On Adaptation: contextualizing the trailer for “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

And the Jackson saga goes on and on… Here is the trailer for “the defining chapter of the Middle-earth saga” (so they say):

Of course, the internet goes kind of crazy when anything like that is released. Half of the web is boiling with frenzy over how cute Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lily are and how the writer is dying to see the film.fangirl 2

The other half is seething with anger over how awful these films are, “nothing like the books,” Tolkien would roll over in his grave, etc., etc. Witness this quote from a Huffington Post article:

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.

A colleague of mine (whom I respect very much) posted on facebook: “I think there were three, maybe four, moments in that preview that may have resembled scenes in Tolkien’s book. Maybe.”

UntitledJRRT’s son Christopher hates the movies. Hates them. In an interview with Le Monde, he said:

Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.

That is a lot of negativism!

What both groups seem to miss is the nature of Peter Jackson’s LOTR and Hobbit films as ADAPTATION. The first group, the drunken-fangirl posse, appears not to consider the the source texts and their complex relationship to the films. The second seems not to consider the film’s complex relationship to the source texts.

We should take two steps before evaluating the Hobbit films (or any other page-to-screen adaptations):

1) We should think about the nature of adaptation itself. How is it done? What does it do to both the original and the derived product? What inevitable changes occur in the process? To do this, I recommend reading A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon. Think about what can be done in writing that cannot be done in a movie. Think about what can be done in a movie that cannot be done on the page.

2) We should be more aware of the vital history of adaptation. Ponder this for a moment: almost all the great “classic” works of European literature are adaptations. (If you click here, you’ll get an excellent lecture about The Hobbit and adaptation by Dr. Corey Olsen.) Virgil riffed off of Homer. Dante riffed off of Virgil. Chaucer adapted Boccaccio. Shakespeare adapted Boccaccio. Shakespeare adapted Chaucer. Shakespeare adapted Geoffrey of Monmouth. Shakespeare adapted Plutarch’s Lives, and Saxo Grammaticus, and Edmund Spenser and …. Tom Stoppard adapted Shakespeare. And so on.

Think about the Arthurian legends, those endlessly adapted and adapting tales. There is no source, and they just keep conforming themselves to the new times and places in which they are told.

And then let’s think about Charles Williams.

Charles Williams was an excellent adapter. Outlines of Romantic Theology and The Figure of Beatrice adapt one of Dante’s central ideas. A Myth of Shakespeare is some pretty hard-core fan-fiction, including huge chunks of texts quoted straight from the plays. Heroes and Kings adapts tales of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and of Lilith.

And then, of course, there’s the Arthurian material. From 1912 until his death in 1945, Williams mashed up Arthurian characters, plot elements, themes, and symbols in glorious proliferation. Starting with the Arthurian Commonplace Book and ending with the great final volumes of poetry, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, CW read, studied, imitated, modified, appropriated, and lived into the Matter of Britain until he gave his family and friends mythic names and tried to make everyone around him act out the story in their daily lives.

keep-calm-and-read-tolkien-2Then he met C. S. Lewis, who then dropped Merlin into his Ransom cycle (under CW’s influence), and J.R.R. Tolkien, who gave up ever finishing his Fall of Arthur (probably under CW’s poetic eight). Tolkien went on to write The Lord of the Rings instead, with its significant elements of chivalry and sacramental quest.

And then Peter Jackson came along and continued the endless project. The Hobbit films are only today’s episode in the never-ending [Arthurian] story. Enjoy them, analyze them, critique them, but above all: read Tolkien.

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What do you want to know about “Faith and Fantasy”?

mythcon-45-logoDear Readers:

In addition to moderating a panel on “The Inklings and King Arthur” at Mythcon 45, I am also serving on a panel on “Faith and Fantasy” in the brilliant company of Carl Hostetter, Lynn Maudlin, and Chip Crane. Our panel will address the following questions generally:

* How does fantasy “fit” with faith?
* Can fantasy writing effectively express or affirm faith?
* How or when does it fall short of doing so?
* Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams are known for their Christian faith, and all three took distinctive approaches toward expressing it (or not) in their fiction. Are these writers successful in their approach?

I plan to focus on CW’s novels. More specifically, I will open my portion of the discussion by answering three questions:

1) Does CW’s faith show up in his fantasy writing?

2) How does he portray faith or religious practice within the story itself?

3) Does his representation strengthen or weaken the power or effect of the story?

