The Hobbit—Reactions from a Unapologetic but Open-Minded Tolkien Geek

Not this blog’s usual fare, but hey, ’tis the season to be jolly.  Especially when we can again look forward to three Christmases with new Tolkien films! (Warning: Like the film(s) in question, this review has become rather bloated, from a quick two cents to a rambling, occasionally theological, two thousand words….)

—The critics, as usual, have it wrong.  Yes, they’re right the the film is too long, the exposition too ponderous, but they’re wrong that the problem lies in the slow opening, in Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in the Shire.  On the contrary, Jackson, Freeman, McKellen, and Co. are in top form in these opening scenes, and would probably have made Tolkien himself proud with their faithful recreation of Tolkien’s endearing account of a peaceful hobbit existence rudely interrupted by an outlandish and frightfully un-respectable band of dwarves.  And as for the critics who declared that the problem was that Jackson had insisted on being scrupulously faithful to the book, I feel quite confident they must have never read it.  

—Why, oh why, were almost all the reviews of The Hobbit so preoccupied with the new 48 fps format and how awful it supposedly looked?  As it turns out, only a small fraction of the showings are being done in 48 fps, so most fans can, and will, see the film without this distraction.  That many critics decided to spend half of their reviews dissecting the look of this technology, and in many cases, panned the movie based primarily on this one consideration, just shows that they’re too lazy to actually do their job and analyze a film. 

—Peter Jackson isn’t out for more cash.  Or at any rate, that’s not his primary motivation at least; that much seemed clear to me pretty quickly.  A loud chorus of critics have maligned his choice to expand one short book into three long films as a cynical cash grab.  And while the choice does need maligning, the motive is clearly megalomania, not greed.  I mean, if money maximization were the goal, he would’ve made three two-hour films, not three-hour films, right?  The reason Jackson turned a moderate-length children’s book into a sprawling epic is because he sees himself as the authoritative expositor of Tolkien’s world, and hence sees The Hobbit as an opportunity to lift the curtain again on Middle Earth and present that world to us on its full scale, which is clearly an epic scale, tricked out with many layers of detail and backstory.  Peter Jackson determined that if he was going to take us back to Middle-Earth, it was going to be the fully-formed Middle Earth, not the rambly, goofy, occasionally half-baked version of 1937, which afforded mere fleeting glimpses of the tapestry that lay behind.  

While it’s easy to mock, though, this was in fact a respectable decision to make. Indeed it seemed to me, when the film was first announced, that it would be very hard indeed to go backwards—to start with the fully-formed, internally-consistent world of the Lord of the Rings, and then go back to the haphazard children’s tale that was The Hobbit, complete with stone giants, trolls that turn to stone, and a man who can change into a bear.  Audiences would just be puzzled.  Jackson would have to grow The Hobbit up, bring it onto a similar plane as The Lord of the Rings.  The result is certainly awkward in many places, but we should be grateful that Jackson at least relied largely on Tolkien’s own hints (in places like the Appendices to Lord of the Rings and in The Unfinished Tales) to accomplish the filling-out and growing-up.  

—That said, Jackson has not given up on the more playful air of The Hobbit.  This comes out particularly in the action sequences, which are almost all of the Legolas-surfing-down-an-oliphaunt level of ridiculousness, generously punctuated by dubious punch-lines.  The troll scene, thankfully, is fantastically handled.  And we do get the stone-giants!  

—Elijah Wood wasn’t bad at all for what Jackson was trying to do with Frodo in LotR.  But he was a terrible Frodo, not remotely hobbitish.  Martin Freeman, on the other hand, was born to be Bilbo.  Kudos to Jackson on the casting.  Andy Serkis again blows the lid off in his Gollum performance

—No Orlando Bloom?  No problem.  We now have sexy heartthrob super-archer Aidan Turner  as Kili.

