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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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The Weight of the Writer

I have spent the last three weeks rambling about my thoughts as I reread The Four Loves, The Mind of the Maker, and  An Experiment in Criticism.  It has been a busy week since last Friday and to my shame I have not read as much as I’d like to have.    That being said, I do not want to neglect my post or the promise that this month was themed around my ramblings on these books.

The Power of the Idea in the form of the Word is still making its rounds in my head. Sayers spends a good deal of time on this subject and rightly so.  Writing is a powerful tool and communicates not just stories, but ideas … revolutions … religion … war … hate … redemption.

I have to ask myself, what am I communicating?  What Idea am I putting into Words that will have Power with a mind?

It is dreadful to think what the wrong words, wrong ideas will do to a weak mind.  It is exhilaration to think of what the right word, right ideas will spark in the right mind.  It is a heavy burden for an author to consider.

We see this power in the reaction to Harry Potter.  There were so many people who were for the books, against the books, who praised them, who cursed them…the criticism goes on and on. There is power in the ideas that Rowling wrote.  Magic.  Something that we all fear and/or desire. But I think that those who get caught up in the debate about magic miss something.  They miss the real issue of her books – Death.  Or rather the fear of Death and conquering that fear by facing it with grace and humility.  Magic is the foil that Rowling uses to deal with a more powerful, more real concept that many of us don’t want to think about or consider.  Rowlings’s heroes are able to live full and happy lives because they face Death with humility and acceptance. This is a lesson for all of us – the Power in the Idea.

However, going back to the concept of Magic, I must ask the question, does the use of magic detract from the message?  I still know of people – good people, whose opinions I trust and admire – who dislike the books on the grounds of magic.  I have had many an argument with friends and family on this topic: is magic within a fantasy story good or bad?  I heard/read the news articles about the kids that were snooping into real magic/dark arts and things because they had read about it in Harry Potter. Do I blame the books for putting the Idea into their heads, or is there a greater issue here?  I read the books, I heard about magic, but I did not go off and try to do magic in the real world. I suppose I had read/heard enough about magic to know that within the confines of the pages magic was a medium to be respected and outside of the pages, magic was a force to be feared and avoided.

Magic is dangerous and very real.  It is not something any one should tamper with.  There is no “good” magic in the real world.  There is the power of God and there is the power of devils.  And the Bible is very clear about this subject.

Yet, I think of Tolkien and Lewis and how they used “magic” in their worlds.  Gandalf is a wizard and he wields power.  In Narnia, Aslan talks about the Deep Magic that created the world.  These are arguably good forces in the stories.  I suppose what I must consider is not the means but the Idea behind the means.  What do these forces in the book represent and what are they trying to teach?  Just like in Harry Potter, the magic is a foil to the greater concept of Death and how we deal with the notion of dying.

I am still not sure where I stand on the issue about the use of magic in writing and the fear of the implications in the real world. It is the weight that a writer must bear as he/she thinks about what they are writing, why are they writing, and what are they ultimately communicating to their readers.

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:

TolkienPortrait

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

Review: The Hobbit, Part 1. Directed by Peter Jackson.

Review:  The Hobbit, Part 1.  Directed by Peter Jackson.

Reviewed by Donald T. Williams

HobbitCover

I am going to shock everybody and actually try to be fair to Peter Jackson.  (This is coming from someone who has called his movie version of The Lord of the Rings a “betrayal of Tolkien’s vision”—and for good reason, given what Jackson did to some of Tolkien’s characters.)  The first installment of the new Hobbit is not as bad as I feared.  It has Jackson’s virtues as much as it suffers from his weaknesses.  The sum total was a movie I could enjoy if not quite love or fully embrace.

JacksonFrodo

To the Prancing Pony!

The film is simply gorgeous visually.  When I get the DVD I will be constantly tempted to pause it just so I can savor the landscapes.  And it is not just that they are beautiful—they are appropriate (especially The Shire) to Middle Earth as we have always imagined it, guided by Tolkien’s descriptions.  The costuming is delicious too.  On the other hand, while some of the Dwarves look satisfyingly dwarvish, others (including unfortunately Thorin) inexplicably look more like short humans than dwarves.  If you can get it right, why not do so consistently?  We wonders, yes, precious.

