Sunday, November 30, 2008

Getting Tolkien Wrong ...while being faithful to him

Thirty-one years ago this month, a made-for-TV animated version of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit made its debut on NBC.

After watching the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit this weekend, I am glad that Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro are making two movies. Much was lost by trying to squeeze the film into an hour-and-a-half (minus commercials) time slot. And, although Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass should be commended for their ground-breaking work as the first to attempt to put Middle-earth on screen, some of Tolkien's worst fears came true.

In a letter to his publisher in 1946 [Letters of JRR Tolkien, #107, p. 199], Tolkien complained about proposed illustrations for a German translation of The Hobbit. The illustrations were too "Disnified" for his taste. Little did he know what would be done to his characters when, not Disney, but the makers of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman got a hold of them.

The teleplay by Romeo Muller was not bad; it won the Peabody award in 1978. It is faithful to the book, and uses much of the same wording Tolkien uses. But the interpretation of Tolkien by the animators leaves little to be desired. Bilbo is not badly represented, but the almost "Snow White" appearance of the Dwarves is not helpful. The Elves are much worse. The strange lighting surrounding Elrond's head is silly enough, but the portrayal of the wood elves as some sort of blue amphibian-like creatures makes no sense at all. And why does the Elvish King sound like he has an Austrian accent?

The use of song throughout the film was perhaps a good idea for its time, and it works as well as it does in previous Rankin/Bass TV productions, if you can get by Glenn Yarbrough's vibrato. The biggest problem seems to be that, although many of the lyrics seem to be taken right out of the book, the whole tone of the music, and the movie itself, is much more gloomy than the book. I miss the lightheartedness of the elves and Biblo's humorous taunting of the spiders.

In his review of the Rankin/Bass version of The Return of the King, Greg Wright pointed out that, despite its shortcomings, that movie does a good job conveying moral lessons to children. I do not have the same praise for The Hobbit. In fact, perhaps the greatest lesson of all in the book revolves around the Arkenstone, which is not even mentioned in the movie. The importance of doing what is right, even if it means standing up to your companions, is lost. There is only a comment by Bilbo that he does not understand war.

Even worse, the movie makes it appear (unintentionally or not) that Bilbo had run away from the fighting, which does not happen in the book. Bilbo is knocked unconscious in the book, but the movie makes it appear he just uses this as an excuse, and actually had abandoned his fellows and hidden from the battle. So much for conveying good lessons to your children.

My suggestion: Get yourself a copy of the book and spend time reading it to your children and grandchildren. You will all profit from that experience more than watching the movie together. We'll see how much profit the next version of the story will bring in 2010.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two Jacks Remembered

November 22, 1963--45 years ago today. Two Jacks passed on into eternity. One was known for the fantasy world he created; the other for the fantasy world created around him by his public image. Most of us know more about Narnia and "Camelot" than we do about the men behind their fantasy worlds.

Behind the legends were men who made a difference in the world. C S "Jack" Lewis left a profound influence on religion, and John "Jack" F. Kennedy left a profound influence on politics, although some of their ideas are now seen as outdated.

May God send us another pair of Jacks for such a time as this.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Change: Calculating for the Dragon

Last week I ruminated a bit about a comment Nikabrik the Dwarf made in Prince Caspian. “To speak plainly, your wallet’s empty, your eggs addled, your fish uncaught, your promises broken. Stand aside then and let others work.” This week I was reminded of a comment made by JRR Tolkien in The Hobbit. It seems that conservative political writers know their C S Lewis and JRR Tolkien!

The scene is in chapter 12, "Inside Information." Bilbo has just taken a "two-handled cup" from the hoard of Smaug the Dragon. The Dwaves are enjoying the moment when the narrator gives a foreboding observation: "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."

It is relatively easy to grab a trophy and run, but it is not easy dealing with the dragon. It was far too easy for Congress to come up with a "Bailout" plan, but it will be far more difficult to deal with the economic Dragon that has lain hidden for many years. The powers that be, including Congress, the Administration and Wall Street, did nothing while the Dragon of predatory lending and other shady dealings was left to slumber until the day of its awakening.

The Dwarves were fortunate that Providence was on their side, and Bilbo turned out to be a shrewd negotiator in the end. As Gandalf says at the end of the book:

You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!

Bilbo agrees, saying, "Thank goodness!" I think perhaps Tolkien intended more in those two words than just a common expression of relief.

I wonder how much Providence will continue to tolerate our excesses. And I wonder if we shall ever find a leader with the quality and humility of Bilbo.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Change: Nikabrik's Empty Wallet Speech

In the book Prince Caspian, Nikabrik the Dwarf sums up his assessment of the Narnian's situation with this judgment: "To speak plainly, your wallet's empty, your eggs addled, your fish uncaught, your promises broken. Stand aside then and let others work." This seems to capture the mood of our country as we approached the 2008 election.

The tide of politics has its ebb and flow, and, depending on your point of view, the tide has now either flowed or ebbed for the good or the bad. The majority of voters, although not the predicted landslide, have apparently decided to have the audacity to hope. But many conservatives are wondering if Nikabrik and his comrades have conjured up the White Witch.

I was reminded of Nikabrik's words in an article in about the life of Joseph. As we approach the Thanksgiving season in the midst of economic turmoil, what do we have to be thankful for? Joseph's life certainly had turmoil, but Andrée Seu's article reminds us to be thankful in every situation. God is working out everything for good.

As we approach Thanksgiving, many are hurting. Jobs are being lost every day. What is God trying to teach us? Will Obama be able to step up to the plate and guide us to a better future? Will our congressional leaders be able to resist corruption and stand for the American people? I do not know the answers to these questions. But I do know that God is in control, and have the audacity to hope that He, at least, knows what He's doing.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dramatizing Christ: How it All Started

Dorothy L. Sayers. An enigmatic woman to say the least. Probably most famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, Miss Sayers was also a writer of "religious" plays and other works with theological themes. In a time and place where representing any member of the Trinity on stage had been illegal, The Man Born to Be King was groundbreaking, to say the least.

Sayers' "Play-Cycle" was presented on BBC radio during World War Two from December 1941 through October 1942. The series was so popular that a book of the plays, including all the director's notes, was published in 1943. In the Foreword to that book, J. W. Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting of the B.B.C., commented (page 12)

The minimum duty of religious broadcasting to those outside the churches is to say: "Listen: This is the truth about the world, and life, and you". But how were we to say it so people would listen? Conventional church services and religious talks were of little avail. Obviously, something new was needed.

The archaic language of the Authorized King James version was a hindrance to people understanding the reality of which it speaks. While using the King James verbage in the introductory narratives, Sayers put the dialogue in the language of mid-20th-century England. Although criticized by much of the religious community for the "liberties" she took, she connected with the people.

Before there were books, Truth was spread by word of mouth. After the invention of writing, God instructed His followers to record his teachings in The Book. We are now in a time when communication had come to the point where video can be transported around the world in an instant by satellite and the Internet. Certainly God is using these means to reveal Himself to the world.

That is not to say that movies about the life of Christ have the same weight as the inspired scriptures. The Bible is the final authority. But the Truth of scripture is not dead dogma. It is "alive and powerful," and must be presented as such to the world. Christ came into the world (in a sense) as a dramatization of deity. As we seek to dramatize the deity through modern technology, we must remember to present Truth in love. Part of that love is conveying Christ in a language and manner that will resonate with the common man, woman and child.

The Man Born to be King was published as recently as 1990 by Ignatius Press. Used copies are available on and other online resources. It is said that C S Lewis read the book every Easter.