Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Feminist's Guide to Watching "The Lord of the Rings"

For years, I resisted watching The Lord of the Rings because I could barely drag myself through the books, though I victoriously made it to the final page, nearly crying with happiness that it was over. My quibbles with the books actually have nothing to do with feminism (though a few more female characters would have been a vast improvement); rather, I completely lost patience with Tolkien's apparently desperate need to describe everything, from innocuous fields and mountains to clothes and sword hilts and seemingly endless meals. I really do think (fully aware that for many Tolkien fans this is rank blasphemy) that the books could be vastly improved by simply excising unnecessary descriptive passages. This would very likely result in one gloriously succinct volume, which the less obsessive of us could enjoy without sacrificing months of our reading lives. As a result of what was truly a miserable reading experience, I flatly refused to watch the movies.

Over the past few years, I've been making a concerted effort to be more open-minded about movies, in part because I've discovered great movies this way. This month, I finally watched The Lord of the Rings, all three films, and now I'm hooked. So much so that I might conceivably reread the books. But as head-over-heels as I am about these films, as a feminist, I must say they're a bit... lacking. For one thing, the films basically have three female characters. I know there are all those dancing hobbit ladies in the Shire, a handful of elven women, and the poor cowering peasant women needing protection and so on, but in the end, there are three: Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Eowyn (Miranda Otto). These women do not at any point in the films talk to each other, nor do they appear to have any relationships with other female characters. The Lord of the Rings notoriously fails the Bechdel test, and more importantly in a film that emphasizes above all else the profound bonds of friendship, fails to portray any kind of emotional bond between women. Women are also depicted without moral complexity - good, but without having to try. It's particularly interesting to note that the orcs are solely male, thus denying the possibility of an inherent evil in a female being. 

Galadriel, the elven queen who advises Frodo (Elijah Wood) in his quest to destroy the ring, is the least defined of the three characters. Though she appears in all three films and is the narrator of the initial prologue, her scenes are few and short. It is clear that she is enormously powerful and wise, the peer of Gandalf (Ian McKellan), like him able to read portents and work magic. She is able to withstand the temptation of the ring when Frodo offers it to her freely, but her ordeal of combating that temptation is the sole glimpse we get of a female character engaged in a moral struggle.

Arwen, an elven woman in love with the mortal Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), should be, at first glance, the character that feminists will loathe. She chooses to give up her family, her people, and her immortality for the sake of her love for Aragorn and the acme of her dreams is to have Aragorn's son. She nearly dies when she is separated from the man she loves and the only other strong emotional bond she has is with her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This portrait of feminine subjugation is somewhat tempered, however, by the fact that Arwen makes a choice. Both Aragorn and Elrond attempt to convince her to leave Middle-earth with the rest of the elves and accept her place among them, retaining her immortality. She defies both of them, making a purposeful choice and refusing the paternalistic protection of both, even prepared to make the same choice in the event that Aragorn refuses to accept her sacrifice. Her deliberate election may be made for the sake of her love for a man, but in so making it, she determines her own destiny, rather than allowing the men in her life to determine it for her.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen saves Frodo's life, protecting him from the Nazgul and delivering him to a healer. In so doing, she proves herself an able horsewoman, a person of no little courage, and a capable sorceress, summoning a river to her aid. These scenes of daring rescue also mitigate the more patriarchal aspects of Arwen's character, though unfortunately these traits, particularly the horsemanship and magic, seem tied directly to her status as an elf, rather than her individual talents, and pale when compared with the feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

Eowyn, of all the characters, is the closest to a feminist heroine that The Lord of the Rings offers. Her status as a swordswoman is the most obvious trait that differentiates her, but it must be said that physical prowess and fighting ability do not a feminist make. Aragorn consistently belittles her, insisting she stay out of the fighting she longs to join and treating her as a mere apprentice in swordsmanship, though she is more than capable, while her uncle and brother speak frequently about safeguarding her and chide her when she protests. All the men around her treat her like a child and when she does ride into battle in The Return of the King she keeps Merry (Dominic Monaghan) always at her side. In The Two Towers, she is subjected to the vile attentions of the traitor Grima and her defiance and disgust are only faintly expressed. It's clear that she is vulnerable at court as a woman, but it's really rather disappointing that a woman prepared to ride into battle proves unequal to firmly rejecting a lecher.