Film critics have almost universally panned the flick as poorly paced and dragging.  This just goes to show that critics are not fans.  They made the same mistake with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, complaining about the long scene when Scotty gives Kirk a shuttle tour of the hull of the newly refitted Enterprise.  But those of us who had come to feel affection for that ship loved every second of that sequence.  Those classic lines, in what may still be the most elegant of all that great vessel’s incarnations, deserved every frame that was spent on them—if you are a true Trekker.  Similarly, Tolkien’s real fans almost universally just want to be in Middle Earth.  If Middle Earth itself is convincingly incarnated—this is Jackson’s greatest gift—we don’t really need anything to happen there.  We would gladly watch a three hour slice of daily life in The Shire or Rivendell and leave contented.   The plot (and Tolkien gave us a great one) is almost a bonus.  (I am exaggerating to make a point.)  I think this explains why fans have liked the movie better than the critics do.

HobbitHole

Bag End

Oh, yes, there is a plot, too.  This is where Jackson’s weaknesses show.  He tries to give an apologetic for his approach early on by having Gandalf say that “Any good story deserves embellishment.”  This line encapsulates a profound difference between Jackson’s and Tolkien’s views of the world—for it casts doubt precisely on the trustworthiness and truth of the ancient legends, whereas Tolkien was all about discovering the truth that was in them after all.  One thus cannot imagine Tolkien’s Gandalf saying such a thing.  It highlights Jackson’s view of the legendarium as malleable art, raw material for self-expression, whereas Tolkien was careful to maintain the illusion that it is history.  This is a significant difference.  The historian uses art in telling his stories, but he must bow to the higher value of faithfulness if he is to be a good steward of his sources and his task.  Tolkien of course knew that his pose as historian (merely the translator and editor of The Red Book of Westmarch) was a fictional strategy—but it is one that speaks to the kind of fiction he was giving us.  And this is what Jackson seems incapable of understanding.

TolkienPic1

J. R. R. Tolkien

Embellishment goes further than adaptation.  Some changes to the story are necessitated by its adaptation to a different medium.  Some purists do not understand that.  But In Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, his self-granted freedom to “embellish” gave us characters with personalities and motivations that we did not recognize, and it undermined Tolkien’s motif of Providence by having Frodo (more “dramatically”—ahem) push Gollum off the cliffs of doom rather than having him fall by accident or “chance” (if chance you call it) as in Tolkien’s scene.  I thought  then and think now that such “embellishments” had earned the epithet of “betrayal.”

I saw nothing on that level of betrayal in the new Hobbit, nor anything that would demand that kind of departure from Tolkien’s tale in the subsequent installments.  (We shall see.)  But this does not mean that Jackson’s propensity for embellishment is innocent.  Tolkien’s approach to fiction emphasized what he called in the essay “On Fairie Stories” an “inner consistency of reality.”  That is how he gave us a fantasy world that is more believable than most realistic fiction.  There were by contrast three moments when I did get impatient with Jackson’s Hobbit, though not for the reasons of pacing given by the critics: All involved a violation of Tolkien’s principle.  The first was Radagast’s rabbit-sled.  Really? The second was the long fight/chase scene in the goblin cave, which ends in a fall that no one could have survived.  (Tolkien allowed himself to add the laws of magic to reality as we perceive it, but not to break the laws of physics.)  The third was Jackson’s version of the rescue from the forest by the Eagles, with multiple bodies just happening to fall right onto the backs of multiple eagles who just happened to be flying below them at just the right moment.  No group is collectively that lucky, not even in fantasy.  There is a difference between Eucatastrophe and silliness.

Hobbiton

The Hill, Hobbiton

In sum: there is much to enjoy, but the aesthetic impact of the whole is marred by Jackson’s embellishing hubris.  Jackson exceeded my expectations (which were lower than the pits of Barad Dur).  So we have some things to praise, some to criticize, but nothing (yet) to damn.  But, hey, we’ve still got two installments to go!  No doubt something will turn up.

