“The Book is Waaaaay Better” And Here’s 3 Reasons Why

We’ve all heard someone say after watching a movie, “I liked it, but I read the book and it’s WAY better!” We’ve heard it and many of us have probably said it. If you knew the sort of people I did when Lord of the Rings was coming out you heard it a lot. Like a lot. Oftentimes this comes across as an annoyance to me, even if I agree with the opinion. In general I don’t think the comparisons are necessary or helpful.

But it is a pretty commonly accepted rule of thumb that a book is better than it’s film counterpart. I’ve found this to be almost universally true. Regardless of whether or not I watch or read first my conclusion is usually the same: the book is better. And as someone who loves both books and films I can’t help but wonder why.

Here are 3 of the top reasons for why I believe books are typically better than their film analogs.

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1. Characters
Characters drive stories. The more interesting, iconic, and dynamic a character is the more invested you will be in the narrative they are a part of. In fact, character development and interaction oftentimes is the narrative. Characters are central to stories.

And oftentimes you know characters better in books than in films. There are multiple reasons for why this is true, but one of the most notable reasons is that within books we get inside characters minds in a way that is impossible to do in film. The medium of reading allows us to experience things from the character’s perspective, hearing their internal dialogue and witnessing them process what is happening around them.

Events are more interesting when we see them the way others experience them. Shared experiences are a huge part of any human relationship. It’s the reason that couples travel and families play games and friends watch sports together. These things could be done alone, but doing them together creates experiences to share and bond over. You learn more about someone when you hear them explain how they experienced something or how they view a situation. 

Books provide a context to know characters in a way that can’t be replicated in films. You simply know a character better when you read their internal dialogue than you do watching them act. You care more about them and you are more invested in both who they are and what their story is. The fact that you have spent time in their head means, by necessity, you know them in a unique way. 

The Hunger Games is a perfect example of this. Katniss’s character is far more fleshed out, realized, and dynamic in the novelization of the story simply because the entire narrative is told from her perspective. Everything we witness, experience, and learn about comes to us through her eyes in the book, meaning that we learn to see the world the way she does. Natural affinity is created with her character through this. Because this relationship doesn’t exist in the movie (and can’t) her character is not only more flat, but we also have to learn about her world through other means. All of this results in knowing and caring less about her character and the other characters she loves.

2. Pacing and Time Constraints
My most common complaint about movies I didn’t enjoy is that I hated the pacing. I often leave these films feeling like some scenes were too fast, other’s were too slow, that there wasn’t enough time spent allowing me to invest in a character, or that a plot idea wasn’t fully fleshed out. Pacing is crucial in films.

One of the great advantages to books is that you as the reader largely determine the pace of the story. If you want to read quickly through a chapter you can, if you want to slowly pick your way through you can, if you want to put the book down and consider a thought, scene, character, or plot advancement you can. This makes dramatic moments more dramatic, the heaviness of them weighs on you in between chapters. It creates space to really consider an idea. It allows you to spend more time with a character, if for no other reason than simply because reading takes far longer than watching.

This can’t really be done in films. Movies are under time constraints. They only have a couple hours to tell the story they want to tell, which means that advancing the plot trumps all else. Disappointed your favorite minor character from the book only got one cameo in the movie? That’s what happens, it’s a simple necessity: movies must cut details, information, plot points, scenes and characters. Unless of course you want a movie that will outstay its welcome (looking at you The Hobbit).

This is the biggest area in which the Harry Potter movies had issues. The books in this series are filled to the brim with fascinating side stories and small moments that really flesh out the characters and the world they inhabit. This is one of the things that J.K. Rowling did really well: she created an incredibly interesting world, one that was fun to live in and discover more about. This can’t be captured and replicated well in the films though. The main story arc takes so long to tell that not only do you end up losing a lot of what makes the world interesting, but you also end up losing out on some really important plot elements.

3. Engaging Your Imagination 
When things like set design, casting, camera angles, wardrobe, and music align together in a film they often pull you into another world. And a director’s ability to accomplish this is one of the defining marks of whether or not he or she is good at what they do. When a film gets this right it’s beautiful. When a film gets this wrong it’s comical. 

