A Simple Line

Now that Amazon has acquired film rights to Lord of the Rings, and Netflix has licensed all seven Chronicles of Narnia, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: How much do bad adaptations of our favorite books really bother us? I am not saying, mind you, that the adaptations will be bad. But the possibility is strong enough that we should be thinking about it.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the profound emotional investment humans pour into stories that don’t happen and people who do not exist. We all know how real fiction can be, and how stories can accompany us through life, following us through changes that leave old times and old friends behind. Depending upon the time and manner of their entrance into our lives, stories acquire associations with larger things – a carefree summer, a person we knew then, old haunts, even (a thousand Star Wars jokes don’t change the truth) a gone childhood. To touch the story is to touch hidden chords.

Narnia and Middle-earth possess an uncommon power and resonance. Their potency is all the greater because they come to so many people in childhood and remain, among all the fantasy movies and books that follow, a kind of first love. Christians often associate these books with their faith and see Jesus in – or, perhaps, through – Aslan. Both for what they are and for what they represent, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia evoke a considerable degree of passion that does not wish to be disappointed.

The new adaptations further labor under the burden of previous adaptations. The animated versions of both works exist mainly as curiosities, arousing little antipathy or attachment. The live-action versions are weightier creations and well-known to the Tolkien and Lewis fandoms. Peter Jackson’s trilogy is iconic, binding its images to the books, and for countless people it was their initiation into Middle-earth. Many fans don’t only worry that the Amazon series won’t live up to Tolkien’s Middle-earth; they worry that it won’t live up to Jackson’s Middle-earth. There is even talk of bringing back the actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps some people feel about Walden’s Narnia films the way others feels about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The Walden films were not bad, but they fell far short of their source material. They failed to capture the spirit of Narnia, always seeming to be made by people tone-deaf to the meaning of Lewis’ works – people who replaced Caspian’s thirst to see Aslan’s country with boilerplate daddy issues because they just didn’t understand. Netflix has, in many ways, an easier task than Amazon, and strange as it may seem, it helps them that they are trying to do something no one has done: bring Narnia’s magic to the silver screen.

For myself, I am glad that Amazon and Netflix are producing their adaptations. I take a simple line: If the adaptations are good, I will enjoy them, and if they are bad, I will ignore them, and in either event I will be an interested viewer. But other people will take other lines. What is yours?

CSFF Blog Tour: The Very Antithesis of a Mechanism [Spoilers]

Not wanting to build a mere clocklike mechanism, you inadvertently – in your own punctilious way – created that which was possible, logical and inevitable, that which became the very antithesis of a mechanism …”

“Please, no more!”

– Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Three stories.

“The universe is infinite yet bounded.” So begins the Seventh Sally, the story of how Trurl’s perfection led to no good. The great constructor-benefactor once came upon a king exiled alone on an asteroid. The king insisted that the renowned constructor restore him to his kingdom, “and his iron fingers clutched the air, as if already closing around the throats of his beloved subjects.”

Naturally Trurl rejected the request. Yet he wanted to console the king, and so he built a tiny replica of a kingdom, contained in a box. Trurl perfected it so that the great Excelsius accepted it in the stead of his throne.

Trurl returned home in triumph, and told his friend Klapaucius how he had indulged the despot and protected his erstwhile subjects at the same time. And Klapaucius rebuked him: “Don’t you see, when the imitator is perfect, so must be the imitation, and the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality! Trurl, you took an untold number of creatures capable of suffering and abandoned them forever to the rule of a wicked tyrant. … Trurl, you have committed a terrible crime!”

They rushed to save Excelsius’s small subjects, only to discover that they had saved themselves.

There is also the story of Aule. Impatient for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men, he made children of his own. He made the Dwarves beneath the mountains of Middle Earth. And when he finished, he heard the voice of Iluvatar: “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou has from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more.”

And Aule, weeping, lifted up a hammer to destroy the Dwarves. But they shrank from him and begged for mercy, and again he heard Iluvatar, “Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.”

Iluvatar had made the Dwarves the children of his adoption; he made them living beings.

Finally, there is the story of Travis and Nicholas Mackenzie. They have a world of “artificial intelligence. AI. Emotions, pattern recognition, free will, the ability to hold contradictory views … [H]uman consciousness. The whole enchilada.” It was difficult to create a digital world whose inhabitants think and act freely; preserving it may be more difficult yet.

The linchpin of The God-Hater is that a group of people managed to create beings with independent wills. The linchpin of Tolkien’s story is that only God can do that. Of course, in Bill Myers’ story the method was one Tolkien could not have imagined: computer programming. Bits and bytes, Travis calls his creations. Pixels and teraflops. But if they’re not real to him, they are very real to themselves – and each other.

My question here is not whether it is possible to make a computer program that becomes, like Adam, a living being. My question is whether that is what happened in The God-Hater. Emotionally, the book tugs strongly in that direction. But Myers never explicitly settled the question.

So let’s apply Klapaucius’ test. Remember his words to Trurl: When the imitation is perfect, the semblance becomes the truth, the pretense a reality. Travis stressed the perfection of his imitation, and his pretense of real, free beings became a reality.

Later in his argument with Trurl, Klapaucius gave an even more convincing test: “You say there’s no way of knowing whether Excelsius’ subjects groan, when beaten, purely because of the electrons hopping about inside – like wheels grinding out the mimicry of a voice – or whether they really groan, that is, because they honestly experience the pain? A pretty distinction, this! No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer!”

He might as well have said that a sufferer is one who suffers. And the one thing none of us can doubt, since we saw Alpha make his trip to the Killing Wall, is that they really do suffer.

Now here’s where things get dicey. When the whole thing ceases to be an elaborate computer game, role-playing God becomes a much more doubtful enterprise. Did anyone notice that when Alpha built a temple, he built it to Nicholas? And when he prayed, who was he praying to but Nicholas? In the end, these mimicries of humanity who became, by virtue of their ability to suffer and choose, really human – they have, as their God and Savior, Nicholas Mackenzie.

There’s something just not right about that.

It’s odd that Rebekah and Nicholas made such a big deal out of giving the – what can we call them, electronic humans? – the truth, because they never got close to it. The created-to-sell-soap thing isn’t even the biggest part of it. The greatest truth, the ultimate Reality, is God. Any existence blind to Him is necessarily starved.

I think this is a legitimate issue. I also think it’s beyond The God-Hater. Maybe Myers doesn’t really consider the digital world to be real. Or – and I lean toward this – maybe these questions are simply outside the scope of his book. Maybe it wasn’t mere oversight that Myers never resolved his AI beings’ relationship to the universe; then he’d have to resolve their relationship to the God of the universe. Make it clear that Alpha is a rational creature on the order of humans and angels, and you’ve jumped clear over Nicholas Mackenize’s head.

The intent of The God-Hater was to “justify God’s ways to man” by putting man in (analogically) God’s place. To transcend the man-made computer world to the world God made, to move the question to a much higher court – that may have derailed Myers’ purpose entirely. It would have made a different book, and not necessarily a better one.

Still, it would have been nice if, to Alpha and his choosing, suffering world, God could have been God.

The story of Aule and the Dwarves can be found in The Silmarillion. The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perfection Led to No Good, is in The Cyberiad. I once posted a review of it.