Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lessons from Saruman and Count Dooku

Christopher Lee passed away June 7, 2015. As soon as the news broke on the internet, I published this article (originally posted on the now defunct on June 11). I was reminded of this article earlier today, and I felt the occasion of the final presidential debate would be a good time to re-post it. Its themes, I feel, go to the heart of this year's election. I'll leave it to the reader whether you agree what I wrote over sixteen months ago speaks to our national decision this year.  

The internet is flooded today with the news Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93. Although the famous actor passed away Sunday, news of his departure did not surface until early this morning. (See a list of links at the end of this article.) Lee is famous for his portrayal of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. Older fans may remember him as Count Dracula in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The Internet Movie Data Base lists some 281 total acting credits.

Science Fiction and Fantasy buffs will ever remember Christopher Lee as a turncoat. Count Dooku became Darth Tyranus, in part because of some lees-than-blameless actions ordered by the Jedi Council. This is reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker being drawn to the Dark Side after being recruited to spy on the Emperor. We learn in the prequel films the Jedi Order was run by people with feet of clay. The power of the Force causes temptations for even the Light-Siders. Being one of the "good guys" doesn't exempt people from questionable acts and decisions.

JRR Tolkien has been criticized for a world which is too "black and white." But the Middle-earth written about in Tolkien's books is not exactly a "black hat" verses "white hat" universe. The temptation of the One Ring involved more than just the desire to control others. Gandalf describes the more subtle allurement in The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past."

...the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.

Gandalf's temptation was to become strong enough to be able to do the most good. This is the insidious nature of power. We feel powerless when we see those suffering around us, and are tempted to obtain and use power to "set things right." We fall into the same trap Anakin Skywalker fell into. In Revenge of the Sith, he tells Padme:

I won't lose you the way I lost my mother. I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I'm doing it for you: to protect you.

How many atrocities have been done in the name of protecting loved ones and the weak? It's like what King Arthur says in the television series Camelot (episode 4):

...if you have to fight dirty to protect your cause, then so be it.

"The ends justify the means," they say. But we forget the byproducts which grow out of those means. What we teach others by our actions often destroy the benefits of what we accomplished.

In the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman is coerced to join Sauron when he believes the Dark Lord cannot be beaten. But that is not how Tolkien wrote the story. In the book version, Saruman is attempting to deceive Sauron and get the Ring for himself. Saruman wants to set himself up as ruler of Middle-earth. His motives probably were well enough to begin with. The wizards—the Istari—including Gandalf and Saruman, were sent to Middle-earth to help the people in their struggle against Sauron. However, they were told not to dominate the peoples of Middle-earth.

But Saruman's desire to help protect was corrupted as he began to lust for power. In our modern world, too many politicians have gone down the same path. Be careful your desire to help doesn't become a lust for power – to the detriment of those you desire to help.

Links to articles about Christopher Lee's death:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

'The Hobbit' extended in a three-day event: part 3

Here's part three of my reviews of the Fathom Events presentations. This one was posted a year ago today.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies extended edition

The world premiere of the extended version of "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" was shown Tuesday night in select theaters by Fathom Events, delighting fans, and earning its unprecedented R rating with some especially violent scenes.

Fans of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy finally were treated to the final version of the final chapter, as the promised twenty additional minutes were shown for the first time to the general public as part of the movie. The digital version of the extended cut of "The Battle of the Five Armies" comes out next Tuesday, while physical copies (DVD and Blu-ray) are scheduled to be released November 17, according to a Warner Bros. September Press Release.

As with the longerversion of "The Desolation of Smaug," the additional footage was more than just filler. The scenes bridge the gaps in the story line and help the story flow better. Audri Davis of Geeky News quips that while the "extra scenes" were "wonderful," her "real issue comes from the fact that they weren’t included in the theatrical release, because they would’ve dramatically improved pacing and characterization."

In a previous review in this column, it was pointed out Peter Jackson's emphasis on battles stands in contrast to the novel JRR Tolkien wrote. "For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus. Jackson makes them the main focus." It seemed inevitable the final movie would be re-titled in honor of the epic battle, while the word "battle" is not ever included in a chapter title in Tolkien's book.

However, especially in the longer version, Jackson finds a way to emphasize more than just war in his final tribute to Middle-earth. Tolkien fans should be able to appreciate the humanity of the movie. 