Books aren’t different. An author has to be able to describe a setting or a character in such a way that you can, in a very similar way, be pulled into another world. Just as a set designer has to be able to accomplish the visual atmosphere of a shot in order to bring you into the narrative, an author must successfully describe a scene in order to have the same effect. The key difference however, and what I find most powerful about written works, is that a book demands your imagination to engage with the story in a  way that films don’t.  

When a character is introduced your imagination kicks in and informs as you to what they look like: facial features, build, hair style, clothing. When a character speaks your imagination informs you as to what they sound like, their tone, volume, accent. When a scene is introduced your imagination pictures the scene, it’s lighting, atmosphere, what’s present. All throughout a book your imagination is at work creating the sights and sounds to accompany the narrative. A good author will guide your imagination in this process, granting you a good idea of what they’re imagining, but you still fill in the gaps. And when this occurs you as the reader play a role in the telling of the story. You begin to personally own the story because it isn’t simply being presented to you, but rather you are actively engaging in it. 

One of my greatest regrets in life (slight exaggeration) is watching The Lord of the Rings before I read it. While I love the movies and think they’re fantastic, they have forever impeded my ability to really enjoy the books. I find it nearly impossible to not picture and hear Viggo Mortensen whenever Aragorn’s character is present. It’s difficult to avoid remembering how a particular scene in the movie looked and interpreting the narrative from that scene. While this might not seem like a big deal the result is that my imagination never kicks in and the narrative simply becomes a really long and more song filled story. 

 

 

Okay, I admit it, this is basically a plea to read Game of Thrones rather than watching it.

Redefining Failure

Through all of the books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, and stories I’ve heard I have learned something striking about our culture: we love and uphold success stories. Especially stories involving an uphill battle in which it’s unclear how things will end. We look up to those who are able to risk and press into the undetermined future. We call these people heroes. And these heroes all have this one thing in common: in the face of uncertainty and doubt they pressed forward.

What’s interesting is that despite our praise for these qualities many of us are terrified by the prospect of risking with an unknown outcome. Most people most of the time play it safe, they stick with what is known to be secure, even if it means missing opportunities. I believe this is because we all have a sense of dread and dismay around the idea of failing. This creates a big problem for us though because failure is a natural part of life and it’s something that we all experience.

These past failures become, for most of us, a cause of pain. For a few people they are become causes of motivation. But much more commonly they become foundations for shame and guilt. And for most of us it only takes a few experiences of falling on our faces, of feeling like failures, before we decide that potential gain isn’t worth the risk. We carry with us culturally induced perceptions of what failure is and means and this is to our determent because it holds us back. But the reality is that failures are opportunities for growth, maturation, and change.  

One of the greatest mistakes we make while educating young people is conditioning them to perceive failure as strictly bad. We teach them that there is only one right answer and they must memorize and internalize it. We teach that If they can’t do this they fail and failure means they aren’t up to par. We teach that failure is the opposite of what they should be doing, it will hold them back and prevent growth.

But in actuality this isn’t how life works. When it comes to risk and failure there is a big difference between life in an academic setting and life in the real world.

In an academic setting if you want to succeed you need only learn and apply yourself. You can’t fail if you are diligent about studying and apply proper habits. Because of this the vast majority of failure that occurs in an academic setting is a result of one person: you. And you know why you failed: you didn’t study enough, you weren’t prepared for the course work when you signed up, you binged Halo and Mountain Dew until 3 every morning, etc. In an academic setting you are wholly responsible for the outcome of things. Risk in academia is very similar, you control it. The greatest risk you will probably face is whether or not you will be able to squeeze in studying and ultimate frisbee. Everything that you have to do is taught and explained step by step, there is little to figure out on your own. There is little risk because the road to success has been traveled by many before you who went through the exact same steps.

And so throughout my educational adventure I slowly learned that:
     1. There are always answers, I need only learn them
     2. If I want to succeed I will succeed
     3. The path to success is easily seen and well trodden by many before me

In a real life setting if you want to succeed you need to do a lot more than simply learn and apply. And failure is a very real possibility even if you are diligent. It will happen at some point. In addition, there are multiple factors that must exist in order to succeed, many of which are outside of your control. And risk is essential at every step because there is no guarantee of success. You can’t know how things will play out.