 

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Toccoa Falls College

 

Check out Dr. Williams’ books at Lantern Hollow Press:  Stars Through the Clouds: the Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (2011); Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (2012); and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2012).  Order (each $15.00 + shipping) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 

 

Turkey Day’s Turkey: The Witch King Shatters Gandalf’s Staff

Thanksgiving falls to me this year, and I’ll try to be brief.  Today I would like to offer a heaping helping of steaming hot fowl (perhaps “foul” would be better) from Peter Jackson in The Return of the King:  The confrontation between Gandalf and the Witchking of Angmar.  Let’s take a look at the atrocity before we continue, shall we?

While I usually find that I like extended editions better, since they often fill out a story, in this case, Jackson’s decision to exclude the above scene from the theatrical version was the correct one.  The fact that the scene was filmed at all is evidence of a serious failure in judgment by multiple people on multiple levels.  Worse, it is clear proof that they in fact didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were talking about.

In the book, neither orc nor nazgul ever enter Minas Tirith, the white city of Gondor.  Grond (the massive battering ram which was well-portrayed in the movie) batters down the gates and Gandalf is there to confront them.  The Witchking challenges him, and there is a very tense moment where the two are preparing to fight.  Suddenly, the Rohirrim arrive.  The Witchking leaves to deal with the new threat and Gandalf goes back inside the city to save Faramir.

In the end, the scene in the book is very effective, far more so than the bastardization we see on the screen.  Tolkien depicts an atmosphere thick with power, almost bending the air between the two mighty contending wills.  Gandalf has defeated the balrog, but this new foe may well be his match–one of the powers against which he has yet to be tested.  The balance seems to be set, and everyone is waiting for the cataclysmic battle to unfold, to find out which will be the master…and then the whole affair is broken off so suddenly that we aren’t given closure.  This imparts a continued feeling of angst as the rest of the battle unfolds over the Pelennor Fields.

What does Jackson offer?  Gandalf giving a bit of bluster, and then groveling.  Here are some specific points of complaint that mark this as one turkey that could make Tolkien roll in his grave like a rotisserie:

  • The Nazgul have entered Minas Tirith:  Tolkien was very clear that Gondor was not broken by the massive assault.  They faced their fears and, even in their last defense, were defiant to the end.  It is a significant comment on the spirit and power of man, poised to take control of the fourth age of the world.  In the movie, Gondor loses multiple levels of the city, and her soldiers often look more likely to soil their armor than they are to defend the city.
  • The Witchking shatters Gandalf’s Staff:  Ever wonder why Gandalf the White’s staff has disappeared halfway through the theatrical version?  Here’s the answer you really didn’t want to hear:  It was destroyed when the Witchking dominated him in the duel.  This is probably the chief of my complaints, and a gross violation of interpretive trust.  It is doubly important in the context they set up earlier, when Gandalf shattered Saurman’s staff with a word.  In doing so, Gandalf established himself as the master, and the completely dominant wizard.  Jackson is obviously saying the same thing about the Witchking in relation to Gandalf, which is simple and utter nonsense.  Gandalf is a maiar (minor angel) and at that point could have faced Sauron himself directly and–perhaps–defeated him.  The idea of one of Sauron’s lackeys jackslapping him into submission with a wiggle of his invisible nose is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who cares about the books.
  • Gandalf lies on the ground, completely prostrated in defeat:  As interpreted by Jackson, Gandalf’s apparent “last stand” isn’t even heroic.  Rather than intensity of feeling while we wonder which of these great powers will emerge the victor, we are treated to the sight of Gandalf flailing around on the ground.  He isn’t begging for mercy so much as waiting for his doom to fall, completely outmatched by his foe.  Rubbish.

How many times must things like this happen before Hollywood learns?  When you translate a genius’s masterpiece onto screen, the focus should be on them and their ideas, not yours!  How many perfectly good movies have been thus mucked up by screenwriters and directors trying to “improve” on things?  We can only hope and pray that when our favorite book is singled out for treatment it is by someone with a little sense.

In the meantime, I hope I did not spoil your appetite.  Go pick up your copy of Return of the King and read through the real confrontation at the gates of Gondor.  Savor its subtlety.  Feel the implied power of its unresolved conflict.  Forget Peter Jackson.  Watch football, and have a great Thanksgiving!  🙂