The battle sequences have a different feel than the skirmishes in the previous films. A lot of orcs lose their heads, but there is more purpose in it. This is underscored in one particular scene when the orcs are beginning to overrun the ruined city of Dale, where the people of Laketown took refuge after Smaug destroys their homes. Bard meets Alfrid, who is trying to sneak away with some treasure, and Bard tells him to get back to the fight. Alfrid snaps back he does not have to do what Bard says, and adds, "The master's mantle was there for the taking, but you threw it all away. And for what?" The camera then pans to Bard's family. They are what is important. They are worth more than any title. They are worth fighting for.

What a contrast from the Master of Laketown. When the dragon attacks, he comments the town cannot be saved, so "save the gold." And as his boat begins to sink under the weight, he pushes Alfrid overboard so he doesn't have to give up any of the town's treasury he has stolen.

The Master and Alfrid do not overcome their desire for gold, but Thorin does. The scene where he struggles with his demons is well done. The "dragon sickness" is overcome by the words of his friends who have been reminding him what is important – and his own words that he is not his grandfather Thror, who succumbed to greed for gold long ago. Hoarding gold does no one any good—leastwise the hoarder. You might be able to build monuments to yourself, but without friendly neighbors to deal with, it does little else. You can't use it for food, and it won't save your life if you are attacked.

The Master of Laketown, Alfrid, and Thorin all die in the end. But Thorin dies with friends, and with a renewed perspective on what is truly important. His final words to Bilbo, although changed a bit from those written by Tolkien, are appropriate.

If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

C S Lewis: Sexist Dinosaur or Gender Progressive?

A year ago yesterday, the following was posted to the now defunct 

Women and C S Lewis: What his life and literature reveal for today's culture

Narnia author C. S. Lewis was often critical of progress, and once referred to himself as a "dinosaur." But his views on women were more progressive than many understand. At least that is what the writers of the new anthology, "Women and C. S. Lewis," assert.

Those who know of Lewis only through the Chronicles of Narnia could easily jump to the conclusion Lewis was sexist on the basis of a few passages. The words of Father Christmas in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" about how "battles are ugly when women fight," and the fact the White Witch is female are two examples commonly brought up as arguments for Lewis' alleged sexism – or even misogyny. And Susan's supposed exclusion from heaven because of "nylons and lipstick" in "The Last Battle" put the nail in the coffin on the matter for some.

However, Section Two, which examines how Lewis portrays women and girls in his fiction, provides many examples to counter this view. The problem with "the problem with Susan" is the critics are not examining the applicable passages very closely. Susan is not excluded from heaven; her fate remains uncertain because life on earth goes on. And she is absent not because she is interested in boys and other things girls of her age normally think about, but because she is interested in nothing else. Susan and Lucy are excluded from the battle in LWW, but in "The Last Battle," Jill Pole has a major role to play. And there are certainly many positive roles given to female characters, as well as negative roles for males.

Many critics point to "Till We Have Faces" as Lewis' crowning achievement in fictional writing. Lewis writes the book from the first person point of view of the female protagonist. While many presume the book was written in collaboration with his late-in-life bride Joy Davidman, the writers of the anthology point out what a remarkable feat it was, requiring sensitive insights no misogynist would be capable of, collaboration or not.

Besides Joy Davidman, a brilliant writer in her own right, Lewis had close relationships with several highly intellectual and talented women, who greatly influenced him. His mother, whom he lost when he was not quite ten, had degrees in Mathematics and Logic—very rare for a woman in the late nineteenth century. Although Lewis himself struggled with math, his mother also taught him French and Latin at a young age. Other friendships include Stella Aldwickle and Elisabeth Anscombe. Aldwickle was the founder of the Oxford University Socratic Club. Anscombe was also a member of the Club, and was a profound influence on Lewis; she was the impetus for his rewrites for the second edition of "Miracles."

Besides his wife, perhaps the most famous female friendship Lewis had was with Dorothy L. Sayers, mostly through written correspondence. Lewis was so impressed by her radio play, "The Man Born to be King" about the life of Christ, he made a habit of reading through it every Lent. Lewis did disagree with her on the subject of the ordination of women, but his respect for her intellect and talent is evident.

Some of Lewis' views certainly did not match with what most would consider feminist today, but the authors of this book would argue he was a positive influence toward more progressive views of women in his day – and even in our day. New York Times Best Selling author Randy Alcorn points to Lewis as the influence which inspired him to "speak out for women."

