Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Window on the West” and “The Forbidden Pool”

Having met the noble Gondorian captain Faramir and his men, we now get to see them in more detail, as Frodo and Sam are welcomed into their abode and treated as guests of honor. They are also treated to the beauty of the land of Ithilien, including the cave where Faramir and his company have set up their camp.

I have always found Faramir to be one of Tolkien’s finest creations, a fitting complement to his brother Boromir. Unlike his elder brother, who seems to spring from the mold of men like Rohan (which, for all of their valour, are of a somewhat lower order then their neighbours), Faramir seems to have something in him of not just the nobility of the fallen lands of the West but also a measure of their Elvish wisdom. It is precisely this wisdom that allows him to turn away from the temptation that brought low his brother. In that sense, he seems to have more in common with Aragorn than he does with either his father or his brother.

It is the changes to Faramir’s character in the film version The Two Towers that I find the most vexing, in large part because he is just such a wonderful character in the novel. It is precisely his ability to resist the pull of the Ring that makes him so compelling and that suggests that he will one day make an exemplary steward in his father’s place. While I don’t want to spend too much time belabouring the changes made to Faramir’s character in Jackson’s interpretation, it is worth noting that this Faramir is much more steadfast from the outset than his film counterpart. He is both wise and a powerful leader of men, and it this particular combination of traits that makes him such a compelling hero.

What stands out to me the most about this chapter, however, is the description that Faramir gives of the men of Gondor. According to his narration, the heirs of Anarion gradually lost their way and gave into the faults that had long plagued the men of Númenor:  the obsession with death and its deferral, the fixation on the past and their ancestors rather than the children of the current world, the gradual but inexorable slipping into decline. It is a rather heartbreaking rumination, and it is (I think) reflective of the novel’s overall view of humanity. We may build works of great power and grandeur, but in the end we always seem inclined to let those slip away into obsolescence and a seemingly inevitable decay.

This in part will explain the behavior of Denethor in later chapters. He, like so many of his predecessors among the men of Númenor, yearns for a day when his rule was unquestioned, and he spends more time thinking about the past than he does the present, much to the detriment of his son Faramir. Thus, he is blind to the qualities that make his son such an excellent and superb commander and future steward, blinded by his love of Boromir. He wishes for the way that things were in the past, whereas Faramir is wise enough to understand that the future is what matters the most and that it will ultimately be up to him to shoulder the burdens that his father still bears (and which have already begun to to drive him slowly mad).

And then of course there is Gollum, who feels deeply betrayed by the fact that Frodo leads him into a trap set by Faramir. Once again, Frodo showcases his essential morality and pity, for once again he refuses to strike down Gollum when he has the chance. Of course, the powerful and almost tragic irony here is that Gollum doesn’t recognize this fact, and it may well be this incident that continues to cement his determination to see his villainous plans for Sam and Frodo through to their ultimate conclusion.

Next up, we follow the brave Sam and Frodo as they encounter the city of Minas Morgul as well as the dreadful spider Shelob. Stay tuned!

Through a Glass Darkly: The Diminution of Heroism in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

After recently rewatching Peter Jackson’s rightfully famous and well-regarded The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it occurred to me that Jackson’s heroes are remarkably less lofty than their counterparts in Tolkien’s novel. If Tolkien’s heroes seem to exist in a time wherein heroes were larger than life figures that seem to defy the laws of humanity, Jackson’s are made of somewhat humbler stuff, plagued with doubt and required to go through the traditional hero’s journey in order for their personalities and their journeys to have meaning for their very modern audiences.

These changes range from the relatively minor to the significant, and some that appear to be the latter but are in my view the former. The shattering of Gandalf’s staff by the Witch-king at the gates of Minas Tirith might seem to be a relatively minor change in the context of the film as a whole, but it signifies that Gandalf, even in his iteration as the White, is far more vulnerable and susceptible to the power of his enemies than his novel counterpart. He is also plagued by doubt as to the fate of Frodo, and it is only Aragorn’s wise words that bring him back from the depths of despair during the events of The Return of the King.

Aragorn also suffers from this crisis of doubt. Unlike the Aragorn of the novel, for example, he does not at first set out with the intention of claiming the throne of Gondor for himself. It is only after fighting in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and gradually realizing the necessity of coming to Gondor’s aid does he seem to finally give in and accept the necessity of ascending Gondor’s throne as the rightful air. Admittedly, Viggo Mortensen does a magnificent job bringing together the essential nobility and world-weary aspects of Aragorn’s character, but there can be no doubt that, except in the very final scenes in which he appears, he definitely skews more toward the latter than the former.

