Sunday, January 27, 2008

"The Surprise" by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton's play The Surprise was published posthumously and never performed in his lifetime, but EWTN aired a filmed version of it just before Christmas last month. It was a very low-budget operation but I really enjoyed it, particularly since it had Mark Shea playing one of the guards and a great performance from Kevin O'Brien (an actual actor!)

The play includes this interesting challenge: is it possible to produce a captivating story without a villain? Can you have conflict, drama, tension and resolution when all of your characters are good and all of their actions are good throughout the entire play? Chesterton's answer touches on the intersection of God's sovereignty and man's free will, and his final line packs a lot of punch.

The question reminded me strongly of a scene I've always loved from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers. Tolkien had lots of villains, of course, and a few characters (Boromir, Denethor, Theoden, Eowyn, Saruman) who were interesting mixes of bad with good, or nobility with debasement, or wisdom with immaturity. But in one scene, the conflict comes from two of the most heroically good characters in the whole trilogy. It happens when Faramir's men capture Frodo and Sam in Ithilien. Faramir and Frodo are immediately at odds: Faramir is charged with the security of the border region and so he has to know what Frodo's business is and not let him wander free in Ithilien, while Frodo is charged with a quest to save all Middle-Earth and so he has to keep his secret and get away. Faramir won't torture Frodo, or even imprison him if he can possibly avoid it, and Frodo for his part will not lie to Faramir.

So the conflict is expressed in a conversation that is equal parts tense and courteous, in which Faramir and Frodo both use their wits and insight to the best of their ability and quickly grow in their respect for one another as they try to defeat each other. Resolution is brought about by an interruption from a third heroically good (if not terribly sharp-witted) character: Sam.

Needless to say, Jackson's movie butchered this scene and sadly altered the character of Faramir. But I loved the movies for what they did well, so we'll ignore the parts they couldn't handle.

There, two of my favorite authors in one post. :)

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