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REVIEW: LAST JEDI

REVIEW LAST JEDI (generic spoilers only):
Best Star Wars film since the original trilogy, but marred by PoMo cynicism. In the original trilogy, you could celebrate the defeat of the Dark Side unironically, shout “Harelukiah!” with the Ewoks with unmixed joy after the destruction of the Death Star. Now we have to question whether there is any real difference between Jedi and Sith, whether it really matters who wins. In one way, this is an improvement, because the original’s unironic battle between Good and Evil (as if they were ultimately really different) was inconsistent with the metaphysics of the Star Wars Universe, where Light and Dark are merely two sides of the same “Force.” The latest installment is more consistent with its own premises than the original–but less consistent with the moral order of the real universe. There are positive aspects to the new perspective: It is good for a Jedi to question his own hubris–but not to the point where he questions whether there is a real difference between Good and Evil.
 
Contrast Tolkien, who is no Pollyanna. He has good people being corrupted (Theoden almost, Saruman and Denethor finally). But he does not have Gandalf ever wonder if the battle against Sauron is worth fighting or leave the readers wondering if there is really any difference between Gandalf and Sauron. That kind of moral clarity is only possible in a universe with the biblical foundations of Middle Earth. Star Wars can only get there by cheating with its own metaphysical foundations. In the 21st Century, it remains to be seen in episode 9 whether it can get there at all.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book:  Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!

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Review: Jackson’s “Battle of the Five Armies”

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After finally watching Peter Jackson’s THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I was pretty much unmoved, either to admiration or to anger. I was surprised by that, because there was plenty of both to report about all the earlier films. The truth is that there is really nothing left to learn from one more Jackson film about either Middle Earth or Jackson’s version of it. The parts that were good and the parts that were unnecessarily stupid and lame were pretty predictable from the first two Hobbit films. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.

OK, what are some of the things I had said before?  Now that Jackson’s entire interpretation of the legendarium is complete it might be worthwhile to revisit some of them.  If you want them in full versions, they can be found here:  https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/04/review-the-hobbit-part-1-directed-by-peter-jackson/;   https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/11/9196/;   https://lanternhollowpress.com/2014/02/03/review-the-desolation-of-smaug/.  For now, I will sum up:

HobbitHole

Skipping the obvious (the visuals are mostly authentic and usually breathtaking), I understand that the change to a new medium requires changes to the story.  So I’m not a purist.  I didn’t mind, for example, Bombadil being dropped or having the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel conflated.  So saying that “It’s different from how Tolkien did it” is not, by itself, a valid criticism.  There are even a couple of changes to the legendarium that are actual improvements.  [I pause for all the Tolkien fans who know me to gasp in horror.]  First, it actually makes more sense for Narsil to be in a shrine in Rivendell than it does for Aragorn to be carrying a useless sword around with him in the wild.  Anybody who has done any serious backpacking knows that dead weight is the last thing you want with you.  Aragorn is the most experienced outdoorsman in Middle Earth.  I rest my case.  Second, it makes sense for Aragorn to have kept the Army of the Dead with him through the end of the Battle of Pellenor Field.  His little band of thirty Dunedain plus an elf and a dwarf, however good they might be, would not have been enough to turn the tide.

TolkMistyMountains

I object to two things:  Changes that are just dumb and changes that alter the basic meaning and philosophy behind the work.  First, the dumb.  OK, it’s a movie, and we have CGI now.  There is still a difference between an epic and a video game.  This became most pointedly evident in the first two Hobbit installments, where people fall down five-hundred-foot cliffs and get up and walk away as if nothing had happened, dwarves randomly fall out of a tree onto Eagles’ backs who just happen to be passing below at the right time instead of being plucked from them (Nobody is that lucky, even if you add the phrase “if luck you call it”), and two ninja elves double-handedly kill more orcs than Saruman and Sauron put together ever bred.  Tolkien added the laws of magic to Middle Earth, but he did not allow himself to break the laws of physics.  All the physical feats performed are physically possible.  Not in Jackson’s Middle Earth.  Even in a movie, it makes the art less serious.

Portrait-Tolkien-line-Murray

The Professor

 

Much more problematic are changes that alter the moral meaning of Tolkien’s tale.  Here the prime example (there are many others) is Faramir.  How do you get from “I wouldn’t pick this thing up if I found it lying in the road” to “Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon?”  There is no logical path from the one place to the other.  The reason so many of Tolkien’s characters have to be “complicated,” some, like Faramir, to the point that they are unrecognizable, is that Peter Jackson lacks the moral imagination to believe that virtue is believable to a modern audience.  Tolkien has evil characters (Sauron, Saruman by the time of LOTR), he has morally compromised characters (Gollum, Theoden, Denethor, Thorin) in whom either good (Theoden, Thorin) or evil (Denethor, Gollum) finally triumphs, and he has good characters with integrity (Aragorn, Faramir, and many others).  We meet more people in the middle category in real life, true.  But Tolkien believed that we need positive portraits of integrity to feed our moral imaginations on.  Jackson either does not understand or rejects as impossible that belief.  It is that difference in philosophy that makes his movies, for all their brilliance, ultimately unsatisfactory to people who truly love and understand Tolkien’s work.  For more on this point, see my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson Was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 14-16).  To see it online, go here:  http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-06-014-v.

