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I never did get around to seeing the second “The Hobbit” movie last December or any time until just 5 nights ago when my kids and I watched it on a newly purchased Blu-Ray. Given the cliffhanger ending, I was glad to wait only 5 days (instead of 365 days) before seeing the third and last installment in the theater yesterday.
Why did I never see #2 (I hear you asking)? Because I did not much care for the first one–well, it had its moments but as all Tolkien fans know, Peter Jackson took the shortest of Tolkien’s novels, the original The Hobbit, and padded the story to the breaking point. Jackson borrowed from other Tolkien mythology and his own imagination so as to introduce characters most readers of Tolkien had never heard of (or to bring back from Jackson’s much more successful trilogy of “The Lord of the Rings” movies well-known characters who had no business being in The Hobbit. But based on the swoons from the adolescent girls in front of me in the theater yesterday, I know full well why Jackson wanted heart-throb Orlando Bloom back as the elf Legolas). In any event, the point is that Jackson threw in everything but the kitchen sink to create 3 movies of nearly 3 hours in length each out of a novel that could easily have been nicely spanned in a single three-hour film.
I have heard there will be director’s cut “extended versions” of also these three Hobbit films but it’s hard to imagine Jackson left anything out as it is. The result was a much-mocked and oft-parodied slowness to these films (especially the first two). Detail piled upon detail, sub-plots and side-plots were lingered over until even Tolkien devotees wanted to stand up to scream “Get on with it already!”
All of which brings me to Christmas and to the Bible. It should go without saying that compared to the overloaded screenplays produced by Mr. Jackson and his team, the Gospel narratives are lean and spare and ever-so-economical. Luke was a fine researcher and certainly did not spare the horses in his Gospel’s majestic opening chapter. But when it came to the story of the Messiah’s birth, Luke got the whole thing told in about a dozen or so verses. Matthew got the job done in far less space. In fact, in terms of writing style, we could also fast forward to the resurrection stories at the end of all four Gospels and if we do, we will discover that the most dramatic story ever told is narrated in very understated, almost non-dramatic fashion.
In the narratives of Jesus’ birth and resurrection, you don’t find people running around screaming at the tops of their lungs or jumping up and down and hyperventilating in over-the-top dramatic fashion. The stories are told simply, straight out. There was no need to layer on details, to add sub-plots, to linger over side conversations between shepherds or disciples. Apparently the most important story in the world and the dearest of all theological truths can be told simply, with great economy, and (just so) in a very powerful way.
In its own way Tolkien’s original novel of The Hobbit was itself a model of spareness and simplicity. The story was “fraught with background” for sure as Tolkien had a richly embroidered history of Middle Earth to which he could allude. The biblical story has that rich background, too, as literary scholars like Erich Auerbach have pointed out. But when you have confidence in your story (as the Gospel writers clearly did by the Spirit’s guidance), you don’t have to hit readers over the head again and again in some furious attempt to pad your story, make it more credible, more dramatic, more . . . more of anything.
Peter Jackson seemed to lose faith early on in his Hobbit project that the original story could sustain viewers. Tolkien needed help. The Hobbit needed more complexity, more intrigue, more scary stuff and above all more drama and violence. But in following that line of thought, Jackson has come pretty close to ruining a classic of contemporary literature (and retrospectively even tarnishing his own image after overall much better treatments of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
This Christmas week as we gather around the simple Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, I am thankful for many things, among them the confidence the evangelists had that the simple, straightforward story they had to tell about how a child named Jesus got born into this world was more than enough to catch the world’s attention and to, indeed, bring it the only Good News the world will ever need.