Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tolkien's Monsters (documentary)

So, thanks to a loan from my friend Jim Pietrusz (thanks, Jim), I've now seen the History Channel documentary TOLKIEN'S MONSTERS, part of a recent series with the overall title CLASH OF THE GODS*. It's relatively brief (about fifty minutes), with pretty good production values (except for the computer-generated dragon) and an array of experts, the most recognizable of whom were Michael Drout (a co-editor of TOLKIEN STUDIES), Dimitra Fimi (author of one of this year's finalists for the Mythopoeic Award), and Corey Olsen (the 'Tolkien Professor').** Their introductory statement makes great claims for Tolkien, identifying THE LORD OF THE RINGS as "The greatest myth of modern times" and "the most ambitious mythological journey since THE ODYSSEY".

The main thing that struck me as I watched the film was how the different pieces were assembled. They'd have an expert appear just long enough to say a line or two. These bits of film are preceded and followed by voiceovers by the narrator which set them in the context of the documentary's overall storyline, the point of which was to argue that Tolkien's two main influences were (1) The Bible and (2) World War I.*** Most of the film consists of two kinds of re-inactment (apparently by uncredited actors in Lithuania, if I interpreted the closing credits correctly): of scenes from Tolkien's book (heavily influenced in look-and-feel by the Peter Jackson movies) and scenes featuring an actor portraying Tolkien himself.

My main problem with the film is that I felt a disjunction between the script, which was clearly written by someone who'd done a good deal of research, and the images, which were clearly filmed by someone who'd never read the book. Thus sometimes the image or re-inactment on the screen did match the voiceover but still managed to be egregiously wrong, such as showing The One Ring with a crisscrossing pattern all over its outer surface. My favorite example was the film to match the narrator's description of Bilbo finding the Ring in Gollum's cave -- represented by showing an elderly hobbit walking with a stick or cane coming up to a big chest in a cave or tunnel, opening it, and looking within in amazement.**** In the words of my friend Anders Stenstrom in another context, "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!"

That said, it's surprising that they got some details right which you wdn't expect, such as dressing their actor playing Tolkien in a coat that actually looks like one Tolkien wears in a famous photo (albeit that thise photo was taken decades after 1928, the year they claim he wrote 'in a hole in the ground'). Even better, they show 'Tolkien' writing with a dip pen, which was indeed his habit. And they get points for including 'The scouring of the Shire': the return to a ruined homeland. But they get so much visually wrong (portraying THE SILMARILLION as an ancient book having a scuffed Victorian-era cover, not having LakeTown be over water, representing the Battle of Five Armies by some footage of men riding warhorse, forgetting that the actor portraying Odin shouldn't have both eyes) that it's hard not to quibble*****

As for the ideas, some of them are solid enough, but their claim that Tolkien was influenced by The Bible more than any other work seems to me shaky -- are we really meant to think about Christ's Temptation in the Wilderness when Frodo's standing in the Cracks of Doom? Is that why they omitted any mention of Sam from the Mount Doom scenes? For that matter, what's up with the claim that Orcs are Capitalists ('thinly disguised'), their acts driven by interest in profit? Color me unconvinced.

In the end, the most haunting thing about this film was the presence of Tolkien himself, in the footage of the silent figure of the actor representing him, who occasionally looks up to make eye contact with the viewer. It was quiet disturbing when, instead of 'Frodo' fingering the Ring, at one point late in the film it shows 'Tolkien' with The One Ring in his hand. Not quite sure what the message was there, nor of the later scene of 'Tolkien' standing behind 'Frodo', silently observing him, immediately followed by one of 'Frodo' standing behind 'Tolkien', giving him the same silent scrutiny. Interesting, and unsettling.

Overall, I'd say this is not one of the best documentaries out there, but it's worth watching, so long as you remain skeptical about their sweeping claims re. Tolkien & Xianity, and don't mind casual errors here and there. I'll probably watch more in the series, if only to compare their treatment of classical and Norse myth with that of Tolkien.


*a rubric probably intended to capitalize on the recent film CLASH OF THE TITANS.

**others whom I did not know included Troy Storfjell, Scott A. Miller, Scott A. Leonard, John Davenport, Tracey-Anne Cooper, Thomas Finan, and Helga Luthers. Having also watched part of the same series' documentary on BEOWULF, I discovered many of the same folks appear in that film as well, which similarly derives a lot of its content not from the Old English poem but the gosh-awful Anthony Hopkins/Angelina Jolie movie from a year or so ago.

***they do have brief segments admitting to influence from BEOWULF, the Arthurian story (the Ring of Luned), VOLSUNGA SAGA, and KALEVALA.

****Later the exact same footage is re-used to show Bilbo finding the golden cup in Smaug's lair, where it fits a little better.

*****i.e., when they aggravate a person pet peeve of mine by showing a page of the BEOWULF manuscript and not having it be the actual one the voiceover is reading from, nor the part of the story they're discussing.

1 comment:

N.E. Brigand said...

Michael Drout posted on his participation in and reaction to the project here last October.