Friday, September 21, 2012

My life among the hobbits, part 1

When it was announced a while back that Peter Jackson was going to turn his already bursting-to-the-seams two-film adaptation of The Hobbit into a three-parter, a friend of mine texted me and asked what I thought. This friend, along with a number of others, had attended first-night showings of each of the Lord of the Rings installments. I'm sorry to say that after glancing at the text and mentally making a note to think about it and reply to him when I had time, I promptly forgot about it, and have never given him a reply. Chad, you can consider this a sort of beginning to a rambling answer, as well as a way of personally commemorating the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. I may need to negotiate making it in three parts.

A couple of things I read recently made me start thinking about Jackson's movies, and what I expect from the forthcoming Hobbit trilogy. First was a blog post by a former English professor of mine, Joseph Bentz, in which he explained "Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About". He opens the post with the following statement:
I have never seen The Lord of the Rings movies and probably never will. Whenever I have mentioned this to anyone, the most common response is, “But they’re so good.”

The fact that they’re good makes me want to see them even less.


I read the books many years ago, and the experience was so powerful that I walked around for days only partially aware of my own reality. Scenes from those novels played in my mind almost as vividly as my own real memories. I don’t want anyone else’s scenes to replace the ones in my head, any more than I would want someone’s film adaptation of my childhood to replace memories of my actual childhood.
The second was a remark by Jeffrey Overstreet in a blog post linking to the new Hobbit movie trailer, and recommending a book by a friend of his titled, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. In a parenthetical closing remark, Overstreet notes that, "The more you understand and appreciate the accomplishments of J.R.R. Tolkien, the more you’re likely to see just how badly Peter Jackson’s movies have misinterpreted and misrepresented their source material!"

When I was about 8 or 9, my father gave me his worn paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the Ballantine paperback editions with the lion and ostriches on the cover of The Hobbit). It was a gift that would have an incalculable effect on my intellectual and spiritual development.

My father's gift of the books was probably occasioned by the airing of the Rankin Bass adaptation of The Hobbit. Still being fairly young and unsophisticated in taste, I loved it, and had no quibbles with issues of fidelity to the source. I even owned a record of an audio adaptation of the show, and still recall John Huston's irascible take on Gandalf, and Otto Preminger's constipated take on the Elf King.

Since that time I have read The Hobbit perhaps half a dozen times or more, and The Lord of the Rings at least a dozen, if not more, including once aloud to my wife when we were still dating, and once to our children. When I learned of the existence of The Silmarillion in the late , I made sure I got hold of a copy. We were living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and while on a two week vacation to Egypt and Cyprus, I immersed myself in the high, tragic legends of the First Age.

I'm not sure when I first became aware of Ralph Bakshi's sort-of-animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings, but while sitting through an 8-hour layover in some Middle Eastern airport, either Dubai or Bahrain, possibly at the end of our Egypt/Cyprus trip, I was scanning the racks of paperbacks at a gift shop, and spotted this "Fotonovel" of the movie . So, being 11 or 12, consumed with Tolkien, and needing some reading material for the layover, I convinced my dad to buy it. I was mostly impressed by the visual style, with Bakshi's blending of live action and animated elements, disappointed with the representation of Boromir (the Barbarian?), and puzzled that it ended so abruptly halfway through the story. Still, it was Tolkien, and it was probably worth it just for the cover.

Throughout my teens, I continued to immerse myself in anything Tolkien-related, including newly published unfinished works, the Humphrey Carpenter biography, linguistic references, encyclopedias, calendars, etc. For a junior high English project I created a travel brochure for Numenor. I recreated the maps and hung them on my bedroom walls. I made my own, rather poor, sketches of scenes from the books. Tolkien was also a gateway to other fantasy literature, Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons, Norse mythology, a deep interest in historical linguistics, C.S. Lewis, and Christianity.

While over the years I have greatly reduced my collection of Tolkien-related ephemera, I do still have nearly two shelves' worth of Tolkien books, including several copies each of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Whenever I wander a bookstore, I'm liable to find myself in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section, seeing what Tolkien books they have in stock.

