The Saddest Words

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Hi, y’all, and welcome to the final day (saving the best for last and all that!) if the If Only Blog Tour.  In my capacity as an Off The Shelf Blogger for Beacon Hill Press, I’ve been given the opportunity to read If Only: Letting Go of Regret by Michelle Van Loon.  (My advance copy was my only compensation, and, as always, my opinion is my own.)  This time, instead of reviewing the book, I was asked to write a personal reflection on regret.
Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”
~ John Greenleaf Whittier
In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace Murry is given the responsibility, with the help of  a time traveling unicorn, of saving the world from imminent nuclear destruction by finding and changing the right “Might Have Been” in the past.  Charles succeeds, and the world is saved.  The rest of us aren’t so lucky.
Because all of our lives are littered with “might have beens.”  Whether for good or ill, every choice made excludes all the other possible choices.  Everything we do–or leave undone–has repercussions.  In If Only, Michelle Van Loon writes of how regrets can divide our hearts, trap us in the past, and damage our relationships with God and with one another.
Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . That’s the first thing that comes into my mind when I try to reflect on my personal experience with regret, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or just a comforting story I’m telling myself.  Van Loon writes of people who have submerged their regrets so deeply that they don’t even realize the damage these unresolved feelings are causing in their current lives.
Most of the time I tell myself that there is no point in regret, because I can’t really know what would have happened if I had done things differently.  Like those well-meaning time travelers in just about every book or movie you’ve ever seen on the topic, what if I had made things worse by doing (or not doing) whatever it was?  Is wishing I could go back and change things not a rejection of everything good that has happened since?
I think about our house burning down.  If only I had insisted on having a professional deal with the electrical box situation instead of the handyman employed by our landlord (not that it ever occurred to me at the time).  Then the box wouldn’t have exploded and the house wouldn’t have burned down and I would still have all my things.  But what about the lessons and the love and the new home and new friends we have now?  And who’s to say that if we had stayed in that house, we might not have died in a car crash on the way home one night?  This is why it’s a good thing that we are not God and that time travel remains the stuff of science fiction.
If only I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy on sorting and storing all the things that I had.  If only I hadn’t gotten so upset over various things getting broken or ruined by floods in the basement or careless children.  But I couldn’t have known what was going to happen–all I can do is try to be better going forward.  Which is definitely one of Van Loon’s points–that our regrets can be a tool for us now if we acknowledge them and own them instead of burying them.  And her book supplies tools to do that, with discussion/reflection questions, scripture, and prayer.
Where she really got me was when she started talking about her experience as a parent of grown children: “My empty nest echoed with the sound of regret.”  My nest is still quite full (will any of them EVER leave?), [edit: two are gone now, one quite far away.] but three of my babies are legal adults.  Without implying that there is anything seriously wrong with any of them–don’t get me wrong!–of course they have their struggles and I cannot help but think there were things I should have done differently.  I can’t help but remember how far short I have fallen–and continue to fall–of the perfect mother I just knew I was going to be.  I regret deeply–I can’t tell you how much–that I didn’t enjoy them enough when they were little.  I never heard that saying “The days are long but the years are short” until my kids were already big.  I wish I had.  It won’t do any good for me to tell those of you who still have little kids that they will be grown up before you know it but it is true.
So I guess that is a pretty typical regret to have with kids who are almost but not quite launched, but it’s the one I am really struggling with right now, and I hope that going through some of the reflections in If Only will help me.
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Would you like to know more about Michelle Van Loon?  Her website is here.
Michelle
For more on If Only, please visit the other stops on the Blog Tour: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4  Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13 Day 14 Day 15  