And so throughout my post-education adventure so far I have slowly been learning that:
     1. There aren’t always answers, sometimes things don’t work out
     2. If I want to succeed I have to risk, without guarantee of success
     3. The path to success is often bumpy, curved, and foggy

This has taken a lot to adapt to. It’s absolutely terrifying to feel that you’re failing at what you set out to do. But the reality is that everyone fails. Everyone. This is the little unknown secret that is often covered up in our photoshop, post your perfect moment of the day on Facebook, sell yourself as best as possible to others, culture. This is only exaggerated in a work environment where those above us don’t want their failure on display. So the only things that are commonly heard are the success stories. Its rare to hear a boss or someone above you express how their projects fell apart early on in their career or how their marriage was on the rocks while they were working 60 hour weeks or how they were on anti-depression medication for a year or two. People appear to have it together. But they don’t. And if they do it’s because at one point they didn’t.

There is a reality in which a temporal “failure” can lead to longterm success. Your plan may fail, but what can be learned from that “failure” can be invaluable information. This information will inform you in the future. Not only does this allow you to learn general truths and realities that weren’t taught to you, but it also teaches you some things that can’t be taught to you. Things like who you are, what your’e passionate about, what you’re good and bad at, and how you work best with others. This is incredibly vital information. And it cannot be experienced and internalized apart from risk and at least the possibility of failure.

This reorientation of life has taught me that failure is not only ok, but necessary. Almost everything that I have visioned, planned, created, and done in my career so far hasn’t panned out quite as I had hoped. All of it required risk and there wasn’t assurance that things would work out. Any of it could have ended in what could easily be perceived as failure. Some of it did. This failure can easily be paralyzing, especially given the fact that I have been spent the majority of my life trying my hardest to avoid failure.

But what must be kept in mind is that the most detrimental effect failure can have on us lies in the way in which it distorts reality. As a young twenty-something still new in his career field I am terrified of the idea of failing. The lie I hear when I fail is that the 4 years of education that I shelled out way to much money for were for nothing. That if I can’t do this now I wont be able to do it in the future. That I should be able to handle anything that comes my way in the career field I’ve studied for. This creates unbearable fear.

And fear is the rub.

Not attempting something is fine. If an opportunity comes your way and you choose not to pursue it that’s your decision. But don’t say its for reasons its not. Own your decision. And saying your too scared is legitimate. Just be honest with yourself and others. Most people can see through the lie anyways, they know when you are and aren’t being honest.

The best way to learn, grow, and create is to do something. This requires both action and risk. Those two ingredients are unavoidable. Planning, thinking, weighing, and considering are all important. But you have to move beyond the theoretical. Failure can be paralyzing until you accept that it very well may happen and that that’s ok. There is little to be learned from plans, from the hypothetical, without moving into action. You can’t learn and grow in the real world without risking failure.

You will always be learning. You will spend the rest of you life learning about yourself, those around you, your world, what works and what doesn’t. And some of the things you learn change over time depending upon context. Learning and adapting is necessary in life. Push yourself to try something, even if you think it wont work. Everything in life that is of worth requires risking failure.

This is reality:
     Failure doesn’t make you a failure.
     Failure is not the opposite of success.
     Failure doesn’t mean that you lack ability.

So learn to risk. Learn to fail. And from that place learn to thrive.

12 “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee”s

All of us, at one point or another, become entrenched in a certain way of thinking or become convinced of a justification that doesn’t correspond to reality. It is in these moments that we are in deep need of a caring and guiding hand to slap us across the face and help us to realize our idiocies.

We all need a wake up call every now and then.

Here are 12 “Get your act together”s to consider:

1. You do have time, stop saying you’re too busy
Everyone and their mother uses this excuse. But think about this: everyone in the world has the exact same about of time in a day. Let’s be honest, you almost certainly aren’t that much busier than the other billions of people you share this planet with. If others can manage to work out on a regular basis with their equally busy schedules, so can you.

