Friday, January 4, 2013

Peter Jackson: Film-maker and Theologian


           Peter Jackson is a very talented film-maker, and justly famous for his now classic film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.  This film series is something of a turning point in the history of the author Tolkien’s work, for from now on, generations reading the book will only be able to see the faces of Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf.  For future generations, Frodo will be Elijah Wood, in the same way as Rick in Casablanca is Humphrey Bogart and Maria in The Sound of Music is Julie Andrews (sorry, Carrie Underwood).   The film series’ popularity may be gauged by the fact that another prequel series has begun, also by Peter Jackson, namely The Hobbit.   I enjoyed the original trilogy when Jackson’s films first appeared, and enjoyed the first instalment of The Hobbit also.  As I said, Jackson is a very talented film-maker.  But as a theologian, he leaves something to be desired.
            In fairness to Jackson, he never claimed to be a theologian.  But theology or at least theological and moral lessons are latent in all sorts ostensibly non-theological works, and Jackson’s pieces are no exception.  I would like to reflect on two theological/ moral lessons drawn from his trilogy and its prequel, because I think that these films reflect presuppositions in our culture that are erroneous, and can work cultural harm.  (Warning: here there be “spoilers”.)
           First of all, let’s look at the conclusion to the initial film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.  As you may remember, Frodo has all but fulfilled his mission, and stands over the volcanic crack of Mount Doom, about to throw the Ring into it as long planned, which would destroy the villain Sauron’s power and threat.  But in his exhaustion and weakness, he cannot bring himself to throw the Ring into the consuming fire.  Instead, he claims it for his own and puts it on, thereby revealing his presence and plot to Sauron.  Sauron instantly dispatches his minions to take Frodo and retrieve his Ring, thereby guaranteeing his evil triumph and bringing final disaster on Middle Earth.   At this point, the character Gollum, who once owned the Ring and is consumed with the desire to retrieve it, leaps forward and attacks Frodo.  They struggle on the edge of the volcanic precipice.  Gollum recovers the Ring by biting off Frodo’s finger.  In a kind of dark joy, he holds the recovered Ring aloft.  And here is where Jackson the theologian takes his own fatal mis-step.
            In Tolkien’s original text, however, evil destroys itself:  Gollum holds up the Ring to look and gloat over his hard-won prize, steps back too far, and falls all by himself into the volcanic fire below, destroying himself and the Ring, and thereby (unintentionally) saving Middle Earth.  Frodo played no part in this, to reveal and stress the self-destructiveness of evil.  But Jackson alters this ending.  The film-maker in him seems to get the better of the theologian (or at least of the reader, since Jackson had read the text, even if he missed Tolkien’s theological point), and in his film, Gollum topples over the edge of the precipice because Frodo, enraged at the loss of the Ring, seizes Gollum so that they both fall over the edge.  Frodo is saved by his friend and companion Sam, who grabs him by the hand and lifts him to safety, while Gollum continues his fall downward to doom.  It seems as if Jackson the film-maker could not resist another dramatic cliff-hanger (literally).  But—and this is the point—the cliff-hanging drama came at the expense of the theological truth.  For Tolkien, evil destroys itself—that is why Gollum’s lust took him over the edge and into destruction.  In Jackson’s version, Gollum was forced over the edge by Frodo’s violence.  In this version, evil does not destroy itself, but is destroyed by an angry and violent good guy (even if the good guy does not intend to destroy evil but simply to reclaim the ring for his own).
            We see the same film-maker’s love of a good fight in the end of his prequel, The Hobbit.  In Tolkien’s original text, Gandalf, Bilbo, and their dwarf friends are being pursued by wolves and goblins (i.e. the bad guys).  The pursuit leads to them taking refuge up a tree, and they are saved from their doom at the hands and jaws of wolves and goblins by the eagles swooping in and saving them.   But here again, Jackson the film-maker cannot resist a good cinematic fight.  His main dwarf hero, Thorin, comes down from the tree to confront the head goblin/ bad guy, and slug it out with him.  He is bested by the bad guy, and is about to have his head chopped off.  Bilbo then heroically throws himself into the violent fray, slashing with his sword and by this “heroic” mayhem saving the day.  Then the eagles come down to take all of them away to safety, but not before Bilbo has his moment of violent derring-do.  Again I suppose that Jackson is motivated by the desire to show Bilbo’s heroism.  But—and this is the point—the heroism is defined in terms of violence.  Whatever lip service might be paid to his other gifts, the fact is that he is accepted as one of the dwarves as someone having something valuable to contribute to the group, only when he wields his sword.  This is, I believe, a problem.
            This is not to suggest that violence has no place in society.  Even St. Paul acknowledged that use of the sword was in some sense ordained by God, and was essential for restraining evil and social chaos in the world (Rom. 13:1f).  A strict pacifism which would make it sinful for any Christian to be a soldier or a policeman has never won lasting substantive assent in the Church.  When the North African Christian writer Tertullian opined that when Christ told Peter to put the sword back into its sheathe “He unbelted every soldier” (i.e. forbade His followers to be soldiers), he expressed an opinion which would not ultimately carry the day.  The whole topic of how Christians are to regard war, peace, and nationalism is a complex one, and cannot be examined in depth here.  But we may note that a strict Anabaptist pacifism and social retreat is not currently an Orthodox option for laymen in the world.
