Monday, December 17, 2012

Concerning "The Hobbit": A Movie Review

What do you mean it was a good movie? Do you wish me to see a good movie, or do you mean to say that this movie was good whether I like it or not; or that you feel good about this movie or that it is a movie worthy of being called good?

All of them at once.

I intentionally avoided all movie reviews and Hobbit related posts on the Internet until after I had seen the movie; although I have been collecting a few good links that will be read and re-posted in some format here. No doubt, the adjectives in praise of Peter Jackson's theatrical return to Middle-Earth will pile up higher than Smaug's treasure trove under Erebor. Good. Marvelous. Brilliant. Smashing. Fantastic. Superb. Sublime. Exceptional. Stellar. Tip-top. Anyhow, you get the point. But that is at it should be. The movie was worth all of those words and more.

However, there is a better word that any and every fan of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings ought to know: Eucatastrophe. If you don't know about this word of Tolkien's coinage, I recommend reading his essay On Fairy Stories written for Charles Williams. If you want to understand Tolkien's worldview as a Christian and a writer and how that worldview is necessarily tied to good story telling,  fairy tales and fantasy in particular, then this piece is the one to read.

According to Tolkien, every good story has these three elements in it: recovery, escape and consolation. Because he couldn't find a word to adequately describe that joyous, sudden turn of events in a story (and in real life), he invented a word to describe it: eucatastrophe. It's a joyous catastrophe, the seemingly unthinkable, unbelievable moment when sorrow turns to joy; when all is despair and dead - like Samwise who had given up hope when he thought Frodo was dead - and hope and life break through. Lewis called these moments "stabs of joy," because they give us a glimpse of transcendent joy. And this Christian joy is such a strong emotion precisely because it is based on Primary Art.

Anytime I approach a review, a book about his work, media or any other work related to Tolkien and Middle-Earth, I look to see if the author, artist, musician, director, etc. captures Tolkien's idea of the eucatastrophe. It's not to say that they specifically (or always) have to use the word, but that the eucatastrophe is there, either explicitly or implicitly.

In his own prosaic manner of writing, Tolkien said as much in a letter to his son, Christopher, when describing his word, eucatastrophe, specifically in relation to the eagles in The Hobbit.

The resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest Fairy Story - and it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love. Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true on the Primary Plane. So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Ananke [Greek for necessity, constraint] of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us...To descend to lesser things: I knew I had written a story of worth in 'The Hobbit' when reading it (after it was old enough to be detached from me) I had suddenly in a fairly strong measure the 'eucastrophic' emotion at Bilbo's exclamation: 'The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!" (Letters of Tolkien, p. 99).

Tolkien isn't suggesting an unbridled emotion, set free it to run wild like Radagast's Rhombostel Rabbits. Rather, Christian joy is such a uniquely different emotion (from fallen man's vain attempts at joy and happiness) precisely because it is founded on the objective facts, the greatest story, which also happens to be true: the Resurrection. It is not emotion that makes faith, but faith founded on fact works great emotion.

Just like the LOTR  movies, The Hobbit had several examples of Lewis's "stab of joy" and Tolkien's joyous turn: Gandalf striking the rock to expose the dawn's first light thereby turning the trolls to stone, the paradisaic vistas of the Shire and Bag End, the other-worldly, seraphic beauty of Rivendell and the elves, the escape from Goblin Town, and of course, one of my favorites, the eagles. I had guessed that the movie would end with, or shortly after, the eagles' rescue from the burning trees. It's a perfect place to stop. Turns out I was right.

And here, I must say, that this was the one scene where I was rather disappointed in Jackson's creative license, namely, the way the "into the fire" scene transpired. The whole reason the company went into the trees was because they were fleeing the wargs and goblins and neither of their enemies could climb trees. Once Gandalf lit the place up with flaming pine cones, the eagles' farsight saw this which precipitated their inquiry into the raucous. On the other hand, Jackson's butterfly inclusion - one of several carry overs from LOTR - was a very timely resurrection-like clue into Tolkien's writing device. But the battle scene on the ground between Thorin, Bilbo and the white orc drew my chagrin. I understand why Jackson did it - connecting his storyline both before, with Thorin's father's revenge (also a Jackson invention) and the inclusion of Bilbo into their ranks - I just didn't care for it. Both of these things came about in slightly different ways in the book. And the battle sequence made the scene more heroic and less despondent than Tolkien had originally wrote it.