—In this film, what should already have been clear from LotR became glaringly obvious: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens can’t write dialogue to save their lives.  In the LotR trilogy, one usually had little trouble telling which lines came straight out of Tolkien’s text and which ones Jackson and Co. had cooked up, with the latter at times proving grotesquely corny.  Fortunately, the ratio of source material to film time was great enough with LotR that Jackson and Co. very often could simply cut-and-paste, leaving their own inventions to splice narrow and inconsequential gaps.  Here, however, there are whole scenes, some of them fairly important, where the dialogue has been fabricated out of whole Jackson/Walsh/Boyens cloth, and the product ain’t pretty.

—I enjoyed watching the makeup crew’s attempts to prevent characters from Lord of the Rings from looking like they’d aged in the ten years since that film.  In most cases, they were reasonably successful, although Cate Blanchett must’ve needed a few Botox injections.  Christopher Lee, however, looked like he had been exhumed from his coffin and propped up in a chair to play out one last scene or two as Saruman.  And no wonder—the man’s 90.  Yikes.

—There were bushels full of treats for the true Tolkien nerd, moments that made your inner geek wriggle with pleasure.  Jackson has taken at least as much care as he did with Lord of the Rings to populate this world with the backstory people and places that bring it to life:  The Necromancer, the Five Wizards, Dain in the Iron Hills, The Blue Mountains, the battle in which the Witch-King was destroyed, Mount Gundabad, Azog.  We get the “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song.  We get the little story about how Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took knocked off the head of Golfimbul at the Battle of Greenfields and sent it sailing into a rabbit-hole, thus inventing the game of golf.  We meet Orcrist and Glamdring, and even hear about how they were forged for the king of Gondolin by the High Elves in the First Age, warming the hearts of those of us for whom the name of Gondolin sent a strange thrill up our spines when first we encountered it on reading The Hobbit in early youth.  And we even get to see the Great Goblin shriek, upon seeing them, “AAGGH!  Biter and Beater are here!”  My personal favorite geek moment, only mildly marred by the alteration of key details of the narrative, was the inclusion, in a narrative of Balin, of the Battle of Azanulbizar, “or Nanduhirion, in the Elvish tongue, at the memory of which Orcs still shudder and Dwarves still weep.”  Alas that it was neither named, nor that matchless line included—although we did get treated to “for our dead were beyond the count of grief.”

—On the other hand, there were moments aplenty to rankle my inner geek, chief among them the reductio of the White Council to absurdum.  This has to go down as the worst scene in the film.  Although there are no shortage of reasons for its failure, chief among them is the idiotic flatness of Saruman’s character.  He comes across as exactly the same complacent, deceptive, arrogant jerk that he was in Lord of the Rings.  Now, in Lord of the Rings, that was just about right.  But the point is that he wasn’t always that way, as Gandalf is keen to emphasize.  He was, we are told, originally worthy of his title, and truly great, even if always a bit proud and overly inquisitive about evil.  Jackson’s inability to trace the lineaments of his character, to convincingly render his corruption from nobility to depravity, display the same lack of moral imagination that was so egregiously apparent in Jackson’s rendering of Denethor in Return of the King.

—Azog was pretty darn freaky, although his menacing declarations in Gobbledigook, in which the camera would zoom dramatically in on his face while the subtitles revealed some vapid variant on “I want that dwarf scum dead,” made him seem more ridiculous than intimidating at times.

—Radagast was a bit ridiculous, and most of the more fanciful liberties that Jackson took with the plot involved him.  But Sylvester McCoy’s performance was so delightfully eccentric that I can’t complain.

—Azog deserves a moment or two more of reflection.  Betraying Peter Jackson’s relative lack of imagination, Azog played a role that was a virtual carbon-copy of “Lurtz” in The Fellowship of the Ring—ghastly giant orc of absurd strength and invulnerability, hell-bent on the pursuit and destruction of the traveling company, who makes a far greater number of screen appearances than necessary, just to add an element of menace to the tale.  Unlike Lurtz, Azog is not a pure Jacksonian invention, but a mere simplification of Tolkien’s original, in which it was Bolg son of Azog who was the sworn enemy of the Dwarves; but Bolg played a much smaller role in the book than does Azog here.  So what gives?  Why Lurtz?  Why Azog?  