The Professor

The Professor

The last installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adds nothing new to this account.  Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.

Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.  I hope some of the things I have said above help to explain why.

To see more of Dr. Williams’ writing, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., or Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy:  Poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!

 

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

 

 

THE RETURN OF THE KING???

THE RETURN OF THE KING???

A Review

“’If therefore they say to you, ‘Behold, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go forth, or, ‘Behold, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.”  (Mat. 24:26)

Last week in my review of Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit, I alluded to the “betrayals” of Tolkien’s vision I thought he had committed in his Lord of the Rings.  My original review of Jackson’s LOTR antedated the advent of Lantern Hollow Press, so this week I thought I would reach back into the past and resurrect it so you could see what I was talking about last week:

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J. R. R. Tolkien

The pre-release internet buzz was that Peter Jackson’s third installment of his version of the Tolkien trilogy stayed closer to the book than his “Two Towers.”  That is true only in a very gross and superficial sense.  There were no new big departures from the original plot, just the inevitable workings out of the disastrous big departures made in “The Two Towers.”  But there were a thousand little changes, which, like Chinese water torture, made it almost impossible to enjoy the good things (i.e., one of the best artistic renderings of Minas Tirith ever).  These little changes also reveal, as clearly as the major departures in the second movie, the shallowness of Jackson’s understanding of Tolkien’s  world view and therefore of his epic.

I say nothing here against the omissions and conflations of plot elements, as much as we would all have liked to see the scouring of the Shire.  Some simplification has to be expected in an adaptation, and anyone who won’t accept that just shouldn’t watch movies based on books.  What bothered me were the thousand and one little gratuitous changes to the original that served no purpose.  No doubt they were intended to make things more dramatic on screen and/or to bring out elements of conflict as Jackson sees them.  But almost every one of these unnecessary changes is either a clumsy and heavy-handed treatment of themes Tolkien showed us with much greater skill and subtlety, is just plain pointless and stupid, or betrays an appalling lack of understanding of what Tolkien was doing (and why) when he wrote the story the way he did.

HobbitHoleA few typical examples of these gratuitous changes to the plot will have to suffice; no doubt you can think of many more.  One thinks of Gandalf punching out Denethor with his staff, which was simply demeaning to both characters.   The movie Denethor has none of the nobility that made his fall tragic in the book; he is just a dottering and despicable old fool.  Second, Sam beating the snot out of a supine and passive Gollum is absurd on two counts.   Not only would he have been physically incapable of this—it took both Frodo and Sam to subdue Gollum, and then only with the threat of Sting and the influence of the Ring—but, knowing that Gollum was under Frodo’s protection, it is just not something Sam would have done, no matter how strong his feelings.  It was completely out of character.

Tolkien

Tolkien

Finally and most significantly, we have  Frodo pushing Gollum off the cliff at Sammath Naur rather than having him fall by “accident” during his celebratory dance seriously diminishes Tolkien’s emphasis on the role of Providence (or, to use his own words, “Luck, if luck you call it”).  Tolkien’s scene is the culmination of a theme present at least since the words of Gandalf to Frodo: “I can put it no plainer than by saying that you were meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  And that may be an encouraging thought.”  Why is this an encouraging thought?  Because if Frodo was meant to find the Ring, there has to be Someone to do the meaning.  Some one greater than Frodo (we learn from The Silmarillion it was Iluvatar, God) was at work, and that is really the only reason why there was hope in the Quest.  Frodo’s impotence in the final moment is integral to Tolkien’s meaning then–but it is absent from Jackson’s.

In an attempt to summarize what went wrong and what was at stake, I can do no better than to offer the following sonnet:

THE QUEST MOTIF

(What Lewis and Tolkien Knew,

And Peter Jackson Does Not)

Sonnet CI

Snaking out across the vast expanse

Of History and Legend lies a trail,

The footing treacherous, the markings pale,

And peril lies in wait for those who chance

To travel it.  But if they can advance,

And if their luck and courage does not fail,

They may emerge into a mystic vale

And reach the magic realm of fair Romance.

The landscape’s always changing.  There is no

Map that can be trusted once you swerve

Aside; your only compass is your quest.

If, true to friend, implacable to foe,

You’re faithful to the Vision that you serve,

You’ll find that Country which the Muse has blessed.

IamHobbit-JRRTOne might have hoped, in other words, that Peter Jackson would have had the humility to see himself as the servant of Tolkien’s vision.  He shows us that, had he done so, he could have created a worthy adaptation that would have been a true masterpiece.  Instead, he had the arrogance—yea, hubris–to make up his own vision and think it better, while outwardly claiming to give us Tolkien’s.

There can be only one word to sum it all:  Tragic.   

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Toccoa Falls College

Check out Dr. Williams’ Lantern Hollow Press books at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.       Including:

Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams.  Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011.  ISBN 9781460906514.  360 pp., $15.00, pbk.

“Williams has returned poetry to the writing of poetry.  Here you will find new life breathed into the great forms that graced English verse for centuries.”  —  Dr. James Prothero

“ . . . the believer’s Robert Frost . . .”  —  Wil Shorb