Monday, October 13, 2008

A Review of the Lord of the Rings movies

      I have to confess that I never thought that I'd actually be heckled for not updating my blog more frequently than I do. Apparently I was wrong; the world is indeed stranger and more fantastic than I ever imagined. Now that I've been heckled by a certain Tim, who shall remain nameless (no, not you, the other Tim). I have waited a couple months longer to update my blog to prove that such heckling is fruitless. You have to be firm with these Tims (not you either, the other other Tim). In keeping with my theme of procrastination, I am going to talk about a subject that is more than a little overdue: The Lord of the Rings movies. My wife and I recently watched through the extended versions of all three and all the special features as well (it has taken a couple months). Then I recently had a discussion with a friend who is a self-proclaimed Tolkien snob. On the heels of that, I want to put down where I think the movies went right and where they went wrong. In the end, I'll argue that when they went wrong, it was because they didn't understand Tolkien's Christian worldview.

      First, they did a great job on a number of fronts. Obviously, the special effects were amazing. The battle scenes (and the software written to do the big battle scenes) were phenomenal and all the orcs, fell beasts, oliphaunts, and the rest were marvels of modern digital wizardry. Similarly, the scenery, sets, and music were perfect and made amazing backdrops for the story. In terms of characters, they nailed several: Sam, Gollum, Boromir, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, etc. They made appropriate cuts in the story to fit it to film (Tom Bombadil, the burning of the shire) and interweaving of the many divergent storylines (especially in the last two movies). Watching the special features made me appreciate that in many ways the making of the movie was nearly as epic as the story itself.

      There is more to say about the things that they missed and I will do so by starting with how I think the writers misunderstand Tolkien's Christianity. First I think they miss the hand of divine providence and Christian unity and leadership. In the books, there are many providential moments. Merry & Pippin stumble upon the Ents who then take it upon themselves to attack Isengard; Frodo & Sam stumble across Faramir and gain help and counsel. There are also several points where "the good guys" band together to do what must be done. Aragorn leaves Rivendell with the sword of Isildur with the intention of eventually claiming his rightful throne in Gondor. The people of Rohan hole up at Helm's Deep to weather the onslaught of Saruman upon the advice of Gandalf; Faramir sends Frodo & Sam on their way with no desire for the one ring; Gondor lights the beacons and Rohan comes to their aid; Frodo & Sam never lose sight of their agreement that the ring needs to be destroyed.

      Instead of emphasizing the providence of circumstances, the fellowship seems to be fighting the circumstances to bring about the desired result. Merry & Pippin have to trick the ents into attacking Isengard and Frodo & Sam have to convince Faramir that the ring needs to be destroyed. These instances rob the ents of their wisdom. Merry is right in his assessment that the ents are part of the world and that being neutral is being on the side of the enemy. It also makes Faramir turn a second Boromir who can't see the truth of the deception of the ring. There are those over whom the temptation of power has no influence and Faramir should be one of those.

      Similarly, there is much discord about what to do and much questioning of leadership. Aragorn runs away from his claim to the throne of Gondor; Gandalf, Aragon, and the rest try to talk Theoden out of taking refuge at Helm's Deep and then grumble about the choice constantly in front of Theoden's men; Faramir uncharacteristically lusts after the power of the ring; Pippin has to light the beacons behind Denethor's back; and Aragorn has to convince Theoden to answer the beacons; Frodo sends Sam away childishly.

      Most of the time, this is done for suspense, but at what cost? Aragorn becomes a man who has commitment issues; Gandalf becomes a bumbling advisor without insight (Helm's Deep) or respect for authority (Theoden & Denethor); Aragorn, Gimli, & Legolas uncharacteristically undermine the authority of Theoden before a major battle; Theoden becomes a stubborn, crotchety old man; and Frodo becomes a whiny addict without perspective. Gandalf openly mocks Pippin's selfless oath to Denethor, ruining the beauty and innocence of the act and then shows no restraint in arguing with Denethor. In general, few of the characters are able to keep the big picture in mind that there is an evil that needs to be fought that is bigger than any one person's ego.

      Aside from those big thematic issues, I also wanted to mention a problem in a very particular scene: The Mouth of Sauron. Aragorn's response to the taunts of the mouth of Sauron in the movie is to kill him in cold blood. Now Aragorn is no different than Sauron himself who kills because he is displeased. They went through all that earlier with Frodo and Gollum and now they carelessly miss their own point here with Aragorn. The bad guys are bad for the means they use to get to their desired ends as well as for the ends themselves (perhaps even primarily so). My friend the Tolkien snob also argued that they missed the wisdom of Gandalf and the others in seeing that Sauron must not have the ring, even if he did have Frodo since he had not yet taken over the world. I am not convinced that they didn't realize this in the movie, but they certainly didn't make a point of it.

      There are more issues, but these are the biggest in my mind and very Christian in their nature. God doesn't call the equipped, He equips the called; sometimes Christian action means acting taking up the authority that God has given you and sometimes it means submitting to the authority of another person, but it never means grumbling about it or running away from it; contemplation and good counsel lead to wise action; stick to your principles because they may be able to kill you, but only you can lose your soul. As Dr. John Hannah recently said, "I used to think that bad people did bad things for bad reasons, but now I realize that good people do bad things for very good reasons."