The one moment in the films that should prick the feminist ear is in The Return of the King. King Theoden (Bernard Hill) lies mortally wounded and the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul, prepares to finish him off. Eowyn, seeing her beloved uncle in mortal peril, steps between them and fights the Witch King. He nearly kills her, laughing at her defiance because he can be killed by no man. At this point, Eowyn reveals herself to be a woman and she stabs the Witch King, destroying him and proving the prophecy true - no man has killed him. This victory is, however, very much mitigated by the fact that Eowyn does not act alone. The Witch King is weakened first by Merry, a hobbit (thus the prophecy holds true), who stabs him with an enchanted blade and gives Eowyn an opening.

The prophecy about the Witch King is dependent on a fundamental weakness of patriarchal ideas. The Witch King assumes himself invulnerable because it is inconceivable to him that any creature but a man could be a mighty enough warrior to challenge him. Hobbits are described as retiring, adventure-shy, and too small and weak to be fighters; the same view is held of women. In the end however, the hobbits earn the adulation and gratitude of an entire world, having proved themselves creatures of courage through their adventures. Eowyn is destined to be the bride of Faramir (David Wenham). Oh, yay.

While I was watching The Two Towers, I turned to my sister and pointed out that the Rohirrim could double their armed forces if they armed the women as well as the men. And then maybe they could not arm all those little kids that definitely did not survive the battle of Helm's Deep.The decidedly patriarchal attitudes of the Middle-earth world thus make the road to victory quite a bit harder. Luckily, Sauron seems intent on a world run by orcs and thus free of women, so he doesn't realize the potential of doubling armies by training both genders, but unluckily, the men of Rohan and Gondor are equally clueless and thus take greater risks than needed by fighting with vastly out-numbered forces. They are constantly frustrated by the small size of their armies, in every single battle fought; I say, arm the women.

The most unfortunate aspect of the treatment of female characters in The Lord of the Rings is that there are no female characters that are not, by the end, romantically attached. Galadriel is married and shares the rule of her realm with her husband. Arwen, as expected, becomes Aragorn's queen. And Eowyn, having first pined for Aragorn, falls in love with Faramir. Male characters are not treated in the same way. Frodo, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, Bilbo - none of them are romantically attached. The women's destinies are wrapped up in the men; the men's destinies are their own.

As a feminist, I'm quite used to seeing films that fail to reflect my own values as far as gender is concerned, but I find the exercise of a feminist analysis both instructive and, in a way, cathartic. I love The Lord of the Rings films; The Lord of the Rings films reflect values in opposition to my own. Through this process of analysis, it is possible to complicate the patriarchal values of these films, without losing an appreciation for them and without compromising my own politics.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

