112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Conceptualizing Evil: “The Scouring of the Shire” and the Divergent Philosophical Depictions of Evil in J.R.R. Tolkien's Book Series and Peter Jackson's Film Series

Emily Butler-Probst, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

This essay analyzes the differences between the depiction of evil in Tolkien’s book series and the way evil is presented in Jackson’s film series by looking at “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter from The Return of the King. While Jackson’s film presents evil as an externalized force that can potentially be destroyed, Tolkien presents evil as an internalized force that must be challenged continually and can reemerge after it is supposedly destroyed. 


This essay explores the differences between the conceptualization of evil in film as opposed to written prose by comparing Tolkien’s depiction of the permanence and identity of evil to Jackson’s film depiction. Due to Jackson’s usage of film as a medium as well as his need to make The Lord of the Rings into a successful film franchise that would appeal to viewers unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work, Jackson characterized evil as a chiefly externalized force that has the potential to be decisively eliminated. Jackson’s treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter from Tolkien’s The Return of the King expresses the distinction between film and prose in their differing depictions of evil. Although Jackson’s film contains a veiled reference to “The Scouring” when Frodo peers into Galadriel’s mirror in Lothlorien, he is told that he can avert the destruction of his homeland if he is able to successfully destroy the Ring of Power. The possibility that Frodo can prevent “The Scouring” from taking place implies that his own virtuous actions can produce an immediate, external reward.  The failure to act on clearly delineated moral directives such as Isildor’s inability to destroy the ring in the early scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring serves to allow a continued existence of evil when it could have otherwise been destroyed. Once evil is destroyed in Jackson’s films, the destruction is decisive and can help to usher in a continual utopian era. The necessity for Jackson’s film to have a satisfying conclusion with an assured defeat of evil differs from Tolkien’s books which serve as an “epic”, depicting a segment of Tolkien’s fictional history of Middle Earth and alluding to the potential for evil to continuously present itself. Tolkien’s depiction of evil in his book series describes evil as a far more ambiguous, pervasive force than the characterization in Jackson’s film series. Within Tolkien’s work, evil is a force that often comes from within, corrupting the individual or society that are host to it. While this force can manifest itself in an external form as is the case with Sauron’s War of the Ring, the elimination of this external entity does not guarantee an ultimate defeat of evil or prevent this evil from reemerging in the future. While the Hobbits are able to defeat Sauron and destroy the ring, they are faced with Saruman and his willful destruction of the Shire upon their return. After Saruman is defeated by the Hobbits, Merry states that the conflict with evil has been resolved, Sam disagrees, stating that this conflict will not be fully resolved until they fully restored the Shire, an event that will take a considerable amount of time. The differences that exist between film and Tolkien’s mostly prosaic epic require two different ways of portraying evil with film requiring a more objective, externalized evil entity and Tolkien’s work incorporating a more sinister, corrupting, pervasive form of evil that can be manifested and destroyed in an external form without being completely defeated.