28 December 2012

The Hobbit, film version: a brief critique

A few days before Christmas I saw part one of Peter Jackson's film version of The Hobbit. Since I've already blogged about the book, I thought I'd add a few comments about the movie.

Before giving some specific criticisms I should say that I generally liked the film. It would be hard for me not to; I was already a fan of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, and many of the same positive elements found in the LOTR films are also present in The Hobbit: beautiful scenery, a believable mythos, and a moral foundation that makes it easy to recognize and cheer for the “good side.” I don't want the fact that I criticize particular aspects of the film to get in the way of my general enthusiasm for it; I am glad this film was made and look forward to seeing it again.

Now to the critique. First, the scene with the mountain giants was gratuitous and unnecessary. It was a pointless expansion of the book's story, and made a long movie longer than it needs to be. It does not advance the plot. I also don't want to be reminded of Rock'em Sock'em robots when I am supposed to be in Middle-earth, and unfortunately that's the visual impression I had. The appropriate approach here would have been to let the characters hear and then see the giants as they do in the book, express their amazement and fright as some rocks hit too close, and then head on into the cave.

Second, has anyone associated with making this movie ever fallen more than six or eight feet? The repeated scenes of dwarves, goblins, and Bilbo falling for hundreds of feet and then landing with no harm done were ridiculous. This happens (in another pointless change from the book) when the party enters the goblin caves and the crack in the cave floor opens; it happens again to Bilbo and a goblin shortly after that. Any body remotely similar to any animal on earth falling that far would hit with a splat. While I learned suspension of disbelief from Tolkien as much as from anyone, your physics, like your magic, have to apply consistently in your fantasy world for it to believable. Jackson's film lacks visual consistency in this regard.

Third, Radagast is overdone. While I agree with the general decision to make him an on-screen character in the film, rather than one who is briefly mentioned as in the book, he is too silly. With Radagast, Jackson runs the danger of committing the Jar Jar Binks mistake: making a character who is supposed to be agreeable one who is despised instead. For me, Lucas and the latter Start Wars films never recovered from Jar Jar Binks (or weak dialog). I hope Radagast doesn't make the remaining hobbit films equally joke-worthy. I am ready to have sympathy for a mushroom-munching nature-mystic wizard, but over the top is just that.

Given those problems, I will go back to my previous remark, that I do like the film and look forward to the remaining two parts. I hope the silliness level decreases; Tolkien deserves it, and so do ticket buyers.

20 December 2012

A forest reserve in Assisi (Italy 2012, part 4)

I've written little in previous posts about the Assisi portion of my trip last month. Many of the places I visited I'd been to before, and much of my time was spent in research that it would be premature to summarize here. But I will post a few images and mention a delightful surprise I encountered.

Down the walkway
and through the gate on the right....
 A new forest reserve has been opened for visitors on the slopes just east and north of the Basilica of Saint Francis. It is under the care of the FAI (Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano), a group that protects areas of cultural or environmental significance all over Italy. The preserve, known as the Bosco di San Francesco, is accessible either through a gate in the wall on the north side of the lawn in front of the Basilica, or from the valley below where the FAI has a small visitor center and gift shop.

...along the trail...
Olive grove and awesome Umbrian sky.

Trails lead through forests that have been cared for by Franciscans and Benedictines for centuries. Along the trail system are old kilns, delightful views of the Basilica and the Rocca Maggiore, streams and olive groves, and on the eastern end of the preserve, a work of landscape art consisting of more than 100 olive trees planted in a design that can be viewed from an old stone tower.

As a birder and a hiker it was a treat for me to find this forested area adjacent to the busy streets of Assisi. I'd often wondered what it was like on the other side of that wall. For anyone interested in the history of the Assisi area, the artifacts of medieval Umbrian life along the way are worth a visit. And for admirers of Saint Francis, the preserve is a superb place to contemplate his closeness to creation and the Creator, and what it models for us.

11 December 2012

On re-rereading The Hobbit

My awkward title comes from the fact that The Hobbit is one of those special books I've read over and over again since first encountering it as a college freshman. I read a lot, but through the years only a relatively small number of books have been significant enough to me that I have read them many times, and hope to continue reading them again and again as long as I am able. Along with The Hobbit and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a few other titles in this select group include Dante's Commedia, Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Augustine's Confessions, the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, the works of Saint Patrick, and of course the Bible.

Why The Hobbit, and why do I suspect that it would appear on the re-read list of many other readers? I thought about that the past few days as I prepared for the release of Peter Jackson's first hobbit movie by again reading the story of Bilbo, Gandalf, the dwarves, Smaug, and the rest. I don't have a final answer for the book's appeal, though I surely felt it again. I can only mention a few factors that I find meaningful and wonder if they are part of the book's broad attraction to others.