Yet, I enjoyed the eagles and the homeward view of Erebor at the end of the movie; it's a natural transition in the book and made a successful cliff-hanger. Even the thrush made an early, but cleverly scripted, appearance. Here are a few other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed almost as much as a pint of ale from the Green Dragon and a nice pipe full of Longbottom leaf, well, I did say almost.
  • Andy Serkis as Gollum. His return to Middle-Earth was greatly anticipated by fans new and old. I for one, was thrilled with his performance. He brings Gollum to life in much the way my imagination had depicted him. Although I have a good friend from college who could rival Serkis's Gollum voice.
  • Ian McKellen was stellar as always. Although he's been in many other successful films and played the roles well (one of my other favorites being Magneto), he'll always be Gandalf.
  • Martin Freeman captured both the Baggins and the Took side of Bilbo quite well I thought. I've seen him in other movies and shows on the BBC. He brought wit and humor and all the courage and unexpected pleasures I've come to expect from hobbits.
  • The music by Howard Shore. Phenomenal. His capacity for knowing the mood of the scene and conveying it with the appropriate music is unparalleled. I'm looking forward to getting the soundtrack. And the sampling of LOTR music pulled from the trilogy, adjoined to the new music from the hobbit, is a musical wedding feast for the ears.
  • Bag End. Who wouldn't want to live there?! I only hope to have a backyard someday to build a hobbit hole play house for Zoe and I to romp around and have adventures and second breakfast and afternoon tea in together.
  • The dwarves' personality, especially at the unexpected party was cleverly devised. Though Jackson departed from the book in many ways here, he did so, I believe, to convey the inescapable sense of both individuality and communal character of the dwarves. From the costumes to their mannerisms I thought this was well achieved. We got to know the dwarves as Bilbo did, as the road goes ever on.
  • Humor. Some of it was brought out from the book, i.e. the invention of golf. And some of it came through the screenwriters. Either way, it was usually well timed and fitting, adding to the overall joy of the movie and the story.
Now, beyond the "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire" scene, I won't get too nit-picky; too much dissecting and the frog is no good for dinner. Of course there were the usual cases where the movie strays from the story's rich detail, for example: Bilbo met the dwarves at the Green Dragon, not on the road heading out of Hobbiton; Bilbo lost his buttons leaving the cave door surrounded by goblins with Gollum at his heels, not in a crevasse hiding along the way out of the tunnel; and Gandalf was with them in the mountain storm that led them to goblins' doorstep, not following their trail on account of a meeting with the white council. One thing I try - and that I find helpful in drawing a distinction between the books and the movies - is to remember that we're seeing the story told through Jackson's imagination - as we are with any movie. One of the many reasons why it's always good to read the book first. In fact, to this day, one of my favorite professors refuses to see any of the Tolkien movies on the silver screen. He doesn't want his mental  canvas painted by someone's imaginary pallet other than his own. I can respect that, even envy that. I couldn't wait to see the movie. But having read it numerous times, I was confident I could keep the two separate in my mind.

However, in the grand scope of the book, and to Jackson's credit, the predominant amount of time was spent letting Tolkien's work stand on its own. There were even some delightful additions to the story, that helped frame the larger context of the people and events in The Hobbit, much of which came later in Tolkien's writing as Middle-Earth developed, as LOTR took off like one of Radagast's rabbits (a whimsical, but helpful inclusion) and when Tolkien realized that Bilbo Baggins and his adventure were part of that same world and history. The opening scenes included a great deal of Middle-Earth history from both the Silmarillion, indices to LOTR and the wider context of Tolkien's work. This, coupled with the story being told to Frodo as Bilbo writes his book, introduces the viewer to the wide world of Tolkien's imagination and sub-creative genius.

