A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005 :::
Some Ifs, Ands, And Buts,


It's Magnificent.

We must return to a favorite topic, The Lord of the Rings. A certain pudgy, balding English teacher had, without shame, anticipated the release of the 12-CD boxed set for some time. Indeed, he kept on anticipating it after it came out, out of deference to his teacher’s salary. Once, he went into a Suncoast Pictures outlet not so long ago and asked about it, only to be told that they had each 4-CD set, at $50 per. Smart enough to ask how much the full set was, he was told $120, making part-by-part purchases absurd in the extreme. He therefore held back until he was in North Carolina recently, and wandered into a Target during some downtime. Reduced, the whole thing was, to $89.99, and so he bought it.

And did not sleep for the rest of Spring Break.

In the few remarks that follow, one thing must be held at the front of the mind: the movie, overall, is magnificent. There is much to quibble with, and even argue with. But it is truly wonderful.

A Mind That Suits saw the second installment, The Two Towers, first, and his first comment was, “It’s too short. It needs to be fifteen minutes longer.” This is because one traveled from crisis to crisis with no time to feel the crises developing, an effect amplified if one is sitting in the grand old Uptown Theatre in Washington, DC. The “extended cut” is very much longer than the original—about one extra hour per installment, in fact—and it makes a tremendous difference. If one listens to the “actors’ commentary” (a section in which—if you are not an extended cut DVD fan--the actors’ talk over the film as it runs past), one hears continuously, “I am so glad that put that back in.” And they are right. One hopes that this extended cut exists in a film version, for release to repertory theatres, but until then, the CDs suffice, and then some.

Asked by long time friend Ranger Bill, one of the very first people on the planet to read The Lord of the Rings when it came out, what he thought of the film, a certain pudgy, balding English teacher replied, “It’s great, but there are things that they just don’t get,” a sentiment with which Ranger Bill agreed.

A confession: said English teacher himself at first did not get the need for some of the changes. In the first installment, the changes in the escape from the Shire now seem judicious to get the story moving. Director Peter Jackson admits that the exposition was the hardest part, and he very often succeeded.

However, there are still things that seem wrong.

One that is the very troubling is the character of Peregrine Took, called Pippin most of the time. In the way of Hollywood, Pippin, the youngest of the four principal hobbits, is played by the oldest of the four actors playing them. (Billy Boyd was 31 at the time of filming.) But that is not the problem: he looks young enough in real life. Add good make-up artists and enough filters on the cameras, and you are surprised he has to shave in real life. The problem is the conception. Pippin, in the book, really does only one thing wrong, and that is look into something called a “palantir.” Aside from that, his main crime is being young. All the drama comes from the conflict between his aspirations and abilities, and people’s low expectations of a teenager.

The film overdoes the youth thing, which is very ironic. It ascribes to him the vices of youth, his only virtues being the substantial ones of bravery and loyalty. Over the palantir incident, his buddy Merrie, in the film, shoots out something about his always having to rush in and never thinking. That is not the way it is with the book, which emphasizes his tremendous abilities. Throughout, other characters comment on his politeness and his perceptiveness. During one scene, involving the lunacy of a much older man, he behaves as if he were Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf—but with the utmost politeness and grace. In the way of real humor, the grim setting allows him to get off some of the funniest comments in the book.

In 1200 pages, Peregrine Took rarely sets a hairy foot wrong. His character is an extended commentary on the verse from the New Testament, “Let no man despise you because of your youth.” (There’s the irony.)

Which brings us to a most important point, and that is the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the spirituality in the book. J.R.R.Tolkien told one friend in a letter that the entire thing was an elaboration of the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” He wasn’t light-handed about it, either. Frodo drops the ring into the Crack of Doom on the very day that was held traditionally in the Middle Ages as the date of the Crucifixion. (There is a calendar to the story, though reading it through the first time you might not notice it, it is so well woven into the text.) He called it “fundamentally a religious and a Christian work.”

Much of the spirituality is in the movie, because the makers were so loyal to the anthropology of Middle Earth. They were also aware of the importance of hope to the story. It is interesting that at a mock trial of Peter Jackson held at Ave Maria College, the “prosecution,” according to a press report, did not concentrate on issues of spirituality, but casting, a good sign. Be certain that if there were heresy afoot, Ave Maria is exactly the college where it would be smoked out.

