Contemporary cinema is, at least in Hollywood, apparently obsessed with physical manifestations of moral corruption. It is as though filmmakers believe that only a radical, visual transformation will impress the magnitude of psychic ailments upon the viewer.

Tolkien’s Denethor is a man of thought: of learning, contemplation, mental resolve. An archetypal technocrat, he rules Gondor as its Steward, not its King. His virtues are chiefly mental, not physical—and so are his failings. Pride, both personal and political; favouritism, shown to a son, Boromir, whose accomplishments in war are of a different stripe to his father’s; lastly, suspicion, towards Gandalf and any who would seek to aid the Kingdom.

This is not the man whom Peter Jackson shows us, in his cinematic portrayal of The Lord of the Rings. Here, Denethor grasps at plates piled high with delicacies, gorging himself in a seemingly uncontrolled manner, tearing meat from the bone, his teeth crushing berries that burst and spill down an avaricious chin. In the books, Denethor is a man of simple needs, his physical existence one of bare, isolated towers, wrestling with his enemy—wrestling in thought, not physical combat. The misportrayal of the character seems symptomatic of a desire to bludgeon the viewer into acceptance of Denethor’s moral failings.

This theme is continued by Jackson’s portrayal of the King of Rohan: the ailing Theoden is not merely convinced by whispers and doubts of his failing health; he must be enchanted, imprisoned within a body prematurely withered by Saruman’s sorcery. Gandalf drives out the evil, restoring Theoden to health: he stands tall once more, perhaps the most imposing figure Jackson’s trilogy has to offer. His decision to fight the evil ravaging his land—and, apparently, his body—is one that seemingly has to be accompanied by physical, not just pychological, restoration.

Cinematically, Jackson has been clearly influenced by The Exorcist, that notable example of filmic evil manifesting itself physically, altering the features and behaviour of its victim in a graphic manner. As a horror director it is easy to see how Friedkin’s work could have made such an impression on him—and perhaps also on one of Friedkin’s contemporaries. Images of corruption sit more strangely within the sometimes sterile vision of George Lucas, but examining the general arc of his Star Wars prequel trilogy, we should not be suprised at their inclusion.

The majority of the characters in this interstellar drama act in accordance with what they perceive to be good—even noble—intentions. They are sometimes misguided, but not evil; this label is reserved for the Sith who manipulate these ambitions for peace, security or autonomy, and it is only the Sith who exhibit the physical decay which seems, in Lucas’s world, synonymous with its moral counterpart.

In Revenge of the Sith, it is not made clear whether Chancellor Palpatine’s disfigurement is the result of the ravages inflicted by his own powers, when they are redirected by Mace Windu’s lightsabre, or whether the battle drained the energy he needed to maintain the illusion of being a kindly old man, forced to take extraordinary measures to preserve the Republic. Either way, it is no coincidence that this transfiguration occurs at the pivotal moment when Palpatine is revealed to be the Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, who has manipulated the Republic and the Separatists into a meaningless war, to ensure his ascent to a position of dictatorial power over the galaxy.

Yet more horrible is the dismemberment and subsequent near-incineration of his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, metamorphosing from Jedi golden boy (the pretty but wooden Hayden Christensen) to James Earl Jones-voiced Sith Lord. Having had his remaining limbs hacked off by Obi-Wan at the climax of a duel on the volcanic planet Mustafar, Anakin is left for dead, his clothes igniting in the heat. With most of his skin burned off, he is rescued by the Emperor and carried back to Coruscant.

In what resembles a torture chamber more than an operating theatre, Anakin screams in agony as prosthetic limbs are attached before, in the final transformation, the mask so familiar from the original trilogy is lowered onto his face, the helmet is attached, and he is at last become Darth Vader. His injuries, and the mask he must now hide behind, are both the symbol and the price of his downfall.

One might be tempted to wonder whether these directors are in thrall to the Cult of the Body, or the Cult of the Obvious. Living in a society where ever more focus is directed to whether our bodies meet the many imposed ideals of beauty, it is easy to see how moral virtue and physical perfection could become conflated. Alternatively, it may simply be that a culturally-illiterate audience needs things spelled out to them: graphic representations of evil make it easy for us to spot who the bad guys are—something that is, in this respect, notably harder in real life.

Another, more invidious possibility is that the filmmakers in question are perfectly aware of all of this, and in fact have made their films this way precisely in order to cynically manipulate an ignorant or body-fixated public. Whatever is truly the case, there seems to be much here to ponder.