Saturday, November 15, 2014

People who stare at quarries

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 14.)
The world is in the grip of an epidemic of infantilism. How else can anyone account for tour parties travelling around the world to gasp in awe at the Weta Cave or the newly unveiled model of Smaug the dragon at Wellington Airport?
We’re told that Hobbit pilgrims from overseas burst into tears on arriving at Hobbiton. Perhaps someone should have gently explained that it wasn’t really where Bilbo Baggins lived. It was a farm in the Waikato.

It reminded me of the time I was driving over Haywards Hill and noticed a group of people standing beside a tourist bus gazing misty-eyed at the hillside quarry where the Helm’s Deep battle sequence was filmed for Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I felt like shouting, “It’s just a bloody quarry, for God’s sake”, but I probably would have risked arrest. Given the national reverence for Jackson and the contribution his fantasy epics have made to the country’s GDP, there could well be laws prohibiting such heresy. 

Thirty years ago I read The Hobbit for my children. They were enthralled, but the story struck me as rather slight – certainly compared with The Lord of the Rings.
How Jackson could stretch it into three films, with a cumulative length of nearly eight hours, almost defies belief. I can only assume each film in the trilogy is padded out by the same interminable battle scenes that, to me, made the Lord of the Rings films indistinguishable from each other.

Interchangeable sequences seem to be a common feature of fantasy films. I’ve tried to watch several of the Harry Potter movies on television, but after the first 30 minutes or so I can never tell which one it is. They all ultimately morph into one super-long, generic Harry Potter film in which the plots and mumbo-jumbo dialogue (another feature in common with the Lord of the Rings movies) hardly seem to vary.
Now here’s the question. Why, at a point in history when people are arguably better-educated than ever before, and therefore presumably less susceptible to myth and superstition, has Western civilisation produced a generation so seduced by make-believe?

It’s not just The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Look at the international media frenzy over the announcement that a new Star Wars instalment is imminent. You can be sure this news was trending big-time on Twitter, which is now the ultimate measurement of how important anything is.
Look at the excited reaction by film critics when a new Spider-Man or Batman movie hits the screens. These escapist trifles are treated as if they were as profound as something by Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Look at the phenomenal success of 2009’s Avatar – surely one of the silliest films ever made – and the hype surrounding the promised release of a sequel in 2016.
Look at the tens of thousands of people who attend sci-fi and fantasy conventions such as San Diego’s famous Comi-Con, where they dress up as Darth Vader or Dumbledore and queue patiently for a glimpse of people called actors, who are revered for pretending to be someone else.

What’s going on here? My Oxford dictionary gives a clue. It defines infantilism as childish behaviour or the persistence of infantile characteristics or behaviour in adult life. Think The Big Bang Theory, which gently satirises four highly educated men who refuse to grow up.
That definition seems, to me, a pretty good description of the Hobbit fan syndrome. But it only gets us halfway toward understanding the phenomenon, because putting a word to it doesn’t really explain how or why it happens.

What’s clear is that the so-called millennial generation – which means, roughly, those born after 1980 – includes a large cohort that is affluent, easily bored and eager for new sources of distraction and gratification.
They seem to find it in escapist fantasy. This is harmless enough, except that the line between fantasy and reality has a tendency to become blurred – witness the Hobbit fans who shed tears of ecstatic joy at being shown a farm near Matamata.

Here’s one possible explanation. There is ample research to support the theory that humanity is hard-wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Conventional religious belief has largely fallen out of favour; we’re too sophisticated and sceptical for that. But perhaps the need to believe remains.
Maybe hobbits, superheroes, wizards and Jedi knights have filled the vacuum. Unlike religion, they demand nothing in return – surely an irresistible advantage.



Brendan McNeill said...


I bet you were one of those five year olds who delighted in telling your class mates that there was no such thing as Santa?


But your point is well made.

Karl du Fresne said...

Hang on, Brendan, what are you trying to say here - that there's no Santa?

JC said...

What cracks me up is you can have 30 somethings watch a cartoon and immediately start looking for "the message".. which is a bit like my generation who only read Playboy for the articles.


Brendan McNeill said...


All I know is this – my wife and I are blessed with nine granddaughters plus three grandsons. Last week one of the granddaughters, a five year old who has a personality larger than life, was holding court at lunchtime at her Catholic school.

She advised her peers that there is ‘no such thing as Santa’.

Her teacher, overhearing this conversation (later narrated to my daughter in law by the same teacher) intervened to contradict my granddaughter to insist that in fact Santa did exist!

The teacher intervened because she believed it was the right and responsibility of parents (not my granddaughter) to advise their children about the reality or otherwise of Santa.

If my granddaughter had said ‘God does not exist’ at a Catholic school I could understand the intervention, but Santa?

We are a family of intergenerational believers. We have always been relaxed about Santa – our children know that we have never prayed to him as a family, and on Christmas morning we always thank God for his greatest gift before opening presents, so for us Santa has never been a big deal one way or the other.

What is interesting for me however is the influence of myths and legends in culture, and their role in helping or hindering us from differentiating truth from fiction. J R R Tolkin was an intentional Christian. He was a member of the Inklings, a group of Christian believers who also included published authors CS Lewis, McDonald and others.

There is a place for myth and legend when seeking to explain the human condition, good and evil, mystery and faith.

Your article rightly observes the mawkishness surrounding the Lord of the Rings Movies, but that does not diminish the work of J R R Tolkin, Lewis and others who have sought to engage us with the supernatural through myth and legend.

Speaking personally, I’m with my granddaughter. Truth triumphs in the end, albeit we should always be gentle in its presentation.