Here is my question for you: What would you like to hear me address? What questions do you have? Do you want to suggest any examples I should use from CW’s novels? 121204-CharlesWilliams-FourNovels

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Meta-Textual Tedium: “Poetry at Present”

Charles Williams Book Summary #16: Poetry at Present (1930)

Poetry-at-Present-5441457-5In 1930, CW published his first work of literary criticism: Poetry at Present. He had recently released A Myth of Shakespeare, which was his first market success (on a very modest scale), and then Poetry at Present did fairly well, too. Four of the poets in the book wrote to him to thank him for his evaluation of their work. It looked like he might be gaining a literary reputation at last (he was, after all, in his mid-forties), although not for his poetry, as he wished. In retrospect, this is no surprise, as he had not yet found his poetic voice. That was about to happen—but more on that anon.

Poetry at Present was an introduction to eighteen English poets who were alive at the time of writing and whom Williams thought would stand the test of time as “great” poets, including Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, G. K. Chesterton, and T. S. Eliot. The other eleven you have probably never heard of, nor has anyone else since. This, of course, raises the question of CW’s literary judgment—but who can rightly judge of the future reputations of his or her contemporaries? Our eyes are blinded by being too close to the subject. We cannot see the big picture.

Each chapter of Poetry at Present gives an overview of a poet’s work—in CW’s obscure and privatized prose style—observing both the poet’s big ideas and his or her techniques.

Dame Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell

(“Her” techniques are discussed only once; Edith Sitwell is the sole woman considered in this book, and she is lumped in with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell; have you ever heard of them?)

Then each chapter ends with a poem of CW’s own, imitating the style of the poet in question and picking up his ideas.

Now, that’s odd: ending the chapters of a work of literary criticism with the critic’s own poems? Yet it seems to have worked well in this case: Hadfield records that these poems, along with the relative success of the book as literary criticism, actually helped to forward CW’s reputation as a poet, too.

The poems are curious, because they serve a meta-textual function: They are texts commenting on texts, or they are pieces of literary interpretation that are themselves subject to literary interpretation. Writing about writing. Poems about poems. I find them to be decent, good, but certainly not great, poems: about on the level with most of CW’s early poetry. Technically proficient, with interesting ideas, but forgettable and, ultimately, mediocre.

And what about the chapters of criticism? When I think of CW’s body of work, I tend to think of his literary criticism last. I think of his novels, poetry, theology, and plays long before I remember that he wrote several volumes of professional literary work under his own name and did much more work anonymously for Oxford University Press. Stephen Barber writes: “this is a considerable body of material; he actually wrote far more literary criticism than theology and of the rest of his work only the novels form a comparably important body of work,” besides the poetry, that is. Barber goes on: “And in fact some of Williams’s other books which present themselves as being about other matters in fact contain literary criticism.” CW was intensely involved in reading and commenting upon the literature of the past and of his own time. quote-Mason-Cooley-every-literary-critic-believes-he-will-outwit-56029_1The extent of his reading is astonishing; when he comments upon any writer, he gives the impression of having read, understood, absorbed, and digested the entire body of that writer’s work. (Whether he really had done so, and whether his commentary proves his expertise in all fields, will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis). However this may be, his breadth of reading is very broad, and his depth of commentary astonishing. He takes whole swathes of verse in a single judgment, and his use of superlatives and terms of universality is quite pervasive; everybody is an “only” or a “best,” “most,” “least,” or “worst,” or who “never” has “not” a “single” line of such-and-such. For instance:

Of all the modern poets there is only one whose verse is always full of the voice of battle, and that is” (can you guess who?) “Mr. [G. K.] Chesterton…. Everything is spoken of in terms of war, either actual or potential…. Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Housman hold up between them all the philosophies; man conquers or he endures. (emphasis added).

In spite of these rather extravagant claims, and in spite of what I find to be a very annoying kind of late-Victorian indirectness of diction and meandering syntax, CW’s evaluations are thoughtful enough to be worth consideration—especially if we apply them to his own poetry, rather than to that on which he is commenting. Scholars have commonly noted that CW seems to be writing about his own verse rather than that of whoever’s name appears at the head of a chapter, as if by applying his personal standards to another poet, his readers will turn and consider his own literary value. In this vein, he talks about theology vs. propaganda, the use of fairy and the occult and the alchemical, Romantic Theology, anatomical geography, and the Crisis.