Both represent, it seems to me, attempts to personify evil, to give us a traditional Hollywood villain (albeit a rather flat, grotesque, and bestial one).  This is something that Tolkien notably fails to do in his stories.  Saruman incarnates not so much evil per se as the banality of evil.  Sauron, and in the Silmarillion, Morgoth are the only real personifications of evil—they are evil itself, and are almost forces, rather than agents in the full sense of the term.  Their minions, for Tolkien, warrant very little attempt at character development.  Why?  Because they have no character.  Tolkien is Augustinian.  Evil is nothingness, evil is that which effaces, which depersonalizes.  It preys upon that which is good and leaves behind it only an absence.  Jackson, however, is much more Manichaean.  Evil is an active presence and takes form in evil agents who are strict counterparts to the good agents.  The murkiness of evil in Tolkien’s universe cries out, in Jackson’s universe, for clearer definition and positive reality.  The result, however, seems bizarre and incongruous, for Jackson makes no effort to alter Tolkien’s portrayal of evil as fundamentally irrational and absurd.  Thus we end up with villains like Lurtz and Azog, who seem to combine a surfeit of personal malevolent purpose with a lack of any rational motive behind that purpose.  

—Perhaps this Manicheanism provides an explanation for the pathetic portrayal of Saruman mentioned above.  Jackson cannot grasp the idea that evil was not always evil, but is a corruption of native goodness.  He has no room in his world for a flawed nobility that descended, by corruption of the will, into folly and wickedness.  The evil characters just are evil, and always have been.  

—Prospects going forward?  I expect that Pt. 2 will take us up to when Bilbo meets Smaug, and Pt. 3 will be devoted to Smaug’s rampage and death and an extremely elaborate buildup to and then recreation of the Battle of Five Armies.  Expect a generous dollop of tedium and tackiness, but with enough nuggets of true Tolkien or Martin Freeman brilliance and enough visual splendor to make it worthwhile.


Top 50 Movies of the Past Decade

I cannot, of course, claim to tell you what The Top 50 Movies of the Past Decade were, since that would require my having seen all the movies there were; I can only tell you what my Top 50 were, which is of only limited use unless you know which movies aren’t on the list because I didn’t see them, and which aren’t there because I didn’t think they were good enough.  But, as this is a list I have been meaning to make for awhile, and I have a blog on which I can share such things, I will do so, useful or not.  A few things you should know:

The “Past Decade” designates to all of the movies that came out between roughly the end of 2001, which was the point in my life where I first began to make a point of watching good movies, and roughly the end of 2011.  Documentaries and TV miniseries are excluded, although many are among my favorites.  “Top” movies are determined primarily by my (admittedly rough) standard of storytelling and filmmaking excellence, but also, to a lesser extent, by how downright enjoyable they were (hence the relatively high ranking for the original Pirates of the Caribbean), and in some cases, by how much I appreciated the argument the film was making (this, for instance, obviously helps the ranking of The Tree of Life).  Necessarily, it is also determined by how much impact the film made on me when I saw it, even if my artistic sensibilities have changed since.   Also note that while these are ranked in order, this ordering is only accurate to +/- 2 ranks (which is why I haven’t shown the numbers).  So a movie here ranked 9th might be as high as 7th or as low as 11th if I remade this list next week.  This is particularly important to note for the top 3, among which I really can’t pick a favorite.   But enough of the blather.  Here they are:

1-10

Shutter Island

Inception

The Tree of Life

The King’s Speech

The Dark Knight

Slumdog Millionaire

The Departed

Gran Torino

Oasis

LotR: Return of the King

 

11-20

LotR: Fellowship of the Ring

Downfall

The Ides of March

The Descendants

Wall-E

LotR: Two Towers

Memento

Michael Clayton

Hotel Rwanda

The Queen

 

21-30

A Beautiful Mind

The Passion of the Christ

Stranger than Fiction

Unbreakable

The Prestige

Toy Story 3

The Aviator

Up

Serenity

Cinderella Man

 

31-40

True Grit

Moulin Rouge

The Pianist

Pirates of the Caribbean

The Social Network

No Country for Old Men

The Last King of Scotland

Se7en

Walk the Line

Signs

 