The greatest casualty of this phenomenon, however, is the Steward Denethor, who definitely does not come out very well in his appearances in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King. This Denethor is not the proud throwback to the days of Númenór as described by Tolkien, not some lofty lord who has been slowly led into madness by his wrestling with Sauron through the palantír, but instead something of an arrogant and extremely deluded fool. Since the film does not really emphasize the fact that Denethor possesses one of the old seeing stones, we don’t get the sense that he has spent many long hours wrestling with the Dark Lord. Even his death is robbed of its rather tragic nobility, replaced instead with a disturbing scene in which Shadowfax kicks him into the pyre he had put together for himself and his son Faramir, after which Denethor runs screaming and plunges from the lofty tower into the burning city below. It’s visually striking, certainly, but not nearly the dignified and tragic ending envisioned in the novel, an ending that was more in keeping with Denethor’s lofty, if ultimately tragic, persona.

For Jackson, then, it appears that heroism is something far more bound to the foibles of mortality and the humble world of the flesh than is the case with Tolkien. His heroes are, for the most part, denuded shadows of their novel counterparts, cut down to a size that Jackson (for better or worse) deems more palatable and appropriate for a late-20th/early 21st Century audience.

Of course, part of this no doubt also has to do with the medium in which Jackson is working. While Jackson’s films certainly operate in the idiom and within the paradigm of the epic, there is still only so much detail, narrative complexity, and character development that can be squeezed into 3 hours. In order to get a full sense of Aragorn’s growth as a character, we can’t rely on pages of exposition and information revealed in the Appendices; instead, we must see the doubt that troubles him throughout his journey. We must be shown that he still bears the heavy weight of Isildur’s fatal weakness.

Just as importantly, the hero’s journey (so memorably outlined in the works of the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces) has proven to be a remarkably durable and ubiquitous blueprint for Hollywood filmmaking. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Aragorn in particular becomes one of the people, in particular during the Battle of Helm’s Deep (in which he several times almost loses his life). It is worth pointing out that the release of Jackson’s film coincided with the resurgence of another type of film featuring somewhat larger-than-life heroism, the historical epic. Inaugurated with Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, this genre also expressed a certain measure of ambivalence about the nature of male heroism, as Russell Crowe’s Maximus has to enter into the realm of the abject and the outcast in order to fulfill his historical and political mission (Robert Burgoyne makes a compelling argument about this in his book The Hollywood Historical Film).

While I may sound critical of Jackson’s film, I actually think it works well for what he is trying to do, and he definitely deserves credit for his portrayal of Boromir and Faramir, both of whom are compellingly drawn characters. In fact, I would say that Boromir, at least, is one of the characters whose characterization matches fairly closely between the book and the film. While the same cannot entirely be said of Faramir–who, after all, decides to take the Hobbits to Osgiliath in the film rather than unequivocally denying the Ring–he does emerge in The Return of the King as an essentially noble and heroic figure.

Clearly, Jackson has a different agenda in his vision of Tolkienian heroism for the 20th and 21st Centuries. That doesn’t mean that one is any less valid or intriguing than the other. It does, however, allow us to see the very different uses to which Tolkien’s work can be put in the visual imaginary.

Why Are Tolkien’s Villains So Compelling?

Every time I re-reard The Lord of the Rings, I’m struck anew by how absolutely compelling Tolkien has made his villains. In many ways, these formidable foes–Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king–threaten to overshadow the protagonists of the novel. While we know a great deal about the heroes, their motivations, their ancestries, a great deal remains shadowy and unknown about their evil counterparts, and it is precisely this lack of detail that imbues these characters with such an irresistible allure, constantly drawing us to them even as the text denies us the full understanding that we desire.

Take the Witch-king (and, for that matter, the rest of the Nazgûl). We know very little about them, except that they were a mixture of kings of Men who were seduced by Sauron’s promises of power that could be gained from his gift of nine Rings of Power. In fact, we know the actual name of only one of those figures, Khamûl the Black Easterling, and even of him we know only that he was second in power to the Witch-king, that he commanded Dol Guldur, and that he was the Ringwraith that the hobbits saw standing on the dock of Bucklebury Ferry. Everything else is merely speculation, and while there is certainly a great deal of pleasure in such an activity, it can never quite take the place of the authoritative word of Tolkien himself.

Of course, Saruman, for all that he is one of the most corrupt and despicable of the villains that appear in the novel, also hovers just out of full sight. Sure, we know a great deal about him through Gandalf, but we never really get to see the workings of his mind in his own right. We don’t know, for example, how he set about his destruction and industrialization of the Shire, and we don’t get to see his interactions with Wormtongue (though Jackson’s film does provide some of the exchanges between the two of them). We don’t even know that much about his activities as a Maia in the West.

And then there is my all-time favourite villain, the Mouth of Sauron, who appears at the Black Gate to taunt the armies of the West when they arrive to demand that Sauron come forth. Here is how the novel describes him:

The lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenoreans.

