08 January 2013

Meeting (and Missing) Mercy at the Movies

     Two blockbuster films came out over the winter holiday that should excite a lot of people, and especially Christians. Those two movies were, of course, The Hobbit and Les Miserables (which each broke my heart, though in different ways).
    We've long since claimed Tolkien as our own and proudly bring him out of our proverbial rolodex in any quarrel relating to the aesthetic accomplishments of Christians. Yes, we may be saddled with Left Behind and rows upon rows of Amish romances, but we also have a little series called Lord of the Rings, maybe you've heard of it?
    So Christians willingly embraced the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy when it came out around a decade ago, and have now turned to The Hobbit with similar fervor. This zeal is not entirely misplaced; there is only so much a filmmaker can do to ruin Tolkien's brilliant storytelling, and The Hobbit, unlike most big budget Hollywood films, values mercy. Or at least, it claims to. Tolkien certainly did, but whether or not Jackson upholds this is up for debate.
     There is, of course, the one defining, pinnacle moment where Bilbo chooses not to kill Gollum even when he is given the opportunity (that's not a spoiler alert, since Gollum is clearly alive in the LOTR trilogy). In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo, "It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand...The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many," and this mercy, this saving of Gollum's life, does indeed turn out to mean the salvation of Middle Earth (again, not a spoiler, since the movies have been out for ten years and the books significantly longer). The moment when Bilbo lowers his sword and stares into Gollum's pitful, scared face is a powerful moment-- the only quietness and subtlety the movie offers in its mammoth 2 1/2 hour running time.
      Filmgoers are clearly hungry for mercy, judging by the way they flocked to Les Miserables, a musical adaptation of another story that Christians can proudly claim (though some don't, shying away from the prostitutes and general "dirtiness" of the story; seemingly forgetting that's what half of the Bible is about). The film clearly shows the struggle between mercy and justice as personified by Valjean and Javert. In Les Mis, as in The Hobbit, the hero spares the (admittedly morally grey) villain when he has the chance to defeat him.
     It's no wonder that we long for mercy, after years of movies like the revenge-based Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or the dark, vengeful, and seemingly endless superhero reboots we keep getting. Christians, especially, enjoy being able to watch something that illustrates God's saving mercy rather than man's revenge or even rightful, yet harsh, judgment. Non-believers do as well, judging from box-office receipts.
    Les Mis succeeds in illustrating mercy; Javert's quest for justice ends when (spoiler alert, but again, it's been around for a while, so if you haven't read the book, heard the musical, or seen one of the dozens of cinematic adaptions of the story, this one's kind of on you) he is confronted by Valjean's mercy. Unable to understand it, he commits suicide; justice self-destruct, uncomprehending in the face of mercy. Valjean, who shows mercy because he has been shown mercy (not unlike us) ends his life redeemed and freed from justice's harsh demands.
      Does The Hobbit similarly succeed in its portrayal of mercy? Well, while the scene with Gollum is powerful and worth the price of admission alone, it is at odds with the entire rest of the film (this article is a great read, which accurately sums up a lot of the problems I had with the movie). Tolkien had a very unique and even Biblical theory of warfare-- war is undesirable and horrific, but sometimes necessary and just. When it is necessary, joy can be found in it (similar to the idea of 'righteous anger'-- this explains the joy of, say, Gimli and Legolas with their Orc body count at Helm's deep).
     The Hobbit adaptation has, of course, been expanded to form a trilogy; a decision which must have been solely monetary, as the numerous additions, far from contributing to the story, sap it of any vitality it might once have had, stretching out simple scenes, adding characters, and, most egregiously of all, throwing in gratuitous battle sequences at (quite literally) every possible opportunity. Jackson clearly had a fascination with battle scenes even in the LOTR trilogy, but there, they were a part of the story and felt as if they had a purpose. Here, they seem out of place; killing for the sake of killing, taking up arms at the first excuse and glorying  even in the horrors of battle (think of the gruesomely circus-like atmosphere of the underground fight with the goblins). The glory of exacting justice swiftly and violently undermines the mercy at the heart of Tolkien's story (as well as the innocence and homeliness-- The Hobbit is, after all, a children's story; but that's a discussion for another time).
      People crave mercy, and like to see it in films, even in distorted forms. So what should Christians do with these portrayals of mercy? Be proud to own the spiritual themes in Les Mis and The Hobbit. Treasure what we can, praise God for the mercy He has shown us, and remind others of that same mercy. And while you're at it, read The Hobbit. It'll take less time than watching the movie will. And it'll be a lot better.