This blog post will no doubt annoy a number of my closest friends, and particularly infuriate those who are the Middle Earth equivalent of the SSPX – i.e., more Tolkien-than-thou. However my intent is not to make pleasantries, but rather to challenge perceptions and preconceptions in our culture. To paraphrase Addison DeWitt, my native habitat is the blogosphere: in it I toil not, neither do I spin – I am simply a critic and commentator.
That being said, I will now freely admit that I am looking forward to catching Part One of Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” this weekend, if I can manage to snag a ticket at my local multiplex. Rather than review a film which I have not yet seen, I want to address two points which all of us ought to keep in mind, and not just with respect to Jackson’s work. The first and most important is to remind the reader of the value of variation and interpretation, in expression of the artistic imagination. The second, which flows naturally from it, is to consider Jackson’s work within that context, as well as to judge it on its own merits.
Our cultural history is replete with examples of theme and repetition, not only because human beings enjoy variety, but also because the human imagination takes new pieces of insight from each reinterpretation of something which is already known to us. We see this idea all the time, in literature, music, architecture, and so on. If we look at art, for example, let us consider the subject of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who became the King of Israel.
Were I to ask you to imagine a work of art representing David, the first image to come into your mind would likely be that of Michelangelo’s giant statue which stands in the Accademia in Florence. This image of the shepherd-king has been famous since it was completed, an iconic and influential piece of sculpture known all over the world. The serenity and confidence, the strong determination of this “ruddy youth”, as he is described in the Book of Samuel, who is growing into a man’s body and will soon become a great military leader, may have been intended as an allegory of Florence, but over time has come to represent the very idea of the Italian Renaissance for many.
Yet there are other images of David, created both before and after this particular work, which can bring about other levels of understanding. Take Bernini’s David in the Borghese in Rome, for example, which was created during the Counter-Reformation as the Catholic Church fought back against Protestantism. In this image, the young shepherd boy is shown about to slay Goliath with his slingshot. He is wound up like a professional baseball pitcher, chewing on his lower lip with a look of keen concentration on his unseen target, narrowing his eyes to see exactly where to aim his weapon in order to do the most damage.
Whereas Michelangelo’s colossal David is rather static, Bernini’s is about action. They are each a product of their time. The former represents the newly-found confidence of a culture which believed that it was reviving the lost arts and knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, and expressed that confidence in the way it presented saints like King David. The latter is that of an institution under attack from all sides, which is not going to roll over and play dead, but rather will fight back against those who would see it fail.
Ever since Peter Jackson released the first installment of his film version of “Lord of the Rings” ten years ago this month, there has been a mass of criticism that he has not done proper justice to the books. Despite the total length of the three films extending to many hours, the refrain from Tolkien fans then was that Jackson had cut too much. While some of this is made up for in the Extended Editions of the films on DVD, which are even better than the theatrical versions, Jackson admittedly had to make editorial decisions about what to put in, what to leave out, and so on, in bringing the story to the screen. Similarly, now it seems that a common complaint among the commentariat is that turning “The Hobbit”, a much shorter book – comparatively – than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of novels, into three films is making it too long. In other words, Mr. Jackson is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.
Let us take what we have considered above with respect to the image of David, and apply it to what we are seeing here, with these films. What Jackson himself has said in the past about his work, and it is a point with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that we need to keep in mind that these are HIS interpretations of the stories, using his talents and the resources available to him as best he can. Moreover, he fully anticipates that at some point, another director will come along and make his own film version of Tolkien’s books.
It is a bit unfair – and frankly rather illogical – to expect one artistic medium to be able to express itself in the way that another does. King David, after all, was a real person, who lived a long time ago, and his deeds are described in the Bible. That, in itself, is an interpretation of his life through the inspired Scriptures. Do we complain that Michelangelo or Bernini’s statues are unfair representations of David, because they do not actually move? Do we whine because paintings of David by artists like Castagno or Caravaggio do not speak?
Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, we look at these works of art, and value them based on their own merits, but also in how they bring us back to the person of David and the stories about him in the Bible. If Mr. Jackson tells an otherwise good story in a way which is unwatchable, then his film will fail; if he tells that story in a way which draws audiences in and makes them interested, then he will succeed. And in so doing, then perhaps his work will cause people who have never heard of Tolkien or read his work, to go read the books for themselves.
The value of cultural reinterpretations of our values and virtues is that they constantly remind us to reflect on great topics, which with all of our everyday cares and concerns we so often do not get to do. Tolkien himself was a novelist, not a filmmaker – and neither were Count Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, or any of the other writers whose works are coming to the big screen this season. While some may not like Jackson’s particular interpretation of Tolkien’s writing, the real question to be asked is not whether it is a complete representation of Tolkien’s work on screen, but whether there is enough virtue in what appears in the film to reflect favorably on at least some of the author’s concerns.
In the spirit of cultural maturity, we need to give Mr. Jackson the chance to tell his version of Tolkien’s story, and enjoy the good parts of it even as we acknowledge those portions which we may not like. For the next cinematic interpretation of these novels will no doubt be just as different from Jackson’s version, as Bernini’s David is from Michelangelo’s.