Friday, December 28, 2012

Some thoughts on the first Hobbit movie

I wanted to like the new Hobbit movie. I really, really did--want to like it, that is. All the signs seemed favorable: I had enjoyed Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies (yes, I still complained about what was left out, but the movies seemed true enough to my experience with the books that I had no problem embracing them). The timing of the release was perfect. Not only was it a holiday movie I could enjoy with my family, but also I had just completed a re-reading of the book with my freshman seminar class. How could this not be a great experience?

Well, as it turned out, my experience would have been better had I not re-read the book because, as a number of reviewers have already pointed out, Jackson makes little attempt to stay faithful to Tolkien's story, characterizations, and tone.  Anna Klassen, of The Daily Beast, has identified 19 ways in which the movie strays from the book. Oliver Gettell writes in The Los Angeles Times that movie critics from the LA Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle have all expressed disappointment at Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's story. Novelist Frank Schaeffer, writing in The Huffington Post, pulls no punches:

The spirit of the book has been almost entirely lost and replaced by a movie that looks as if it was made to spin off theme park rides and videogame derivatives rather than to tell the story as written in the beloved children's classic.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings film trilogy that largely succeeded in maintaining the spirit and details of the books, The Hobbit departs so far from the text that is has little to nothing to do with the original. Worse, the film as a film is just another overblown barely coherent effects extravaganza dud more akin to Transformers in spirit than to anything that Tolkien wrote.
And as if these movie critics' concerns weren't enough, even a theologian has gotten into the act. Miroslav Volf has called the Hobbit movie "utterly lame."

Before expressing a few of my own concerns, I want to mention aspects of the movie I liked. The scene near the beginning with the dwarves invading Bilbo's hobbit hole is wonderful. It establishes the contrast between the ways of hobbits and dwarves as well as Bilbo's reluctance to undertake an adventure. Perhaps exceeding this scene in excellence is the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo where Bilbo outwits Gollum in a game of riddles. Like the LOTR, the movie is beautifully filmed with the New Zealand landscape providing breathtaking scenery. I also thought music was used effectively and the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo was successful.

And yet it is the treatment of Bilbo's character that disturbed me most. As mentioned earlier, the opening scenes do a great job of establishing Bilbo's status as the reluctant hero. Tolkien takes pains in the novel to identify the two strains in Bilbo's genetic line. He's a Baggins, which means he's cautious, plays it safe, and avoids risks; "Adventures," Bilbo tells Gandalf, "make one late for dinner." But Bilbo is also a Took, which means there's a part of his personality that relishes adventure. Unfortunately, in the movie, while Gandalf mentions that Bilbo is a Took, the significance of the reference is never explained.

While the movie begins by presenting a protagonist consistent with Tolkien's, it goes quickly off track.  One way it goes wrong is by creating a needless conflict between Thorin, the leader of the dwarves and Bilbo. In the book, all the dwarves are somewhat doubtful of Bilbo's skill and courage, but none more than the other. Tolkien allows Bilbo to gain the trust and respect of the dwarves gradually over the course of the action. In the movie, Thorin constantly questions Bilbo's courage and resolve in much more aggressive terms than appear in the book. Only after Bilbo saves Thorin from death at the hands of the Pale Orc at the end of the movie (more on this later) does Thorin admit that he's been wrong about Bilbo and embrace him as an equal.

While Bilbo does develop as a character in the movie, he develops in a way totally inconsistent with the protagonist in Tolkien's novel. A key to understanding Bilbo's character development in the book is that Bilbo is not a traditional swashbuckling hero. He's a lover, not a fighter. If he survives the journey at all, he will survive on his wits and his ability to move quietly and stealthily--not on his strength in battle. And the movie begins by presenting Bilbo in this way. When Gandalf hands him the small elvish sword, Sting, Bilbo responds that he's never used a sword before. So far, so good. Yet moments later in the mines of Moria, we see Bilbo brandishing his sword against a goblin like an experienced swordsman.

Most distressing and inconsistent of all is the battle scene with which Jackson concludes his first of three Hobbit movies. The company has been chased up trees by the wargs and the Orcs, led by the Pale Orc, and Gandalf attempts to frighten the wargs off by setting pinecones on fire and tossing them at the warg's feet. So far so good as most of this happens in the book. In the book, however, the primary enemies are wargs, and Gandalf's pinecone strategy backfires, literally, as the trees the dwarves, hobbit, and wizard are perched in catch fire. It is then that Gandalf summons the Eagles to rescue them.