41-50

Road to Perdition

Dan in Real Life

The Blind Side

The Illusionist

V for Vendetta

Juno

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Catch Me if You Can

Blood Diamond

 

Honorable Mention (in no particular order): 

Minority Report

We Were Soldiers

Black Hawk Down

Avatar

The Constant Gardener

Finding Nemo

Children of Men

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1

3:10 to Yuma

The Last Samurai

Amelie

The Incredibles

Tangled

Ratatouille

Monster’s Inc

 

And, the Ten Best Movies I’ve Seen in the Past Decade that Weren’t Made in the Past Decade

 1. The Godfather

2. The Godfather, Pt. II

3. Twelve Angry Men

4. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)

5. Forrest Gump

6. Manon des Sources

7. Jean de Florette

8. The Silence of the Lambs

9. Schindler’s List

10. The Mission


De-Theologizing Harry (or, The Death of the Death of Death)

On Thursday night, I had the privilege of seeing the final Harry Potter movie in the city where the books were conceived and written, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how faithfully this last crucial film reflected the rich theology of J.K. Rowling’s creation.  I should mention that I was, until the very last book, something of a Potter skeptic, unconvinced that the books were anything more than a fun and overhyped story.  But in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was bowled over by the overt and profound Christological elements, which were so prominent that it seemed impossible that they could be integrated without overwhelming the story and turning it into a sermon.  That they did not do so is a remarkable tribute to Rowling’s literary prowess.  Following the logic of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the final book revealed that the magical world of wonder that Harry inhabited was not all there was–there was a deeper magic, which overturned all the calculations of the magical world. 

But the question was, could Hollywood grasp this deep magic?  It had failed abysmally in the recent Narnia adaptations, sucking all traces of theology out with startling efficiency.  The less overt theology of Lord of the Rigns had escaped somewhat more intact, though still crucially undermined at points.  Whether intentionally or simply out of blindness, Hollywood shows itself remarkably adept at de-theologizing stories, and converting them, so far as possible, into some kind of feel-good humanism.  I had a suspicion, especially after Deathly Hallows Part One, that this supremely theological tale would be no exception.  Alas, I guessed rightly. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

Now don’t get me wrong.  From a strictly cinematic standpoint, and indeed from the standpoint of fidelity to the book, this film was, to my mind, all that could be wished for through its first 100 minutes or so.  Even after that, I think it would be quite a decent film to anyone who hadn’t read the book.  But these last 20 minutes, encompassing the part after Harry dies and Rowling cranks up the theology into high gear, subtly but systematically removed four key elements of these final chapters, which I shall call “The Death of Death,” “The Life of the Age to Come,” “The Atonement,” “The Last Judgment.”  Note that not everything I sketch here is explicit in the book, and indeed, Rowling seeks to explain each of these phenomena in terms that make sense within the world of the book–this is literature, not a sermon, or even an allegory.  However, I am fairly sure that I am reading each of these out of the book, not into it.

 

The Death of Death

What is it that happens when Harry gives himself up to death, and why is he able to come back from the dead?  Well, in answer to the first question, we could certainly say that the Horcrux that is within Harry is destroyed; Voldemort is rendered vulnerable.  This alone is rich with theological significance.  Harry destroys the power of sin and death by bearing it within himself, and letting it die with him, just as Christ identifies himself with sin and fallenness, bearing it to the cross (does anyone think it’s a coincidence that Harry finds himself at “King’s Cross” at his death?) where it can be destroyed by dying with him.  But if that were all, there would be no reason why Harry would have to knowingly and willingly give himself up; as long as Voldemort killed Harry in battle, one way or another, the Horcrux destruction would be accomplished.  And yet great stress is laid in the book on the necessity that Harry voluntarily take this death upon himself.  He must give himself up to death.  Nor, if it were merely about destroying the Horcrux, would there be any reason he should come back from the dead, just as, from the standpoint of Christian theology, if redemption was merely the expiation of sin at the cross, it’s hard to see what significance the resurrection has.  