One key factor is the clear sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, that comes through in Tolkien's writings. Even though his characters and the landscape they inhabit are fantasy, we have no trouble knowing that there is a right and a wrong in Middle Earth, that evil represents the absence of good, and that it matters greatly whether good will triumph. For someone who believes that this is true in the real world, but is so often confronted with evidence that many others do not, reading Tolkien is a refreshing encounter with another place where this fundamental point is not confused.

Another appealing factor is the sheer inventiveness of Tolkien. Anyone who has read far into his works or knows much of his biography is aware that The Hobbit only represents the beginning of his creativity. He invented orcs and hobbits and numerous fictional nations with lengthy histories and viable languages. He not only wrote The Hobbit, he illustrated it. In the academic world he had a great impact on our understanding of Beowulf. But there are many inventive writers and scholars out there, and I am not sure that this factor alone would be enough without the quality of the worlds he created.

Also greatly attractive to me is the apparent reality and goodness of the natural setting of The Hobbit. Middle Earth may not be real in a scientific sense, but Tolkien's descriptions of it feel real. What's more, the naturalness of Middle Earth comes through as a given good in his writing. When the natural world grows dark and oppressive in The Hobbit (and LOTR as well), we can be sure that some personal evil is ultimately to blame. When sentient beings are found living in harmony with the world, they are generally good, and when they are twisted by evil, they abuse the land. Elves, dwarves, and humans are never portrayed as perfect by Tolkien, but when they are living as they should, their relationships with the earth are harmonious. The Shire is one example of this, Rivendell another, and the lands of Beorn yet another in The Hobbit.

Finally, even without the more fundamental points already mentioned, Tolkien might have won me over simply by making birds so significant as heroes in his story. Eagles rescue the party when they are about to be killed by goblins and Wargs, and they appear again at a climactic point in the Battle of Five Armies. A wise thrush shows the way to open the back door into Smaug's lair, returns to reveal the dragon's vulnerable spot so that he can be slain in battle, and serves yet again as a liaison between Thorin and the ravens. The ravens themselves play a part in gathering the dwarven armies and spying for the dwarves. While the birds of The Hobbit might not mean as much to others as they do to me, I would have a soft spot for Tolkien because of them even if his writing were not great for many other reasons.

Alan Lee's image of Ro├Ąc and the Thrush

05 December 2012

Catholicism: Pure and Simple (a review)

As a teacher I’m always happy to find resources I can share with students when they're interested in digging more deeply into a subject. That’s especially true when the subject is my Catholic faith. Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s book Catholicism: Pure and Simple  is a welcome addition to my list of such resources.

Fr. Longenecker promises to introduce Catholicism “in simple, straightforward language” without scholarly references or complicated terminology, and he delivers. This book provides easily readable treatments of complex philosophical and theological issues such as revelation, the origin of evil, the Trinity, and the sacraments. It could be profitably read by a wide variety of students, not to mention many others who might be unfamiliar with Catholicism and are looking for a ground-up explanation of what it’s all about.

Longenecker does not begin his text by discussing beliefs unique to Catholicism, but with more fundamental questions concerning the existence of God and the true nature of humanity and the world we live in. His treatment of these topics is lucid and much easier to read than many philosophical texts that cover the same material. Of course, in comparison to many such texts, Longenecker also has the great advantage of giving the right answers to the questions he considers!

Though as promised in its opening pages the book does not contain a single footnote, readers who know the intellectual ground that Longenecker is covering will quickly realize that he’s familiar with standard arguments and sources and could provide such references if he wished. When, for example, we read Longenecker’s comment that “things I want to do, I can’t; and the things I don’t want to do, I do,” we hear Paul in Romans 7, and when we read that Catholics look forward to a reunion with all Eastern Christians “so that the whole Church may once again breathe with two lungs” we hear Blessed John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint. Longenecker’s phrasing throughout the book makes it clear that he is basing his presentation on such classic sources even though he does not delay his readers by citing them.

A few spots in the text appear to have escaped careful editing, at least in the electronic version of the book that I read. For example, the statement that the sacrament of Holy Orders “is reserved for men who are called by God and his church to be priests” seems to exclude those of us who are, or look forward to being, ordained to the permanent diaconate. A reference to “thousands” of “holy popes” was confusing as well (perhaps “bishops” was meant?). But fortunately such comments are only infrequent distractions from a generally solid presentation.

Catholicism: Pure and Simple is available at Fr. Longenecker's website. It’s worth having if you need a book to pass on to someone who’s asking basic questions about the faith, and recommended reading for anyone who wants a consideration of these questions written in refreshingly direct and contemporary language.