In the movie, the Orcs, and specifically the Pale Orc, are added to the mix, and Thorin engages in combat with the Pale Orc. When things go badly for Thorin, Bilbo descends from his perch with Sting and attacks the Pale Orc, saving Thorin from certain death. Now it would be hard to imagine an action more inconsistent with Bilbo's character. Even the movie has taken pains to establish Bilbo as a reluctant hero who eschews physical activity and violence, yet in this climactic scene Bilbo is suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a fierce warrior. This will never do!

Years ago I heard Larry McMurtry speak about his experience in seeing one of his novels brought to the big screen. His basic message was that when a book is adapted for film by Hollywood, the author should abandon any hope that the result will bear any resemblance to his or her literary creation. So I get that movies are different than novels. I'm even okay with the director adding and subtracting from the plot of the book; it has to be done. But I view things differently when a director is handling a much-loved literary classic that has been read and re-read by fanatical fans for over sixty years. In fact, I feel much the same about what Jackson has done to Tolkien's Hobbit as I felt about what the director did a few years ago to Lewis's Prince Caspian. I understand that additions and omissions must be made, but it seems to me that there should be very strong reasons for the changes and that the changes should not fundamentally alter the characterizations of the novel, especially those of authors like Tolkien and Lewis who presumably knew what they were doing with their characters and plots.

Perhaps where Jackson went wrong, as some critics have already suggested, was in trying to turn The Hobbit, which is a straightforward, humble, and amusing children's fantasy story, into an adult adventure/romance story similar to The Lord of the Rings. I still enjoyed the film, but I wish I could have enjoyed it more. And don't get me started on Radagast the Brown!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Preparing for Peace: The Peace Pilgrim Project, Part 2

"The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love."Peace Pilgrim

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting aspects of the life and teachings of Peace Pilgrim. For those who aren't familiar with her story, you can check out my previous posts here:

Like other mystics, Mildred Norman's (she later changed her name to Peace Pilgrim) journey began with a vision experienced while she walked in the early morning. She later described it like this:
All of a sudden I felt very uplifted, more uplifted than I had ever been. I remember I knew timelessness and spacelessness and lightness. I did not seem to be walking on the earth. There were no people or even animals around, but every flower, every bush, every tree seemed to wear a halo. There was a light emanation around everything and flecks of gold fell like slanted rain through the air. This experience is sometimes called the illumination period.

The important part of it was the realization of the oneness of all creation. Not only human beings--I knew before that all human beings are one. But now I knew also a oneness with the rest of creation. The creatures that walk the earth and the growing things of the earth. The air, the water, the earth itself. And, most wonderful of all, a oneness with that which permeates all and binds all together and gives life to all. A oneness with that which many would call God.

Peace Pilgrim's vision is beautiful and impressive, but what fascinates me even more than the vision is what she does next. I imagine that if I were the recipient of such a vision, I would want to write about it, speak about it, find some forum to publicize it--immediately. (Perhaps this is why, so far, I've been granted no such visions.) But Peace Pilgrim responded differently. She recognized that good spiritual practice requires study and reflection and processing. Spiritual growth requires intentionality and time. It can't be rushed. Most of all, Peace Pilgrim knew that it requires preparation.

So rather than leaving on her walk for peace immediately, Peace Pilgrim spent 15 years in preparation. 15 years!  In this process of waiting and prayer and contemplation, she discovered four preparations that were required of her.

The first preparation: Adopting a right attitude toward life

Peace Pilgrim describes this preparation:
Stop being a surface liver who stays right in the froth of the surface. . . . Be willing to face life squarely and get down beneath the surface of life where the verities and realities are to be found.

If you could see the whole picture, if you knew the whole story, you would realize that no problem ever comes to you that does not have a purpose in your life, that cannot contribute to your inner growth. . . . If you did not face problems, you would just drift through life. It is through solving problems in accordance with the highest light we have that inner growth is attained.