To fully grasp what’s going on at this point in the book, we have to think of the significance of the Deathly Hallows, which are after all what the book is all about.  The theme of the book is established many chapters earlier, at Godric’s Hollow, with the twin New Testament passages, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Harry wants to destroy the power of death, to become the master of death, but the way in which he does so is crucial.  It matters where his treasure is, what it is that he truly values.  If he wants to overcome death for himself, to set himself up as its master, then he will be little better than Voldemort.  This is the symbolism of the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes, which is built up throughout the earlier chapters of the book and comes to a razor-sharp point at Shell Cottage.  Harry recognizes that he must choose between pursuing the Hallows, overcoming the power of death by taking to himself more power than death, or by embracing the route of powerlessness, the long hard path of destroying the Horcruxes, which means eventually giving himself up to death on behalf of others.  (This fascinating dialectic is almost completely left out in the film The Deathly Hallows Part One, and so its resonances are absent at the crucial moment in Part Two, and the extensive conversation on this point between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross is omitted.)

Harry is to become the master of death, but master not by setting himself over it but by putting himself under it.  Death exhausts its force by being poured out on him, the one who willingly seeks it for himself to save others.  Love is stronger than death.  “But I should have died–I didn’t defend myself!  I meant to let him kill me!” Harry exclaims. “And that,” Dumbledore replies, “will, I think, have made all the difference.”  This enigmatic comment is left unexplained, but for the reader looking for an explanation within the existing logic of the books, Harry’s cheating of death is explained in terms of the power of Harry’s blood, itself clearly rich with theological overtones.  The power of love in his mother’s sacrifice is in his blood, and although Voldemort took Harry’s blood to weaken Harry and strengthen himself, in this blood is the power of life that makes it impossible for Voldemort to finally kill Harry. 

In short, in Harry’s death, we witness the death of death in his own death.  Like Christ, “death has no more dominion over him.”  What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow.  But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected.  Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort.  And this resurrection must be no mere “rescuscitation,” it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold (more on this in the next section).

All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.

In the film?  Nope.  In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, “So, can I go back?”  To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, “Well, if you want to.”  Why should he be able to go back?  On what basis?  Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to?  No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work.  Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant.  The following features will show, I think, that I am not reading too much into this omission.  

 

The Life of the Age to Come

When Harry comes back to life, it is not merely a reversal, a resuscitation.  He comes back as one who has passed through death and come out on the other side.  Now, clearly Rowling does not make too much of this.  This is a story, not a sermon, and Harry is, for purposes of the story, just a regular old human being, not the God-man.  He will go on to live a normal life, and presumably to grow old and eventually die again.  Nonetheless, the sense that “death has no dominion over him” anymore is conveyed in several ways.  

After he comes back, Voldemort, thinking him dead, triumphs over his body by casting the Cruciatus Curse, which ought to inflict unspeakable pain on any living thing.  However, Harry is impervious, he feels no pain.  Voldemort’s magic can no longer affect him.  For this reason, Harry can now face Voldemort without fear.  It is not as if he has now merely nullified Voldemort’s advantage and now comes back to fight him on equal terms.  The terms are completely unequal.  Voldemort has no chance, and Harry knows it.  The game is up.  “You must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine,” says Voldemort.  Harry replies, “I believe both.”  Nor does Harry even have to cast a killing curse–Voldemort’s simply rebounds upon himself and he is destroyed. In the book, this is explained primarily in terms of the logic of the Elder Wand, and its change of allegiance.  The Elder Wand, the greatest of the Deathly Hallows, represents the power of mastery over death, the power that Harry has refused to try and seize.  And nonetheless, it has been granted him, in a roundabout fashion, ultimately because of Dumbledore’s self-sacrificial renunciation of it.  But in any case, the upshot is that Harry now, having given himself up to death, has been vindicated as the true master of death, against whom Voldemort has no power.  