This brief paragraph ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. What, for example, was his relationship with the Witch-king of Angmar? Were they of equal rank, though occupying different roles in the Mordor hierachy? (Perhaps the Mouth was responsible for the domestic side of things and the Witch-king was responsible for activities outside?) How old, exactly, was he? We know that he was of the Numenoreans, so it’s entirely possible that he was far older than any other man (even Aragorn). We aren’t even given his name, and the passage tells us that not only was it never written down by any tale (I love how coy the text is, by the way); the Mouth himself has become so enmeshed in Sauron’s service that he has given up his very identity. For that matter, we don’t even know whether he escaped from the destruction by the Ring’s oblivion. Certainly,

Tolkien was, as has been amply acknowledged, a genius at sub-creation. Yet he also knew that there were some things that should remain unknown, sometimes even to the author himself. The media scholar and theorist John Fiske, in his book Reading Popular Culture, notes that part of what gives enormously popular texts their appeal is textual poverty, and that certainly seems to the case with Tolkien. Indeed, there are quite a number of fan fiction texts surrounding the Mouth (I wrote one myself as part of a class ages ago), and these texts exploit this gap in Tolkien’s mythology to give the text even greater relevance, emotionally, intellectually, affectively.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Tolkien would be have to be one of the most flattered authors of the modern era.

And that flattery, in my mind, is well-deserved indeed.

Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

Now that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month here at Queerly Different, I thought I’d begin this year’s month with a post about the Sauron of the 21st Century, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Now, I know what some of you are no doubt thinking. Isn’t that hyperbolic? Isn’t it dangerous to conflate the doings of a mythological tyrant in a fantasy novel (no matter how popular and seemingly timeless) with the doings of an elected world leader in 21st Century America? Besides, what can a fantasy novel of any kind tell us about the workings and dangers of politics and tyrants in the real world?

Perhaps these are sound and reasonable questions, but as I was re-rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring with my students, and as I’ve begun my annual re-read of Tolkien’s work, it occurs to me that not only are there a lot of similarities between the Third Age of Middle-earth and our contemporary political; there are also a number of things that Tolkien’s magnum opus can tell us about how we relate to the world around us and how we can make sense of a world in which the forces of darkness and oppression seem to have been given a new form of life.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that that political treatises and other straightforwardly nonfiction pieces are not the only works that help to shed light on the perilous world in which we live. Tolkien’s work, like the best works of fiction (including and especially those in the fantasy genre) help to hold up a mirror to our own world, to help us critically think about how we engage with the world around us.

As always, I was particularly struck by Frodo’s lament very early in the book that he wishes that he had not come into possession of the Ring and all of the trouble that it brings with it. His desire is an understandable one, as it is always difficult to live in a time where the things we’ve taken for granted–the peace, the stability, the steady movement toward a better world–seem abruptly under siege by a seemingly overpowering tide. It is, in these times, easy to give in to the temptation to be self-pitying and despairing.

Yet, as Gandalf sternly reprimands him, that is a sentiment expressed by all who live to see such times. However, it is not up to them to decide when they are born and in which they live; all that they can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to them. To me, this is an important reminder of what we can do now that all that we on the Left see everything that we cared for threatened with obliteration. It is not up to us to decide what happened now that it has past; it is, however, up to us to continue the fight, to continue working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

In the wake of the election, and faced with the reports of hate crimes spiking in its aftermath, I’m reminded of Theoden’s most despairing line in the film version of The Two Towers:  “What can men do against such reckless hate?” It’s a powerful question precisely because it crystallizes so many of the narrative concerns of the novel as well. What, indeed, can individual men do against the forces that are so much greater than they? Is there any agency to be found in such a world? Sometimes, it seems that the answer to Theoden’s question is a simple, fatigued, utterly despairing, “nothing.”

Yet this also reminds me of Aragorn’s climactic speech, when he pronounces that the day when the strength of men fails is not the day that they face. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they will continue to fight, knowing that their strength alone may not be enough to save them. Just so, we on the Left must continue to fight, even know that we may not always succeed, even knowing that evil may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, may yet again flee into some dark place and take a new shape. We must continue fighting, for to do anything else would be the worst sort of abrogation, the abandonment of the principles that we hold most dear.

Of course, it is also worth noting that the rise of Sauron  in the Third Age is due to a number of factors, but among them is the decline of the realm of Gondor and a growing sense of complacency. Even Gandalf, certainly one of the wisest figures left in that age of the world. For Gandalf at least it was, at least in a way, easier to believe the honeyed lies of Saruman regarding the fate of the Ring than it was to do what was necessary. As such, this incident is a cautionary tale on the dangers of complacency, of a willingness to ignore the gut warnings that we have about the very real dangers that exist in the world.

