Defrocking Frodo and the Death of Imagination

    "Past the brooding lands of Mordor, across the river Nimrodel, far beyond the lush valley of Rivendell, the gentle followers of Frodo are freaking out." So says a story last week in the L.A. Times about how devoted fans of J. R. R. Tolkien are reacting to the onslaught of Hollywood hype and merchandising tie-ins that have preceded yesterday's release of the movie version of Tolkien's fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. Long-time Tolkien fans feel as if the film's marketing blitz will overwhelm the delicate fantasy of Middle-earth -- a world straight out of Tolkien's imagination and delivered complete with its own languages, sciences, and history in more than a dozen books that span fictitious millennia. One graduate student at UCLA laments the day Frodo will appear on some child's pajamas. "Have they no respect?" he asks. Now why are these people so upset? Ted Tschopp, co- founder of, gives a hint when he says he hopes the movie will fail so he can go back to enjoying Tolkien's books as sacrosanct. The fear is that people, after watching a two-hour movie and purchasing the appropriate hobbit gear, will think they have something in common with Middle-earth aficionados who have read and re-read Tolkien's trilogy and know all its details. Well, the critics have a point. As good as a movie may be, there's still nothing like a good story told in a good book. In a story, we cooperate with the author by bringing our own imagination to play. The writer may supply a description, but we provide the mental images ourselves. The truth is that the human imagination engaged by literature is more powerful than all the special effects and technology employed by Hollywood. So there's always a problem when a book is made into a movie. No one, who has read and experienced a story, will ever be completely satisfied with someone else's re-telling. To narrow an author's creativity down to one visual image on a screen -- even worse, on someone's pajamas -- is to trivialize the wonders of one of God's greatest gifts to us, our imagination. A good example is the conclusion of the delightful movie, A Princess Bride. There is a culminating kiss between the hero and his maiden. During the kiss, we hear the voice of the grandfather who has been reading this story to his grandson, and we see the power of imagination over the visual. On the screen we see only a kiss, and how many times have we seen a movie kiss? They're all the same. But from the narrator we hear: "In the history of true love, there have been five truly great kisses, but this one surpassed them all in its purity and its passion." The kiss on the screen pales in comparison to the one in our imaginations as we hear the words of the story. Now, this isn't to diminish the value of film as an art form or as entertainment -- and certainly not The Lord of the Rings, which I'm anxious to see. It is simply to remind us of the limitations of film in penetrating our imaginations. There's no substitute for the richness of our imaginations when stimulated by a great story. So, enjoy good films, but don't let them ever substitute for the greater and richer pleasures of good reading. It's a taste all of us need to cultivate. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Houghton Mifflin, 1974).


Chuck Colson


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