Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tolkien on film

Not his works, this time: Tolkien the person. News article on two competing bio-pics* of Tolkien's life in the works.

As we say among my people, oy. The problem with movies based on facts, as with movies based on novels, is that they inevitably overshadow those facts, and then people concerned with getting the facts right have to spend the rest of their lives patiently explaining that It Wasn't Really Quite Like That. Even if the movie is faithful, it will oversimplify things. And the better the movie is as a movie, the more it will overshadow those facts. (After all, our film image of how the sound barrier was broken is the pretty good and [in some aspects] fairly accurate 1983 The Right Stuff, not the pretty bad and horribly inaccurate 1952 Breaking the Sound Barrier - though see Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, on which the film of that name was based, for how disruptive the other movie's untruths were at the time on attempts to explain to laymen, especially those responsible for funding aerospace, what was actually going on.)

First we have a movie on Tolkien's earlier life, "particularly his formative years at Pembroke College and as a soldier in World War I, and how it influenced him and his work." I don't think they mean Pembroke College, which he was attached to as a don in 1925-45. I think they mean Exeter College, which he attended as an undergraduate in 1911-15.

Well, it had better be his early years. "Tolkien led a complicated and colorful life," it says. Not after he returned to Oxford as a don in 1925, he didn't: as Humphrey Carpenter's biography famously remarked, "And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened." The complexity and color of Tolkien's life after that was - as Carpenter explains - all internal, and hard to depict on film. (I've noted how on The West Wing, the speechwriters in the throes of composition are usually depicted by the hapless method of having the actors crumple up sheets of paper and toss them on the floor, a convention even resorted to in Shakespeare in Love, set at a time when paper was so rare and valuable that discarding it like that would have been insane.)

And perhaps it could be done. I've been pleasantly struck with how John Garth's biography Tolkien and the Great War, which is limited to those early years, has been enjoyably read with profit even by readers not familiar with The Book of Lost Tales or the other early writings of Tolkien's whose creation is the focus of Garth's work. If the filmmakers deign to take Garth's book (better and more detailed than Carpenter's on its topics) as their source, that'd be at least a good start.

But I fear it will overegg the custard, as we can see by turning to the other movie, an account of Tolkien's friendship with C.S. Lewis, aimed as a "faith-based" audience. It seems that it will be less about the friendship than about it being "poisoned by jealousy, paranoia and creative and religious differences." Oh dear. Retroactive grumbles that Tolkien issued two or three decades later have poisoned - yes, that's the right word - our image of what was still, during WW2 when this movie is set, a warm and intimate friendship despite occasional misgivings on Tolkien's part, and despite fierce arguments which, for both Lewis and Tolkien, were much of the fun. Tolkien once boasted of the Inklings gathering for "a most amusing and highly contentious evening, on which (had an outsider eavesdropped) he would have thought it a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns."

Will the movie capture that paradox? I fear not, though the filmmakers could usefully educate themselves by reading chapter 4 of Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep, which is all about it. Apparently, hostile relationships are more popular to read about than friendly ones, so if there's no or minimal hostility, you make it up or exaggerate it. Already several years ago I had to write, in an article discussing Tolkien's discomforts with the Inklings, that "the attempts by some biographers to inflate this into a seething jealousy are certainly wrong."

I could say more - in a Christian movie, there's unlikely to be a hidden agenda to use the authors' conflicts to discredit their works, which is what is often driving the "jealousy" story - but I'm more interested in the movie producer's comments in the story backing up the "poisoned" summary. "Lewis becoming the poster boy for Christianity upset Tolkien," he says. Well, it upset Lewis too. That wasn't his plan, any more than it was Tolkien's plan to become the poster boy for hack-and-slash fantasy sagas, and both writers' success put them in bad odor with their more aesthetically decorous academic colleagues.

Then the producer says something really astonishing: "And obsessive genius Tolkien is blocked, terrified of finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, for fear of the strange, psychotic visions which torture him." Let's leave aside the fact that Tolkien never wrote a book called The Fellowship of the Ring: that was the title applied, long after the work was finished, by the publisher to one-third of The Lord of the Rings when they decided to publish it in three volumes. Let's focus instead on those "strange, psychotic visions." What strange, psychotic visions? Is this an assumption that no-one can write as creatively as Tolkien without being so tortured? That's absurd. Aside from not speaking very intelligibly (worse after he got dentures), Tolkien was an ordinary man living a normal academic and suburban family life. He didn't wander around Oxford at night in his bathrobe declaiming cryptically to the heavens, as does J.B. Timbermill, Michael Innes' fond but eccentric caricature.

Maybe, just maybe, the producer is thinking of something mentioned in an article by John Garth (but which relates to volume 2, The Two Towers). In 1944, stuck at the beginning of Sam and Frodo's journey to Mordor, Tolkien paid a visit to his old school in Birmingham, and wrote that he "couldn't stand much of ... the ghosts that rose from the pavements" and immediately left the precincts. He meant, Garth explains, not his memories of school days, but the ghosts of actual dead men: his classmates who had been killed on service in WW1. "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead," as he later noted.

What a haunting image, "the ghosts that rose from the pavements." Garth is at pains to note that Tolkien did not necessarily mean more than a figure of speech by this. But he also observes that Tolkien did on other occasions have visions, or - as Tolkien clarified it - "perhaps [an] apperception which at once turned itself into pictorial form in my mind." Garth says, "Tolkien's imagination, or his perception, was sometimes indistinguishable from vision."

And he came home from Birmingham and soon wrote "The Passage of the Dead Marshes," one of the most searing chapters of The Lord of the Rings, with its images of dead faces in the mere. It broke his writer's block and sent the tale of Sam and Frodo's journey to be finished quickly in a burst of effort.

Could a movie capture the delicate interplay of reality and vision, of inspiration and creation, described here? I hope so, but I can't expect anything. Frodo's visions - and they are visions, not actual realities in his world - of a wrinkled Bilbo groping for the Ring or of Galadriel "seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful," were transformed into some of the most inept images in Jackson's movies. (My joke is that Jackson misunderstood the meaning of the word "terrible.")

It'll be tough. Any attempt to convey Tolkien's creativity in dramatic form is going to be tough. It's tough enough writing literary studies of his inspirations, and those have scholarly backing and the space to pursue it. I treat these words of Tolkien's as gold: "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous."

One other matter. Garth notes, and Glyer notes as well, that this visit to Birmingham was immediately preceded by a meeting with Lewis, who, Tolkien writes, "is putting the screw on me to finish" writing the book. And sure enough, soon he did get on with it. Tolkien explained later that "only by [Lewis's] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour" and that "the unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was ... sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience."

So here's an example of it. Make your movie about that.

PS: Supplemental

*I insist on the hyphen. Otherwise the word looks as if it's to be pronounced "bi-opics."

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