Sunday, January 23, 2005

Narnia & Lord of the Rings - Staying True to the Word

(Via Bill Cork): Peter Jackson In Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema's the Lord of the Rings, a book by Greg Wright, contributing editor for (and manager of their Lord of the Rings section). For a preview, see "Looking at Tolkien trilogy in a new way" (Naples Daily News January 22, 2005), about a roundtable discussion between Peter Jackson & company with "religion news specialists" and film critics.

Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens knew that Tolkien's traditional Catholic faith had deeply influenced "The Lord of the Rings." Their goal was to keep the "spirit of Tolkien" intact while producing films for modern audiences. They said they had vowed not to introduce new elements into the tale that would clash with Tolkien's vision.

"You would have to say that these are extremely gifted people and that they showed incredible dedication and integrity," said Wright. "But the questions remain: What is the spirit of Tolkien? How well do Jackson, Walsh and Boyens understand the spirit of Tolkien?"

Read the article and judge for yourself. It's rather amazing how Tolkien's distinctly Catholic spirituality managed to survive (to some extent) on screen -- despite the fact that the director, screenwriters (and ja good portion of the cast) did not share Tolkien's religous worldview. In fact, judging from their comments below, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens can at best be described as espousing a rather lukewarm humanism:

Jackson was blunt: "I don't know whether evil exists. You see stuff happening around the world and you believe it probably does. . . . I think that evil exists within people. I don't know whether it exists as a force outside of humanity."

Walsh and Boyens emphasized that the books are about faith, hope, charity and some kind of life after death. What about sin? "You don't fall if you have faith," said Boyens, and true faith is about "holding true to yourself" and "fellowship with your fellow man."

"Lord of the Rings," she said, is about the "enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others in small acts every day. ... That gives you reason to hope that it has significance for all of us as a race, as mankind, that we're evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that."

I agree with Wright's assessment: "I think that you can find Tolkien's vision in these movies if you already know where to look. But if you don't understand Tolkien's vision on your own, you may or may not get it." I imagine a lot of kids who will see the films as pure and simple fantasy, a glorified Dungeons & Dragons adventure on the big screen, and nothing more -- certainly impressive, but quickly forgotten as they move on next summer's blockbuster. Of course one would hope they would be sufficiently enticed to read the books.

* * *

The issue of faithful translation are raised by Walt Disney Studios' production of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe -- part of what may become a film adaption of the entire Chronicles of Narnia.

C.S. Lewis' Christianity seems to me even more explicit in his writing than Tolkien's. Even as a first grader, it wasn't hard to discern the allegorical sense of the passion, "crucifixion" and resurrection of Aslan the Lion. So when I heard it was being produced by Disney Studios (in its latter days hardly a haven for Christian morality), and by the director of Shrek, who is reported to have said: "I don't want to make a movie based on the book. I want to make a movie based on my recollection of the book" ( Granted, the directors must be granted a certain amount of creative liberty filling in the details. But my initial thought was that the cinematic version of Narnia -- in the hands of Disney -- would only appear on screen after having undergone a drastic de-Christianization under the scrutiny of the Grand Enforcers of Political Correctnesstm.

However, my confidence is boosted by the discovery that C.S. Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham is serving as co-producer, with the specific intent on seeing that the movies stay true to the stories of his father, as well as by this report from NarniaWeb.Com:

Is this going to be a secularized Hollywood version or will C.S. Lewis' Christian themes stay intact? - It's no secret that C.S. Lewis was an outspoken Christian and his faith was woven throughout everything he wrote. Narnia is no exception and much of the stories are allegorical in nature. Will Hollywood have its way and strip out Lewis' spiritual messages? Not so, promises Douglas Gresham, co-producer and stepson of Lewis himself. A committed Christian, Gresham has vowed not to “change the words of the master.” Indeed, Walden Media itself has a track record of family-friendly films so it seems that the film will be in good hands. Many are concerned that Disney's influence will water down the Christian themes which run through the Narnia stories, but it's important to remember that Walden Media is ultimately in charge of the film, not Disney.

Richard Taylor and WETA Workshop -- chief special-effects, weapons and armor architects of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings -- is developing the creatures and the world of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. An impressive featurette on their handwork bringing Lewis' world to life is now online. The film is scheduled to be released on December 9, 2005.

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