Authenticity vs. Realism

Good writing has a quality, not so much of realism as of authenticity about it.

Becoming C.S. Lewis p. 133

We all know Gimli, son of Gloin isn’t real (despite the fact that he has a family tree), but Gimli continues to do what we know Gimli should do in the world where Tolkien placed him. We have an authentic portrayal of a character. We see Gimli doing Gimli things, and so we know the world is authentic, however fantastical it may be.

Of course, this is often precisely where movie makers face the ire of book readers. On the screen, the actions and words of a character—however “real” the portrayal is made through make up and costume—may not fit the world the careful reader knows and loves. I’ve said more than once while watching the Lord of the Ring movies that I don’t think Gimli—or Sam!—would do that. But the problem with that statement is I am trying to place Jackson’s Sam and Gimli into Tolkien’s world. But I don’t need to be asking if Tolkien’s Gimli should do that or say that. I should be asking if Jackson’s Gimli is authentic to the world Jackson has made. We must realize that however much Jackson tried to mimic Tolkien’s Middle Earth, when we watch the movies, we are watching Jackson’s not Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

And in Jackson’s imagining of Middle Earth, the world is different.

We book readers may not like what Jackson did to Middle Earth, but we must be careful not to judge his characters’ words and actions based on the wrong place. Jackson’s Gimli may well be authentic in his world, however inauthentic he might be if plopped down in Tolkien’s. 

Authenticity simply means this: Would that character do that or say that here based on the world that has been drawn so far? That’s not to say that characters don’t grow or change or surprise us—but is there a reason for the surprise, or did the creator of the world just need something from a character here? 

Finally, do we label characters as inauthentic when at some point their humanity doesn’t bow to our desires? I think of Jane Eyre here. Her praise of St. John at the end bothers me to no end. But is my hatred of St. John blinding me to who Jane is and what she’d really do? I haven’t satisfactorily answered that question, which is why Jane Eyre remains close to but not in my list of favorite books. I think if I ever believed that Jane was being authentic, it would be one of my favorite novels of all time. But I can’t get past the ending. I know Jane is not a real person, but in the end, she seems inauthentic as well. 

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