Contrast this to the movie.  Here, there is no hint that we have anything but a rescuscitation, an unexplained but convenient mechanism for Harry to return to fight another day, so that Round Two can commence, and the special effects guys can go crazy for another battle scene.  The battle that commences is not one that, as in the book, is essentially futile from the start (for Voldemort), but one in which Voldemort still seems to have the upper hand.  Harry is running and dodging, the snake is striking at people (instead of being decapitated right at the beginning of the sequence), and nothing really seems to have changed.  Voldemort and Harry grapple together, and when their wands finally do meet, it takes some time before Harry can overpower and thus destroy Voldemort.  Instead, in short, of a narrative in which the decisive victory has already been achieved by the renunciation of force, Harry triumphs, it seems, by superior force in a final closely contested showdown.

It’s also worth noting one little sequence in the movie that runs quite counter to the theo-logic I’ve sketched here. Voldemort comes into the castle courtyard with Harry’s body, exulting over his triumph, and Neville steps forward to challenge him.  Neville tells Voldemort that Harry hasn’t really died, because he lives in each of them, in their hearts.  He is still with them in spirit, and so it really makes no difference.  They will still fight.  Now, to be sure, in the book, the defenders of the castle are still defiant, but they are utterly downcast.  They may not want to submit, but it is clear that Harry’s death does make a difference.  Harry being truly alive and Harry being “alive in their hearts” are not the same thing, just as, contra modern liberal Christianity, Christ being resurrected and him living on in the disciples’ hearts are not the same thing.  As Paul says in Corinthians, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”

 

The Atonement

One of the most beautiful parts in the book is the revelation that just as the death of Harry’s mother protected him, so Harry’s giving himself up to death on behalf of his friends means that they are covered by his death, they are, as it were, atoned for.  The sentence of death was on each of them, unless Harry went to die himself.  He does so, and the power of evil and death no longer has any hold on them either.

“‘You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,’ said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red.  ‘You won’t be able to kill any of them, ever again.  Don’t you get it?  I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people. –‘ 

‘But you did not!’ 

‘–I meant to, and that’s what did it.  I’ve done what my mother did.  They’re protected from you.  Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding?  You can’t torture them.  You can’t touch them.'” 

This is one of the most overtly Christian ideas in the book, and is entirely omitted in the movie.  There is no sense that Voldemort no longer has power against Harry’s friends.  Quite the contrary–he is still a terrifying force, striking at will, with, it appears, a very real chance of triumphing.  

 

The Last Judgment

Finally, we come to the only change from the book that has been significantly remarked upon, because this one is too obvious to miss.  In the book, Harry faces down Voldemort in the Great Hall, in the presence of all.  Everyone falls silent and stops their fighting and watches the final encounter.  And instead of simply going for each other, Harry and Voldemort have a conversation.  Only at the end, when Harry has laid everything bare, does he engage and destroy Voldemort.  In the movie, the final showdown occurs alone, in a courtyard, with no one watching or listening, and only a minimum of conversation.  

Is there any significance to this?  I think there is.  

For what we have at the end is not so much a battle as a judgment.  As I have said, Harry has for all practical purposes already triumphed.  He has passed through death, he has overpowered death, he is the lord of the Elder Wand.  What remains is simply for him to exhibit this triumph.  All of this, I think, is theologically significant.  At the end of the age, Christ will not simply snap his fingers and wipe out evil, and everyone will live happily ever after.  No, he will be publicly vindicated, as will all his saints.  All evil deeds will be brought to light and laid bare, and the righteous will shine for all to see.  The lies of ages will be unravelled, and the truth will finally be spoken for all to hear.  The spell of deception which the Evil One has laid upon the world will be broken.  The wicked will be given one final chance to repent (or not, depending on your precise theology).  Christ will be publicly proclaimed as the true Lord of Ages, and he will name the Evil One for who he really is.  In short, just judgment will at last be given.  

All of this happens in that final showdown in the book.  It is crucial that Harry be publicly vindicated as the righteous one, the one who gave himself up to save the world, and that Voldemort be named for who he is–Tom Riddle, a coward.  The truth will finally be told about Dumbledore and about Severus Snape–the righteous will be vindicated, and Voldemort’s lies about them finally unraveled.  Harry will warn Voldemort of the terrible end that awaits him, and summon him to a last repentance, but in vain.  Voldemort’s claims to supremacy will be shown to be empty, and Harry revealed as the true lord of the Elder Wand. 

