Don’t Look Up Isn’t A Perfect Climate Change Film. The Lord of the Rings Is.

Come on Frodo, drop those fossil fuel subsidies (Image Credit: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Regardless of your opinions on it, Don’t Look Up got people talking. The latest in a line of apocalyptic climate movies, will this be the one to effect change? I think we need more climate movies, but ones that are powerful, that stick with you after the Twitter hashtags vanish, films that embed themselves in our cultural consciousness. Maybe one like…

“This sucks!” I cry, gesturing at winter temperatures so warm swallows were tricked into staying in Ireland instead of migrating to Africa as normal and the pandemic still raging across the world, “I wish I didn’t have to deal with this!”

“So do all who live to see such times,” says the wizard on my TV screen, “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Published in 1954, The Lord of the Rings is one of the bestselling books of all time. Its reach only expanded in 2001 with the release of the first of an epic film trilogy, which I would argue has yet to be surpassed by anything in the fantasy genre.

This beloved story has provided us with a comfort and source of meaning over the last two years, many citing it as a balm to the stresses of pandemic life.

Watching it in the last days of 2021, during a December that broke temperature records, it struck me that it can lend itself to further metaphor: that of the climate crisis.

J.R.R. Tolkien was an environmentalist, and despite his claim that he “disliked allegory in all its manifestations”, there are clear ways to read his trilogy as an environmental cautionary tale.

The story begins in a world that has diminished. Many creatures are no more, and the Elves are preparing to leave Middle-Earth forever. The film’s visuals subtly show this with autumnal hues soaking Rivendell, with trees dropping their leaves. This world may no longer have its former glory, but it is still beautiful, still full of people, and still worth saving. The second instalment introduces the great tragedy of the Ents, a tree-like species deep in extinction debt, doomed to a slow demise in the wake of the loss of the Ent wives. 

A threat is looming, something that could have been avoided but for the greed of men. A threat that not everyone is aware of yet but will soon have an impact on all Middle-Earth’s people. So naturally they gather everyone together to have a meeting about what to do about it, which devolves into an argument and “but what if we can use this to grow our economy kingdom?”

(There are no women at this meeting, or BIPOC, because the Men of the South have sided with Sauron. Not cool Tolkien.)

It is Frodo Baggins, a hobbit with no desire for glory, who volunteers to destroy the Ring. Frodo is not primarily motivated by a grand desire to save the world. He is motivated by a desire to save his home, friends, and family. His community.

The story starts to expand, showing us a vast world populated by people who are all under threat. We get a subplot of Saruman aligning himself with Sauron, turning away from the natural world and destroying an ancient forest to create industry and machines of war, which causes the Ents and the forest itself to fight back (but not without more talks, because taking “hasty action” is bad. I’m struggling to believe Tolkien didn’t intend any sort of metaphor.)

Lots of epic adventures were had, memes were created, Oscars were won, and a great time was had by audiences everywhere. We see everyone band together despite their differences to fight against a common enemy. We even see climate doomers and deniers represented, in Denethor of Gondor, who despite disaster literally on his doorstep refuses to take meaningful action and would rather kill himself, his son, and his people than fight back. Even Grima Wormtongue can be seen as a slimy politician.

A drawing by the author in 2015 and Greta Thunberg’s speeches, 2019. Coincidence? I mean probably. (Image Credit: Danielle Crowley)

This is all well and good, but these themes have appeared in stories before, so why do they make this story in particular such a compelling one for our troubled times?

Unlike later fantasy heroes like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, there is no room for individualism in this story. Frodo wouldn’t have succeeded without the efforts of his friends, nor is he some mystical “Chosen One”. Even Aragorn, the powerful heir to the throne of Gondor, doesn’t attempt to do it all himself. Just as we shouldn’t just rely on individuals working alone to save the world.

Tolkien was no stranger to hardship. He fought in the First World War, survived a pandemic that killed 25-50 million people (at the time close to 3% of the world’s population), and lived through the Second World War. This comes across in his writing, and in the film adaptations. We are under no illusion that the characters are having a fun time. We see the suffering of ordinary people and our heroes, Frodo’s especially so, with the Ring a growing, “burden on the body and a torment to his mind.”

Everyone in the Fellowship falls into spells of despair throughout. There are many times when even Aragorn, all round badass and horse girl, accepts that the quest will fail, and they will die.

But, and this is the important bit, despite this, they never stop fighting. They never throw down their swords and wail, “but this is hard and expensive”. They keep going, because this world may be dark and everything is uncertain, but there are also strawberries, and people you love, and music and laughter. They keep going because, like us, they have no choice. To stop fighting is to lose everything they hold dear.

It is this combination of despair and persistence, fear and hope, that make The Lord of the Rings so powerful. Don’t Look Up may have gotten parts of the climate crisis right, but while full of despair, there was no hope. There was no-one fighting on until the end, no coming together of people with a common cause, not a shred of the goodness that is in humanity. There wasn’t even a scientist with a shred of competence in communicating the urgency of the message to a wider audience (hello, Gandalf). 

As per the satire genre, Don’t look Up is cynical, assuming everyone the world over to be part of a collective society of ignoramuses. The Lord of the Rings, in its deep sincerity, is brave in saying yes, there are terrible people in the world, but there is good too, and that is what we must hold on to.

In the end, Frodo and his friends save their world. An ordinary person with a deep love for his home and people prevail where kings and egotistical billionaires could not.

Our world is “balanced on the edge of a knife”. We are so close to tipping points, either towards disaster or towards a better future. It will be difficult, with no quick fixes, and all the giant eagles are extinct. The Lord of the Rings is a gorgeous reminder that we are stronger together, that love and community prevails, that greed leads to darkness, and that a world that has lost much is still worth saving.

Most importantly of all, it reminds us that darkness must pass and the good in this world is always, always, worth fighting for.

Danielle Crowley is an ecologist and science communicator currently studying a Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation MSc with the University of Exeter, and co-hosts the fish-based podcast Movie aFISHianados, which you can listen to at this link. Follow Dani on Twitter @Aqua_Dan1

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