2. You are fully capable of learning, stop saying you don’t know how to do something
You don’t know how to budget? I have good news! There’s this brilliant tool called Google that can solve your problems. Seriously, anything you don’t know how to do type into Google. You will be amazed. Don’t know how to fix a car? There’s another tool called Youtube. You’ll be shocked at all of the step-by-step guides.

3. You have money, stop saying that your lack of it is the problem
If you are incapable of budgeting $10 you won’t be capable of handling $100. This is one of the big reasons why people in poverty usually don’t benefit in the long run from winning the lottery. Learn to effectively handle and budget whatever income you have now instead of telling yourself you simply need more.

4. You’re awesome, stop allowing your perception of people’s perceptions shape you
Fear of being labeled a failure or being viewed as incompetent can be powerful decision factors. On the other hand, a desire to be seen as intellectual or successful can be equally powerful. But our assumed pereceptions of others shouldn’t decide our life decisions. You will have to live with your decisions and other people’s opinions of you don’t matter as much as it often feels they do.

5. You are able to deal with people, stop saying you are “non-confrontational”
Most people don’t like to confront others. But the truth is that you will have to, at one point or another, do this. Instead of complaining about your coworker to everyone who knows them, actually go and talk to them. A little boldness goes a long ways.

6. You aren’t too ____, stop using that as an excuse
No matter your age, experience, or strength you are almost certainly capable of more than you believe. People who are younger and less educated than you have accomplished amazing things. The human spirit is capable of a lot. Actually try something rather than justifying why you can’t.

7. Mundane things are a part of life, stop ignoring them
There’s a reality that life is filled to the brim with amazingly boring everyday routines. Doing laundry for the hundredth time isn’t very fun. But it is a part of life. Learn to cherish, appreciate, and enjoy these everyday chores instead of complaining about them and ignoring them.

8. You’re _____ isn’t unique, stop finding your identity in it
What’s that? You mean you’ve collected all of the original Pokemon cards, including a holographic Charizard?! You’ve read every Pulitzer Prize winning book?! You were really that close to getting a football scholarship?! You’re identity is much more than your accomplishments and the things you own. You are a unique and amazing individual, stop finding your worth in silly things that make you “different”.

9. You are capable of life transitions, stop saying you aren’t ready
As a somewhat recent college graduate I’ve heard many people say “I’m not ready for the real world.” Fear is natural in any life stage change. Don’t let it hold you back. You probably said this heading into college and you probably said it heading into high school. If you feel unprepared talk to someone older and wiser who has been there.

10. You’re tendency to do _____ isn’t built into who you are, stop using that as an excuse to not change
I have a sweet tooth. No you don’t, you just love consuming massive amounts of sugar. I’m simply not organized. No, the problem is that you’re lazy. I’m a couch potato. Yes, yes you are. Do something about it! Don’t simply say “this is how I am”, you are capable of changing.

11. You are great, stop limiting yourself
We largely live out whatever narrative we write for ourselves. If you believe you are a failure you will most likely fail. If you are convinced you are unlovable you will present yourself as such to those around you. Google self-fulfilling prophecy some time. Believe in yourself rather than your fear or past experiences.

12. You are the issue, stop looking at other people and circumstances
The reality is that you are the only common denominator in your life. Think about it.

Learning from Life. And then Unlearning from Life.

A few weeks ago my wife and I were enjoying our date night in the Haymarket here in Lincoln NE. The Haymarket is a really cool historic downtown area of Lincoln with lots of cool shops. While there we went to one of our favorite places in Lincoln, Ivanna Cone. Ivanna Cone is a small ice cream shop inside of a larger building with other small shops. It’s awesome. We were standing in the somewhat annoyingly long line which always seems to exist there (remember, it is awesome) when the building’s fire alarm went off.

No one moved. No one panicked. Instead everyone turned and looked at each other as if they were waiting for someone to say, “we gotta get out a here!” But no one did. So there we stood, in line for our ice cream (we were really close at this point) with a fire alarm blaring staring at the dozens of other people, all of whom were doing the same. I saw a friend walk out of a book store across the hall and look around. We made eye contact and she shrugged her shoulders and walked back into the store. Within seven seconds everyone resumed what they were doing. We ordered, we payed, we casually walked out and left. A few minutes later a firetruck pulled up.