Thus, despite the darkness of spirit that seems to have fallen over many in the American Left (including yours truly), reading and watching The Lord of the Rings gives me hope that there is always hope, even it is just a fool’s hope. Tolkien’s work helps us to understand that we always have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep fighting the good fight, even when it appears in the immediate moment that we will be beaten down by the forces that are so much stronger than we are. We have an obligation to reach out to those who are weaker than we are, to show the spirit of compassion and mercy.

And if you need to still take a little more time to process your grief, to weep in frustration at the evils of the world, feel free to do that, too.

After all, as Gandalf poignantly reminds us, “I will not say do not weep. For not all tears are an evil.”

In Defense of Peter Jackson, Tolkien Fans, and Nerds Everywhere

Peter Jackson has taken a lot of flack for the alleged butchering of The Hobbit, variously described as bloated, silly, crass, and all of the familiar insults typically hurled at his work, and at fantasy in particular.  Most frustrating, and revealing, however, has been the consistent charge that Jackson has caved in to his own fan-boy impulses, importing many subsidiary plots into the main narrative of his new trilogy of films.  Indeed, Laurence Dodds of The Telegrapg even went so far as to say that, in essence, “This [Jackson’s film trilogy] is typical nerdism, which cannot imagine an imaginative gap which does not exist to be filled.”  Nor is Dodds the only one to argue that Jackson has done something awful to Tolkien’s legacy, for no less a luminary than Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s literary executor, argued in an interview with the French periodical that Jackson has turned his father’s work into banal entertainment designed to entertain 15-25 year-olds (it hardly bears noting that it is precisely that age group that originally gravitated to Tolkien and has also consistently kept his works in print).

What emerges from both of these critics is a sense that it is precisely the fans of Tolkien’s work that have done the most “damage” to his literary legacy (I referenced this point in my post about the vexed question of Tolkien ownership).  Of course, it should be no surprise that the literary establishment, the intelligentsia, and film critics should fall into such frankly lazy ways of dismissing the work of Jackson’s.  Indeed, the terms they use to dismiss his work are eerily similar to those the established critics used to dismiss Tolkien’s works when they were originally published.  And, borrowing from Tom Shippey’s impassioned and well-articulated defense of Tolkien, I would argue that these folk do not know how to read Jackson and that this, more than the failings on Jackson’s part, lie at the heart of their stalwart and stubborn (and often quite vicious) unwillingness to grant him any appreciation or critical approbation.

Again and again, the reviews keep saying that Jackson did something wrong (and downright avaricious) by pulling in the backstory to The Hobbit that was only revealed in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings.  But, you know what?  I’m actually glad that Jackson has fleshed out his version of The Hobbit.  I know that I am not the only Tolkien/Jackson fan that was looking forward to the epic battle between the White Council and the Necromancer.  Was every part of that confrontation as I would have wanted it?  Of course not.  I wasn’t the filmmaker, and so my vision doesn’t always mesh with Jackson’s.  That doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of seeing this background brought in, however, for it deepens and enriches our understanding and appreciation of The Hobbit.  The films allow us to understand many of the unseen processes at work even in the novel, and while this may not be to everyone’s liking, as a self-professed Tolkien nerd I highly enjoyed it.

Through it all, and through everything, I have been struck by the emotional truths that these films reveal.  As I noted in my review of the film, I think that The Battle of the Five Armies hits the closest to the spirit of the North that The Hobbit gestures toward (albeit obliquely).  There is a sense throughout this film of loss and of sorrow, of fighting even though the effort seems vain.  As with The Lord of the Rings (both novel and film), The Hobbit (novel and film) suggest that, with every battle we fight, we cannot remain unchanged or unscathed.  We are changed, and there will inevitably be sorrow, and sometimes even regret, at what has been lost.  Sorrow and regret suffuse Tolkien’s entire ouvre, I think, and the marker of Jackson’s success as a filmmaker has consistently been his ability to capture that sensibility, glimpsed most powerfully in BotFA in the final scenes, as Bilbo returns to his home and, when asked who was his employer, responds, “My friend.”  Shortly afterward, as he stands in his ransacked house, he makes to put on the Ring and we, in the audience, know that he has indeed been forever changed by the actions of his quest, that there is no going back.  The simplicity of these scenes, the sparseness of the dialogue, and the raw yet subtle emotion conveyed by Freeman’s Bilbo, all combine to engender in the viewer a profound sense of sadness and loss, a profound sense of emotion that grants meaning to the entire film that preceded it.

