When tentative news began to leak, pre-Y2K, that Kiwi director Peter Jackson was making a live-action Lord of the Rings trilogy, legions of longtime LOTR fans (including me — at age 8, The Hobbit was the first novel I finished) were excited, but our enthusiasm was tempered. For one thing, the casting seemed hard to envision (Sean Astin … the kid from The Goonies? Who the heck is Viggo Mortensen?), and some of us still remembered Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated Lord of the Rings, which, while cool to see as a kid, was far from a cinematic classic.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novels (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King), with their vast and intricate worldbuilding, epic battles, and profusion of wild creatures, had long been deemed unfilmable as live action as they were thought to be too expensive and too technically difficult. So, as news of the production unfolded across the dawn of a new century, we looked forward to the movies while accepting that this Jackson guy (whoever he was) might not pull them off, despite the new and fast-evolving digital tools he and his collaborators had at their disposal.
Then, as the December release date neared for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the attacks of September 11, 2001, indelibly and permanently altered our collective consciousness. In an uncertain and traumatized new world, the success of the films — and even audiences’ desire to see them, given the bitter reality facing the country — was in doubt. The idea that the trilogy would become a global juggernaut and an instant classic that ushered in a new era of fantasy/blockbuster/special effects filmmaking (including groundbreaking motion capture technology via the introduction of Gollum in The Two Towers) was not only unassured, but seemed unlikely.
And yet, 9/11 actually contributed to the trilogy’s astonishing success — which included winning boatloads of Oscars (unheard of for fantasy films then and now) — by providing audiences escape, comfort, and an unambiguous moral guidepost for negotiating the complicated feelings the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caused for many people in 2001 and beyond.
LOTR made good and evil feel unambiguous
Tolkien’s LOTR stories (which also includes the prelude novel, The Hobbit, published in 1937) are operatic fairy tales set in one of the most elaborately imagined story worlds in all of fiction. The main narrative concerns the quest of a good-hearted Hobbit (Frodo Baggins), who is spurred on by an ancient wizard (Gandalf) to march the One Ring to Rule Them All across Middle-earth and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, thus saving the world from the powers of darkness that threaten to overwhelm it.
Although Tolkien had served for Britain in WWI and later suffered the German blitzkriegs of England during WWII, he always insisted that his tales were not allegories for contemporary events, despite how neatly they aligned with a world at war and an unambiguous evil — the Axis countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan — attempting to conquer the globe. Still, like any stark morality tale, The Lord of the Rings lends itself well to allegory despite Tolkien’s authorial objections. It certainly did post-9/11, when the distinction between good and evil once again seemed stark and indisputable.
Five months after 9/11, when then-President George W. Bush recast a new Axis of evil, his administration hoped that the Western world would get behind it as unequivocally as it had when facing the original Axis. Initial support for new deployment of American power was robust, but it wasn’t long before Americans were facing a questionable and costly Iraq War, followed by a cascade of War on Terror iniquities that included torture and domestic wiretapping. A fierce anti-war movement arose in response.
But that was all to come. Two months after 9/11, when The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theaters, Americans were still experiencing one of our most united moments ever. Political divisions were temporarily set aside. American flags were selling out. We were helping each other through our collective trauma while supporting the efforts of our government and military to get the bad guys responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The clear-cut war of good against evil depicted in The Lord of the Rings reflected — and perhaps even contributed to — our unclouded sense of purpose and righteousness in the moment.
LOTR dramatized coming together against a common enemy
The Lord of the Rings channeled much of what people were feeling, as well as hoping for in terms of finding the resolve to vanquish our enemies. It made heroism and sacrifice feel not only straightforward and inspiring, but necessary. When Frodo and his friends — Sam, Merry and Pippen — bravely leave the comfort and peace of their green little Shire to undertake a dangerous journey for the greater good, it mirrored the sense of purpose many Americans felt when they either joined up to fight overseas, or supported those who did, such as Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals NFL player who gave up professional football to join the U.S. Army and fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The fact that the truth around Tillman’s death by friendly fire was covered up for so long is an indicator of how invested we were in uncomplicated accounts of sacrifice and heroism, like those performed by the heroes of the trilogy. The bond that soldiers form — the solidarity around a larger purpose — drives The Lord of the Rings, which above all is about, well, fellowship. And that is something we were feeling toward one another even following an era when domestic political differences had begun to widen throughout the 1990s. But 9/11 and the new war in Afghanistan put some of that on the back burner as it became de rigueur for those of all political persuasions to support the troops.