In the Conclusion to the book, co-editor Carolyn Curtis sums up the findings of the book, which included a variety of perspectives: complementarian and egalitarian, conservative and progressive.

We conclude that both Lewis' life choices and his writings take a high view of women, noting that the direction of his attitudes about women continues higher as his life goes on. Said differently, as he aged and matured, he grew in faith. Likewise, as he aged and matured, his views of women grew "higher."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

'The Hobbit' extended in a three-day event: part 2

Last year on this date last year I posted the following review (very slightly edited here) on You can read my review of the first movie here: 'The Hobbit' extended in a three-day event: part 1.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug extended edition

Wednesday, Fathom Events continued their special screenings of the "Hobbit" movies, this time showing the extended version of "The Desolation of Smaug" on the big screen in select theaters. The series will culminate in the world premiere of the extended version of "The Battle of the Five Amies" next Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. local time. For a location near you, visit the Fathom Events website.

Wednesday's movie was the same same version as the DVD and Blu-ray extended edition which was released in November of 2014. The extended version of "Desolation" does not just make the movie longer, but fleshes out some parts which were rather sketchy in the theatrical cut. Jackson doesn’t just wedge in more footage. He rearranges scenes, making this more of a “Director’s Cut” than any of the previous extended Middle-earth films.

The dialog in both versions of the film (before the sneak peak of Smaug waking in his lair) ends with Bilbo's line, "What have we done?" It's easy for fans to imagine Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh , and Philippa Boyens asking themselves that question as they finalized the script for "The Desolation of Smaug." Indeed. What have they done?

In "The Two Towers," after Sam helps Frodo break free from the apparent influence of the Nazgul while they are in Osgiliath, Frodo slumps down in despair and says, “I can’t do this, Sam.” Sam’s response begins with the words which many Tolkien aficionados have taken as a nod to them: "I know. It’s all wrong. By all rights we shouldn’t even be here!"(In the book Frodo and Sam never come close to Osgiliath.) Sam goes on to muse about why the people in the “old stories” kept going even when all seemed lost. He concludes it was because they are holding on to the belief

That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Fighting seems to be the emphasis in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. "The Desolation" is basically one big fight from beginning to end—not unexpected from the director whose life-long goal was to direct a film with a huge battle scene. This is very much a divergence from what Jackson's Gandalf says as he tries to give Galadriel a reason for including Frodo in "An Unexpected Journey":

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.

These are not words penned by JRR Tolkien, no matter what you may see on the internet. They were written for the screenplay, but you will find few “small acts of kindness and love” keeping “the darkness at bay” in this second movie (with a notable exception discussed below.) Of course, the dwarves are not exactly about small acts. They seem to think their great acts, wielding weapons to defeat orcs, and using cunning and powerful machines to defeat Smaug, will win the day. Furthermore, they are not even about “the good in this world” that’s “worth fighting for.” They are about the gold in Erebor that they believe is worth fighting for.

That's probably not too far from the dwarves Tolkien created. But the emphasis in the book is not on the dwarves fighting their way through Middle-earth. For the most part, they bungle their way through. Movie Bilbo’s different from the book, too. He isn’t as reliant on the Ring in the movie, playing peek-a-boo with both spiders and dragon. At one point in the movie, Gandalf remarks on how Bilbo has changed. Bilbo is about to tell Gandalf about finding the Ring, but decides to say only that he has found his courage. Whether the screenwriters intended it or not, this exchange points to the difference. He is depending more on “found courage” than the found Ring.

That said, it is not usually a good idea to quibble over the differences between the book and the movie. There is a big difference between telling a story and showing a story, and the best screenwriters do not depend too much on narration, while a novelist has no choice but to use it. Compression of time is also very much a consideration, although it might be argued that in this case time is anything but compressed. Omissions from the book are more due to replacement and expansion than from lack of time.

However, Peter Jackson, in cooperation with the movie studios, had the right to adapt "The Hobbit" pretty much as he saw fit. If he wanted to invent a sleigh-pulling Rhosgobel rabbit (bad idea), he had the right to. If he wanted to include a warrior elf named Tauriel (a much better concept), he may. We can agree or disagree about his choices, but they are his to make, and he must live with them. Instead of being critical about the fact he has changed things, let's examine how well these inventions work in Middle-earth.