Likewise, I have always thought there was a genuineness to Jackson’s endeavours.  He did not want, originally, to do The Hobbit film adaptation.  And who could blame him?  The critical and fan reactions to George Lucas’s similar attempt to flesh out the back story of his famous film trilogy must have been uppermost in his mind, and I’m sure he wanted to avoid inviting the same kind of venom.  Sure, there is quite a lot of bombast in this last film, but who can blame Jackson for having a bit of visual fun with this last visit to Middle-earth?  And sure, some of it may be a trifle overdone (I still can’t wrap my head around the giant sandworms), but that last scene, and several more, really make all of the CGI worthwhile.  It is these moments, such as the fraught parting of Thranduil and Legolas, or the emotionally resonant one between Thranduil and Tauriel, that show that, for all of the bombast, at heart Jackson loves this world and the stories contained in it.  All that he has done, he has done for love, for Tolkien and for the fans who have stood by him through all of his endeavours.

And as for those charges that he has somehow “ruined” Tolkien’s work or vision or whatever other idiotic expression the critic chooses to use, I would simply say this.  Tolkien’s original version of The Hobbit still exists, is still widely available, and is still in print.  If you prefer the (deceivingly) simple whimsy of that version of the story, by all means continue reading it.  I know I do.  But that doesn’t mean that Jackson’s version is complete rubbish, nor does it give anyone the right to dismiss (often in quite cruel and simplistic terms)  the nerds and fans who have not only made Tolkien’s work the cultural phenomenon it is, but have also dedicated substantial portions of their lives, and some cases their academic careers, to enriching their lives and those of others by finding new ways to appreciate Tolkien’s work.  Many of those same fans–but by not means all–have also done the same for Jackson, and I count myself fortunate to be one of them.  In closing, I would refer once again to Tom Shippey (still, to my mind, the authority on Tolkien), who argued some time ago that Jackson has provided one road to Middle-earth, though hardly the only one.  I know that I, whatever others may think, have been quite happy to go with Jackson down that road.

Review: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

The final installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy hits many of the high, operatic moments of The Lord of the Rings, leaving this fan completely satisfied, and more than a little sad, at this concluding cinematic adventure in Middle-earth.

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.  

Further warning:  I will probably also have more thoughts on this film after I see it a few more times.

When I first watched The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,  I knew the film was worthwhile when, very near the end, Bilbo announces to the Dwarves that he came back to help them because he wants them to have the same feeling of home that he does.  There is something so intensely emotional and genuine about that scene, something that hits an emotional truth, that renders the entire preceding film both legible and compelling.  A similar scene occurs in the second film, surprisingly enough when Kili, having just recovered from his wound, asks, “Do you think she could have loved me?”  Again, this made the entire film worthwhile for me, reaching into and beyond the more hyperbolic elements of the film.

The Battle of the Five Armies, fortunately, has many of these moments, starting from, surprisingly enough, Smaug’s death.  For all that he is one of the primary villains of the franchise, seeing his agonized death-throes proved, for me at least, to be a profoundly moving experience, as we literally watch the light fade from his eyes before he plunges in ruin into the already-burning Esgaroth (killing the avaricious Master in the process).

The duel between the White Council and the Necromancer likewise packs quite the visual punch, and we finally get to see Galadriel unleash the full extent of her power.  Admittedly, this scene did not take up as much time as it could have, and that actually proved an advantage, as it was tight, focused, and emotionally resonant.  Of course, we have known from the beginning of these films that the Necromancer will merely flee to the East and take shape as Sauron indeed, but that doesn’t lessen the visual impact of this scene.  What’s more, Christopher Lee shines (as always) as Saruman, and his ominous line “Leave Sauron to me” leaves us in no doubt that this is the beginning of his slide into the service of the Dark Lord.

Lee’s is just one performance among many that, I think, help to grant this blockbuster film its emotional core.  It goes without saying that Ian McKellan hits all of the right notes as Gandalf (I think he could do this role in his sleep and still manage to be compelling), but even more recognition should go to Richard Armitage and Lee Pace, both of whom manage to bring an enormous and riveting depth to their characters.  Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that they, perhaps more than any other actors to appear in Jackson’s visions of Middle-earth, come closest to the ancient heroes of the North that Tolkien so admired.  We admire these characters for their bravery and their ability to face their dooms, even as we also shake our heads at behaviour our modern mindsets do not allow us to fully understand.  It is this dance between different identifications and emotions, I think, that allows us to find characters as potentially unlikable as Thranduil and Thorin so infinitely compelling and their fates so intensely sad.  Who did not weep at the parting of Thanduil and Legolas, for who can say whether they will ever join one another again?  And who did not feel a bone-deep sorrow for the death of Thorin, a flawed yet heroic figure, enshrined and honoured by Bilbo’s title of “friend”?

