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Hollywood Approacheth. Do You Get It?

Okay, dear readers. The month we have all been anticipating for more than two years (at least) is nearly upon us. To borrow from an older adventure film saga, "It’s time to ask yourself what you believe." In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with my definition of the word "novel," whether or not you think my assessment of redemption is correct, or whether or not you like to classify yourself as a geek.. What each of us needs to take into these films is his or her own cherished vision of Middle-earth, because we will need it firmly entrenched in order that it withstand the firestorm that is to follow. On December 19th, Peter Jackson will do what none of us is able to: namely, bring his private images of each and every character, each and every plot line, and each and every landscape to life and show it to the world. And what of our images? What of the imagineering that probably each and every one of us has done since our first reading? How will seeing Jackson’s vision animating a flat, blank screen affect the already-colored books in our minds? And, perhaps more disturbing, how will it affect those whose only vision of Lord of the Rings will come filtered through Jackson?

I said last year that I thought we would be wise to keep open minds until we see the film(s). I still believe that. Despite my private worries, and I share many of Turgon’s concerns about language, I still believe that too much pre-judgment will render the films worthless in the eye of the beholder, almost as though they weren’t even worth making. No doubt some will say after the dust clears that they weren’t, and many will be there to argue vociferously with them. However that may turn out, we aren’t at that point yet–we can’t make a value judgment about something we don’t know. But as former New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger has said, "I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out." I said that if we expected Jackson to follow to the letter, then in the end we would have nothing added to our Tolkien world that couldn’t already be found between the covers of our books or between our own ears. But that doesn’t mean we can allow his visions to co-opt our own, to make our brains fall out through the cracks the cut-and-dried screen images produce in the beautiful paintings of our minds’ eyes, be they oils or watercolors, cartoons or full-blown CGI-enhanced private filmmaking. Whatever you take away from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, a film by Peter Jackson, it should add to your wonder for Tolkien, not subtract or fundamentally alter it. Therefore I say again: it’s time to ask yourself what you believe.

"Come on, Anwyn." Hmm. "Come on, Cindy. You’re just a grad student in Midwestern America with a high-falutin’ nom de plume. It’s just a book. It’s just a movie. Don’t you think you’re taking it just a tad bit too seriously?" Perhaps I would be, if I were you. What each person takes seriously is his or her own decision. People tend to take seriously the things they understand, the things they love, the things they reverence. The things they get. This is Tolkien, this is one of the things I get, and I take that seriously.

Do you ever have things mysteriously come together at a certain point in time? Last year when I wrote the "open-minded" column, I was thinking a lot about authenticity because we were discussing it in a course I was taking, and then I was led to apply it to Tolkien movie-making by the questions asked me by Andrew O’Hehir, the guy who wrote the August 2000 story over at Salon.com. This fall it was the concept of understanding, and it happened in much the same way. Another university course, this one called "Viking Sagas in Translation." I’m taking it, of course, so that I can understand more fully the influence of the Northern body of literature and linguistics on Tolkien’s work, but one of the most striking things about the Icelandic sagas is their abrupt and terse storytelling. The narrator doesn’t usually bother with why anything happens or why a particular character follows any one course of action. The story just states that this-and-such character did that-and-this-other-thing. Obviously, the period Icelandic reader was expected to understand the cultural norm and not need to have the mindsets of the characters spelled out. It can make for pretty puzzling reading.

About the time I was working over this concept of contemporary (meaning "at the same time as," not "modern") understanding of Icelandic sagas as opposed to not necessarily getting it, one thousand years later, I got a lovely email from a Counterpoint reader, a Californian named Robyn, studying in Japan and suffering feelings of isolation. Her copy of Lord of the Rings helped her fend off the loneliness, and her unfamiliar cultural surroundings had helped her to a realization about the nature of understanding. Her Japanese newspapers were very much the same as my Icelandic sagas–terse and only concerned with observable facts, with no motives or explanations offered. Robyn wrote: "This made the crimes even stranger to a Westerner like myself. Eventually it bothered me enough to ask an American friend of mine (who had been living there for over two years) about it. She told me that as a Japanese, you should already understand the why behind each story, that it is a cultural thing. This made sense to me in a strange way, and I stopped reading the paper (unless I was looking for a typhoon warning). I understood that I didn't understand." She went on to apply her newfound revelations about understanding to understanding Tolkien. She had seen my arguments about novel vs. story, and her take was that the human depth is infused by the filter of our own personality in this world, applied to the epic story that Tolkien tells us. But more than that, she observed that she understands Tolkien. As opposed to the Japanese newspaper, just as for me and probably anybody reading this space, Tolkien is one of the things she gets. "And all the themes in Fellowship just loomed in my head. Duty. Loss. Friendship. Good vs. Evil. HUGE themes like in any mythology. But I understood it all. I honestly don’t always appreciate or understand a mythological figure’s actions, like in Celtic mythology. But in Tolkien I do. No matter, the story is what is important in the end."

Thanks to Robyn for her gracious permission to quote her. No way could I have said it better myself.

So do you get it yet? If the story is important to us, we are going to have to retain it in the face of it being told by a filmmaker.

"Duh, Anwyn. Of course we’re not going to give up our own concepts just because Peter Jackson is the one with the backers and the money and the studio resources. In fact, we plan to attack him viciously when his vision doesn’t coincide with ours. No way will we let the movies change what we think of Tolkien."

Is there anybody who doubts the insidious effect screen images have on our imaginations? Aren’t the most outspoken opponents of the massive amounts of time Americans spend watching TV drawn up against The Box for just that very reason? It was Bill Watterson, through the mouth of Calvin, who addressed it best: "Oh greatest of the mass media, thank you for elevating emotion, reducing thought, and stifling imagination. Thank you for the artificiality of quick solutions and for the insidious manipulation of human desires for commercial purposes. This bowl of lukewarm tapioca represents my brain. I offer it in humble sacrifice. Bestow thy flickering light forever." A similar charge can be made against the silver screen, especially when it comes to stifling imagination. If we’re handed the image along with the story, what’s to stop us from sucking it in and pasting it to the walls of our minds, instead of walking with our own inner feet up The Hill or across The Water? How did Mordor look from the crumbled feet of Mount Doom? What was the sound of a Black Rider’s horse thundering down the Road? I want to make sure that after December 19th, I don’t automatically picture Cate Blanchett when I read of the Company’s arrival in Lothlórien.

What of those who don’t get it? I quail to think of those who either haven’t read Lord of the Rings or who have read it but don’t get it, going into the theater to be handed a ready-made trip into Middle-earth. A friend of a friend is reading The Hobbit in preparation for the movie, and she’s puzzled. "All they do is walk places and sing." I laughed, but seriously, I hope she starts to understand it before she sees the movie. Having Jackson’s work there to help tell the tale is going to be, I hope, something grand that’s never been done with Tolkien before, but for thousands of the uninitiated, it’s going to be their first "read" of Tolkien. For their sakes, I hope it’s a good one.

There’s a question I would like to ask Peter Jackson. If it has been asked and answered before in a public forum, I haven’t seen it. I wonder if he secretly (or openly!) envisions his films becoming the standard reference for all fans and newbies alike? Does he want everybody to picture Elijah Wood when they think Frodo? I hope not, although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood director not wanting that kind of pervasiveness. I hope he understands that however much he cherishes his vision, we hold ours equally dear or even dearer. Message to Mr. Jackson: we will add your imaginative and visionary distinctiveness to our own. Not allow yours to replace our own.

Do you get it?

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