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How ‘Lord of the Rings’ Shaped a Hopeless Generation

Two decades ago, our blind optimism dissolved as the real world fell into war. ‘Lord of the Rings’ became the ultimate millennial comfort viewing: a fantasy world in which the good guys actually win

I rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy often. We probably all have a few beloved childhood franchises that we do that with, right? It’s like eating a hot bowl of matzo ball soup, but to combat the thing that’s making your brain sick, rather than your body. Since March, I’ve watched the trilogy two times and part of it a third time. Like many others, I need a lot of matzo ball soup lately. I watch these movies in a cowardly spirit, because I have no sand in which to bury my head.

I was 10 when The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in theaters in 2001, and it was such an instant phenomenon that even my parents wanted to come with me to see it. They had a total lack of interest in what they called “sci-fi fantasy,” and I had a total lack of knowledge about the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. But that was the power of the movie’s hype — we were on board without knowing why. It really was no fucking joke, grossing $47.2 million in its opening weekend alone and going on to spawn a franchise to rival other beloved fan properties like Star Wars and Star Trek

I have several visceral memories of that early moviegoing experience. We couldn’t find three seats together, so I capitalized on my newfound pre-adolescent shame about being seen with my parents and insisted on sitting alone. The film features many jump scares (weirdly, considering it’s not a horror movie), and I quickly regretted sitting alone. I was also instantly, powerfully attracted to both Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and remember feeling grateful for the space from my parents to process that attraction. Legolas’ prettiness was one thing, but there was something unseemly and adult in my crush on Aragorn, who was much more grown-up-looking and struck at something much sleazier in my gut.

Mostly, though, I remember being enthralled. I’d never seen anything like this movie before in terms of scale or ambition. Maybe the original Star Wars movies would have come close (I am not interested in pursuing a conversation about the Star Wars franchise, ever, in my life), but I hadn’t seen them yet and was too old to be appropriately awestruck by them once I eventually did. 

In the same fashion, my parents were probably too old for The Fellowship of the Ring once they saw it. Neither of them had any special relationship with the books, and as we left the theater, they pronounced the movie overlong and totally boring. At the time, I was appalled and offended by their assessment. Now, I think: Fair enough. Ambitious, self-involved movies like the Lord of the Rings franchise strike at moments more than individual people. If you’re embedded deep enough in those moments, you enjoy them. If you’re not, you don’t. 

The Fellowship of the Ring was arguably the first massive millennial movie. The moment it struck at, however inadvertently, was very much our own. We’d dragged ourselves over the thresholds of Y2K, 9/11 and the first year of the W. presidency. Yes, “we,” even though I was only 10 and hadn’t meaningfully participated in any of the above events, because that’s the point: They were in the water, there was no avoiding them. As kids and as millennials, we were becoming dimly aware of bad guys, not just in movies but controlling the world around us. The Lord of the Rings movies granted us a fantasy reprieve from the quotidian awfulness of our real-world bad guys even as it clarified how much was at stake should any bad guys be allowed to win anywhere.

That’s to say nothing of the sheer scale of the fucking thing commercially. Its various toys and trinkets seemed custom designed to drive fans to acts of consumer madness. An example: For years after we saw The Fellowship of the Ring, my family kept getting catalogues in the mail for wildly overpriced replicas of its costumes and jewelry, items that I begged my mother to buy me but which only the most dedicated fans could afford. Sometimes I’d see photos of cosplayers wearing Arwen’s Evenstar pendant (which still costs $149 two decades later!) and feel consumed by jealousy. 

I’m no Tolkien-head. I never did manage to read the books other than The Hobbit; I gave them the old college try the same year I fell in love with the movies, but what I loved about the movies was wholly absent from the books. It was a spirit, and one that’s impossible to capture on the page, where no cutting-edge technology exists to really show us the hideous fearsomeness of the Uruk-hai up close. It was a wholly American spirit, one part action movie to one part good overcoming evil no matter what the cost to one part spending a fortune on newfangled special effects that audiences would quickly come to expect anytime they went to see action movies. It was sweet without being saccharine; you know the good guys will win, but you’re so wrapped up in the narrative that you can let yourself believe they might not, just for the sake of the story. The spirit that enjoys these movies is one that believes the good guys in real life will win, too. That’s what makes the good-vs.-evil tension fun.