Now collective problems must be solved by us collectively, and no one finds inner peace who avoids doing his or her share in the solving of collective problems, like world disarmament and world peace. So let us always think about these problems together and talk about them together, and collectively work toward their solutions.
The second preparation: Bringing our lives into harmony with the laws that govern this universe

Peace Pilgrim believed there were fundamental laws in the physical and psychological realms. As we are able to understand and bring our lives into harmony with these laws, our lives will be in harmony. As we disobey these laws, we create difficulties for ourselves. She writes:

I recognized that there are some well-known, little understood, and seldom practiced laws that we must live by if we wish to find peace within or without. Included are the laws that evil can only be overcome by good; that only good means can attain a good end; that those who do unloving things hurt themselves spiritually.

So I got busy on a very interesting project. This was to live all the good things I believed in. . . . If I was doing something that I knew I shouldn't be doing I stopped doing it. . . .And if I was not doing something that I knew I should be doing, I got busy on that. It took the living quite a while to catch up with the believing. . . . As I lived according to the highest light I had, I discovered that other light was given; that I opened myself to receiving more light as I lived the light I had.

I love Peace Pilgrim's distinction here between believing and living, especially her phrase, "It look the living quite a while to catch up with the believing." This phrase might describe the history of Christianity, and it's tempting to apply it as a diagnosis of the anemic condition of much religion today. But perhaps it's more appropriate to apply Peace Pilgrim's formula to me. When I do, I find my own practice lagging far behind my belief. Like the greatest spiritual teachers, Peace Pilgrim's words seem so simple yet so profound.

The third preparation:  Finding our special place in the Life Pattern

Peace Pilgrim believed that "no two people have exactly the same part to play in God's plan" and that the way we discover our part is to look within, seeking guidance from God. We seek this guidance in receptive silence. Peace Pilgrim's method was "to walk amid the beauties of nature" where "wonderful insights" would come to her.

Peace Pilgrim believed you begin to do your part in the Life Pattern by "doing all of the good things you feel motivated toward, even though they are just little good things at first." She describes her own
experience like this:

Every morning I thought of God and thought of things I might do that day to be of service to God's children. I looked at every situation I came into to see if there was anything I could do there to be of service. I did as many good things as I could each day, not forgetting the importance of a pleasant word and a cheery smile. I prayed about things that seemed too big for me to handle--and right prayer motivates to right action.

In the beginning I helped people in simple ways with errands, gardening projects, and by reading to them. I spent some time in the private homes of the elderly and the recuperating ill, assisting them to overcome their various ailments. I worked with troubled teenagers, the psychologically disturbed, and the physically and mentally handicapped.

My lack of expertise was more than offset by the love I extended to others. When love fills your life all limitations are gone. The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love.

I also did some volunteer work for the American Friends Service Committee, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
There's been much conversation in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings about mental illness and troubled teens. I find it interesting that these were two populations Peace Pilgrim sought out in her quest to do good for others and find her place in the Life Pattern. This passage also gives us a truth for all times but one that seems especially appropriate now: "The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love."

The fourth preparation: Simplifying our life

As Peace Pilgrim sought inner peace and began to find her place in the Life Pattern, she discovered another principle that would guide her practice: simplicity. She became convicted that she could "no longer accept more than she needed while others in the world had less than they needed." As a result, she experienced "a wonderful sense of peace and joy, and a conviction that unnecessary possessions are only unnecessary burdens." Peace Pilgrim found a need level that was so low it would seem absurd to most Americans, living on a budget of ten dollars per week, but she acknowledged that those in different situations (those with family and children, for example) would have a higher need level. What was important, she warned, is that "anything beyond physical needs tends to become burdensome."

In the following passage, she writes about how simplicity is not just a principle that applies to individuals but also one that applies to society:

There is a great deal to be said about such harmony, not only for an individual life but also for the life of a society. It's because as a world we have gotten ourselves so far out of harmony, so way off on the material side, that when we discover something like nuclear energy we are still capable of putting it into a bomb and using it to kill people! This is because our inner well-being lags so far behind our outer well-being. The valid research for the future in on the inner side, on the spiritual side, so that we will be able to bring these two into balance--and so that we will know how to use well the outer well-being we already have.
I don't really know what I can add to those words, so I'll just encourage us to read the words of this wise woman and meditate on them until they become part of our belief system. And then we need to live them until our "living catches up with our believing."

Next time:  the four purifications.