries. American soldiers are being killed on a nearly daily basis so that we can show the world we mean business. North Korea is working on its nuclear program. At home, our privacy is being threatened by those enforcing Homeland Security (which has a fascist ring to it). People know this, but they are afraid to speak out against it for fear of sounding unpatriotic or worse.
Enter the hobbits.
Americans (and even foreign audiences) saw something in these characters they wanted to see in themselves. They saw what they wanted their government to be like. They wanted to believe that instead of irritating the rest of the world, our government could really be doing something to make our planet a better place to live, and what better manifestation of that desire than the heroes on the screen.
When Aragorn led the troops into battle in “The Return of the King,” the audience in the theatre I was in cheered. They clapped and hollered unlike any theatre audience I had ever heard. And then it struck me: I never heard anyone cheering and clapping when Bush announced he was sending troops to Iraq. His announcement was met with silence, and that silence symbolized the difference between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. The audience in my theatre loved the hero. We saw something we wanted from our “king.” What we really have, however, is something just shy of Wormtongue.
Films don’t exist in a vacuum. They represent the world we live in, and they symbolize the world we want to live in. They are a projection of our dreams, hopes and fears. They inspire laughter, tears and anger. When a film like “Requiem for a Dream” shows us as we are, it tends to get critical success but little popularity. That’s understandable. We see ourselves in the mirror every day. We don’t need to be reminded of how weak we can be in the right circumstances. When a film comes along that shows us as we want to be — that resonates with people.
It wasn’t the story that drew people into “The Lord of the Rings.” It was the symbolism. Even if it only worked subconsciously, we realized that on some level this is how we wanted to live our lives. We want noble intentions, and we want to do the right thing. And we want the right thing done in our name. In our hearts we know the right thing is extremely difficult to do, especially in situations that are often beyond our control. We also know that it has to be done if we want to look at ourselves and still feel human. That’s why these three movies succeeded. They showed that the right thing could still be done … even if you had to go through Hell to do it.
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