There was no fire.
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This was both somewhat hilarious and somewhat troubling to me as I reflected on the experience. The point of a fire alarm: to make those near it aware that there is an immanent danger in the form of a fire. The reaction to the fire alarm: Sheepish glancing around. Why did no one panic? Why did no one leave? Why didn’t anyone freak out and try to cram through the door the way people do for Black Friday Sales? I can’t speak for everyone else’s motives, but I know why I didn’t. I didn’t panic because I have grown up my whole life undergoing fire drills. I have never once, since about 3rd grade, ever thought that a fire alarm meant there was a fire, instead it meant that I was going to get a break from my teachers for about 15 minutes. And so fire alarms don’t cause me to panic.

I think this points to a profound life truth: sometimes the knowledge we gain from life experiences can be incredibly harmful to us.

The way we see the world around us, the way we perceive other people, the way we interpret events, the way we judge what is wise or not, all of this is gained largely from our life experiences. This is a truth built into the way our brains work that is for our survival and betterment. Touching a hot stove and burning yourself impresses into your brain the fact that the stove can be harmful and you need to be careful around it. Provoking an animal to the point of an attack impresses into your brain to be careful around animals. Reading youtube comments impresses into your brain that there is little hope for humanity and that said comments should be avoided at all costs.

These are life experiences that our brain naturally and automatically remembers in order to inform us later on in life, in order for us to have as much information as possible when making decisions. Often times this occurs on a subconscious level: I don’t think about looking both ways before I cross the street, I simply do. And while this brain function is for our betterment, even though it exists to inform us, it can have devastating effects on the way we see the world if we are unaware of it.

This is especially true in relation to how we perceive the people around us. Many of us have probably experienced that awkward moment when a friend makes some off the cuff comment about you and you blow up about it. Your friend somehow, unexplainably, managed to send you into a fiery rage of anger over what was simply meant as a joke. The reason for your overreaction is that they unintentionally and unknowingly triggered something in your brain that caused you to be defensive and lash out.

These automatic responses are especially common in long term relationships, like families, close friends, or a spouse: in other words the relationships that really matter. These are the relationships in which you have invested the most time and work and these are the people that you have developed the most trust and love for. Because of this when pain is caused or trust is lost these experiences become deeply impressed in our minds.

These impressions cause us to filter people’s actions through our experiences. We end up perceiving people’s motives and intentions without actually knowing what they are. And so people become in our minds what they really aren’t. Your spouse’s playful tease becomes an argument or your mom’s probing question about a decision results in a fight over how she never trusts you. Because of past pain we assume we know more than we do. The long term affects of this, if left unchecked, is isolation and embitterment.

While being hurt is unavoidable in relationships, being aware of how these experiences have conditioned us can make all the difference. Awareness and consciousness around your tendency to feel like everyone is against you will assist you in filtering what reality really is. It’s entirely possible that those around you want to support you and that your perception is based on past hurt. This will probably also help you in bringing about some healing to past pain.

So the next time you feel anger flaring up pause to consider why you are upset, is it because of what is happening here and now or is it a result of past pain? Is your co-worker’s intent to hurt you or was it simply a careless comment? This might be difficult to judge, especially in the moment, but it will allow you to better objectively judge the world around you rather than what your brain automatically filters for you to believe.

Believing in the Impossible (Part 4/4)

This is the final entry in a blog series I’ve been writing. Refer to older posts first if you haven’t read them.

Tolkien’s third purpose he calls consolation. Consolation refers to how a story ends, and Tolkien has happy endings specifically in mind. His point, in essence, is that fantasy stories allow us to see that in the end all things work out, that justice prevails, or the hero wins. He refers to these endings as eucatastrophes, though, because of the quality of the happy ending he is referring to. He isn’t speaking of a simple, blissful endings, of “perfect with a cherry on top” endings.

Happy Endings

There are, I believe, two types of happy endings.

