Ralph Wood's review of The Two Towers in the March/April issue of Books & Culture generated a good deal of response. In particular, some readers objected to Wood's claim that film as a medium is inherently inferior to literature, and moreover that Christians of all people should be aware of this distinction, since there is "little doubt that the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight." In contrast to this biblical hierarchy, Wood argues, our culture consistently values the visual image over the word, written or spoken. Here are two of the most thoughtful responses to Wood's essay. If you have strong opinions on this subject, we'd like to hear from you, too.

* * *

Ralph C. Wood, in his "Hungry Eye: The Two Towers and the Seductiveness of Spectacle" [March/April], convincingly shows that the recent film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers fails to realize the significant moral and religious themes of the book, foregrounding instead visual spectacle in the form of gripping battle scenes and beautiful scenery. With this characterization of the failings of the film I have no quarrel. Wood goes on, however, to make broad points about the failings of film as a medium, and it is this constellation of claims with which I take issue. Wood believes that the problems of this film adaptation are attributable to the inferiority of the film medium itself.

Wood writes, for example, that movies are a fundamentally passive medium because they form images for us, while "even the tawdriest novel requires the mind to make its own mental pictures." As one who has taught film for over 20 years, I have heard this and similar claims over and again. But the "passive-image claim" isn't a sufficient argument to establish the passivity of film viewing.

The fact that I am not required to imagine what the characters look like in Crimes and Misdemeanors or The Seventh Seal says little about the active mental activity required to grasp the moral and religious significance of these films, or to imagine the moral and emotional anguish of their characters. Moreover, there are ways in which film encourages the imagination and literature does not. Literature sometimes tells us what characters are thinking and feeling, for example, while film often requires us to understand characters by more subtle means of interpretation and empathy.

Wood argues for the superiority of the aural over the visual, arguing that the visual appeals to a the eye, which "cannot penetrate depths," while the aural appeals to the ear, capable of "receiving announcements" and of "either obeying or refusing commands." This argument requires expansion if not revision. Film appeals to both the eye and the ear, combining channels of information that must be grasped simultaneously in what is sometimes a rich tapestry of images, sounds, and words. Reading, on the other hand, is primarily an activity of the eye and not the ear.

Article continues below

In my opinion, the inferiority of many contemporary movies stems not from presumed limitations of the film medium but from the practices of a culture industry that dumbs material down for an audience that it presumes to be uninterested in serious thought, complex art, or any sort of moral and religious contemplation. I am sure that Wood and I agree that such pandering to the popular audience is truly unfortunate, for it creates public taste as much as it presumes to know it.

Carl Plantinga
Communication Arts and Sciences
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Mich.

* * *

I gather from his essay that Dr. Wood recognizes what some book lovers still do not: that a film version can never capture the depth, subtlety, and complexity of great books and should not be judged as such. His critique of The Two Towers, however, while recognizing differences in the media, offers a preference for the literary art that doesn't give film its theological due.

Dr. Wood expresses concern over ours being "an increasingly visual culture where the aural word, whether written or spoken, is steadily devalued." Of course he is right, but I'm not convinced that this is as bad a thing as he suggests. His first complaint is that movies are a "fundamentally passive medium," forming images for us where books (even bad ones) demand active use of the imagination. I agree that people view films passively, but not because movies are passive by nature. Before people can read a book, they must be taught to read: letters, phonics, and vocabulary. We call it literacy. But because movies can be watched without any education in "film literacy," we have assumed that none is necessary. The result: passive viewing. This is not, however, in the fundamental nature of film. The printing press made literacy a necessity within a few hundred years of its creation. "Computer literacy" became an educational must within ten years of the computer becoming "personal." Film has been with us for 100 years, television for 50, and we are only now beginning to see the need for education in their language. But when we do so educate our students, it works. They begin to read film texts actively and habitually.