Jackson's movies capture Tolkien's eucatastrophe quite well  -  even when he does add some of his own twists to accentuate the poignant parts. This is even though Jackson and Tolkien come from two very different worldviews. Jackson, not a Christian. Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic. Jackson has even admitted his ignorance about Tolkien's religious worldview on occasion. And yet, despite the clash in metaphysics, Jackson is able to faithfully interpret and convey a hobbit's day full of images and scenes for the viewer to chew on. This simply goes to show that Tolkien's books stand on their own. But the point goes further; they stand on their own precisely because of Tolkien's thematic, mythic stories are grounded in the world of Primary Art, as he called it. Redemption. Sacrifice. Good triumphing over evil. Love. Loyalty. Homecoming. Eucatastrophe. All of these elements in Tolkien's sub-created world of Middle-Earth are reflections of their reality in this created, factual world. His stories are grounded in objective facts: chief among them, the death and resurrection of Christ. In this way, his books are much like Lewis's -albeit in a different mode of storytelling. In any case, fairy stories, such as these, are a Trojan horse and are often able to sneak past those watchful dragons all while declaring and defending the Gospel through pictures and story telling, a visual and literary "sermon." This is what apologists often call apologetics for the tender-minded, or what I have called right brained apologetics - something that is both beautiful and true; and beautiful precisely because it is true, or at least based on factual events, such as Tolkien, Lewis Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers and others were so adept at doing. No wonder I find these books to be my literary home.

Which brings me to my final thought: one other dominant theme brought out and accented throughout the movie was the dwarves' sense of homeless wandering. They were pilgrims, sojourners without the home and heritage they once enjoyed under the Lonely Mountain. This homeward bound theme struck a chord of eucatastrophe with me as I watched the movie. It always has in Tolkien's writings when it appears. Reminds me of something C.S. Lewis once said, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity, p. 136). It's true; we await the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness. And so, the key and map Gandalf brought to Bag End at the outset of The Hobbit opened the way to more than jewels and treasure; they opened the way home.

For in the dwarves' quest for home we see that hole-in-the-heart agony that Augustine talks about. We see a glimpse of the Christian life, the same thing we encounter especially in Advent or at funerals, that tearful, eye-soaked joy of Christian longing for Christ to come quickly even while we know he is already among us. The dwarves' quest and longing for their true home bears a striking similarity to the Christian hope as written in the book of Hebrews: we long for the city whose foundations and builder is God, indeed, the city where there is no temple, only a Lamb standing victorious and yet slain for us men and for our salvation.

You see, in a way, our Lord has both a Baggins and a Took side. In order to bring us to our heavenly home with him, he undertook the greatest adventure possible; indeed, it was impossible for all but him. He walked all the way to the lonely mountain, not Erebor, but Golgotha, for you. And there he defeated the ancient dragon, Satan, for you.

The Son of God goes there and back again for us, bringing a whole company of sinners turned saints with him. He is the Great Burglar, who has broken his way into the dragon's den and has taken back what is rightfully his, you, his greatest treasure. He is also the great Key of David, the reality foreshadowed by Thror's key. Christ holds the keys to Death and Hades. And that's one lock that no one - not even death and hell, the devil and all his minions - will ever be able to pick or break into. The gates of hell will not prevail against this Rock of Christ's body nor the keys he holds in his pierced hands.

O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, You open and and no one can close, You close and no one can open: Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.

In Advent, He comes for you. For He journeyed to the cross, plundered hell and pillaged the grave of their glory by burying the riches of his flesh in the earth. We receive life - home and an eternal heritage - from those jeweled crimson scars on His side and his hands. His diadem of thorns was born for you and He has purchased and won you, not with gold or silver or arkenstones, but with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death that you might be his own and live under him in his kingdom...that you might have a home. In Christ your wicked wandering days are done, your sinful sojourn has ended. Your exile from Paradise is over. Your true home has been prepared for you in the flesh of your Savior, himself the chief Cornerstone. The journey is done. Welcome home. Welcome to rest. Welcome to the road that goes ever on and on, further up and further in - the Highway to our Lord.

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore...But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12)

Gandalf was right when he answered Bilbo's question: “Can you promise I will come back?”  “No... and if you do, you will not be the same.” And neither will anyone who reads The Hobbit, whether you see the movie or not.