So is it a good book? Well, that evaluation is beyond me. It is not a compelling book. I would never have read it if I were not determined to read straight through CW’s oeuvre for the purposes of this blog. In fact, I have not finished reading it yet. The style is slow, privatized, and confusing. Many of the poets have fallen out of our reading lists. But it is both a commentary on and a sample of its times. CW wrote, of Robert Bridges, that “literature nowadays is never unselfconscious.” A dissertation could be based on examining the truth and implications of that claim, and CW’s works could take pride of place in the profundity of their self-consciousness. Yet their very vanity, their very inward-looking gaze, is in a way a complement to the reader. All of CW’s works begin psychologically speaking in medias res; they assume that the reader is in the same place, mentally and spiritual, as the narrator (who is very much an alter-ego figure). This is frustrating, as I venture to suggest no 21st-century reader can start from the same point as CW in 1930. But it is also somewhat stimulating. The reader is invited into a world full of spiritual heights and depths, peopled with geniuses and spirits, in which the line between the natural and supernatural has been withdrawn. This sense is strong in his novels; I feel it here, too, in the literary criticism. CW assumes you have read every he has and have gone through the same thoughts regarding that reading, and he is merely recording the obvious progress of every thinking mind on the subject. sherlock_iiHe makes startling claims in the calmest tones and sweeping gestures without a flicker of an eyelash. In this way, reading even his most boring literary criticism is a somewhat thrilling experience. I feel, as a reader, as if he is saying the opposite of Sherlock’s “What must it be like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!” CW is saying that it is very exciting inside his brilliant enormous brain, and assumes you are right there inside with him. It’s a wild world in there.

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Midmoot 2014: Seminar with the Tolkien Professor

10443240_10204342028573753_2898416249309081053_o Did you know that the Garden of Eden is in Alexandria, Virginia? Actually, no, it isn’t: Eden is a Moveable Feast. My Garden of Earthly Delights is wherever an eclectic and eccentric group of people gather to share their love of literature, learning, art, music, or God. You may have read my piece about the second Hobbit film, in which I wrote about how the company in which we view a movie colors our interpretation of the work.

This past weekend was another of those mini-Edens, in the company of many of the same Mythgardians with whom I saw the Hobbit at MythMoot II. Indeed, this event was a regional meeting so that we wouldn’t have to go a whole year without the wise company of Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor. So this past Sunday’s event consisted of Flash Sessions: mini-papers and prompts designed to get Corey and the company talking on some of our favorite Tolkien-related concepts.

10550149_10204342630628804_3203225213989649532_oI led off the event with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams ‘Solve’ the Problem of Evil. Then Corey responded by talking about Tolkien’s Augustinian response and his embrace of Mystery.

Thomas Johnson talked about Disney and revisionist fairy tales, such as Maleficent, in The Fairy Tale Craze in TV and Film Today. He talked about how these films try to upend traditional morality, but how Disney has continued to replace the grittier fairy tales with their cutesy, sanitized versions.

Then Neil Ottenstein asked a good question: “Should the producers of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game have revealed the nature of the games to the viewers or kept it as a surprise to them? How important are surprises in adaptations?” This led to an excellent discussion of other movies and books with surprise endings that re-interpret the whole story (Life of Pi, Blade Runner, Inception) and how we read/watch and re-read/re-watch these.

After lunch, Mike Therway presented a word-search study called “In the Mood for Doom.” He did a word count of occurrences of “doom” in LOTR and talked about how these reveal thematic and narrative elements.

Next, Dom Nardi used his political science expertise to analyze exit vales and tyrannical policies in Middle-earth in his talk “Politics in Middle Earth.”

Shellie Kennedy shared some thoughts about male relatives — the families of Rohan, Gondor, and Durin — in “Blood is Thicker: Tolkien’s Perspective on Family.” Of course, in the discussion that followed, questions of “Where are the women? Where are the mothers?” came up. Obviously, some one talked about JRRT’s loss of his own mother at a young age. Corey pointed out that really Tolkien is doing something with Medieval culture in LOTR: most women died young in the Middle Ages! 1 out of 3 women died in childbirth, so motherless children were very common, as were stepmothers.

The last two scheduled presentations were very much discussions, without a mini-paper to start us off. Trevor Brierly opened up “Chaucer Time — An Opportunity for Chaucerian Discussion,” and John Costello led “Lovecraft Time — An Opportunity for Lovecraftian Discussion.” The Chaucer conversation was magnificent; Corey is currently teaching the second of two online courses in Chaucer offered by Mythgard (I’ve audited both), so he is very much in a Chaucerian frame of mind. He talked about why he loves Chaucer: primarily because Chaucer is so very hilarious and self-deprecating, and his narrators are some of the funniest people on the planet. His narrative strategies are arguably unparalleled. He also talked about reception history: how Chaucer was under-valued for centuries because readers didn’t understand how to pronounce Middle English, which led to the widespread belief that his poetry didn’t scan. He also discussed Shakespeare’s debt to Chaucer.