The Hobbit II: The Desolation of Peter Jackson

Beware!  Herein lie spoilers!
I’m not in the habit of writing movie reviews, but then I’m not in the habit of going to movies either.  John loves them, and occasionally he insists on taking me, but usually I’d rather spend date nights talking.  I go to the theatre for big events:  Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hobbit . . . the movies whose opening date you’ve known for months, the ones where your heart is pounding and you are a little bit breathless as the show finally begins.  Y’all, I had actual tears in my eyes when the theme music started.  This is serious stuff to me.
Why so serious? you ask.  Because I am, and have been, a certified Tolkien geek for most of my life, since I first read The Hobbit when I was about eight years old.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it–and its “sequel”–since.  I read it aloud to my children; I read The Lord of the Rings (yes, all 1,200 pages) aloud to my husband.  Pre-fire, I owned most of Tolkien’s books, including obscure works; I had the soundtracks of the animated versions of his books; I had encyclopedias and atlases of Middle Earth; I even had the War of the Rings board game.  In college, I wrote a term paper on Tolkien’s life; in grad school, I created an annotated bibliography of sources related to the languages he created.
So I’m not a casual fan, or someone who just discovered Tolkien because of Peter Jackson’s movies (which up until now I’ve mostly been pleased with).  And this is a family full of serious Tolkien fans.   We were so excited about this movie that we kept the kids out of school today so that we could go as early as possible.
the hobbitSo I hate that I was disappointed.
I was skeptical when Peter Jackson announced that he was making The Hobbit into a trilogy.  I knew he was going to have to make additions, but I expected that most of them would involve adding scenes from other Tolkien sources (like Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin in Bree, a scene in this movie) or expounding on things that are mentioned in the book but not fleshed out (like flashbacks to the fall of Dale and Erebor in the last one).  I did not expect him to flat-out MAKE THINGS UP.  His efforts to insert matters from The Lord of the Rings  into the first installment were irksome, requiring mischaracterization of the relationship between Saruman and Galdalf, and I groused about that then, but for the most part his tampering was minor enough to overlook.
But not this time.  You know, I could overlook Azog not being actually dead in the first movie, but I can’t overlook the appearance of Bolg as well and orc after orc after hideously ugly orc in this one, especially not in freaking Imax 3-D.  THERE SHOULD BE NO ORCS IN THIS SECTION OF THE MOVIE.  They go back to the Misty Mountains and don’t reappear until the Battle of Five Armies.  Y’all, orcs are repulsive to look at and I’m tired of seeing them get their heads cut off.  I mean the thrill is totally gone.
You know what else shouldn’t be in this movie? Legolas.  Now. don’t get me wrong, I love Legolas.  And I was prepared to go along with his presence, because Thranduil IS his father, and he is a Mirkwood elf, so he was probably there.  So give him  a few lines or whatever, but don’t give him a huge subplot, complete with a love triangle.
Oh, and don’t create a “she-elf” to be one of the vertices of said love triangle, and have her be the one who enlightens Legolas on his duty to leave the safety of the forest against his father’s will in order to help stop the spreading darkness (which is not really even mentioned in this book but which is insisted upon over and over in the movie–by the elves, Gandalf, the orcs, and even Smaug).
So belatedly I should say that the first problem I have with this movie is it adds things that never happened.  More things than I’ve mentioned.  But enough said.
