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A Brief Defense of ‘Lord of the Rings’

Written by Nick Leitzke

“Hollywood picked the right decade to go over the rainbow.”

Associated Press writer David Germain used that as his opening line in a recent wrap-up of the decade in film. You can read the entire article here . It’s an innocent look at ten years’ worth of movies, who’s hot and who’s not, who picked themselves off the discard pile and who sank into obscurity. The overriding theme of the article, however, is that Hollywood tapped into a post-September 11 desire for escapism. To quote directly: “In an era that brought harsh reality home with the war on terror and an economy gone bust, Hollywood became more a dream factory than ever, embracing fantastic escapism at a time when audiences needed it most.” Germain goes on to say that ‘Lord of the Rings’ provided the proper sanctuary, a few hours of detour in Middle Earth to get away from the horrible things we saw on the news.

‘Lord of the Rings’ is not the only series of movies to receive this scrutiny. The Harry Potter franchise is lumped in here as well, and the end of the article is dedicated to Heath Ledger and his performance as the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight.’ Banishment to the pit of escapism is nothing new for ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and little more can be expected from the ranks of the literati. Mainstream critics have always showed distress over the sales success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. They gape aghast when a new readers’ poll concludes with ‘Lord of the Rings’ claiming the top spot or at least finishing a solid second.

Popularity does not necessarily carry over into substance, but if fantastic escapism is the defining characteristic we use to sift through contenders and separate novelty from high art, then there are quite a few literary greats who deserve the same disrespect. George Orwell wouldn’t stand a chance. Joseph Heller is cowering in the corner. William Golding is showing himself out, and Kurt Vonnegut can’t even get past the bouncer. Fantasy and escapism are on every page written by these authors, but what’s so surprising isn’t the shared artistic method but the fact that all of these writers, including Tolkien, are combat veterans. “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience.” Those are Tolkien’s words.

Tolkien and many of his literary contemporaries found themselves right in the middle of the greatest traumatic events of the Twentieth Century. Even Gunter Grass recently confessed to his role as a member of the SS. To make sense of such a terrible thing as war demands a strange method of communicating the ugliest and most disgusting features. Fantasy can provide this necessary method of communicating, and one can hardly call it escapism. The only way someone could call such a thing escapism is if he is unable or unwilling to face his own fear of the times head on.

‘Lord of the Rings’ speaks true to so many readers and audiences because it taps into what we are afraid of. Middle Earth turns every day horror on its head and projects it through a lens less disturbing than the real, but ultimately what we see is just as real as any news broadcast. We see ourselves superimposed against this fantastic world rather than the nightmare we live and witness on a daily basis. Ignoring the practical merit of fantasy is the luxury of those who make a conscious effort to live separated from pain and horror. It’s a mistake I vow never to make.

David Germain’s article was about the decade in film, not the decade in literature, but there is a certain canon to follow and obey in the world of cinema. Every canon breeds its own literati. To this proud and seasoned lot I present Oliver Stone, arguably one of the greatest American directors and screenwriters. Oliver Stone once found himself in the middle of a confused firefight not unlike the one in which Charlie Sheen finds himself at the end of ‘Platoon.’ To go into recent literati canon from the last ten years, just look at the work of Charlie Kauffman, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, the Cohen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Hayes, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, and Danny Boyle, just to name a few. They are not combat veterans, but an element of the fantastic is weaved into every story these artists tell. Maybe the need for the fantastic isn’t so much a need for distraction as it is a desire to define our lives.

In a time when the methods and modes of realism have become useless and absurd, we must use a different lens – a different technique – to make sense of recent history. Fantasy isn’t limited to nerdy universes like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or teeny-bopper franchises like ‘Twilight,’ and to label both movie series as such is to do them a horrible injustice. Art is entertainment but it is not something to be taken lightly. A great story touches something deep inside you, and you will connect with a great story as it helps you reconnect with your life. Movie audiences have spent ten years connecting with fantasy because reality is twisted just enough for the nonsensical to make vivid sense.

Posted by admin   @   29 December 2009
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Dec 30, 2009
2:04 pm

A good recent fantasy film was James Cameron’s Avatar. The theme of the civilized industrialized humans against the primitive savages of Pandora parallels the US war with the middle east many other wars. The part of Jake becoming a Na’vi is literally forcing his character to be in the enemy’s shoes. Greater than regaining the use of his legs, he discovers his potential physically, mentally and spiritually. This gave him the right perspective to become the hero of the story.

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