4 Fantasy Films that Surprisingly Pass the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test - two women must talk to each other about something other than a man - illuminates several important gender issues in films. It's a vivid illustration of how few female characters there are compared to male, and also how often those female characters exist primarily in relationship with men and therefore never interact with each other. The fantasy film genre has been particularly prone to traditional patriarchal narratives that keep female characters marginalized and sexualized, and even when fantasy films aren't outright misogynistic, they rarely pass the Bechdel test. Given that half the world is female and we do, indeed, talk frequently about subjects other than men, it's really rather disturbing to realize that these films fail the Bechdel test completely: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the original Stars War trilogy, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings, to name only the most prominent. It's been said before, but it's well worth repeating: the Bechdel test determines nothing about the feminist politics of a film. Passing the Bechdel test doesn't mean that a film is feminist. It just means that the absolute minimum effort was made to have female characters that do not function purely in relation to men. What's worth noting here is that the key is, in every case, that there are multiple female characters - a stunning number of movies fail right off the bat. In the case of the following films, there are some interesting commonalities. All four of these films have female villains. And all four feature female characters that are related, either sisters or mothers and daughters.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Disney's Sleeping Beauty has been a favorite target of online feminist criticism since the inception of the internet, and although it is in no way a feminist film, it does pass the Bechdel test, unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sleeping Beauty has an unusually high number of female characters, outnumbering the male characters six to three. The film passes the test several times over: the three good fairies have multiple conversations about their difficulties defeating Maleficent, protecting Aurora, and living like mortals, while they also talk with Aurora about chores and her duty as a princess. Ultimately, the three good fairies are the real protagonists of the story and they determine the outcome - Philip would have been utterly incapable of even escaping the Forbidden Mountain, let alone defeating Maleficent, without their help. It's easy to miss the significance of female power, both for good and for evil, in this film by focusing too much on Aurora, but Sleeping Beauty doesn't just pass the Bechdel test - it presents a range of female characters situated within the (admittedly simplistic) dualistic morality of the film.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)
C. S. Lewis was certainly not progressive in his gender politics ("battles are ugly when women fight" - so, when men do, they're pretty?), but this adaptation of the most famous of the Chronicles of Narnia does, only just, pass the Bechdel test: sisters Susan and Lucy argue together about whether Lucy is lying about having been in Narnia. Though the film has a number of prominent female characters, including the White Witch and Mrs. Beaver, the only female characters who ever get to interact without the presence of male characters are Susan and Lucy and most of their conversations are focused on their brothers or Aslan. Though the film, like the book, is shaped by some antiquated ideas about gender (and some that I wish were antiquated), the conversation that allows the film to pass is significant because it doesn't center on a stereotypically feminine subject; rather, it's a conversation about moral integrity and skepticism.

Willow (1988)
Willow passes the Bechdel test easily. At the very beginning of the film, a midwife and the woman who has just given birth to a prophesied child talk about how to save her from the evil queen. In the second instance, Queen Bavmorda instructs her daughter to intensify the search for the baby. In the third instance, the queen and the enchantress Fin Raziel battle for control of a magic wand in the final struggle to save the baby. All of these conversations, like many of those that take place between men in the film, center around this prophesied baby, a girl. Willow may not break certain rules (the beautiful female lead is going to choose the right side and the right man before the movie's over), but it has a lot of female characters, most of them magically powerful. Some of them, like Bavmorda, Finn Raziel, and Cherlindrea, are solely interested in the larger fate of their world and the power they hold within it.

Stardust (2007)
This film has a ton of female characters, but it would come close to failing the Bechdel test if not for the interactions of the female villains, all witches, and all engrossed in discussing the fallen star that could restore their youth and power. In fact, nearly every conversation that takes place between the primary witch foes (and it's worth noting that they're sisters) has no mention of a man, with one exception; they do talk about Prince Septimus, after it becomes clear that he is also seeking the fallen star. There is also a lengthy conversation in which the witch Lamia tricks the star Yvaine into believing herself safe and secure; Yvaine is rescued by the hero before Lamia has a chance to kill her. Once again, the film fails to abandon many of the patriarchal tropes common to the fantasy genre - the heroine is repeatedly rescued by the hero, there's no question of male succession to the throne, all of the good female characters are beautiful - but it has a refreshingly substantial cast of female characters.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Roald Dahl Adaptations, from Worst to Best

Pity the child who missed the scrumdiddlyumptious fiction of the brilliant, subversive, and deliciously wicked Roald Dahl. Unsurprisingly, his enormously popular and influential novels have long been inspiring filmmakers. That being said, one of the major challenges of making any cinematic adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel is their grotesque, horrifying, and at times raunchy content. How does one make a kids' movie with content like crocodiles that eat and mangle children (The Enormous Crocodile), giants who snatch human beans, crunch and munch them (The BFG), or even the literal starvation faced by Charlie Bucket's family (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)? The difference between reading comic descriptions of the horrific circumstances and seeing them portrayed onscreen is a crucial one. Nevertheless, filmmakers have made numerous essays into the fantastic worlds of Dahl's fiction, though some far more successfully than others. It was recently announced that Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance will be collaborating on an adaptation of The BFG; it will be very interesting to see where it rates on this list, from the very worst to the very best.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
One of Tim Burton's most abysmal outings and perhaps his least subtle exploration of his persistent daddy issues, which plague so many of his films, this film has a brashly pigmented candy coating, but its insides are less than appetizing. Johnny Depp, in a typically idiosyncratic but superficial performance, plays Willy Wonka as a sort of PTSD-afflicted, sadistic chocolate overlord, joining the other regulars of the Burton club, Helena Bonham Carter (woefully miscast as Mrs. Bucket) and Danny Elfman. Burton's attempts at whimsy are so heavy-handed that they could be better described as flat non-sequitors, even in the rare cases when they hollowly hit the mark. Essentially a rehashing of Burton's favorite themes and ideas, this film works neither as an adaptation nor as an original interpretation.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)
A mixture of stagey live action and beautifully executed stop motion animation, this rather febrile adaptation is directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. It has none of the teeth of their earlier collaboration, The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's likable and inoffensive. What crushes this otherwise charming film is the music. Randy Newman's songs are not merely nauseatingly saccharine and childishly simple - they are almost constant. It isn't possible to simply skip the songs because they form the backbone of the storytelling. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and David Thewlis as Earthworm, but it's depressingly safe for an adaptation of a book by such an unabashedly subversive writer.

