Incarnational Invention: Peter Jackson “retells” Bilbo
by Andrew Lazo
Warts and all, I love Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies. That said, I have little doubt that J. R. R. Tolkien himself would have loathed them. And in this, I suggest that he would have been perhaps shortsighted and even maybe wrong.
I think if anyone should like Peter Jackson’s versions of Tolkien’s majestic and sweeping mythologies, Tolkien himself should, for two reasons (one of which takes us to the tiptoe’s edge of Christmas). C. S. Lewis says “when one has read a book, I find there’s nothing so nice as discussing it with someone else who’s read it, even though it tends to produce rather fierce arguments.” My own argument with Tolkien goes like this:
First of all, I would contend with my imaginary Inkling that Tolkien should at the very least deeply respect Jackson’s right to re-tell his stories. Of course in this, as in most everything, I take my clue from C. S. Lewis. In The Discarded Image, the end-note to Till We Have Faces, and again in “The Genesis of a Medieval Book,” Lewis describes how a medieval writer would write a book. Lewis points out that a medieval author, out of love for story in general and whatever story he stumbles upon in particular, starts to write when he loves and looks deeply into that story and wants to polish it up.
Far from our ideas about “original” authorship, about some lonely writer sitting down before a blank page or screen and making up masterpieces out of thin air, a medieval writer re-tells that received story in order to build upon its resident beauties and to add new ones. “Touching up”, “going behind”, “sorting out and tidying up” is how Lewis puts it.
Think of William Shakespeare. All but three of his plays come from old, often fairly awful, stories. The playwright sees something in them, and blows them up into full Technicolor, investing into his retelling such beauties that the world will never cease marveling at him.
In Lewis’ terms, Shakespeare goes behind the received story, looks into what the author meant to or should have said instead, and then adds more good bits, takes away some of the clunky parts, and passes it along. Chaucer does this. Milton too, and Malory, and so on and on. Tolkien was a medievalist and would have known this as well as anyone. And so, I propose to the Professor, why shouldn’t Peter Jackson have a chance?
And this, I believe, is what Jackson has done. In love and loyalty both to the books, and to the stories behind the books, he and his people (including his actors), have lovingly retold the story in an entirely new medium. I sense that it’s not unlike so much of what William Morris did to old tales, translating them to a new medium, and cleaning them up, adding here and there as he saw fit, all out of love of both book and story.
To me The Hobbit movie worked excellently. Rather than a slavish copy (which I imagine would have suited almost no one, Tolkien included), Peter Jackson read and loved, and then “went behind” the stories, retelling them in a new way. His decision to make three movies instead of two in order to include appendix material from The Lord of the Rings to me indicates exactly this. And the pacing of the movie, while not that faithful to the actual text of the book, gave me a similar feeling to the actual story of it, and matched for me very much the stately pacing of Tolkien’s entire legendarium. It felt very much a piece with the whole myth.
The Hobbit also proved to-the-letter accurate often enough to make me believe, to leave off judging in favor of enjoying, and gave me great delight. In this again I take my cue from Lewis and his two ways of looking. If you will, I have come to trust these storytellers and actors enough to look along the story rather than at it. I “enjoyed” rather than “contemplated” (Lewis’ terms) The Hobbit, for I felt confident that Jackson had worthy interests in mind, and was working out on film a multiple sort of loyalties: to Tolkien, to the books, to the story behind, to his hearers, and ultimately to his own beliefs and gifts as a storyteller.
And here’s the last, Christmas-y point. Tolkien argued that we as human inventors of story (and let us remain mindful that in Latin, “to invent” means “to find”), we “endlessly combine” elements of creation until, as “sub-creators,” we make something somehow new out of the good old stock we have received. It’s how we work out the image of God in us, it’s how we imitate Him. We create.
God does it out of nothing. We do it out of whatever we find to hand. Jackson has done it, in great faith and in sometimes spectacularly imaginative creativity, out of Tolkien’s books. I think Tolkien would quibble, yes, but I also think that he should celebrate Jackson’s enormous and important project of sub-creating a new masterpiece out of Tolkien’s older one.
And so should we all—celebrate I mean, and sub-create. For doing so offers us one very excellent way to participate in daily, little, and quite personal ways in the Incarnation. It provides us a path, like Mary’s, to say, “may it be with me as you have said.”
It gives us a way to say “yes” to God, and to the strange stirrings inside us, longing to see the light of day, born out of many a dark and silent night. After the holy nights of struggle, after wrestling with our angels, maybe God will bless us too, and let something be born in us this day that can bring light into the world.
So quibble all you want, Professor Tolkien. I’ll likely agree with most of what you say. But I find in these movies a not-so-small sign of what happens when we say yes to the murmurings and movings inside of us, and to all the good things that come to light because of it. So go ahead argue all you want, but pass the popcorn while you do, and hush—for I want to see this old story again and again and again.