Although I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing when they altered this showdown, I think they were instinctively flinching from the intolerably eschatological nature of it all.  For the modern, the battle against evil, insomuch as there is one, is one that we each have to fight within ourselves, is one in which we are each alone and each victory is ours alone.  The idea of a final public confrontation, a judgment in which the nature of evil is laid bare for all to see, is foreign and unacceptable.  Nor can the modern handle the revelation of true lordship.  We saw this in Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies, in the watering down of the idea of kingship.  So it is here.  Harry’s supposed to be someone with whom we can all identify, and in the very last scene, he appears just a little too lordly.  Suddenly he is revealed as the guy who holds all the cards, so to speak, who suddenly has access to all kinds of truths that we as readers are still trying to figure out.  No doubt the filmmakers felt that audiences really wouldn’t be able to relate to such a transfigured Harry, and so the final confrontation must be no more than a last personal showdown between Harry and his nemesis.

 

As for the other changes, I can only speculate whether the filmmakers were intentionally de-theologizing or whether they really just didn’t get it.  Sadly, based upon the way in which reviewers have reacted to the film and endorsed the ending, I’m afraid it’s the latter.  Perhaps this is, if anything, more disturbing–to live in a society which is no longer reacting against or fleeing from God, but has just forgotten how to even recognize Him



Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).

 

So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.

 

Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.

 

 

KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.

 

There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.



Documentary Round-Up Pt. 2: Down with Wal-Mart and McDonalds!

Whereas the documentary in the first post, Inside Job, took on the behemoths of the American banking industry, and did it very effectively, these next two documentaries likewise sought to expose the dark underbelly of American corporate giants–two of the most iconic: Wal-Mart and McDonalds–but were less effective in their execution.

The High Cost of Low Price
Message: 4.5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 2.5/5
Cinematography: 1/5

This film is an attack on Wal-Mart’s business practices, pointing out, essentially, that the wonderful benefits to American society of being able to buy $10 cardigans and $5 earbuds do not come without a price.  Obvious, perhaps, yet it is stunning how many ardent defenders Wal-Mart still has.  The movie covers the obvious bases–running small businesses into the ground and destroying downtowns, appalling Third World labor conditions, barely liveable pay for First World Wal-Mart employees–along with some less obvious ones–poor security at Wal-Mart parking lots leading to high crime rates, very poor environmental standards, for instance.  All of this is very much a story that needs to be told.

Unfortunately, it was clearly told on a very low budget by a very under-competent director.  The film quality is quite poor and worst of all is the sound mixing–there are many points where you simply cannot hear what the interviewees are saying because of over-loud background noise or music.  Of course, that’s no great loss, because they often don’t have anything very interesting or intelligent to say, generally offering little more than subjective personal experiences, which, although readily believable, doesn’t carry much weight in a company with 2 million employees.  That is, of course, the line of defense that anyone inclined to contest this film’s premise could easily take: yes, abuses have happened–bad labor practices, bad environmental practices, etc., but Wal-Mart is just so enormous that of course there will be instances of such–that doesn’t mean they are systemic or intentional.  The movie offers some evidence and statistics to prove that they are in many cases, but it might not be compelling to people otherwise inclined to trust Wal-Mart.  To really prove his point, the director would have needed to secure interview with more highly-placed people who could bring damning evidence against the company on a macro level.  

The other line that Wal-Mart defenders might take is, “Well, sure, Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees much, sure it cuts some corners, sure it drives small retailers out of business, but that’s what’s necessary in order to supply its customers with really cheap products, and that helps so many struggling people make ends meet.”  A distributist would be appalled at the absurdity of this defence, but it is the common one among right-wing defenders of Wal-Mart.  The director undercuts this line of defence, however, near the very end of the film when he looks at how much money the Wal-Mart executives make, and how fantastically rich the Walton family is.  It turns out that Wal-Mart could keep its prices just as low and still afford to pay its workers a much more livable wage, if the lucky few on top weren’t trying to live like emperors.  A deeper way of refuting this objection (and perhaps this is beyond the scope of a documentary), though, would be to argue that getting the cheapest products is not the best thing for a society–that the whole business model of a Wal-Mart, convincing the consumer to substitute quantity for quality, is destructive to society.  But for that, perhaps we should all just go read The Human Condition.