  1. Happy endings that are expected. These are endings that you expect to have from the very beginning of the story, they’re nothing more than a nice bow on a beautiful present. These happy endings are cheap and unrealistic. We all know that nothing in reality ever wraps up as nicely as the endings of these stories and because of this the narratives become unrelatable. They are grounded in fantasy and remain in fantasy.
  2. Happy endings that are almost unexpected. You may suspect that things will wrap up in a the protaginst’s victory, but you cannot conceive of how it will occur and when it does the “happiness” may be less of bliss and more of a sad, yet peaceful, resolution. These are the kinds of endings that Tolkien is referring to. These are endings that find themselves within the context of fantasy, yet transcend it. These are the endings that we can hope to find in our own lives because they have a sense of realism to them; we all know from experience that things like justice are never free and so there must be a loss or sacrifice of some kind.

We see this sort of ending brought about in Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings. At the end of the day the events of the series resolve in a happy ending: the ring is destroyed and the enemy is defeated. But not without cost. Many died and great pain and anguish was experienced by the heroes of the story. Some of these heroes, Frodo included, leave Middle Earth, never to return. This is a happy ending, but there is pain involved, loss is present. Its an ending that is only gained through sacrifice and that allows the story to become grounded in realism, making it something we can relate to.

Believing in Happy Endings

Reading this sort of story invites us to catch a glimpse of an ultimate reality that we all long for: justice prevailing. Humanity longs for fairness and goodness to win out over evil. Corruption, tyranny, and things of the like surround us, but ultimately we long for, hope for, love and grace prevailing, even in light of impossible odds. Exploring a world in which a hero suffers yet ultimately experiences and brings to fruition a gift of grace and the execution of justice is a taste of a reality we hope for in our own lives.

I think Tolkien’s main point in “consolation” is this: art can point us to something to hope in. Art often inherently, whether artistically intended to or not, holds within itself humanity’s greatest desires. The reason for this is that art expresses deep hungers and intimate notions. Humanity’s deepest longings, the longing to have purpose, to be loved, to have hope, for fairness and equality. These are the things that drive us, they move us, cause us to keep pushing, they lift us up out of complacency to fight.

While these are often our greatest motivators, these are also often the notions that are most forgotten and left. Grand ideas, things like love, hope, generosity, grace, these are often beaten out of us as we become older and their loss lead us to becoming cynical and pessimistic about the world we inhabit. Most of us have experienced this on one level or another. Early in life many of us are filled with passion, purpose, and drive; we truly believe the world is in need to changing and you can be that agent of change. Then, between life experience and the “wisdom” of those older than yourself, you are convinced that those are fantasies. And so we settle, for mediocracy, for complacency, leaving “childish fantasy behind”.

The beauty of art is in its ability to create contexts in which there can be manifestations of ideas that are difficult to express. Art is a means by which ideas, longings, passions, or desires are pulled down from an intellectual or heart level and find themselves actualized. Art helps us to grapple with these things, it allows us to express and explore them, it renews our sense of desire for these things, and it gives us a glimpse of a possible accomplishment of them.
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Sometimes people aren’t as bad as they seem

We are deeply in need of renewal of hope, of glimpses, even if they are merely fictional, brief glimpses, of potential joy. Art has the ability to reignite this within us, to allow us to hear a far-off echo of justice’s victory. In a story we may find this idea of consolation in a happy ending, in a painting we may see this idea in the artist’s attempt to capture beauty, in a song we may hear this idea in a musician’s longing to express love. All of them allow us to hope in something more than what is in front of us. They grant a picture of what could be. One of our greatest struggles is to believe that despite what we see around us change is possible, justice can be found, joy can be experienced.

Tolkien himself said it best:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”: this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Imagining New Realities Through Art (Part 3/4)

If you haven’t been read my previous two blog posts regarding art I would recommend you do that now, before reading on.