Second, just because a movie is fantasy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be believable.  Believable, I mean, within the confines of its own universe.  So yes, dragons and elves and dwarves exist, but even awesome elves like Legolas cannot physically do the things he does in the crazy action sequences (SO many action sequences) in this movie.  After awhile you are just shaking your head.  Nor can Thorin constantly survive blasts of Smaug’s fiery breath.  Or people fall repeatedly from great heights and hop right up with no broken bones.
Third, wouldn’t you think that one of the pluses of turning a short book into three long movies is that at least nothing would need to be cut?  That you would get to see every beloved scene on screen?  Well, think again, Buster.  Because Mr. Jackson is so enamored of his manufactured subplots that he doesn’t have time for the things that ACTUALLY happened.  The weeks of weary travel through Mirkwood?  Five minutes, tops.   Bilbo’s time spent skulking in the halls of the woodelves?  We see plenty of Thranduil (and what an ass he is) and Legolas and Tauriel (aforesaid she-elf) but we have no idea what poor Bilbo is up to until he appears with the keys.  The weeks the dwarves spend on the Lonely Mountain before they get inside?  They arrive moments before the keyhole appeared.
Fourth, the Ring.   The chief importance of the Ring in The Hobbit is that it’s Bilbo’s little secret weapon–he’s invisible while he fights the spiders, he’s invisible in the elf king’s halls, he’s invisible while talking to Smaug.  The Ring is NOT yet exerting some malevolent influence over him, for one thing because Tolkien hadn’t thought of that yet (although he goes for a little revisionist history later himself), but more important, MUCH more important, because it takes years and years and years before the Ring even begins to affect Bilbo.  His ability to resist its evil effects is miraculous and a tribute to him and to hobbits in general, and Gandalf makes much of that in The Fellowship of the Ring (the book, I’m talking about here).   But in this movie he has to be constantly pulling it out and staring at it and hearing the words that he does not even know are inscribed in it inside his head–in the Black Speech, no less–and even tells a spider, “It’s mine!” (At least he didn’t say it was precious.)  And when he should be using it, he’s always TAKING IT OFF.  Like when he is standing a couple of feet away from the MOUTH OF A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON.
Finally, and most important of all, Peter Jackson has missed the point of The Hobbit in every possible way.  It’s a children’s story that he wants to rewrite for an adult audience.  It’s a simple tale that he wants to make complicated.  It’s a standalone book that he wants to tie to the War of the Ring.  And at its heart, it’s BILBO’s story.  It’s the story of how a simple, stay-at-home hobbit left his comfortable fireside for an adventure he never knew he wanted  and discovered that there was more inside him than he and others guessed.    Bilbo is largely missing from the second installment, which plays partly like Thorin’s story and partly like a prelude of the evil to come.  His triumphant moments are passed over quickly or even taken away from him all together (the elves come to the rescue and finish killing off the spiders, his single-handed liberation of the dwarves from the eleven king requires more elvish assistance as well as help from the dwarves and Bard).  In the book the dwarves respect and rely upon Bilbo more and more as time goes on.  That’s important–central–and you don’t see it here.
If I had never read The Hobbit, I would have liked this movie.  It was fast-paced and exciting and visually appealing.  I thought the 3D was used to much better effect this time around–there were times where the characters looked REAL to me in a way I can’t exactly explain.  The spiders and Smaug were awesomely scary.  I liked Tauriel’s character.  But as someone who loves the book, I instead found myself constantly shaking my head, and thinking, “Did he really just do that? Really?”