            But I do suggest that Jackson’s portrayal of Bilbo as heroic only by wielding a sword is unfortunate, for it seems to devalue Bilbo’s other gifts.  In the original text (and in the 1977 animated version of it by Rankin/ Bass), Bilbo had other contributions to make to the group, contributions which overshadowed his use of the sword—contributions such as burgling from the dragon, which was the original reason the dwarves hired him in the first place.  Indeed in the book, and especially in the 1977 film, the lust for violence and war and insistence upon one’s perceived “rights” is juxtaposed to Bilbo’s more irenic approach to life.  Thus in the final scene towards the end of the whole story, Thorin lies dying, and he seems to repent of his bloody insistence on war as the way to recover lost wealth and power.  He says to Bilbo (in both the book and the animated film), “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West.  Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure.  If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  It would indeed—both in Middle Earth and elsewhere too.
            Our current North American society seems not to quite believe Thorin’s dying words.  We still value violence as the answer to many questions, and we too often identify violence as the only manifestation of strength and manliness.  That is why it dominates so many video games.  That is why so many movie heroes have a “licence to kill”, whether or not their name is James Bond.  Even women in the movies and television are increasingly defining strength in terms of violence, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has many sisters.  And that is why Jackson the film-maker feels compelled to make Bilbo more macho, in contradiction to the original portrayals in the book and a previous film. 
            As said above, violence does (sadly) have a necessary place in our fallen society, in that we want our police to carry arms (judiciously used), and we want to have an army to protect national sovereignty.  But a Christian will still see that not all strength involves violence, and in fact the greatest strength lies not in violence, but in love.  The greatest strength leads a man (or woman) not to say “Make my day”, but to say “Father, not my will but thine be done”.   Goblin cleavers and vampire slayers and terminators are strong, but martyrs are stronger.  We may or may not be called to physical heroism and deeds of derring-do.  That’s as may be.  But all of us are called to the greatest strength—strength of character, and self-sacrifice, and love and humility. 
            Perhaps not surprisingly (for he was a Christian), Tolkien knew about the power of love and humility.  That is why the central and most beloved protagonists in his long sagas of Middle Earth are Hobbits—not dwarves with axes, nor elves with bows, nor men with swords, nor even wizards with staffs—but Hobbits, humble children of the earth, puttering in their gardens, loving comfort and food, fretting over forgetting their pocket-handkerchiefs, worrying that adventures may make them late for supper.  Hobbits are ordinary folk, not obviously heroes; the common man, seen walking the streets and lanes every day.  Yet put them into extraordinary situations, and the ordinary may show themselves to be extraordinary, as humility proves its power.  It was as Elrond said, at his council:  “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great.”
            How mightily humility can shake the towers of the great we may see from the Gospel:  a humble Jewish peasant girl bowed her head before the angel and gave birth to her Creator.  A Nazarene field-preacher dying in disgrace on a Roman cross dethroned the Satanic god of this world and cleansed the cosmos with His blood, buying it back for the Father:  all acts of divine humility.  The Kingdom was not of this violent world; it was rooted in this humility, and so was stronger than the world.  Film-makers and pundits may not know this, but Tolkien and his Hobbits did.   And we who share Tolkien’s love of Middle Earth and his Christian Faith may know it too, and strive to find our roots in the humility of the Gospel.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent point about Bilbo's violent heroics in the current film.

    I would come to at least a partial defense of Frodo's violence against Gollum in the previous trilogy, though. Well, not to a defense of the violence, per se, but to a defense of the fact that Jackson added that particular tweak to the movie.

    Put simply, Frodo acts against Gollum out of the same lust for the Ring that Gollum had throughout the entire trilogy -- and Frodo's fight-to-the-death with Gollum explicitly evokes the fight-to-the-death between Smeagol and his brother at the very beginning of the film, before the Ring turned Smeagol into Gollum. So whether it is Gollum falling accidentally into the volcano by himself, or Frodo and Gollum falling off the cliff because they are fighting for possession of the same dark object, Tolkien's basic point -- that evil destroys itself -- remains, I would argue.

    What's more, if you view all three films in one sitting, it's striking how Sam's "Don't you let go" to Frodo at the end of the third film echoes and reverses Gandalf's "Let it go" to Bilbo at the beginning of the first film. Gandalf, of course, was telling Bilbo to let go of the Ring, while Sam is telling Frodo to hold on to *him* (and, by extension, to their friendship and all it represents).

    So that particular tweak to the original trilogy had its benefits, I would argue, and didn't do too much violence, so to speak, to Tolkien's story.

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