But the makers were not, perhaps, so aware of the origins of that hope for Prof. Tolkien, at least if one judges by the comments from the director and writers that made it into press when the first movie came out. (With all due allowances for any unfortunate choices by reporters.) By the time the third movie came out and the Catholic press was given access to them, they were certainly aware of it. Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters, was even honest enough to acknowledge that she disagreed with some aspects of the spirituality of the books (on the purpose of suffering, if memory serves, and that is, after all, the big one.) But she did not, so far as one can see, let her disagreement interfere with her writing.

Indeed, in those comments to the Christian press, they seemed to find it pleasing that there was such a loyal following for the books among Christians. One’s initial reaction is that such secular folks might merely be being polite, but exposure to their personalities on the DVDs makes one realize that they seem like perfectly lovely people. New Zealanders as a whole must compete with Australians for being the loveliest people in the English-speaking world. (A certain pudgy, balding English teacher has always wanted to go there, and this whole LotR thing has certainly made the desire even stronger.)

One must note that J.R.R. Tolkien hated allegory in the extreme. He was not Dante. And he did not want anything he wrote to be tied to the 20th Century, which saw the horrors of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. He knew them firsthand, having seen trench warfare in WWI, but he was also a serious enough student of history to know that such things have happened throughout human history. Industrialization may have made the effects larger—he comments on that directly in The Hobbit itself-- but the crimes themselves are intrinsic to human existence.

The fact that such a direct tie to the 20th Century in The Hobbit itself means, of course, that Prof. Tolkien was protesting a bit too much, but his point should be taken seriously. He was trying to capture universal experience, and he sure succeeded on that score.

(His distaste for allegory must have made for some interesting discussions among the Inklings, the famed Oxford literary circle to which he belonged. Charles Williams, another member, was perhaps the foremost authority on Dante in the English-speaking world at that time. And it must be said that Dante’s allegory is often very human. The famed Pageant of the Eucharist at the top of Purgatory is probably what Prof. Tolkien had in mind; it has always struck this writer as too formal. It is very hard not to think that Mordor has a whiff of the Inferno about it—particularly the motionlessness at the heart of it. So, too, the related inability of Frodo to ascend Mount Doom without the assistance and strong back of Samwise Gamgee seems very like Virgil’s crawling across the Devil with Dante on his back. As for the iconography of hell and sin, it is probably not possible to escape Dante's influence.)

What is disturbing, really, is a largely unspoken assumption that Prof. Tolkien was equally interested in paganism. That is an easy enough assumption if one does not look into it, because he was such a great scholar of Northern folklore. He did not, however, believe in it, in that sense. Catholicism has always been more (or less) comfortable with redeeming the culture it is planted in. Think of Irish Catholicism. It stopped the pagan rituals, but the sensibility of the people is clearly influenced by their ancient culture. Most Protestants would have a harder time understanding that, and certainly people who are not religiously inclined might miss it. If one has delved into the mystical aspects of Catholicism—the favorite way to begin subject headings in the new Catechism seems to be “the Mystery of…,” so the mystical takes up a lot of Catholicism—then it is not hidden or difficult to understand at all. It helps further if you have a Franciscan sensibility, as does this writer, or Carmelite one, but just paying attention as a Catholic probably allows you to absorb what Tolkien so cherished and to recognize it in his work.

The author they bring in on the DVDs to discuss the spirituality of the books held that the central motif, of pressing on with a solemn task even if might mean death or failure, is “essentially pagan.” If Prof. Tolkien believed, as this professor does, that one presses on “without hope,” (to use the author’s words) then it might be pagan, but Prof. Tolkien believed in hope, and that one should press on with task even if one felt certain one was going to die, which is a very different thing entirely. Hope is a theological virtue to Catholics, and the difficulty of holding it is stressed throughout the New Testament. The whole theme of hope is even picked up on the DVD a few moments after the author’s comment. As for the question of dying, one must most charitably conclude that the author has never read the New Testament. It is unfortunate that this was the author they brought into chat and, no doubt, reveals the prejudices of the film’s makers. At least they are honest about it, and loyal enough to Tolkein that it does not alter his intent.

We have now spent far too long on discussing the “just don’t get" parts. We must simply conclude by saying again, very clearly, that the extended version of the Lord of the Rings is a magnificent accomplishment.

Now, where’s the remote?

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 1:39 PM



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