He who does not weep does not see

les mis poster
Y’all, I am OBSESSED with Les Miserables right now.   Searching Twitter and Tumblr tags, listening to every soundtrack I can find on Spotify pretty much nonstop, reading reviews and analyses online . . .  I cannot WAIT to see it again.  Let’s not call this a review, exactly–it’s more of a tribute (or a gush) because this movie is WONDERFUL.   It rose to the top of my favorite movie list like a rocket.
Here’s where I would normally tell you that if you aren’t interested in this movie and don’t plan to see it, you should move along.  But I won’t say that, because everyone should see this movie.  You just don’t know what you are missing.   Some are avoiding it because they think it is depressing.  No.  It’s sad.  Very, very sad. But SAD and DEPRESSING are different.  This movie–this story–is UPLIFTING.
I learned about catharsis in high school English, but I didn’t understand the point of it then.  Why seek out emotional experiences in fiction?  Aren’t our tears over the reality of life enough?  Now, though, I love me some catharsis and Les Miserables has been a source of it for me for many years.
I saw the musical on stage probably 20 years ago.  I purchased the soundtrack–on cassette–and when my big kids were little I was in the habit of listening to it regularly.  I remember clearly standing in my little yellow kitchen, chopping vegetables for supper, tears rolling down my face.  It was Fantine’s death scene that always got me then.  I only had to hear the opening line for the tears to start.
As for my kids, they grew to love the songs as well, especially “Master of the House” because of the bad words (okay to sing but not to say!).  I was so excited when almost 12 years ago the play came back to Knoxville.  I wanted the kids to see it, and we spent over 80 dollars we could ill afford then on the tickets.  My dream was squelched when I (nine months’ pregnant with #4) got put on bedrest for high blood pressure just days before the show.
John and the kids got to go, though, and in the years since we’ve kept the magic alive, frequently bursting into the initial sung conversation between Javert and Valjean. (Things like that happen around here a lot.)
I’ve never seen it since, and I was beyond excited for the movie, and especially to finally get to experience the story with the big kids. (They loved it too.)
You always wonder and worry a little about seeing an adaptation or a remake of a much-loved book or show or movie.  You know there are going to be changes.  And the newer version is going to stick in your head.  Will it spoil the old one?  If you haven’t seen this movie yet for those sorts of reasons, don’t let it hold you back.  Of necessity, a film is different from a play.  And there are some small changes.  But the changes add rather than detract.  Where additions are made they come from the book or reflect its spirit.  Here is the first of several blog posts I’ve been reading that explain this beautifully, along with quotations from the book.  Read them all.
Having experienced the story onstage and onscreen and through the music now over so many years, one thing that has interested me how my own reactions to the material have altered.  Part of that has to do with the differences in media but I also think it reflects where I am in my own my life.  As I said earlier I used to find Fantine’s death the most devastating part (it’s still sad!).  I think that was because I was empathasizing with her as we were both mothers of little children.  This time I was most moved by the death of the young men on the barricade.  Why?  Because I am now the mother of two almost grown up boys.  They reminded me of Jake and Teddy and their friends.
young rebels
 
One virtue of the movie format is that you get to know the minor characters so much better.  Even with the best seats in the house you can’t see individual faces at a play the way you can on a screen.  The young men on the barricade were humanized and individualized in the movie version.  The tragedy and waste of their deaths became personal.
Some reviews I read criticized what I saw as a strength:  the way the movie showed the characters in closeup while they were singing their big numbers, never leaving their faces for the duration of the song (which by the way were actually sung while filmed, not lip synched and added later).  Me, I thought it was amazing.  THEY were amazing.  No, they didn’t always belt out the tunes, Broadway fashion, because this was a different format, and not necessary in a film.  They ACTED the songs.  The feelings they showed were amazing.  They cried while singing.  Their voices broke with emotion.
Anne Hathaway should get an Oscar.  What everyone is talking about is The Song, and The Song is amazing, but to me her acting was just as moving in the small parts.  The way her lips trembled and her eyes filled when she knew she was about the lose her job.  The way she cried while her hair was being cut.
fantine hair cut
 
I’ve got nothing negative to say about the casting or the music, although plenty of people seem to.  I concede that Russell Crowe’s voice isn’t on the same level as the rest of the cast.  However, I liked his Javert very much and I think his softer singing shapes his depiction of the character.  His Javert was meditative, thoughtful, driven but not fanatical, trying to do what was right but getting it all wrong.  I understood this Javert.  I felt sorry for him.  I didn’t want him to die.
Hugh Jackman’s transformation from convict to Monsieur Madeleine was impressive.  We couldn’t figure out how they could possibly pretty him up!  I only knew of him before this movie.  If you’ve thought of him as an action hero he will surprise and delight you here.
I won’t go through all the characters because you can read about them anywhere.  But I will say that I am a critical person, trained to be that way as an English major, and I wouldn’t–couldn’t–criticize anyone’s performance in this movie.
I have more to say–especially about the music and the religious themes.  Because this is a profoundly Catholic movie–more than the play–and I loved it for that as well.  But I will leave that for another day and here end with a plea:  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.
P.S.  If you have a heart, you should approach Les Miserables prepared to weep.  Don’t see it with people you don’t want to cry in front of.   I had to stifle an actual sob at one point.  You’ll cry because it’s sad, and you’ll cry because it is beautiful.