Article continues below

Dr. Wood next points out Tolkien's dislike of stage plays, "fearing that they coerced the imagination." Contra Tolkien, though, is C. S. Lewis' view of myth, which suggests that, in some instances, the image is more important than the word:

We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version—whose words—are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone's words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all—say by a mime, or a film. [ … ] In this respect stories of the mythical type are at the opposite pole from lyrical poetry. If you try to take the "theme" of Keats's Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth—in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters—this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, "done the trick." After that you can throw the means of communication away. [ … ] In poetry the words are the body, and the "theme" or "content" is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes—they are not much more than a telephone. (George Macdonald: An Anthology, pp. 26-28)

(When I read this passage to Dr. Wood he noted that Lewis and Tolkien disagreed on many issues and he had just written an article on that very idea—he thanked me for finding one more difference.) Elsewhere Lewis says that, when we use language to abstract truths out of myth, we are allegorizing the myth, not allowing it to be the concrete experiencing of universal principles which is so important to complete knowing ("Myth Became Fact" in God in the Dock, pp. 65-66).

My greatest concern is with Dr. Wood's claim that there "is little doubt that the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight." He offers two arguments: 1. The Israelites were not allowed to make representations of God, and no one has ever seen God. 2. The Israelites were constantly called to "hear" His word. I take the second point first. The people were not simply called to hear, they were also called to see, and in fact they were even called to be visual performers. Examples: the rituals surrounding Passover (eating standing up, loins girded, staff in hand) and the Feast of Booths (living in tents for a week) are reenactments of key historical moments (as is the Lord's Supper for Christians). God told Joshua to build an altar after the crossing of the Jordan so that, in later years, when parents and children walked by that place, the children on seeing the altar could ask what it meant and their parents could tell them (Joshua 4:1-7). God designed the "look" of the tabernacle down to the smallest embroidered detail. (In our conversation, Dr. Wood added the visions of Isaiah to this list.) Ezekiel begins with a detailed description of the chariot of God and ends with a detailed description of the temple to come (no commentary, no explanation, just the picture, though I freely admit that it's described in words), and Ezekiel himself "performed" his prophecies several times.

Article continues below

Now to Dr. Wood's first point: The Israelites were not allowed to make representations because only God could do so successfully, and he indeed intended to. It's true that no one has seen God, but "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Jesus was the 'Word become flesh' (John 1:14) so that we could see as well as hear him. Hebrews 1:3 says Jesus is "the exact representation" of God, not a picture of God, of course, but yes a picture because God himself, the visual essence of the Father, the word "representation", here, is an interesting one: the transliteration of the Greek into English produces the English word "character" almost letter for letter. In English this word can refer to who we are internally, our personality, or to a role in a play. This double definition captures Hebrews 1:3 perfectly: Jesus as God is God's character, performed for us to see. I am not arguing that the visual is more important than the aural in the biblical text, only that Dr. Wood's Two Towers review undervalues it.

Finally, I must raise a point of definition in the claim that "the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight." The unstated connections between word and hearing and picture and sight implied in the syntax may muddle our thinking. Certainly pictures are to be seen but words can either be heard or read. Thus to hear God's Word spoken aurally is not the same thing as reading it. In speaking of the relationships among book, movies, pictures, words and God's Word, such a distinction may prove important.

Article continues below

Charlie W. Starr
Professor of English and Humanities
Kentucky Christian College
Grayson, Ky.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:

Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)
Taken Prisoner | Stories from the far-flung frontiers of the British Empire, 1600-1850, challenge our preconceptions. (Feb. 24, 2003)
Another Third Way? | The mixed record of Catholic social thought. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Divine Numbers | Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence? (Feb. 10, 2003)
Getting Beyond Victimology | A provocative collection of essays for "the black silent majority." (Feb. 3, 2003)
Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Jan. 27, 2003)
Encounters of the Gods | Christianity and Native American religion in early America. (Jan. 20, 2003)
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2003)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)