Matilda (1996)
Though this film remains true to the events of the book, it somehow misses the mark. That being said, it's reliably entertaining, more for children than adults. By far the highlight of the film is the performances of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as the prodigy's loathsome, self-involved parents; both of them triumph in roles that need to be brutally funny and genuinely frightening at the same time.Their presence onscreen automatically livens a story that, without the sharp wit of Dahl's prose, at times verges on the downright sentimental, particularly in the interactions between Matilda (an endearing Mara Wilson) and Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). At the same time, how marvelous that a book about the joy and empowerment of reading has been translated into a movie that celebrates those same things.

The Witches (1990)
The Witches was (and, I imagine, is) the cause of much childhood trauma, the result of the terrifying transformation of the Grand High Witch (a perfectly cast Anjelica Huston) into Jim Henson's monstrous hag puppet. The puppetry is splendid and deserving of the many nightmares it inspired, but, it's also a strong example of why Dahl's chilling children's stories can become strikingly adult when translated visually. The film is a terrific adaptation, up until the final scene, which changes Dahl's rather melancholy ending into a typically sprightly Hollywood ending; this rather spoils Dahl's point and defangs the terror that sustains the story. Had usually daring director Nicolas Roeg dared to keep the far more subversive, far more meaningful ending, The Witches would top this list.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2010)
I was deeply skeptical of this film before seeing it, and, undoubtedly, it is far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, one of my personal favorites. Wes Anderson's interpretation of the story of a crafty fox determined to steal tasty morsels from the vicious farmers nearby adds significantly to the plot, ultimately veering away into completely new territory, and he adds and embellishes characters, though making them complex enough that this works. While Dahl's book is an anarchic, morally complex fable, Anderson's film gently skewers (without dismissing) modern consumerist culture, drawing parallels between the film's animal population, facing starvation and oppression, and the human population, portrayed as either downright evil or uncomprehending, and modern paradigms of oppression. The stop motion animation is stunning. Though Anderson hasn't necessarily made a great adaptation, he has made a great film.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Although Dahl himself slammed the film and tried to dissociate himself from it, it's difficult to understand why. The screenplay, by Dahl and David Seltzer, is brilliantly witty and very much a cinematic retelling, using television news segments and satiric scenes of adult idiocy and greed as segues.  Gene Wilder outdoes himself as the eccentric candy maker and inventor, Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe is the quintessential good grownup, Peter Ostrum convinces as a genuinely selfless kid without once descending into sentimentality - there isn't a single weak link in the cast. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, are classics, from "The Candy Man Can" to "Pure Imagination" (though "Cheer Up, Charlie" is definitely an interlude worthy of a cat nap). Both a fabulous adaptation of one of the greatest children's books of all time and a brilliant film in its own right, it's hard to believe that any Dahl adaptation will ever surpass Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Literary Schools Where I Wish I Could Study

