Tolkien creates ambiguous villains and flawed heroes.
Take for instance Jackson's brilliant casting of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The personality that Tolkien ascribes to the master is fully realized in Stephen Fry (who can capture pompous-political-nabob better than anyone on record).
|The Master of Laketown's portrait.|
Jackson simply builds on this--it is ALL in the book. And Tolkien put it there. Not all his villains may be as subtly drawn as the Master. But his heroes are real heroes, not cookie-cutter heroes-as-already-constituted (just add fairy dust). They battle doubt (Sam), indecision (Aragorn), lack of resources, pride, uncertainty, death (Gandalf), curiosity (Pippin), fear (Gimli), and even corruption (Frodo). Their heroism lies in their doggedness and persistence.
In Tolkien's world, villains--like Saruman--are those who have given in to (political) fear and self-deceit. Saruman believes that HE can handle Sauron. He will do a little evil, so that in the future he can do good. But of course, all his justifications don't hide a selfish nature that is willing to push people around, even if those people are "just" hobbits (see the end of Return of the King, book version).
Tolkien's heroes, on the other hand, are those who manage to stave off dread, no matter how much dread they might feel. One of the most touching parts of Gimli's story occurs when he follows Aragorn and Legolas on the Paths of the Dead. Despite being a mountain dweller, this particular journey terrifies him. And yet he doesn't turn back. Likewise, the terror of Mordor doesn't prevent Frodo and Sam from trudging forward, step by step. Courage isn't the point so much as a refusal to despair.
Tolkien's heroes also show awareness beyond themselves. In the trek across Mordor, Sam has a revelatory moment when he sees the stars through Mordor's smog. He thinks, "Ultimately, the world keeps turning. Everything we are doing will be over and done with. Life continues." Sam is experiencing less a warm and fuzzy "This too shall pass!" moment and more a cold realization that historically speaking, he and Frodo don't matter all that much. It is an astonishing piece of objectivity smack dab in the middle of the worst trial of the trilogy.
Most importantly, Tolkien is merciful. Heroes don't have to be heroic all the time. They often fall. Whether they allow themselves to be buried by the fall or not dictates their heroism. Denethor ends a villain, yet Théoden ends a hero. One despairs; the other climbs back on his horse (literally). Likewise, Frodo ends a hero because he remains sane and kind after Gollum takes his finger and the ring ("I'm glad you're with me, Sam Gamgee, here at the end of all things."). Boromir protects Merry and Pippin with his life, willingly confesses his part in the dissolution of the Fellowship, and pronounces his loyalty to Aragorn.
To put all this in the vernacular: Either you get the bear or the bear gets you. Just make sure you end getting the bear.
"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics: