Hobbits and Adaptations

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The first trailer for the last Hobbit film has been released, which signals the re-commencement of The Battle of the Five (or more) Opinions of The Hobbit Films. Here in the Rabbit Room we are passionate about our books, our films, and our books made into films. When it comes to Peter Jackson’s second foray into Middle-earth, I know there are strong opinions on both sides. All of this brought to my mind the idea of adaptation, and how we think about that.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to teach The Hobbit to high school students. One week I had them watch the two films, and then we discussed the films vs. the books. In my own search for material, I stumbled across a very helpful discussion of adaptation, and how we think about book-to-film adaptation, by Tolkien scholar Corey Olsen. He deals with the buildup to The Desolation of Smaug, but also spends a bit of time discussing general principles of adaptation. The lecture is pretty long at 2 1/2 hours, but well worth your time if you’d really like to listen.

Listen here

Olsen’s lecture, and the reemerging discussion with the release of the last Hobbit trailer, has brought some questions to mind that I thought I might share here, and spark some discussion on adaptation in general:

1. How much responsibility does a filmmaker have to adhering strictly to a text vs. creating their own vision of a text? Is an author’s opinion and vision of their own work the final authority? Consider that when you read a story, how you imagine the characters and environment may be very different than how the author does. Does this make you wrong?

2. Is it possible for a filmmaker to improve upon a book in some ways?

3. Is it possible to love both a book and a film adaptation of the book, even if they are significantly different, without betraying a sense of “loyalty” to the original story?

4. How do we navigate the gap between two very different mediums, which require two very different storytelling styles, in a knowledgeable way?

Let’s have a good, respectful discussion. Duels are only allowed over whether Galadriel is the fairest of them all.

Profile photo of Chris Yokel

Chris teaches writing and literature to college and high school students. He is the author of several books of poetry, and has released several albums of original music. He is also an amateur photographer, part-time stick-swordfighter, and chai enthusiast. He and his wife Jen enjoy reading, writing, and exploring the cities, coasts, and forests of New England.


34 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great questions, Chris. I think my first thought is that there are few hard and fast rules with this sort of thing. Films and books are two entirely different ways of telling a story, and when they are used to tell the same story, you can end up with results all over the map.

    I, for one, do not have problems with adaptations taking liberties, even huge liberties, with source material so long as the liberty taken serves to tell the story in a better way for the chosen medium. A few of examples: Where the Wild Things Are, Forest Gump, 2001: A Space Odyssey–all significantly different from their source material, yet still great works on their own terms.

    I also think it’s not unusual for a film to improve on the book from which it’s adapted. Forest Gump is a great example. The book isn’t much more than a comical series of encounters (Gump even has a pet orangutan), but the movie managed to take that basic idea and hang significant emotional weight on it.

    I think the keys to a successful adaptation are probably something like these: Firstly, the adaptation needs to stand on its own as a functional piece of storytelling, while putting the strengths of its particular medium to good use. And secondly, a good adaptation should present the story in such a way as not to betray the nature of its source material. Simon Birch (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and Winter’s Tale are two classic examples of adaptations that fail one or both of these points.

    I’ll withhold my opinion on the Hobbit movies in the interest of keeping the discussion tied to adaptation in general.

  2. Hannah Long

    Going to go straight to the top and quote Tolkien on a proposed adaptation of LOTR:

    “The canons of narrative an in any medium cannot be wholly different ; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.”

    I think it’s a good summary. To use the Hobbit as an example, I don’t particularly think Peter Jackson is concerned with finding “the core of the original” anymore. I do think he is trying to make a good film, but Tolkien’s instincts for storytelling are ultimately better than Jackson’s (in my opinion). In adapting work, recognizing with humility one’s own limitations is important, and with the amount of influence Jackson now has, there’s little to keep him accountable (same with Kenneth Branagh, imho). Not that I can talk – I haven’t had someone edit my work in years.

    So that’s the first question, but as for the others…some books feel like they’re written to become movies. On the other hand, a book can be so difficult to adapt that the movie *must* become something different, almost independent. Even if that isn’t the case, I sometimes like good movies that are poor adaptations – I think it can be both.

    Last Sunday the first episode of the last season of Agatha Christie’s Poirot aired – it wasn’t perfect, but it must have been a monster to adapt. (The original was about a gang of racial stereotypes – American millionaire, sinister Chinaman – plotting world domination, only to be foiled by Poirot, a Belgian private detective. It’s as campy as it sounds.) It’s quite a good test case, for while it changed the ending to something marginally more plausible, but vastly different from the original, they did not betray the characters or central tenets of a Christie tale – the whodunnit was still there.

  3. Seth Hart

    Disclaimer: within the last month, I have re-read The Lord of the Rings and then re-watched the movies. I had not seen or read either since they were in theaters. I do not like the Lord of the Rings movies. Admittedly, this puts me in the minority among Tolkien lovers, many of whom look at The Hobbit movies like Star Wars fans look at the prequels: upstarts that ruin a perfect trilogy. But we’re not here to talk about LotR.

    Film is a different medium and a story cannot be told the same way as in the book. There are other factors at play in the case of The Hobbit as well: how do you create a LotR prequel using source material that was never meant to be a prequel?

    Another factor I think is relevant is the goal. In the introduction to LotR, Tolkien refutes the idea that his book is allegory, instead giving it the description of “history.” While Tolkien sets out to present a history, the goal of modern big-budget cinema is to deliver a spectacle. Like the latest Star Trek movies or the Pirates of Caribbean franchise, The Hobbit has more in common with an amusement park ride than a book.

    I love a good roller coaster and I love a Cirque du Soleil show and it makes sense that if I shell out the money to go to a big theater and slip on my 3D glasses (rather than waiting for the movie to come out on Netflix), I would want to know I had gotten my money’s worth. I see nothing wrong with cinema-as-spectacle, but it makes it even more difficult to compare books to film.

    I agree with Hannah Long: a movie must communicate the core of the book. Or, to put it differently, a filmmaker should look at a book and answer the question: “Why does this book exist?” If they can create an adaptation that answers that question the same way the book does, an adaptation where you leave the theater with the same emotions as when you closed the book, it is a successful adaptation.

  4. Zach Ames

    Specifically towards The Hobbit, I think much of the ire comes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy being done very differently than Jackson is doing the Hobbit. For LOTR, most of the modifications were subtractions from the narrative such as Tom Bombadil, The Battle for the Shire and Saruman’s true end. Additions were minor, like the lightening of the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, changes to the Battles of the Hornburg and Pelennor Fields, and the way Frodo leaves the Shire. None of it took away from the story itself, in fact most times the changes were made to make the story easier to tell. I applaud Jackson for three fine films. The Hobbit trilogy is another story. It almost feels like the storyteller has lost his respect/appreciation of the source material. The changes aren’t done to make continuity clearer or tell the story better. The White Orc, changes to Beorn, and ridiculously comical battle between dwarves and Smaug in the Lonely Mountain are all done in spite of the great story not to simply tell it in a better way. There is a separation between those changes and the telling of the Necromancer side of the story because it comes from secondary sources and liberties are much more understandable.

    As for the questions
    1. I think a filmmaker does have a modest responsibility to remain as true as he/she can to the source material. They are telling someone else’s story after all. That’s why there is an Academy Award for best original screenplay. However, in any adaptation dealing with one storyteller telling another’s story you have to leave room for interpretation. Tolkien was a British WWI veteran who was a brilliant linguist at Oxford with a wealth of published academic work and very much a Catholic. Jackson is a self taught filmmaker from New Zealand and an agnostic.Because adapting a book to film is not as simple as reading it out loud, things may change.

    2.Absolutely it is. As Pete pointed out, Forrest Gump is one of the great examples. You might think I’m crazy but Jurassic Park too. Had that film been made exactly like the book, which was still a great book, it would have been terrible.

    3. I think you respect both creators for their work. Jackson did a great job with the first trilogy. I’m not sure anyone but him realizes just how tough that was. Knowing that it couldn’t be identical you praise a creation like this as if it stands on its own. Technically it does. Just like Michael Vaughn did with the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Gaiman’s book was fantastic, so was Vaughn’s take on it, albeit different.

    4.I think we have a humble view of how very different the two mediums are. We have to know that sometimes they can cross and sometimes they can’t. Sometimes you have to give it a try to find out it cannot be done. Three of my favorite novels,(The Power and the Glory, Jayber Crow, and For Whom the Bell Tolls[1943 doesn’t count.]) will never be made into movies. I’m not sure I’d even want them to be.

  5. Thomas McKenzie

    Good questions.

    1. How much responsibility does a filmmaker have to adhering strictly to a text vs. creating their own vision of a text? Is an author’s opinion and vision of their own work the final authority?

    None. At all. The author is out of it. He or she has made her art, and someone else gets to make theirs.

    The filmmakers work for someone who paid for the book. Now, they get to do whatever they want. Why? Because film and books are TOTALLY DIFFERENT. Faithfulness is unrealistic, like asking someone to compose a guitar piece that faithfully tells the story of Hamlet. You can hit some of the themes, tell parts of the story, kind of, but you can’t be truly faithful.

    I’d rather watch a great movie that has something to do with a great book than watch an OK movie that is “faithful” to a great book.

    2. Is it possible for a filmmaker to improve upon a book in some ways?

    No, because the filmmaker isn’t writing a book. Unless the filmmaker becomes an author and writes a better version of “The Road,” or whatever, he can’t improve on the book.

    HOWEVER, he or she can make a better movie than the book it is “based” on. Case in point: Twelve Years a Slave. A fine slave narrative, a fantastic film. “The Godfather” is a good book, and a magnificent movie. “No Country for Old Men”? A great novel, and a great movie. “Da Vinci Code”? Bad book, horrible movie. Oh, one more. “Casino Royale” Book and movie were totally different, both good, within their genre. OK, the movie was awesome.

    3. Is it possible to love both a book and a film adaptation of the book, even if they are significantly different, without betraying a sense of “loyalty” to the original story?

    Why is someone so loyal to a book that they can’t love a film? That is weird to me. I love the Bible, but I don’t freak out when people make movies that mess up Bible stories. I love the Ten Commandments. It isn’t faithful to the Bible story, but I love the movie.

    4. How do we navigate the gap between two very different mediums, which require two very different storytelling styles, in a knowledgeable way?

    As should be obvious, I have abandoned any attempt to judge books by movies, and vice versa. However, I do think that art comments on other art. So, it is interesting to see how a movie comments on a book. Like the recent Great Gatsby movie. It had interesting commentary on the original book. Same with the Noah movie. Interesting comments, even if the movie wasn’t great.

  6. Chris Yokel

    Thomas, regarding #3, I totally agree with you, but unfortunately that is the attitude that many people seem to take. They start with a strong sense of love and loyalty toward a book, and then base their judgment of a film version based on that.

  7. Frank Gorgie

    Hello, Pete:

    I would add to your list the entire Planet of the Apes series (except ,of course, the “Marky Mark” Wahlberg atrocity)

    In Pierre Boule’s original (he also wrote Bridge on the River Kwai) novel the 1968-1973 film series’ dystopian commentary and Cold War inspired bleakness is totally absent.

    The weird religious elements are missing. Case in point, Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius [reading from the sacred scrolls of the apes] “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death…” and Dr. Zaius “You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself…” Talk about (unintentional?) Biblical insight being imported into a Sci Fi film ostensibly about talking apes!

    The latest reboot is an adaptation of the film adaptations/sequels from the early 1970’s (specifically a strange admixture of “Battle” and “Conquest”)

    Thank you for pointing out that the old saw “the book is far better” is not always true.

    As a sidenote I found the battle scenes in The Hobbit film too long by half!

  8. David

    I enjoyed listening to Olsen’s lecture when you posted it on FB, Chris, and good questions for discussion here. To jump right in:

    (1) To state a filmmaker’s possible approaches to adapting a book for the screen as a set of alternatives — “adhering strictly to a text vs. creating their own vision of a text” — is misleading. The basic question is fidelity to the story the author wrote — not necessarily to the author’s intent, opinion, or vision, but to the published story itself. The filmmaker’s reading doesn’t have to be the author’s, or the reading of the generality of the critics, or that of most fans. It may be the filmmaker’s reading alone, it may be highly idiosyncratic — but it should be plausible. The filmmaker’s work, if it calls itself an “adaptation” and borrows a title, a setting, and a cast of characters, should be crafted from material plausibly mined from the book. It should not be a mass of foreign glosses that spring independently from the filmmaker’s own head.

    (2) It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. For example: Overall, I think William Goldman’s Princess Bride screenplay is better than his novel. And in some respects, I think Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility screenplay is better than Austen’s novel. Thompson improves much of the dialogue, and having Elinor dissolve in tears in front of the apologetic Edward, rather than fleeing the room, at the story’s eucatastrophe is a brilliant alteration that works much better on film than a simple transcription of Austen would.

    (3) To the extent the “significant differences” between a book its movie adaptation do not reflect the filmmaker’s contempt for the book, or an evident intent to “improve” it through out-of-whole-cloth innovations, then yes. I mean, I may be friends with, and show loyalty to, both a man and his wife. But if he starts beating her, or she starts shopping around for a better husband, then my loyalty has to go one way or the other.

    For instance, when Jackson et al. took a whole bunch of material from the White Council’s investigation of and assault upon Dol Guldur to The Hobbit, and compressed the timetable of the investigation/assault, they significantly expanded and altered Tolkien’s Hobbit. But (in the main) the material did come from Tolkien; the White Council really did attack Dol Guldur as Bilbo and the Dwarves journeyed from the west side of Mirkwood to the Lonely Mountain. These alterations should implicate no loyalties whatever. Different story when Jackson et al. turned Frodo Baggins into a dim bulb who required a Victorian fainting couch for about twenty percent of his screen time, or (more subtly) knocked Denethor and both his sons down a peg, or five.

    (4) This may reflect the total ignorance of having never made a movie, but I don’t buy the premise that “two very different mediums require two very different storytelling styles” per se. Adapting a fantasy novel for the stage may well require a different storytelling style — Tolkien says as much in On Fairy Stories — but technology being what it is, the movie format is admirably suited to capturing something as epic as The Lord of the Rings.

    Finally, Chris, if you deny that the Queen Arwen was the fairest lady of the Third Age, I will go for my sword. That is, unless you favor the Lady Galadriel, and have an axe to advance your argument.

  9. Danielle

    I haven’t read all of the responses yet (Sorry!), but I think Pete hit on something that is very important to me in terms of whether I appreciate a film adaptation of a book I love- that the adaptation stay true to the source.

    The film version of Prince Caspian, for example, just about broke my heart in the way that it trivialized the story into something closely resembling a “summer blockbuster.” To me, they killed its heart and took a piece of my childhood with it. This is the other dilemma with adaptations of books like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Narnia and Harry Potter, even: we tend to hold these stories so close that they become part of us. And when someone reimagines these pieces of ourselves in a way that’s contrary to our own experience, it’s as if they’ve reshaped our own identity. I, for one, am rather protective of my identity.

  10. Joe Sutphin

    The reason I do not feel it is fair to hold film makers to the novel as a standard, is that we the readers, read novels on a private level in most cases. We spend intimate time taking the scenes and characters into our extremely complex minds and interpreting them in our mind’s eye as our minds see them. We gave the book its visual life in a place only we could see, and over a million other people did the same thing in their own minds. When we read characters in the midst of angry dialogue, we hear their voices in our heads, we know what their facial expressions looks like. We hear their sobs, their laughter. How can a director match what we privately fell in love with?
    Comic book movies are a bit different in the fact that the source was so entirely literal that a deviation becomes immediately obvious because the reading audience all shared the same visual and literary experience.

  11. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great responses, folks.

    To David, I’d like to suggest that cinema is very much its own art form with its own visual syntax and language. The “language” of film is in it’s images and the ways in which they interact both with one another and with the viewer. While prose certainly uses images to tell stories, it does so in a very different way. A good movie is one whose imagery does heavy-lifting—and to be clear, I don’t mean special effects, or how beautiful or fanciful things look; I mean the visual poetry of a film, like the image of a crocodile slipping into the calm water at the beginning of A Thin Red Line or the way Frodo is at times framed in the door of Bag End as if he’s the pupil of a great eye. These are the sorts of visual metaphors that the cinematic art speaks with, even if the viewer is unconscious of them, and it’s image at work like this that composes the notes, movements, and music of film.

  12. David

    Thanks for that, Pete. Very helpful. I’ve not studied filmmaking with any degree of seriousness, but your comment gives me some helpful tools for learning how better to appreciate on-screen art.

  13. John

    I’ll deal with the most important matter first; the movie Galadriel was in no way the fairest of them all ( sorry, Cate 🙂 ). And therein lies the problem, I think; interpretation. I’ve only seen the first part of the Hobbit, and didn’t really have any interest in seeing the rest, mainly because – as Joe mentions – it didn’t match the version that plays in my head as I read the novel . A reader’s vision is – mostly – going to differ from that of the director, but sometimes, a faux pas of such huge proportions is made that it spoils everything ( I’m sorry, nothing in Tolkien’s description depicted young Bilbo as Martin Freeman. Smaug, however, from what I’ve seen in the trailers sounds like the one in my head ).

    Slightly off the topic of the Hobbit, whilst there is no denying that Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are impressive, I do think they pale in comparison to Bakshi’s version, which seems to convey more emotion. Which raises another “issue”, in that the technology that now enables these films to be produced, is being used more as a shock and awe tactic, rather than a true attempt at bringing the books to life.

    There is another way of looking at this, and that is if more people read the books as a result of seeing the movies….

  14. JamesDWitmer

    I’ll take a stab at Thomas’ question:

    Why is someone so loyal to a book that they can’t love a film? That is weird to me.

    …with two possible reasons.

    1. The imagery of a movie can embed in your memory, in a way that sort of “saves over” your personally imagined experience with a book. This has happened to me, to some extent, with TLOTR, and a number of Jane Austin’s books. I can’t re-read them without seeing the scenes and characters as they were in the movie.

    Fortunately for me, the further a movie strays from the source material (whether it does so excellently or badly), the less likely this is to happen. So I’m pleased to find that my reading of The Hobbit was uninfluenced by the movie… except perhaps by the facial expressions of the movie Bilbo, which I love. But I can sympathize with people who fear or resent this happening.

    2. If a book really stirs me, and speaks to me, I tend to want the movie to stir and speak as much. I don’t think it’s a matter of resenting changes as if the text were sacred, but that a movie that fails to move me, especially due to leaving out or cluttering up things from the original, creates massive frustration. As in, It should have been EASY to make it powerful and evocative! All they had to do is use the original material!

    The more I learn, the more I understand what an oversimplification that feeling is. But it remains true that, when I got BORED during the chase scenes in the first Hobbit movie, I was disgusted, because I had hoped for so much more. But when I got bored during the endless fight scenes in Man of Steel, I relaxed and ate more popcorn, because I was out to enjoy a campy late-night movie experience. I expected less from Superman, and so I kind of enjoyed it that one time, even though it will never be approved by people who call movies “films.”

  15. Matthew Aughtry

    This is a great discussion. As a filmmaker I agree with a lot of what’s been said. Particularly the insistence that has come up several times that since books and films are completely different mediums there is no way that a film can be “faithful” to the book since in some ways they are directly opposed to one another in the way that they accomplish storytelling.

    Anyone who has ever read a screenwriting book has heard the rule “show, don’t tell”. Pete mentioned that the language of cinema is visual. This is something that most amateur filmmakers fail to grasp, especially those with proclivities to screenwriting. We remember our favorite bits of dialogue so well that we think filmmaking is all about writing great lines. In reality what characters say isn’t nearly as important as what they do. Additionally, you cannot tell in a screenplay the way you can in a book. I cannot write, “Samwise had good plain Hobbit-sense” in a screenplay. Instead, I must show you what that looks like. I can use voiceover but that’s cheating and while I’m not completely against the use of a narrator in film (like some people are) I do think that using it to tell the story so bluntly is a grievous mistake and none of the films I like that use voiceover use it in such a vulgar way as that.

    This is one of the reasons that some of the greatest books make for some of the worst movies. Since the best books will no doubt play to the strengths of the medium they will naturally be at a disadvantage when being imported into a new medium. Because of this I don’t think that a filmmaker’s job is to turn your favorite book into a movie word-for-word since to do so would make for a terrible movie. It’s also why some books that aren’t all that great can turn into amazing movies since something in them actually works better for the world of cinema than it does for the language of prose. John Houston’s “The Maltese Falcon” is a cinema classic but not a literary one but his version of “Moby Dick”, like all cinematic versions of that story, is just okay. Not many English teachers assign Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” to their students but an introduction to film class that failed to show Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation would be highly suspect since it is without a doubt one of the greatest American films of all time.

    Finally, one of the reasons I think Jackson’s series of “The Hobbit” fails (and there

  16. Matthew Aughtry

    (sorry, I must have hit something that cause this to submit, I don’t know how to edit)

    (and there are many reasons it does) is because it is both an adaptation and a prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” films. Tolkien wrote his little book about Bilbo many years before he took the Fellowship on their journey to Mordor so the book works in its own right without needing to foreshadow the larger work to come since he didn’t even know everything that would be. Jackson seems to feel beholden to his previous success and to want the movies to feel like they are in the same vein as the “Lord of the Rings”movies he already made. The problem is that Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit” is not in the same vein as his masterpiece “Lord of the Rings”. It’s an adventure story with moments of grandeur whereas “Lord of the Rings” is an epic quest with the fate of an entire world in the balance. Those are two different stories and to make the story of “The Hobbit” feel like the latter you must add (or borrow) other material. Also, you must do something that I consider most upsetting: you must make Bilbo only one of the main characters. This is my main problem with the films. Whereas “Lord of the Rings” is meant to be told from a variety of points of view, “The Hobbit” is supposed to be Bilbo’s story. He’s involved in all the action, his arc is the focus of the book, and his choices are the one’s we’re most interested in. Yet in the latest installment of the series he’s sometimes a supporting character.

    Jackson says that the most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself. I don’t know if I agree with that but I suppose on some level it’s always the case. As people have said, film is one person’s vision of what the book is (well really it’s a lot of people visions since the director can’t do everything) whereas a book lets you create your own vision. Sometimes this works out great (who could have guessed that a bit of pulp fiction like “The Godfather” could be elevated to feel downright Shakespearian) and sometimes it doesn’t. But thank goodness they don’t burn all the books once the movie comes out. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be like a hobbit, “Quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk.” Hollywood is full of a lot of big folk and sometimes the best thing to do is to enjoy their successes and shrug off their failures.

  17. Esther O'Reilly

    1. Of course any film adaptation has to deviate to some extent from the book. Parts of it might be simply unfilmable. The question is whether the film-maker understands the heart and soul of the book and has respect for the source material. That respect will come out in thoughtful casting, recognition of what is essential and what is not, and a humble restraint when it comes to super-imposing his own inferior ideas over the author’s original. As others have pointed out, it’s become clear in The Hobbit that Jackson doesn’t really “get” Tolkien, and hence doesn’t understand how wildly, garishly out of place all his extraneous characters and sequences are.

    2. Of course it’s possible. Jane Austen’s novels can sometimes be a bit dry, but there are a number of exquisite film adaptations that bring the stories to life with great acting and witty, intelligent script/story enhancement, without losing any of what made the originals so good. The film version of _Ender’s Game_ did lose some of the novel’s complexity, but it also eliminated a sub-plot that wasn’t the best part of the book, which made the film feel tighter in that respect. There are other examples, but those come to mind most readily.

    3. Again, yes of course. See every Jane Austen adaptation ever. Or Captains Courageous. Great book, and different but also great movie. If anything I might have loved the movie a little more.

    4. Recognize the limitations of film, but don’t make excuses for the film-maker when he bungles it. The problems with The Hobbit movies have nothing to do with the fact that the film is a different story-telling medium from the novel. Jackson himself did better with Lord of the Rings, though those films suffered from some of their own unnecessary problems as well.

  18. Esther O'Reilly

    P. S. Forgot another book-to-film adaptation where I prefer the movie—Incredible Journey vs. Homeward Bound. Also, RE David’s mention of The Princess Bride, honestly both book and movie are terrific. I think each of them brings something different to the table. I personally really like Goldman’s authorial voice and the more liberal sprinkling of whimsy and satire in the novel. Too many people have JUST seen the movie, which is still brilliant because Goldman took creative control, but they’re still missing something if they haven’t read the book.

  19. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    “…it also eliminated a sub-plot that wasn’t the best part of the book…”

    I assume you’re talking about the Locke/Demosthenes angle, which is why I’d argue that it’s essentially an unfilmable book. Without that subplot, there’s not enough story there to get the ideas across, and that subplot is truly unfilmable (not to mention brilliant). The book would (as the movie does) fall apart without it.

  20. Esther O'Reilly

    Well I would definitely agree that the subplot is unfilmable, but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the story falls apart without it. To me, I’m more sad to lose the unfilmable parts of Ender’s own thought process, and all the wonderful little details of strategy/tactics. I think Card is just better at writing action and military strategy than he is at writing politics. Maybe that’s why the sequels were less popular—because the politics to action ratio went up.

  21. Esther O'Reilly

    Question: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is one of the greatest novels ever written, but I don’t hear much about the movie version. Has anyone seen it, and is it any good?

  22. gllen

    one wee comment – an aside actually –
    i do not think that John would like to take up
    the crucial issue of Galadriel, with Gimli –
    at least not until they proceed from the point of strangers
    to good friends…!
    (;

  23. Drew

    It’s possible that no film could accurately capture the nature of “Winter’s Tale.” Goldsman gave it a shot, and to my mind failed. It’s a nice movie, but it’s not “Winter’s Tale.” And I think that’s where I often come down on film adaptations. Can we still call the movie by the same name as the book? For “Winter’s Tale,” I’d say no. It’s not just that there were changes, but the meaning and the theme seem to have changed, too. “Winter’s Tale” is an apocalypse. The movie is a soft-focus love story about miracles.

    But I wonder how much of this has to do with whether I liked the book in the first place. “Prince Caspian” is my least favorite of the Narnia books (which I otherwise love), and so I actually enjoyed the movie. By the same token, “Voyager of the Dawn Treader” is one of my favorites from the series, and I did not like the changes that were made. (“What’s this nonsense about collecting swords?”)

    And how much has to do with which medium you’re exposed to first? I saw “John Carter” before reading “A Princess of Mars,” and felt that the movie was far better. (“C’mon! Dejah Thoris lays eggs?!”)

    So I think that the mental and emotional baggage we bring to an adaptation is really going to trump any other criticism we may have.

    There are times when I can enjoy both forms equally even though there are differences in the narrative. “The Lord of the Rings” is a good example of that. Ditto “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” By what alchemy is that achieved?

    All that said, there are dangers to be had when we require movies to hew too closely to their source material. Such pains were taken with the first two Harry Potter movies that they ended up feeling like “news coverage” rather than stories.

  24. Drew

    Given that we’re talking about “The Hobbit,” I think the fatal flaw of Film #2 was that it seemed to forget what it was about. The book is called “The Hobbit,” not “Some Dwarves, Some Elves, Some Wizards, and then there’s this Hobbit guy, too.”

    Here’s hoping the third film remembers who the central character is.

  25. Esther O'Reilly

    I personally have read certain books first and then preferred the movies, so I’m not sure whether “mental and emotional baggage” is always going “trump” anything else for everyone. When I say “The Lord of the Rings books are better than the movies,” that’s a considered statement based on my knowledge of both great literature and great movie-making. I’m open to what a gifted film-maker could bring to the table, I’m just aware when the bar has been set really high.

  26. Laure Hittle

    i’m going to post my thoughts in two comments, one on Corey Olsen and The Hobbit and the other on adaptation in general.

    i appreciated listening to Olsen’s lecture, and i think i agree with him regarding most of the individual adaptation examples he discusses. In fact, it helped me come to appreciate on an artistic level what Jackson accomplished through the many individual examples given. But quite honestly, i was bored to tears within a half hour of the first Hobbit movie, and i have no desire to see any of the others. i enjoyed the LOTR movies quite a lot, although i took issue with some of the changes Jackson made in them. (Faramir and Aragorn’s character changes were frustrating, but the elimination of the cleansing of the Shire demonstrates that Jackson did not understand the story he was adapting. The elimination of Tom Bombadil, who is mythically essential, is another matter; he would have been a disaster on film.) We love the extended editions of LOTR and a couple of years ago hosted a marathon sleepover. (Three pounds of bacon the next morning: Both hobbitish and epic.) The point is, the changes that Jackson made in those movies, even the ones that grieved me, did not prevent me from enjoying those movies as movies. But The Hobbit failed as a movie for me. It simply did not hold my interest. There was too much going on; the story had no centre and thus the bigger it got, the more it wobbled and fell apart.

    Olsen makes a good point that Tolkien was trying, after the publication of LOTR, to make The Hobbit fit the world that had been developing since its publication. But the fact remains that as published, it is a) a children’s fairy tale, and b) the story of a single individual rather than an historical epic. Christopher Tolkien has never yet rewritten that story to feel more like LOTR, which is a commentary to me on how it is supposed to feel, continuity notwithstanding. The two stories have different genres, different target audiences, and very different scopes as a result. There’s got to have been a way to adapt The Hobbit so that it lives visually within the same world as the LOTR movies without losing sight of the differences between them. Jackson’s failure to do that, not his minor changes or Radagast’s fashion sense, are what killed that movie for me.

  27. Laure Hittle

    Adaptations are hard for me because i am so story-driven, especially in terms of books. As others have mentioned, stories i love get into my heart; i take them in and they become part of me. i never, ever, ever want to see Peet the Sock Man on screen because i love him too much. i fear that even seeing a trailer would hurt my heart. So while i can acknowledge objectively that a filmmaker must adapt in order to tell a story (the same story, or his/her interpretation of it) in a different medium, i am always wary of being hurt if the story is one that i love. But there are definitely stories that i have loved in more than one medium, and it’s a relief and a joy when that happens.

    i think it might be helpful to not talk about adapting a book. Maybe we should talk instead about adapting a story. A book, after all, is one medium; it might be particularly well-suited to a particular story’s telling, but it is not the story itself. A film, likewise, presents a story, and does so with very different tools. But as long as we talk about adapting books, we’ll never be able to see the movies as anything other than attempts to film a book.

    When adapting a story, each artist—the novelist or the filmmaker—must ask, “what is the heart of this story? What is the tone and what are the themes that are indispensable to the proper telling of this story? How can i convey those in this medium?” And when adapting a story told in a different medium, the goal should then be to convey the tone and themes, the heart of the story, in a faithful way. This requires a careful reading and the integrity to put the story above yourself.

    Back to Olsen for a second: He makes a great point about ancient and medieval literature. The retelling of Shakespeare’s plays in film, Disney’s adaptation of fairy tales, and the cyclical reimagining of superhero stories all tell me that we haven’t completely abandoned the need for hearing beloved old stories again. We still honour through homage, despite putting more weight on creativity and novelty than Chaucer’s time period did. But i think that if a filmmaker’s (or novelist’s) goal is to reimagine the work rather than to adapt it, s/he should make much more extensive visual changes so that their new work can be seen or read on its own merits. To stick too closely visually (and i mean that in terms of books as well as movies) sends a cue to the audience that it should be read or viewed in a way similar to the source material, and that will result in frustration for both parties.

  28. Esther O'Reilly

    In a weird way, I almost prefer the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, even though the animation is terrible. I thought the characterization was solid, and the spirit of the story was captured better. Using Tolkien’s own language and style took it up a notch and helped compensate for the obviously low budget. Even the music was more tuneful. I just wish the live action films could have been made with a similar ear and taste, plus the $$ to create something that also looked good.

  29. Frank Gorgie

    @Esther O’Reilly The Chosen was made into a film in 1981 starring Robby Benson, Rod Steiger and the nebbishy guy from Saturday Night Fever/Peggy Sue Got Married.
    It had the overall feel of a “Back to School Special” but hewed pretty close to the text.

    If you enjoy the book I believe the film to be well worthwhile.

  30. Todd Russell

    I actually have some experience with this whole topic and I have a different perspective today than I did years ago. I had been working on a movie script, The Last Martyr, in my head for more than a decade. About 2 years ago, current events urged me to finally put the story into words, but I still had not taken the time to learn how to write a proper script and I decided to just write it as a short book instead and get around to writing the script if I ever had a movie director interested in it (we can still hope for miracles, right?).

    As I began working on the book in my head leading up to the actual typing, it became clear very quickly that the script was never going to work as a book. The story was supposed to follow a Franciscan priest as he took up the prophet’s role in decrying world events and warning of the impending Apocalypse. He would be portrayed as walking that fine line between sanity and sanctity that some of the most interesting saints have become notorious for. What I had previously envisioned, though, relied entirely on the visual language of film making to “show not tell” as Matthew Aughtry mentioned above.

    I ended up dropping him altogether from the book and replacing him with two other characters and a very different sequence of events at the character level (only the meta level of world events remained the same). This worked far better than what I thought I was capable of in trying to portray the character in my original story without the aid of visuals.

    If I someday ended up making the film, it would amusing to hear people comment that the movie didn’t follow the book when, in fact, the book was already an adaptation of a movie that couldn’t be told as a book.

    So, although I used to complain when movies trashed a book (and I am still complaining that Aragorn in the movies is unsure of his role – I like the movies otherwise), I have a new perspective on this now and have stopped expecting movies to follow the books that inspired them at all.

    An excellent example of how a book and movie can tell two very different stories, using some of the same characters and settings, while both being excellent pieces of their respective genre is, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a.k.a. Blade Runner. I read the book about 2 years ago and thought it was brilliant. To the friend who originally introduced me to Blade Runner, I could only say, “Go read the book right now! If you love the movie, you will also love the book, even though it is very different from the movie.” I can’t think of another work that pulled this off as well in my own viewing / reading experience.

    P.S. If you are interested at all in the book I mention above, you can download it for free from my website.

  31. Christa S

    I didn’t hear Olsen’s lecture, but I’ve been thinking about this topic the last few days. Growing up I always thought the book versions where always better then the movie versions. Now I’ve seen some exceptions to this, and I realize that beyond the medium being used – stories have magic in them. The better authors and filemakers are able to tell a story in a way that gives it life. When stories cross between mediums the contrast can help reveal the ability of the storyteller to give life to the story.

    The Princess Bride came to mind first as I’ve loved both book and movie versions. Both were able to deliver the story in a manner that was captivating and wonderful.

    I then thought of Narnia. I grew up in Narnia; when the most recent The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe came out, I marveled at personality it gave to the story – what changes were made were forgivable because of the wonder the movie was able to express. When I saw Prince Caspian I fummed at the changes and how they killed the magic of the story. I was less horrified at Voyage of the Dawn Treader (which had more to do with Lost or Pirates of the Caribbean then Narnia) simply because I did not expect much. The old BBC version of Narnia stayed truer to the books, but did not have the cinematic magic to make them good movies.

    The stories of Sherlock also came to mind. Both of the more recent shows Sherlock and Elementary take great liberties with the original written stories. Yet both in thier own way have been masterful in thier skill at storytelling.

    I think those who adapt stories into different mediums have the freedom to take liberties with the stories, but to do it well they need to have the skill to allow the magic of the story to come out. Whether it gives depth to the original story or creates a new story entirely are both justifiable results.

  32. Esther O'Reilly

    I would have had a lot more patience with the new BBC Sherlock if they had left all the “not that there’s anything wrong with that” jokes out of it, as well as not trashing the characters of Irene and Moriarty. Still, where Cumber-Freeman goes, I go.

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