There were other moments of genuine emotionality.  The deaths of Fili and Kili, while expected, hit me harder than I thought they would; it is a testament to Jackson’s ability as a filmmaker that he can shuttle so effortlessly between bombast (and there is quite a lot of that in this film) and these intimate moments of intense feeling.  Indeed, Jackson actually does quite a good job of showing the actual human effects of war, rather than leaving them in the abstract.  Equally affecting was Bilbo’s genuine invitation to his Dwarvish companions to join him for tea at any time, without needing to knock.  Freeman manages once again to bring a full range of emotions to the character of Bilbo, and one can actually believe his tears when he finally breaks down at Thorin’s deathbed.

There were a few things that did not quite hit the right notes, such as the eagles dropping Beorn into the middle of the battle, as well as Radagast riding said eagles.  There were also mysterious worms that look like they could have come out of the Dune universe.  Still, it’s clear that Jackson was having fun in making this film, and I for one appreciate the fact that he catered to what he thought the fans wanted to see.  Say what you will about Jackson, but there has never been a doubt in my mind that he loves Tolkien and he loves the fans.

All in all, this was in all ways the perfect way to say goodbye to Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth.  Naturally, I cannot wait to see the Extended Edition, since it’s quite clear from the very slim running time (coming in at under 2.5 hours) that Jackson was under some pressure to make a shorter film.  Nevertheless, he still manages to capture the intense tragedy that lies just beneath the surface of The Hobbit.  This is the beginning of the end of this age of larger-than-life heroes such as Thorin, Thranduil, and Gandalf, and their like will never be seen again.  As I said goodbye to Middle-earth tonight, Tauriel’s last conversation with Thranduil resonated most powerfully.  As she weeps over the body of Kili, she begs her king to take her pain away, asking mournfully, “Why does it hurt so much?”  And he replies, with a world of sadness in his own voice, “Because it was real.”  As I savour the sweet hurt of saying goodbye to Jackson’s Middle-earth, I can’t help but be grateful that it, too, was real.

Re-Considering Rankin/Bass

It’s hard now to remember a day when Peter Jackson’s films (whatever one may think of them) were not the dominant, go-to examples of Tolkien on film.  Growing up in the 1990s, however, I clearly remember a time when, if you wanted to see Tolkien on screen, you had to go to either Rankin/Bass’s productions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, or Ralph Bakshi’s ill-titled effort The Lord of the Rings.  While the Rankin/Bass versions have, with some justification, gone down in Tolkien history as horrible travesties, I want to reconsider them for a moment, to see if there is anything redeeming about them, especially for those who (like me) enjoy and love Jackson, but find some of his artistic choices questionable.

To begin with, I want to acknowledge some of the things that people most commonly complain about the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Their particular style of animation is not to everyone’s liking, and it works better in some films than others (it adds a peculiarly sad and exquisite beauty to The Last Unicorn, for example).  The artistic offenses are more egregious in The Hobbit, not only in the design of Bilbo (who comes out looking more like a frog than anything that anyone would identify as a hobbit), but also in Thranduil, who is rendered as some sort of purple, gnomish figure.  The Return of the King is little better, and I still cannot determine why most of the Nazgul ride winged horses, while the Witch-king gets to ride the fell beast (though, strangely enough, Jackson’s film also features an inaccuracy in that, in the novel, during most of the battle and the siege the Witch-king actually rides a normal horse; he does not mount the fell beast until he is thwarted at the gate by Gandalf and the arrival of the Riders of Rohan.  In Jackson’s version he is on the fell beast throughout).

The music is, for the most part, far too saccharine to be effective or truly emotionally moving, and it is the clearest sign that these films were largely intended for a child audience.  The one exception to this would have to be “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” from The Return of the King, which is almost infectiously catchy.  However, even it seems somewhat at odds with the tone of the moment, considering that Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way across the plan in Gorgoroth to in order to destroy the Ring (I would also point out the continuous mispronunciation of Sauron, here pronounced Sore-on).

However, there are some redeeming qualities, and I actually think that the Rankin/Bass films do some things better than their Jackson equivalents.  For one thing, however else they butcher the plotlines, Rankin/Bass often keep some of the more archaic-sounding pieces of dialogue from the original.  Smaug’s delivery of his lines in The Hobbit is, I think, in some ways superior to that of Jackson (and this is the fault of the writing more than Cumberbatch, whose voice is, as always, pitch perfect), and the confrontation between the Witch-king and Eowyen in The Return of the King actually maintains the rhythms of Tolkien’s original words.  They keep, for example, the cadence of “No living man can hinder me” (Tolkien’s phrasing), which Jackson changes (and dare I say banalizes) to “No man can kill me.”  Admittedly, however, the voice of Jackson’s Witch-king is much more compelling than the high, reedy one of Rankin/Bass, full of a deep-throated, raspy menace.