The second purpose of art according to Tolkien is what he refers to as Escape. By this Tolkien is not referring to being disengaged, rather what Tolkien means by Escape is that art allows a person to step out of their sense of the real world in order to consider something outside of their perception of reality. So escape doesn’t mean distraction, it isn’t ignoring or leaving the real world for the sake of “getting away”. Rather, it is temporarily exploring another world in order to bring something back. This isn’t desertion from our world, it is engaging in two realms simultaneously. This may seem like a high intellectual assent, but in actuality it is something that we all do when engaging in art, we just usually aren’t aware of it.
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Escape in Action

Reading Tolkien’s own The Hobbit we can see Escape at work. In this story a young Bilbo sets out on a grand adventure, one he is hardly prepared for. Bilbo is a hobbit content to live at home, eat, sleep, and enjoy luxury. That is Bilbo’s life and at least part him views that as the pinnacle of what life can and should be. This belief is something promoted by the entire culture of hobbits, these are the values that they uphold. And yet part of Bilbo longs for more. He has this great internal struggle as he desires adventure and excitement and yet has been taught his whole life that these things are foolish. As the narrative progresses we watch this timid comfortable hobbit be transformed into a strong and confident leader. He changes from someone who is terrified of leaving his house without a handkerchief into a someone willing to mock a dragon. This theme, of maturation by following your heart rather than society, is all throughout the book. Now, here is where Escape comes in: watching this transformative process occur within a fictional character allows an open reader to consider if he or she could, just like Bilbo, step outside of their cultural restraints and follow the longing of their heart.

Artists use Escape all the time in their works. Have you ever wondered why everyone loves an underdog story? The primary reason that so many people are attracted to these sorts of stories is that they are inspirational. This occurs because when engaging in these stories we see the impossible become reality, we see someone rise to become more than what they are, more than what they and their community believed they could be. We see glimpses of what humanity is capable of and this gives us cause to consider, even if just for a moment, questions that we would otherwise not ask. We all have seemingly massive hurdles that prevent us from moving forward. But in these moments of inspiration we have the courage to consider anew whether or not we can overcome them.

Experiencing Escape in art can also cause us to critically examine ourselves and our culture. I’ll give two examples.

  1. There is a scene in the film Gladiator in which Russell Crowe’s character looks at the colosseum audience, after an especially bloody battle, and exclaims, “Are you not entertained!” This statement is a poignant question pointed at the movie audience.
  2. In Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds there is a moment in which the Nazi audience cheers while watching a propaganda film depicting one Nazi solider defeating wave after wave of Allied soldiers. This scene in film is a mirror reflection of the audience watching Tarantino’s movie in the theater who have probably been cheering on the ragtag group of Allied soldiers butchering germans.

In both examples the audience is being prompted to examine themselves and ask the question “Do I enjoy watching violence?”
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Bansky is great at causing viewers of his art to pause and consider the ideas he is presenting

Why Escape?

What happens while undergoing Escape is that your mind, and maybe even your heart, begins to consider possibilities. The power of this Escape, and why it is needed, is that it allows us to tap into one of the most important components of the human mind: imagination. Our culture tends to confine imagination to something associated with children. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. Children are incredibly imaginative.
  2. Adults are incredibly unimaginative.

These are, of course, generalizations, but I believe they hold true. Children are constantly dreaming and creating in their minds. Adults on the other hand, unless part of their job is to be creative, do not spend time dreaming. In fact it is often discouraged. There exists in our culture a fascinating trend of people becoming less imaginative as they grow up. There are many factors that go into this, from the way we educate to the values that we imposed, and I’m not going to get into the why of this here (My wife is a teacher and this blog will be long enough without a rant regarding our education system). What is important to note is that the ability to tap into the imagination is something that, as adults, we’re not great at.

Here is why engagement in our imagination is key: our imagination allows us to imagine different realities, to imagine what could be or how to change what currently is. If you cannot imagine a different reality for yourself or your environment than you cannot do anything about your current one. When we engage in our imagination we are able to critically think about and consider what is and whether or not it should remain. Be it an idea, a worldview, or a course of action, while undergoing Escape you have the freedom to explore something that you otherwise wouldn’t. This is often something that is too dangerous to consider within the context of your own life, but that you can freely explore within the context of another.