The meeting at Bree at the beginning of the book tells more of the back story Tolkien told in other books. Although some of the details are changed to fit Jackson's version of the story, the purpose of telling the more complete story is a good one, and beginning the movie with this scene was a great idea.

Another great idea, in this writer's opinion, was the inclusion of Tauriel. Her compassion for Kili is the impetus for the “act of kindness and love” which saves his life. Her example has the potential to become a positive influence on Legolas and others in the last film. Tolkien certainly was not against strong female characters, and the encouragement of goodwill between the various peoples of Middle-earth is also an emphasis of Tolkien.

Beorn is a character created by Tolkien, and Jackson's version pretty well matches what fans were hoping for, even if the initial encounter with him is a bit over the top. Breaking into the home of such a creature doesn’t seem appropriate or wise. Beorn's home includes everything a Tolkien fan could hope for; the bees especially are fantastic. And the extended cut does give a nod to Tolkien and his fans by re-creating the two-by-two introduction of the company in another way.

The way Smaug is presented is also well done. It was a stroke of genius to gradually reveal him as he slithered out from under the treasure. Martin Freeman’s reaction as the enormity of the Worm is revealed is well-played, as most of his acting in the films. However, the extended dragon sequence is probably the weakest part of the movie. The problem isn't with the dwarves finding their boldness and attempting to take down Smaug. The sequence was obviously extended in order to cut back and forth from The Lonely Mountain to Dol Guldur and Lake Town, in order to build to a climax at the end. This type of cutting back and forth was used to good effect in "The Two Towers," but falls fairly flat here. It seems unreasonable that Samug would have put up with the foolishness so long. We should have had fried Hobbit as soon as Bilbo removed the Ring, and fricasseed dwarf very soon after.

The very idea of a dragon in the story is to provide a virtually impossible obstacle to overcome, not to play games with. You do not toy with a dragon. He may put up with a bit of playful banter in order to get information about a strange unseen intruder, but not with visible dwarves trying to take back their treasure. The interaction with the dragon, as well as the earlier barrel-riding scene, are cartoonish, more of a video game approach than serious battles.

So, what have Peter Jackson and crew done? Judging by the box office number for the theatrical version, the filmmakers have created something people want to see. Most of the critics gave it high marks, and fans of the films were saying very positive things about it. However, some Tolkien devotees, and some film critics, have been rather negative.
It’s all in what you are looking for. If you are looking for a film where you can just shut your mind off and go along for the ride, this movie is better than most out there. But if you are looking for a serious treatment of Middle-earth – even Jackson’s version of Middle-earth – don’t expect your suspension of disbelief to remain uninterrupted.

Friday, October 7, 2016

'The Hobbit' extended in a three-day event: part 1

Last year on this date I posted the following review on Since that time, Examiner has ceased to exist and pulled all their context off the internet. So, here's another one saved for posterity...

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey extended edition

The extended edition of "The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey" was screened in select theaters Monday. The screening was part of an event which will include all the extended versions of the three movies over three evenings. The two other movies, "The Desolation of Smaug" and "The Battle of the Five Armies," will be presented Wednesday and next Thursday – one movie each evening. To find a theater near you, check out the Fathom Events website.

The movie shown Monday night is the same version as the DVD and Blu-ray extended edition which was released in November of 2013. Although many find the almost-three-hour theatrical cut more than enough, the eighteen minutes of additional footage fills some gaps in the story, especially regarding the motivation of the dwarves sneaking away from Rivendell. In the Prelude, the footage of young Bilbo interacting with Gandalf not only adds a welcome tidbit about the character, but also helps the pacing. Even the Goblin Town song was a nice tribute to Tolkien, although it does extend that scene too long.

In dividing the story into three parts, the writers had to make choices on how to make each part complete—an entire story within a story. This affects the character arc of the protagonist. Specifically for "An Unexpected Journey," by the end of the movie Bilbo reaches a point of being admired by the dwarves which he has not attained by that point in the book. Which is not so bad in itself, if it were not for the way in which he reaches it.

Tolkien’s Bilbo is no warrior, and he never becomes one. He earns the dwarves’ respect in more subtle ways. Jackson’s Bilbo, on the other hand, has a rather berserker-like moment, gaining him the admiration of Thorin. Ironically, the screenwriters, not Tolkien, are the ones who put these words in Gandalf’s mouth:

True courage is about knowing, not when to take a life, but when to spare one.