Super Size Me
 Message: 4/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 3.5/5
Cinematography: 3.5/5

Yep, believe it or not, I’d never gotten around to seeing this before.  Since it was almost entirely first-person in focus, it was very fun and engaging, and did not require the first-class cinematography of an Inside Job in order to hold the viewer’s attention or make its argument.  It was also, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows the premise, nauseating almost the whole way through.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the premise, here it is: A guy named Morgan Spurlock, curious about the lawsuits against McDonalds, decides to test out just how unhealthy McDonald’s food really is.  So, with thorough health monitoring throughout the process, he embarks on a month-long binge of eating only McDonalds food–breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The result–a man in exemplary good health manages to run his body into the ground, putting himself at serious risk of liver failure by the end of the month–was to me at least hardly surprising.  I mean, what else would you expect from an exclusively McDonalds diet?  

What was surprising–and really disturbing–about the film was the fact that it was surprising–to the doctors involved.  At the beginning of the process, Spurlock asks his physicians what ill effects they expect.  Not much, they say–modest weight gain is about it.  By two-thirds of the way through, they’re begging him to stop for his own safety, and at the end, they confess they had no idea that fast food could do that much damage to a person, though in hindsight it makes sense.  This is a damning indictment of the vacuum of nutritional knowledge (or even common sense) among the medical professionals that we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate.  

Of course, the film does not really do all that much to improve this situation.  There is very little discussion of just why it is that this food is so bad for him–his liver in particular.  Spurlock and the doctors vaguely chalk it up to a “high-fat diet,” but clearly fat per se is not the problem.  A bit is said about the degree of processing that fast food goes through, but not much.  I would’ve been interested to see a more thoroughgoing exposure of all of the things that go into making this food so unnatural and so unhealthy, instead of simply blaming it all on fat.  For this, Food, Inc. is a better starting point.   

The most interesting part of the movie, to me, were the interspersed bits of investigation into McDonalds’s marketing practices, and an interview with a spokesman for the lobbying firm that represents America’s food industry.  His defence, of course, and the standard line of defence for free marketeers that want to defend the American food industry, is to say that businesses’s responsibility is simply to make sure to get all the relevant “information” out there–to make sure that the public is well-informed about their products.  If consumers choose not to take advantage of this information, or, having consulted it, choose to buy their products, then they are solely responsible for the effects.  

This is hogwash on at least three levels, and yet it is utterly pervasive among free marketeers today.  First, it is simply not true that the food industry, particularly the fast food industry, wants to get all the relevant information out there to every consumer–on the contrary, it requires thorough and aggressive research, such as that underlying Food, Inc. to get to the bottom of many of its dirty secrets.  Second, it is absurd to say that as long as a company tells you that it is selling something it knows to be harmful, then there is no ethical problem with it continuing to sell it.  If that were so, then why prosecute drug dealers?  If we believe that we have any responsibilities for our neighbor’s good, then surely we must believe that it is wrong to knowingly help another person harm themselves (and make money off it!), even if they choose to do so.

Third, it is based upon the myth of the consumer as a rational, independent choosing agent, who requires only to be informed with relevant facts, so that he can make his purchases accordingly.  Of course, food companies know better than to act on the basis of this myth in their advertising!  They know that the way to win consumers is to bypass their rational faculties and play to their fears, their cravings, their addictions, their sentimental associations; and of course, they know that the best way of all to do this is to capture their consumers when they are only children.  Super Size Me gives some attention to the aggressiveness with which McDonalds seeks to rope in children and thus create brand loyalty for life.  If this is your marketing strategy, then it’s bald hypocrisy to wax on about how the key is supplying the consumer with all the relevant facts so they can make an informed purchasing decision.  

Super Size Me was fun and a good start, but a small budget and staff meant that it doesn’t dig nearly as deep as it ought to.