As I said, most of us adults aren’t very good at this sort of thought process. Our imagination tends to get isolated and shut down as we grow up into the “real” world. One of the greatest things we can gain from art is a renewed sense of imagination.  This is at the core of what Tolkien is getting at when he speaks of escape: imagining what could be.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein

Restoring Your Perception of Reality (Part 2/4)

This is the second of a four part blog series on why art is relevant to us as humans. You can read the first part of the series here.

The first purpose of art according to Tolkien is what he refers to as Recovery. He says, “Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view.” What he means by this is that through art someone can be assisted in recovering a view of the world, or the things around them, that they may have lost over time. Recovery is something that is constantly experienced through art and it is one of the primary reasons that people are compelled by art.

What is Recovery?

What is being recovered when we undergo this effect while engaging in art is an understanding and awareness of reality. As we grow older and become increasingly accustomed to this world and the things that make it up we also become increasingly numb to those things. The beauty of everyday objects, trees, clouds, even people, that at one point mesmerized us is simply lost overtime. This is quite simply a reality of repetitive exposure. This is part of the reason that we all love “shiny new things”. We simply aren’t yet accustomed to them. As we become more and more familiar with the things that contextual our lives we also become, often, increasingly bored with them.

Tolkien states this well: “We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.” This is often to our detriment. My wife is, truly, just as beautiful today as she was when I met her. But the longer I am around her the more unaware I unconsciously become of this reality. If I stop what I’m doing and spend a minute dwelling on her I am reawakened to the truth: she is gorgeous. The more I am around her and am familiar with her, however, the more I have a need to be intentional with my thoughts and attitude towards her.

Tolkien himself does an amazing job of creating art that causes Recovery. His world, Middle-earth, is filled to the brim with creatures closely grounded in our own reality. By engaging with this imaginary world we are able to have a renewal of interest in our own actual world. Ents, the tree-like creatures of Middle-earth, are the perfect example of this. Trees are an everyday object, we see trees every day. We drive by trees, we walk by trees, and we, usually, look past trees. We don’t think about them. They are too ordinary and mundane. If we actually stop to look at and observe a tree, stop our day and think about what a tree is and what it does, then we are reminded of how trees are actually fascinating and beautiful. But that rarely, if ever, happens. Ents are different. Ents are trees, but they aren’t quite trees. They are sentient trees which shepherd trees. They can become trees, but can also be awaken and become ents again. They have their own language, history, and culture. When reading The Lord of the Rings you can’t help but be fascinated by these creatures. Reading about them and considering them provides you with a new framework by which you can view trees. When you see a tree after considering what an Ent is you can’t simply look past it. You are forced to consider it in a different way, leading to a renewal in your appreciation for trees.

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Why do we need Recovery?

Our need for this is never more evident than when contrasting the way a child sees the world with the way an adult does. A child is filled with absolute awe when they are discovering the world. It is a precious moment to witness a child discover something for the first time. To see their eyes grow large as they watch the world or to witness a smile erupt on their face as they discover something new. This sense of awe and joy for our world is lost over the course of our lifetimes.

This idea of Recovery isn’t limited simply to an aesthetic appreciation for nature either. Recovery extends to helping us to gain perspective on life.

Elaine Scarry, a professor at Harvard, says this:

“We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, self-preoccupied, falsifying veil which partially conceals the world… I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, brooding on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared… And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”

What Scarry testifies to is something that many have experienced and can relate to. We so easily become enveloped in and occupied with things of minor consequence and importance. These things quickly begin to guide our decision making, direction, and attitudes towards others. The process of Recovery in art assists us in regaining a clear view of reality: of the things which actually matters.

The effect of Recovery is exactly what I underwent when I was listening to The Decemberist’s album (see last blog). As I listened to those songs I was reminded of how precious and beautiful marriage and self-sacrifical love is. I was reminded that it so incredibly easy to become self-involved, even in the face of someone else loving and sacrificing for you. Through the art of story and song I was left with a yearning to love my wife and I was able to reengage my heart with what my marriage is about – loving my wife.

So, Recovery is the first reason for why art is important. Through Recovery art assists us in maintaining a clear picture of reality and helps us to maintain that reality. Art can reawaken passion and appreciation for the things around us- something that we are all in need of.

Stay tuned for part 3 of my blog series on art!