And yes, there are many other voices in these films that rival those found in Jackson’s versions.  While Ian McKellan is a truly masterful Gandalf and will probably find no equal in our lifetime, it’s worth noting that no less a Hollywood great than John Huston provided his voice for both The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Roddy McDowell makes an unlikely yet compelling Samwise, and Orson Bean does manage to capture, I think, the world-weary tenderness of Frodo.  Of course, no discussion of voice acting in these films would be complete without mentioning the inimitable Hans Conried, whose inevitably and consistently sarcastic, yet also slightly pretentious, voice lends Thorin a certain measure of both gravitas and ridiculousness (which is how Tolkien himself portrayed him).

While by no means perfect, the two Tolkien films produced by Rankin/Bass do at least deserve a measure of respect from we latter-day Jackson fans.  While they do not capture the operatic and epic grandeur of Jackson’s collection, they do nevertheless capture some of the elements closest to Tolkien’s heart, the archaic cadences of his language.  Perhaps more than anything else, there is, it seems to me, a genuineness in this effort that deserves our respect, even if the effort does not universally pay off as we might wish.

 

Teaching Tolkien: Biographical, Textual, and Historical Approaches

Though I have not yet had the chance to teach an entire course on Tolkien, his works, and his legacy, I have still given a lot of thought to the numerous ways in which I might do so, as well as what aspects would be most fruitful pedagogically. As it happens, his is an immensely rich ouvre, and there are numerous ways one can use his work to address a wide variety of reading and interpretive practices key to the study of various aspects of literature and culture.

One could, of course, teach a course on Tolkien as an author. I’m thinking here not just of a biographical study (though Humphrey Carpenter and Michael White have both written compelling biographies of Tolkien), but also of a nuanced and careful consideration of those things that most influenced his writing.  Tom Shippey has made a compelling case for reading Tolkien in the context of his scholarship and academic works (in both Tolkien:  Author of the Century and, to a greater extent, in his very learned The Road to Middle-earth).  Indeed, one of the richest courses I took on Tolkien in undergrad was titled “Tolkien in Context.”   Such a course, I think, would almost certainly have to include Tolkien’s noteworthy translations, and we are very fortunate that Christopher Tolkien has provided us at last with his father’s translation of Beowulf, as well as the already in-print collection of Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Pearl.  However, I would also include such works as The Elder Edda in a course such as this, and I might even consider throwing in some of the work by other Inklings such as C.S. Lewis (though probably not The Chronicles of Narnia, both because I think it is far inferior to LoTR and because Tolkien was known to have hated it).  This course would,  I think, enable students to get a really nuanced and complex sense of who Tolkien was an author, as well as the various contexts and frames within which he wrote as both an author of fiction and a well-respected academic.

Likewise, I would also love to teach a course on the textual history on Tolkien’s work.  Shippey has shed a great deal of light on the ways in which Tolkien often used his fiction to fill in gaps in various Old English works, and it would be fascinating to do a literary archaeology of Tolkien.  Again, Christopher has done a great service by publishing the magisterial History of Middle-earth (and John D. Rateliff has done the same for The Hobbit), and it would be a really compelling class to look through both the works themselves and their respective histories.

More interesting, perhaps, would be a course on Tolkien’s cultural influence, the ways in which his works, including but not limited to The Hobbit and LoTR, have had an effect on 20th and 21st Century culture. One could have units devoted to fandom, film adaptations, and appropriation by the meme culture of the Internet (it’s hard to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and not chuckle at either “One does not simply walk into Mordor” or “You shall not pass!)  This could, of course, be part of a larger course discussion on the adaptation of beloved literary works to film (and the hotly debated status of Jackson’s The Hobbit films would make for some very fiery class discussions), as well as the ways in which fans can exert a measure of ownership over their chosen text (which is one of the ways in which I have used Tolkien in my own courses on popular culture and popular appropriation).  Or, one could even have an entire course devoted to his (substantial) influence on the fantasy genre, looking at authors such as Terry Brooks and even George R.R. Martin (seeing A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, as a sort of commentary/homage to Tolkien).

Of course, some of these ideas would probably never make it to the light of day in the standard English curriculum, but they do show how rewarding and compelling teaching Tolkien can be.  What’s more, I think a lot of these ideas could be adapted to appeal to a more general audience, one that does not necessarily have the investment in Tolkien that an avowed fan might have.  That, for me, is one of the most compelling things about bringing Tolkien into the classroom; his works, with all of their density and richness, provide a number of ways to think about fantasy literature and its relevance and inclusion in the larger field of literary study.  Hopefully, Tolkien’s literary reputation will continue to grow and many more generations can come to appreciate the beauty of his works, while also learning the invaluable skills associated with critical and thoughtful engagement and critique of texts.

Who Owns Tolkien?