Unlike some dialog placed in his mouth by the filmmakers, these words of Gandalf are ones Tolkien would most likely agree with. Tolkien’s hobbits are not great warriors; their strength lies not so much in being able to fight with swords, but in being able to think with their brains, and act prudently from a wise heart. Jackson and crew find the words to express this, but are often unable to back up the words by what their hobbits do.

It is true that in the book Bilbo does play the hero later with the giant spiders. But he has also gained the use of the ring at that point, so it is not quite as heroic an act as Jackson’s Bilbo taking on an orc. The sequence has some other problems, such as the inconsistency of Azog telling one of his orcs to cut off Thorin’s head after specifically telling his cohorts that Thorin was his to kill. Jackson and crew rightly decided Bilbo was not ready to tackle Azog, but the way this plays out just does not make sense.

Part of what has made "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" so great is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. In the fifth chapter of Colin Duriez’ biography of Tolkien, "The Making of a Legend," he comments how Tolkien was pleased with (fellow-Inkling) Charles Williams’ evaluation of what would become "The Lord of the Rings." In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien comments upon the roles of Bilbo, Sam, and Frodo ("Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien," p. 105-6):

"Cert[ainly] Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob[ably] end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S[am] will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. C[harles] Williams who is reading it all says the great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking. Yet he agrees that these very things require the existence of a great world outside the Shire – lest they should grow stale by custom and turn into the humdrum…."

For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus. Jackson makes them the main focus, with “freedom, peace, ordinary life” at the periphery. It is probably a subtle difference to many fans, but an important one. When the focus is on heroism and war, too often the result is an attitude of "winning at any cost." As Jesus said, "what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" [Mark 8:36 NLT]

Jackson’s prologue, besides being a shift in emphasis from the mundane to war, fails because it is not Bilbo’s story. Why does it start with Bilbo saying he hadn’t told his whole story to Frodo, and then proceed with a history lesson from long ago? There is a jarring disconnect there. The later flashback, continuing the dwarves’ story, works much better coming out of the mouth of Balin, who was actually there. When we finally get back to where Bilbo actually comes into the story, the famous first few lines of JRR Tolkien’s book, written in a narrative, third-person style, sound strange coming from the Hobbit’s mouth. As much as PJ and company wanted to meet fans’ expectations by including those words, they should have been able to come up with a better way to present them. (Would a hobbit actually call his home a “hole in the ground”?)

The Unexpected Party sequence of the film, despite having some brilliant moments, is rather tedious and drawn out. The rest of the movie is rather well paced, but once Thorin arrives on the scene, the mood becomes somber for too long. Even Bilbo’s fainting spell falls a little flat.

There are some other problems, like the over-the-top video-game-like fight sequences in the goblin tunnels, and the anti-climatic demise of the Great Goblin. The screenwriters seem to be attempting to combine both the darkness of "The Lord of the Rings" and the whimsy of "The Hobbit." Jackson did a great job in "The Lord of the Rings" providing comic relief while telling a dark story. But his attempt at whimsy this time around sometimes comes off as childish rather then whimsical.

However, one whimsical sequence that did work rather well was the Trolls. Some fans have complained a bit about the crude bathroom humor, but after all, they are Trolls! The scene does find a balance between tension and comic relief, and gives Bilbo a chance to show his quick wit, even if it was Gandalf’s wit that saved the day in the book.

Despite the misplaced, over-the-top heroism of Bilbo, Jackson does end the first movie with a positive change in the hobbit's attitude. Tolkien’s subtitle to "The Hobbit," "There and Back Again," was meant as more than just a physical summary of what happens in the book. Tolkien, as a soldier in the First World War, knew what it was like to live a life of relative ease and to be thrust into a "wild" environment. The "adventure" many young British men found themselves in either made or broke them. As with Bilbo, their safety certainly could not be guaranteed. (About a million British soldiers lost their lives the The Great War.) Those who went there and came back were never the same.

Tolkien’s book is more than just an adventure. If Bilbo had understood fully what he was to endure, I’m sure he would never have left the Shire. But he was better off going. Peter Jackson at least seems to understand that the story is about more than a change of physical location. Tolkien certainly would not have approved of Bilbo becoming the crazed warrior he is already becoming by the end of the first movie. But he would approve that Bilbo now cares about more than his own comfort. The journey started out as an “adventure” to satisfy his Tookish predilections. It is now about wanting to help the Dwarves regain their home. Not a bad motivation to keep him going.