Strolling into the auditorium after the bell, my daughter’s friends and classmates slowly took their seats. Getting out of regular class for a video presentation was a rare event and they were going to savor every minute.
“Your dad is going to talk about The Lord of the Rings films?” they asked Kristin. “Yes” she told them, silently praying that I would not embarrass her in front of her friends.
I was saying the same prayer myself.
The school’s Theology Department had invited me to speak on the religious themes in the three Peter Jackson films. But with just a PowerPoint presentation and a videotape, could I keep her friends entertained for the next ninety minutes? What if they were not fans of The Lord of the Rings like me? Would I waste their time or would they be inspired? Most importantly, what will my daughter think after her father speaks to the entire junior class of her high school?
I got the invitation because months ago I wrote three articles for our local diocesan newspaper. Writing about religious themes in popular culture, especially films, is one of my passions.
The editors liked my short devotionals about the three main characters: Frodo, who time and time again made a conscious, willful decision to do everything he could to fulfill the quest; Gollum, who struggled with the good and bad within himself and who found a trusting response from Frodo, but a suspicious one from Sam; and Aragorn, who conquered his own doubts and became all that he could be to defeat Sauron the Deceiver.
I could center my speech on these themes, but I was still not sure I could keep the attention of the students. High school students can get bored so quickly. They will probably want more.
Perhaps they would be interested to hear how I flew to Hollywood for the press viewing of the third and final film, The Return of the King. I could describe how I checked into the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills and later met Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and producer Barry Osborne that evening in the lounge.
I could also tell the students how we had to surrender our cell phones and cameras before we were admitted into the theater. New Line Cinema wanted to prevent images from being uploaded onto the Internet two weeks before the film was released. I could describe how we sat there with an Arwen bag of popcorn and an Aragorn cup of Diet Coke, cheering for Eowyn when she slew the Witch-King of Angmar and tearing during Sam’s determined words to Frodo – “I can carry you.”
No, these stories might hold their attention for a little while longer, but it wouldn’t last. The students needed more details to help them relate to the films on a deeper, more personal level.
After showing excerpts from the three films and summarizing the main religious themes, I asked the students “If you could have a real conversation with one of the actors, what would you say to him or her?”
Without waiting for an answer, I described the interviews that I conducted on the morning after previewing The Return of the King. In a small room with twelve other religious journalists, we sat around a small table with an empty chair. One by one, for twenty minutes at a time, the actors, writers, producers, composer and director sat with us and discussed the film.
Not only did we learn lots of background details on script composition and the film-making process, we also saw the actors in a brand new light. Each of them had developed a strong connection with the character they portrayed. Many of the actors also shared personal insights to their work, insights that left a lasting impression on me.
Elijah Wood (Frodo) – a thoughtful and energetic young man who said his scenes with Smeagol/Gollum were motivated by a caring nature for someone addicted to a powerful substance.
Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin) – two pals who not only had a good time but also took up the cause of caring for the environment, especially worldwide reforestation projects.
Andy Serkis (Smeagol/Gollum) – a humble man who was genuinely thankful when we praised his work.
Sean Astin (Sam) – an accomplished actor who said the best part of the filming process was that his family could be with him in New Zealand.
Liv Tyler (Arwen) – a newlywed who implored our students to “be nice to each other” and “care for your friends.”
Orlando Bloom (Legolas) – who in a quiet, but well-spoken manner, talked about Elves and Dwarves getting along as friends. If they can get along, why can’t other people follow their example?
As I described these real people and the motivations behind their acting, the students listened and watched with great attention.
I hoped that they would identify with the actors, realizing that they share many of the same feelings, insecurities, desires for stable relationships and the need to be part of a cause for the greater good. By taking care of their friends, preserving the environment and respecting the cultures of people they don’t know, these high school students could help make our own world a better place in which to live. For as Galadriel says to Frodo in the first film, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
As I finished my speech and the lunch bell rang, the students rose to leave the auditorium. My daughter and a few of her friends, however, walked down the aisle towards me.
“Dad,” she said, “that was pretty cool.”
I smiled and said “thanks,” knowing that those words were indeed high praise from my teenage daughter.
Excerpt from Lembas for the Soul, How The Lord of the Rings Enriches Everyday Life, edited by Catherine Kohman and published by White Tree Press 2005.