In case you missed it, Peter Jackson recently announced that, unless the Tolkien Estate grants permission to utilize any of Tolkien’s published works (other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), there will no more Tolkien films made in the foreseeable future.  This should come as no surprise to any of us who have kept up with the Tolkien family’s responses to Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R.’s work.  Christopher Tolkien, his father’s appointed literary executor and hagiographer, has been very vocal about his disdain for Jackson’s films, as well as what he views as the ultimately destructive force of his father’s popularity.

The deep ambivalence, and often outright hostility, expressed by the Tolkien Estate, and Christopher Tolkien in particular, reveals the vexed status that Tolkien’s original works represent in the world of literature and literary study.  Almost from the moment that The Lord of the Rings was published it ignited a firestorm of debate among literary critics, with some defending it as a work of literary genius and others (unsurprisingly) dismissing it as exactly the opposite.  Indeed, it is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Tolkien that we have as much as we do of Tolkien’s voluminous unpublished work, both that associated with Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion and the more recent The Children of Hurin–as well as his translation work, such as the newly released Beowulf.  We likewise have him to thank for the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which chronicles the laborious process by which his father brought his miraculous world to such detailed and exquisite life.

Small wonder, then, that Christopher expresses such vexation at what he perceives as the banal nature of the appropriations of his father’s work and the subsequent sullying of his literary reputation (and the Estate’s resultant efforts to solidify and protect Tolkien’s legacy).  While I sympathize with the desire to render Tolkien a respectable and accepted figure of literary study–there is something validating, after all, in having one’s favourite author finally accepted into the canon–I also worry that much is being lost, and overlooked, by these attempts to assert ownership over Tolkien’s work and legacy.  For one thing, it buys into the very ideological system that sets up an artificial, and ultimately stultifying, distinction between the popular and the literary, between the vulgar pleasures of the masses and the loftier intellectual pursuits of the intelligentsia.  After all, just because a text is popular does not mean that it cannot be literary (whatever the hell that means) and have something significant and meaningful to say about the world.  For another, this denies the agency, the pleasure, and the complexity of various types of fan production, of which Jackson’s films stand as one of the foremost exemplars (say what you will about Jackson, there is no doubt that he is a Tolkien fan and that his films are made for fans).

The desire to lift Tolkien’s fantasy works above the allegedly vulgarizing tendencies of the masses (of whom Jackson is seemingly the exemplar par excellance), permeates not only responses to the films, but also the ways in which Tolkien critics and scholars have tended to view the enthusiasm of the legions of fans who have sought to claim Tolkien’s work as their own.  Indeed, the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has proven to be a double-edged sword, for it is precisely their popularity with the masses (often referred to with the usual round of derogatory labels associated with fandom) that has made them so susceptible to the charges of non-seriousness and mere escapism that have long haunted it (as well as the fantasy genre more generally).  Even Neil D. Isaacs, one of the foremost Tolkien critics and an important founding figure of Tolkien Studies, somewhat dismissively referred to the climate of fandom as “faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism,” a not uncommon set of pejoratives for those who dare to engage to enthusiastically with their chosen text of reference (as Henry Jenkins has often pointed out in his scholarly defense of fandom).  Fan devotion, in this schema, interferes with and may actually undermine an attempt to engage with genuine criticism.  Seemingly, neither fans nor filmmakers have the true right to an appreciation of Tolkien’s work; that honour apparently belongs to the Tolkien Estate and to the lofty efforts of those trained in literary criticism.

So, to return to the question that titles this blog post:  who owns Tolkien?  Or, putting it perhaps somewhat differently, who should own Tolkien?  While I do not want to dismiss the value of Christopher Tolkien’s work (nor that of the Tolkien Estate more generally), nor that of the many literary critics who have done much to show the philosophical and philological depths of Tolkien’s work, I would like to suggest that the legions of fans of Tolkien’s work also have a stake in their beloved fan object (whether that be Tolkien himself or any of his works).  Acknowledging the meaningfulness of their modes of engagement–whether or not you agree with the types of pleasures they take or in the meanings they produce–will not, I think, take away from the grandeur and the genius of Tolkien’s creation, nor will it sully his literary reputation.  In fact, I would argue that it will do exactly the opposite.  Granting fans (including Peter Jackson!) their due as producers of culture, meaning, and value, I suggest, would do much to enhance Tolkien’s reputation.  After all, he wanted to produce a legendarium, a mythology, for his beloved England.  What better way to pay homage to that majestic vision and purpose than by allowing those who devote much of their time and their mental and intellectual energies to delving into Tolkien’s work–whether in the form of fan-fiction, fan videos, or work of amateur or scholarly criticism–a greater stake in Tolkien’s legacy?  I can think of no better tribute to this “Author of the Century” (as Tom Shippey calls him), than allowing everyone to have their own piece of that inheritance.