Caught in our own web of cultural inferiority complexes, woven with heavy strands of Anglophilia, we’ve been perhaps overly timid about criticizing our presumed spiritual and cultural betters. Erant gigantes: there were giants in those days. Or were there? Well, yes, but as brilliant authors or as theologians? We’ve had T. S. Eliot, the quintessential English poet from St. Louis, offering the paperback mysticism of East Coker, Evelyn Waugh with his withering but universal satire waiting for a sign, Graham Greene’s searching for redemption in a world more noted for malice than goodness and the Oxford dons C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, so dissatisfied with their contemporary world that they preferred to create alternate universes populated with creatures more to their liking than real people.
Talented without question, but what a dyspeptic lot to construct an idealized world of Christianity embodied in musty chapels, Latin incantations, candles reflecting on soot-covered walls and stale incense clinging to the rafters, nostalgia that borders on corrosive medievalism. As the church in America struggled to grow out of its own adulation of what one U.S. writer, James J. Walsh (1865-1942), called The ThirteenthGreatest of Centuries (1907), we continued to read with reverence our English cousins, who might possibly have upgraded our greatest century to the 19th, but certainly not to the 20th. Fortunately for them, and probably for us, all of them, with the exception of Greene, left this messy human arena before the Second Vatican Council worked most of its mischief. Imagine the take any one of them would have done on liturgies with guitars, handshakes or woman ministers.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie, provides a perfect comeuppance for J. R. R. Tolkien and his commonroom cronies. It is a loud and vulgar comic book. The first volume of a trilogy that reputedly cost $300 million, this monumental epic by the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson provides fair warning of the subsequent installments to be released into the next two Christmas-season markets.
To avoid any misunderstanding, a few distinctions may be helpful. My negative reaction scarcely stems from the filmmakers’ determination to de-Christianize the story to avoid offending any potential market segment, since the Christianity of the original holds little attraction for me in the first place. The director, Peter Jackson, and his co-writers, Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, can select whatever elements they want from a novel to make their film work. Any film critic who knows the difference between a sprocket hole and a product tie-in understands that. Nor do I fall back on that inept and misguided critical cliché, It’s not as good as the book. (Of course not. It’s a movie. Would anyone say the painting is not as good as the ballet?) It’s been a few decades since I looked at the book. I have no mountain of youthful nostalgia to surmount.
One can, however, set aside the theological, historical and literary baggage and try to look at the film in itself. At least in theory, that is possible, and that is what I will attempt here.
Getting a 1,200-page novel moving on the screen takes a great deal of voice-over narration. Before, during and after the opening credits, off-screen voices explain about rings here, rings there, dwarfs, elves, hobbits, wars, devastation and centuries until at last it boils the mass down to the one super-ring. This takes a long 15 minutes, but since the adventure will last fully three hours, the initial investment is reasonable. Reasonable, but confusing and dull.
At last the camera settles into The Shire, a land populated by hobbits, who might be described as leprechauns with big hairy feet rather than little pointy green shoes. This observation should not be construed as merely an un-P.C. attack on the wee folk. Some of my relatives are reputedly descended from leprechauns. It is, however, an indication of a fundamental problem with the conception of the film. The hobbits are live actors wearing extraordinary costumes, like self-propelled special effects demonstrations, right down to their hairy latex feet. What’s the problem? Movie actors, and to some extent stage actors as well, have always dressed as monsters or aliens or elves.
In this film, however, the live actors inhabit a world of fields and mountains, caves and chasms largely generated by very good and very expensive computer technology. This places us in a universe that neither commands the full assent to fantasy that an animated feature might, nor in a realm of living persons who invite us to share their human struggles. By contrast, a fairy story in a book faces no such dilemma. Writers devise creatures and their settings that exist only in the imagination of the individual reader. Filmmakers are not so lucky. They have to do the creating themselves, by putting light and color up on the screen and then bringing their viewers into this world they have devised with their wonderful technologies. If they can’t get the viewer into the screen, the film doesn’t work. I stayed firmly planted in my seat.
Comic books as a rule have little interest in building characters. Elijah Wood, as the hobbit hero Frodo Baggins, seems to be a fine young actor, but his round face, large eyes and tiny nose, redesigned with fairy makeup, give him the look more of an animated figure than a living person. In that netherworld between the human and the cartoon, he generates little depth in his character. Does anyone really care what motivates him, or what happens to him as he goes about his work of saving the universe? Similarly, as midway betwixt flesh and fantasy, two very fine veteran actors, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit elder, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the good wizard, forge few bonds of sympathy with their audience. Their eventual passing from the scene provokes a shrug rather than a tear.
The filmmakers clearly find character and plot less compelling than action, which is after all the heart of videogames and comic books. The characters and the plot outline merely provide a plausible bridge to move the reader or viewer from one action sequence to the next. And good grief, what action! Armies of monster orcs, drooling slime, slash and hack their adversaries to pieces. Severed heads and limbs bounce gaily across the screen. The sound level loosened several fillings from my teeth. Moments of quiet allow us to prepare for the next onslaught of hideous monsters, refugees all from a Japanese comic book. Any lunatic who suggests that this mayhem is a delightful fairy story for childreneven those who loved the bookshould receive the Wicked Witch of the West Medallion for Demonic Parenting.
The ending of the first installment of any trilogy has to leave a few loose ends to pick up in the next episode. Soap operas and those old Saturday matinee serials refined the technique into a predictable art form. Fellowship, however, simply unravels. The band of warriors goes off on a seemingly peripheral rescue mission, while Frodo continues the central quest with an entirely new strategy. After all these breathless battles, this new phase of the journey promises to be quite dull, even if one can remember the importance of accomplishing whatever it is Frodo wants to accomplish. Fellowship doesn’t end; it only stops to catch its breath.
This may be a minority opinion. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will probably receive several Academy Award nominations. It’s the kind of important movie that Academy members love. Even though it’s not my cup of hobbit ale, to say the least, I would agree that it deserves recognition for its cinematography, design, special effects and sound recording. After all, this is the age of postmodern filmmaking, with the triumph of form over content, the exaltation of the magnificently wrapped empty box.
Perhaps, somewhere in the cloudy realms of the afterlife, Eliot, Waugh, Lewis, Greene and of course Tolkien will one day invite me into the faculty room for sherry, when we can all sit together and harrumph about all things modern. What would they have to say about this movie? It would be fun to listen and take notes.