Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Christmas Hobbit, part 3

     As I explained in my previous post, the 1951 A Christmas Carol, although it contained a number of changes to the surface story (not all of them small), did not alter the trajectory of the plot.  More importantly, the major characters in the film had the same personalities and moral qualities they had in the book, and the underlying meaning was the same.
     Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is a different kettle of fish altogether.  First of all, the sub-story behind The Hobbit is much more complicated than that of Dickens’s tale.  It takes place within an invented reality (“sub-created”, as he himself put it) that Tolkien had already spent many years creating, and which he was at great pains to make both internally consistent (he criticized his friend C.S. Lewis for details such as the incongruous London streetlamp in the woods of Narnia in his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) but also consistent enough with what he called “the primary world” to make it believable.  That is a difficult enough feat in a written work, but much more difficult to pull off in a drama. I don’t know if Peter Jackson has ever read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”; if he has, he didn’t take seriously enough the author’s contention such believability in a fantasy story is extremely difficult in a dramatic format. 
     Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories also take place in a world that, while it contains little or no explicit religious practice, is nevertheless bound together by a very Christian moral sensibility and an inescapable sense of Divine Providence.  In the chapter from The Fellowship of the Ring called “The Shadow of the Past” (to which we shall return before we're finished) Gandalf says: “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”  We can also see the moral dimension in The Lord of the Rings in the two brothers Boromir and Faramir. Boromir is a type of the Utilitarian, to whom the “good” he can do with the power of the ring outweighs any moral considerations, and whose lust for it drives him mad; he redeems himself only with the sacrifice of his own life.  Faramir, on the other hand, is the Man of Principle, who says "I would not snare even an orc with a falsehood" and, speaking of the Ring of Power, "I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.”  When he realizes that the ring is in fact within his power, he stands by his word and resists temptation.
      These two personify the moral choices each of the characters in the novel faces: to assert his own will, or to follow the seemingly more difficult path of duty and right.  Peter Jackson, in a foretaste of things to come, makes a hash of these two characters in his film version of The Lord of the Rings: here,  Faramir is a somewhat milder version of his amoral brother, and his main motivation seems to be that Boromir is his father’s favorite. This failing and some others (My wife was particularly struck by the movie scene where Eowyn, proud shield-maiden of the royal house of Rohan, was trying to make soup for Aragorn) are not enough to sink his The Lord of the Rings series completely, but they leave the impression that Peter Jackson and his crew just don’t “get” Tolkien.  He didn’t understand at least some of the characters, and he seemed blind to an important part of the moral dimension of the Tolkien’s invented universe.  I found these (and a few other) distortions of the sub story distasteful enough that I haven’t wished to see the movies again.   
      As we shall see in my next post, these flaws and more loom even larger in Jackson’s The Hobbit.