Mirroring our national mood at the time, The Lord of the Rings powerfully dramatizes the idea of coming together around a common cause. In Fellowship, after the Hobbits survive their initial flight to the Elf sanctuary of Rivendell, the great powers ally to protect them on their continued journey to Mount Doom. The group that forms includes men, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, and elves, with the elves and dwarves setting aside their long-held differences to protect the looming threat to the civilized world.
As Jackson said in discussing the novels, “Tolkien hated war, the futility and devastation of war, but he also said that sometimes there are things worth fighting for. Above all, freedom. Those who are enslaved, who are victims of the horrors of invasion and oppression, are right to offer resistance.” Later, fierce debate would rage over who were victims and who were invaders and oppressors in the War on Terror. But in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the movies epitomized the moral authority and purpose we were feeling in real life, something that many Americans felt we had lost in the world.
The trilogy encouraged us to be our best selves
That feeling of loss had begun after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, when the titanic Cold War struggle had ended. Despite then-President George H.W. Bush’s attempts to create an American-led New World Order out of the power vacuum that emerged, the 1990s were a nebulous time. Who were we fighting? Who were we protecting from evil? How could we defeat the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union,but do virtually nothing to stave off the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans? The 9/11 attacks restored America’s collective sense of patriotism and purpose, at least for a time.
The days following 9/11 also became a respite for Americans who had grown weary facing the collective sins of a nation. It let us forget the lingering national wound of Vietnam and the deluge of cinema that had criticized America’s involvement (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, etc.). The attacks let us again become the United States of the 1940s, saving the world from the armies of darkness. And Jackson’s trilogy, adapting Tolkien’s novels written during that time, epitomized the national moment that had also recently produced popular new tales about unvarnished American heroism during WWII such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.
The title of Band of Brothers comes from Shakespeare and the high-flown rhetoric of King Henry V as he implored his soldiers to find the resolve to fight a suicidal battle against larger and better-equipped French forces at the Battle of Agincourt. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he, today, who sheds his blood with me will be my brother,” he tells his men, suggesting that their bond will supersede even death and give their sacrifice meaning. That fraternity and sense of sacrifice fueled the national resolve post-9/11 and was reflected also in The Lord of the Rings. One could even argue that the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, in which a small band of ill-equipped but brave men take on 10,000 Uruk-hai, is Tolkien’s homage to Henry V.
The trilogy felt as grave and momentous as world events, almost as though the films not only commented on them, but gave us direction for how to navigate them. This is summed up in Gandalf’s famous exchange with Frodo. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo laments, to which Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Finally, of course, The Lord of the Rings provided a fully realized alternate world to lose ourselves in for a few hours and escape our fresh horrors. With the exception of the title of the second film, The Two Towers, which evoked unavoidable associations with the fallen Twin Towers, the trilogy as a whole was pure escapist bliss. Fantasy, romance, adventure, chivalry, honor, courage, sacrifice, epic stakes. Beyond the way that it tied into current events and made us feel about them, the trilogy gave us something deeply pleasurable to immerse ourselves in during a very tough time.
When The Return of the King won Best Picture and 10 other Oscars in 2004, becoming one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movies ever, the political winds were already shifting, the war was finding fierce opposition, and the divisiveness that now characterizes so much of American culture and politics was metastasizing fast. It’s almost as though the awards heaped upon Jackson and company weren’t just for the great filmmaking, or even for the riches that the movies poured into Hollywood’s coffers, but for being the beacon that lit our way during such a distressing time, giving us comfort and solace — at least until the theater lights went up and the world’s disheartening realities intruded once again.
Whether Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series can serve a similar purpose for viewers during our current difficulties remains to be seen, though it seems like the confluence of popular art and world events that fused Jackson’s movies and the 9/11 era was a historic rarity, one that those of us who lived through it can be grateful for, but not hope to repeat.