Um, the History of Middle-earth series
is in the other room.
Perhaps because I have read the books so many times, or because I sought out any type of representation of Tolkien's world that I could find, no particular one, perhaps with the notable exception of Alan Lee's watercolors, has been able to take hold as *the way* I see Middle-earth and the characters who inhabit it in my head.

I guess all of that is prologue to the point that, aside from any general questions of films adapted from source material I love, when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, I tend to see Jackson's films, along with the incomplete Bakshi film, and Rankin Bass's not-without-charm Hobbit, and deserves-to-be-forgotten Return of the King, as artistic interpretations of much the same sort as the paintings and sketches of the visual artists who have attempted to put their vision of Middle-earth on canvas -- the Brothers Hildebrandt, Ted Nasmith, John Howe, Alan Lee, Princess (now Queen!) Margrethe II of Denmark, and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien himself. When I heard that a film (no, three films!) were going to be made, I was excited, and my only real concern was that Jackson would at least read carefully Tolkien's long letter to Forrest J. Ackerman that dealt with a proposed film treatment in the late 1950s, and would at least take care to treat the overall vision of the work with respect.

Next time: How Jackson's Lord of the Rings films succeed and how they fail -- for me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Driving at Night

There is a feeling you get, laying yourself across the back seat of a car driving at night, looking up, your view of the outside world shrunken, restricted to what you see out the rear window. On the rural highways we used to take, the dark shapes of trees would rise up on either side, leaving a narrow strip of starlit sky, the trees falling away briefly at intersections and habitations.

At certain moments, you cannot tell if you are looking up or down, as you look between the trees, stars glittering just out of reach, hung in a darkness that is not quite as dark and that somehow does not feel quite as empty as the shadows of the trees. It is as if you are being held motionless above a flowing stream, that the stars you see are not really stars, but merely their reflections in dark glass of the moving stream. Lights along the road may appear, gliding across the window, the light bent and deformed by the curved glass of the car window, like a flashlight scanning the interior of the car, giving your body for a moment shape and mass that you forgot about, and will forget again as soon as the light is gone, absorbed into the backseat and the road and the starry river.

The low hum of the engine, the tires on the road, and the soft noises of the radio blend together, seem to come at the same time both from inside and from out there, where all the stars and the void are cradling you, rocking you and reassuring you that, yes, the universe is yours and that this is right, this is perfect, this is how it really is, how it should be, not those things that will happen after the car reaches its destination, slowly coming to a halt, the humming of engine, tires and radio replaced for a moment by a sudden silence. Then the noise of door latches, and adult voices as they reach in to grasp you and lift you up as you are both asleep and awake, carrying you through doors from car to house to bedroom, lifting you and laying you gently on the bed, covering you with blankets, as you drift off, wishing you were still out there, in the car, on the road, still seeing only trees and stars, not wanting this place, or this time, or tomorrow to be here.

Here's a scene
You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn't end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
And they're there for you
For you alone you are the everything

- "You Are The Everything", REM

Now I'm the grown-up and the driver, and I steal glances into the backseat, seeing my own kids as we drive back home at night. I love driving, and could continue for hours, taking pleasure in the movement of the car through time and space, regardless of the destination, but we're parents now, and we need to get the kids home and in bed, because that's what responsible parents are supposed to do. They're strapped into carseats now, unable to stretch themselves out to gaze up through the rear window of the car, to have their vision narrowed until they see everything and are connected to the universe, for a brief time existing outside of time. Forced to sit upright, they look at the world straight, seeing too much, perhaps. Seeing too much, are they unable to see everything, to float in that river that can only be seen by lying down, shutting off the view of earth and seeing only treetops and sky?

 Or can they, after all?

Is it a quality not of lying in the backseat looking out, but something that exists in children whatever they see or don't see? Do they still reach that state of asleep-awake, body and mind at rest, one with the car, the road, the sky, ears hearing clearly the hum of engine, tires on the road, voices in the front talking quietly about the things grown-ups are supposed to talk about, saying the things grown-ups say when they think the children are asleep and not listening? When the spell of movement and sound is broken by door latches, and being picked up gently and carried through doors from car to house to bedroom to sleep, are they home too soon, wishing we could keep going, that the driving and the night would go on forever?

Or do they instead truly fall asleep, anticipating their beds and rest and the sun rising, and the world becoming real again tomorrow?