For those of us who were within a particular window of our lives when The Fellowship of the Ring came out — young and American, two luxuries that made us hopeful for our personal futures even as we felt early twinges of fear for the world’s — everything about the movie struck at our core. All its colors, all its creatures, all its worlds. Why, when they were so removed from our own? Maybe because they were so removed from our own. In our world, battles of good and evil were mundane and depressing. We’d just watched the grownups do nothing while an inept patrician stole a presidential election. We felt like we understood a little something about how dreary this good-and-evil stuff could be. But in Middle Earth, matters of good and evil were high-stakes — flashy and sexy as hell.

Even critics at the time couldn’t avoid the seeming contradiction — how modern a movie about a medieval-ish time that never existed could be. In a review that described the film as “for, and of, our times,” Roger Ebert pinpointed that modernness well: “If the books are about brave little creatures who enlist powerful men and wizards to help them in a dangerous crusade, the movie is about powerful men and wizards who embark on a dangerous crusade, and take along the Hobbits.”

Is that the big difference? The books (unmodern) are about childlike fellows trying to be brave, and the films (hypermodern) are impressive action flicks made with every tool in the special effects guy’s toolkit? It’s true that just about every review of the film mentioned, usually with awe, its extensive program of special effects — everything from the relatively new CGI of the time to the sleight-of-hand trickery involved in making viewers believe all the actors were the correct height. (I also have to point out here, with a stubborn kid’s loyalty to the entertainment of my generation, that the CGI still looks totally respectable 20 years later.)

Sure, partly, inasmuch as there is a definite shifting of focus from the books to the films and that shift is in favor of action over the quiet pastoral Hobbit-ness that was Tolkien’s pet preoccupation. What started on the page as a vast tale of the capability and resourcefulness of Hobbits became an ensemble drama, of the sort that was so popular in the early 2000s. And no movie could bag an actor as unrelentingly hot as Mortensen without wanting to show him off a little more than is strictly warranted. But there’s something more at play.

The Fellowship of the Ring was the beginning of the end of Boomer optimism. Disasters like Y2K and 9/11 had already begun to shake it, and by the time The Return of the King came out in 2003, it was gasping its last breath. The Iraq War had just started and the Afghanistan War was entering its third year. Both wars remain, uh, “technically” ongoing. And while the economy may not have been in the shitter yet, that subprime mortgage bubble was inflating, getting ready to burst. It was, by definition, a tense time — one of many horrible things either happening, or worse, building up.

I mean, come on, is John Kerry’s middle-of-the-road ass really the one that an optimistic society runs against a potent ghoul like George W. Bush? Or was that a deeply cynical move performed by a culture whose signature was about to become deeply cynical moves? 

2001 was an attractive time to release a large-scale good-vs.-evil story, and 2003 was a triply attractive one in which to end it. The American general public wasn’t yet expecting the ever-deepening awfulness that characterized the 2010s. We still believed in an awfulness from which it was possible to bounce back. We believed in an evil that could be defeated. Those of us who believed in what was then called global warming also sort of believed it would be stopped by the same grownups who gave that motherfucker W. his election. 

Whatever illusions have remained about the competence of the adults in the room, the pandemic has certainly shattered them. It’s hard to describe the searing jealousy I feel for people who got to have lots of enjoyable adulthood before the pandemic hit and we began collectively realizing everything was going to get worse forever. Everything was always going to get worse forever, but how often does a society experience a yearlong catalyzing event proving it so clearly? I’m 29, so I did have some adulthood. It’s just that I believed I would have more. It’s partly white, bourgeois fantasy, to feel that I’ve been robbed of my own life, but it’s also partly true and unfair and totally agonizing. And if that’s how I feel, then how the fuck must teenagers feel? Or kids, or the parents of those kids who have to answer their questions?

If nothing else, I’m fortunate to have that psychic space to return to, one of an uneasy optimism that had only just begun its long slow descent into the grave. I can fondly remember being a cheerful kid going to the movies with her parents as if nothing was wrong, because nothing was wrong, not for me, not yet. Oh, sure, the usual stuff was wrong: My parents worried about money, and politics, and regular stuff that existed and could be solved on a human scale. When 2001 was wrapping up, the big American medical worry was falling victim to an anthrax attack. They were in fashion at the time and, frankly, seem a little quaint now that COVID-19 is raging. But the dozen dueling apocalyptic worries of 2020 hadn’t swooped in yet. 

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is all about apocalyptic worries. Back then, it felt good to watch a movie all about worries that were so much unimaginably huger than our own. But they don’t look that huge now, do they? When Gandalf hauls Samwise in through the window, furious at him for eavesdropping, Sam stutters out a quick protestation that all he’d heard was “something about the end of the world.” 

It was a throwaway laugh line at the time. I don’t laugh at it so much anymore.