Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Unions Hobble Hobbit

     Last week, the filmmaker Peter Jackson returned fire in a skirmish over his planned prequel to the award-winning trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.  The movie in development, to be titled The Hobbit, has already had more than its share of trouble.  The latest barrier to progress, however, has come from a coalition of actors’ unions that opposes making the film in New Zealand.  Jackson suggests a desire to boost membership and influence, by holding a top-profile production hostage, has motivated the union opposition.  According to union allegations, The Hobbit is a “non-union” film.  Not so, says Jackson, who has already committed to providing actors many benefits beyond his legal duty.  One example is creating a second residuals arrangement for actors who are not members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and therefore not eligible for the SAG residuals contract.  To hear the unions tell it, Jackson is refusing to employ union performers at all.  In fact, he is employing both union and non-union performers, while taking the lead in matching union benefits for the performers he hires who do not happen to be members of SAG.

     For many people, this latest imbroglio will evoke another sigh of frustration.  Jackson’s Ring movies are some of the most successful films ever made.  In their time, the books from which he derived the films were equally successful.  Written by Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the novels have pleased the reading public despite critical disdain.  In 2004, The Lord of the Rings topped a retrospective BBC poll as the “best book of the [20th] century.”  Nonetheless, serious literary scholars have found the work sophomoric, lacking depth of character, and suffering from a simplistic morality.  Ironically, it is the moral structure of Tolkien’s imaginary world that captivates and reassures many a lay reader.

     Tolkien was a devout Catholic.  For him, there was a moral order in the real universe, in God’s creation, and so it was perfectly natural to write about an imaginary world in which there was an inherent moral order as well.  He considered such writing “sub-creation,” a species of religious devotion.  It turns out that many of his college-campus fans of the late 1960s were themselves fairly secular.  It is high irony that Tolkien, a royalist (like T.S. Eliot) who gently distrusted democracy, should have had such a large following among counter-culture types.  For many of his irreligious fans, Tolkien presented the closest thing they had ever known to a world in which moral and aesthetic principles were woven into the structure of reality.

     Religious skeptics—among whom your author counts himself—are usually accustomed to taking morality as ultimately provisional, a matter of consensus and culture.  Conservative religious skeptics may even be nimble enough to distinguish between their provisional morality and the full-blown moral relativism of the Left.  But there are also, always, moments when the imagination tries to conjure how it might feel to live in a moral universe with a benevolent Creator.  For such imaginative skeptics, the works of Tolkien may still give a hint of that feeling without the overt iconography of any extant religion.  Perhaps, if Big Labor relaxes its grip, Mr. Jackson will be able to bring us one more pearl on that strand.

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