From the time I was a small child, books have provided me with my expectations, sometimes quite fantastic, of what a great school should be, and throughout my childhood, I dreamed of attending the great schools of literature. Of course, some of these blissful bastions of literary learning lose their luster when compared with brutal reality. James Hilton's worshipful story of a beloved boys' public school professor, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, has been tarnished, at least for me, by the horrifying revelations of the miseries endured by students at such schools by writers, and veterans of British public schools, George Orwell and C. S. Lewis. And though Charlotte Bronte's protagonist in The Professor holds himself up as a model of educational reform and erudition, I'm not sure I'd care for such a stern and unforgiving taskmaster. There are the schools of nightmares too: the terrifying Miss Trunchbull's penitentiary-like school where children get hurled into neighboring fields by their offending pigtails, in Roald Dahl's Matilda, for example. And while Miss Minchin's tony London boarding school in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess is quite pleasant if one has the wealth to pay for it, it quickly devolves into a sooty prison for Sara Crewe when her father dies leaving her penniless.

Spring Valley University, described in John O'Hara's Elizabeth Appleton, sounds like a fairly decent place to get a university degree, that is, if you are male, white, Protestant, and determined to chase the coeds (also called "suffragettes" and considered "undateable") off campus. Though hardly the stuff of nightmares at first glance, such a university experience is hardly what those of us who don't fit such narrow categories would call a positive educational experience. (For cinema and Broadway fans, Spring Valley is quite reminiscent in terms of its white-bread football culture and class snootiness of Tait College from Good News, though without its toe-tapping solutions to class struggle.) Like so many binge consumers of British literature and like Jude in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, I coveted a place at one of the great British universities, with their gorgeous Gothic chapels, centuries-old libraries, and chummy "rooms." Of course, the fantasy of such an education is again dependent on imagining oneself into the male, Protestant, and upper crusty shoes of your average Oxford don, at least until the surprisingly recent past - Cambridge went coed in 1948 and Oxford didn't begin to admit women on the same terms as men until the late 1970s.

But the dream of a really great college education is also a common trope in girls' literature, the signal of an emerging feminist consciousness. Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women desperately wants to join her best friend Laurie at Harvard (which, like Oxford, didn't admit women as full students until the late 1970s), but her quest for education culminates in the foundation of her own school, in Little Men. Though primarily a boys' school, Plumfield Estate School goes coed quite early, and one of its coeds, Nan, devotes herself to medical studies, eventually, in Jo's Boys, becoming a doctor. Plumfield is nothing like a traditional school - one of its primary aims is to foster independence and responsibility and thus the students are encouraged to start businesses, learn practical skills, keep pets and gardens, and found a natural history museum. In Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Lucy Snowe becomes a teacher at an exclusive girls' boarding school in a fictionalized Brussels and eventually becomes the headmistress of her own school. Much like Miss Minchin's exclusive school, this boarding school offers the best experiences to its richest students, but the curriculum, which includes languages, history, and less serious subjects, like theater, dance, and handicrafts, is varied and quite appealing.

Only a few decades later, authors were sending their female protagonists to college. In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy narrates her years at college, offering a glimpse into the privileged world of a women's college in the early twentieth century. Aside from the downright luxurious dormitories, the college offers opportunities to make fast friendships (even, in this case, across classes), access to a wealth of reading material, and, most importantly, the kind of empowerment that allows Judy to become professionally ambitious. Similarly, L. M. Montgomery sent her beloved heroine Anne Shirley to college in Anne of the Island. In this book, the exceedingly ambitious Anne finally gets her chance to study literature in depth. She also sets up house in a romantic cottage with a girl friend (a fantasy indeed for anyone who has had a bad roommate experience) and reconciles her girlhood hopes with adult resolves.

Perhaps no literary schools are nearly as enticing as those where magic is taught, the preeminent example of course being Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Who wouldn't want to learn how to perform magic spells, from making objects fly and turning animals into water goblets to flying broomsticks? And for a private tutor, who better than Merlin, Albus Dumbledore's venerable forebear, in T. H. White's brilliant The Sword in the Stone? In White's quirky and very erudite rendition, Merlin is a rather crabby old codger, but a possessed of a brilliant mind, if little patience. His method of teaching the lessons of statesmanship is to turn the boy Arthur into a series of animals, exploring the universe from the point of view of a falcon, a fish, and a badger, among others. However, barring quite unexpected developments, I don't expect such educational experiences to become typical for any students; I do wish that more students had wider access to literature, literature that just might give them greater expectations of what education can offer them.