We didn’t talk about Chaucer’s thoughts on Love; I very much wanted to ask about Chaucer’s response to Dante’s Romantic Theology. I mean, we had discussions on politics and religion, but none on sex. Lame.

There was a little time left (thanks to April Kleuver’s amazing management and sci-fi sound effect for an alert), so Ed Powell shared a talk he had kept in reserve: “Meta-Textual Musings: Reconciling the Writings of Middle-earth.” He discussed JRRT’s ret-coning obesession and narrative strategies (a little like Chaucer’s actually), leading to the conclusion that Peter Jackson must have been working from a flawed text that “Tolkien called disorderly, discursive, and confused.”  :)

Then we all reconvened at the Bilbo Baggins pub for good food, drink, and conversation. Although I didn’t get to talk to everyone, so I probably still don’t know half of them half as well as I should like, yet I like all of them at least as well as they deserve!10502182_10204287691575369_1658073541225383746_n

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In Memoriam: Chris Mitchell

Chris-Mitchell-headshotOn Friday, I received horrific, shocking news. My friend, colleague, and adviser Chris Mitchell had died suddenly on Thursday. Here is the news on Biola’s website; he had just recently moved from Wheaton to Biola to teach at the Torrey Honors College there. Here is the news on the Wade’s website; Chris was the director of the Wade for many years, and that’s where I met him.

I called him my “friend.” I only met Chris twice in person, had one long phone conversation with him, and exchanged emails — and yet I considered him a friend and mentor. When I got the news, I was just about to email him to ask him if he would write a back-of-the-book blurb for The Chapel of the Thorn. I was thinking about talking to him for advice on my Inklings and King Arthur work. He was an amazing person. His sweet love for everyone made a beautiful atmosphere around him. Let me tell you about our interactions, in order to give you an idea of how wonderful he was and how much his loss means to the world of the Inklings, to young scholars, and to his students.

First, when I was visiting WadeFront-contthe Wade back in 2011, he took me out for lunch at a lovely Vietnamese restaurant. The food was amazing; Chris gave me recommendations about what to order. He was friendly and cheerful all the time, chatting about my life (education, residence, family) and my future prospects. He gave the impression that he was as committed to my academic success as I was, and would do anything he reasonably could to further my career. So over that lovely lunch, we made a plan for realizing my dreams and goals. Then he supported my efforts over the next couple of years, advising me over email, making phone calls to influential people, and writing letters of recommendation. While our dream did not work out, its failure was entirely my fault, not his. He secured me the position I wanted, although I was not then able to take it up. And even after I (arguably) disappointed him, he continued to advise me.

That’s where our second and third interactions come in. When I visited the Wade again in 2012, we met in his office and talked for a long time: about my ongoing career struggles, about the C.S. Lewis Journal (he served on the Editorial Board), my work on Charles Williams, whether I was ready to apply for a Kilby Research Grant, and so forth. I am sure he did the same for nearly every Inklings scholar who passed through the Wade.

Then, finally, when my last-ditch effort came to secure a traditional academic career, we had a long phone conversation in which he shared all the ideas he could come up with. He was supportive and kind: a cross between a colleague, a brother, a father, and a friend.

I relate all this partly for my own sake–to remember someone I loved and admired–and also to point out some of his greatest strengths. Chris was a master of networking and mentoring. Every time I talked to him, I went away with a list of names of possible contacts. He loved connecting people to each other and to resources. He was arguably the center of the Inklings world until his move to Biola. (There are a few other such kind and intelligent people at or near the heart of Inklings, studies, too, notably his Associate Director at the Wade, Marjorie Mead, and Judith and Brendan Wolfe at the Journal of Inklings Studies). I don’t know who will step in to take care of younger Inklings scholars the way he did, making sure that we have the resources and networks we need. And his students will suffer his loss sorely. And of course, more than anyone, his family must be in deep agony. If he was half as kind a husband and father as he was a teacher, scholar, director, mentor, and friend, his loss is very very great indeed.

Chris mHere is a podcast William O’Flaherty has put together with comments from Chris’s friends to honor and remember him.

Here is a list of videos where you can watch some of his lectures.

Here is a remembrance by his friend Wesley Hill, and here’s one by Lewis scholar Andrew Lazo. Here is one by Jenna Bartlo that includes comments below by Luci Shaw, Douglas Gresham, and others. And here is one by John Rateliff, a noteworthy Tolkien scholar. Here his church remembers him and includes a link to a sermon Chris preached.

All I can think when I read these posts is: I hope Chris felt as loved during his life as he would feel now if he read these posts. Or maybe he is reading them, and that is part of the joy of Heaven.

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