Literary infidels

Scooter explains why movies so often part dramatic company from the story of the book upon which they are nominally based:

Poor Tolkien – he thought Hollywood just misperceived his intentions. What Hitchcock so frankly reveals is that filmmakers do not necessarily fail to apprehend ‘where the core of the original lies’; they aren’t even trying to apprehend it in the first place! By and large, they do not aim to be faithful. They are literary infidels – and they aren’t the only one.

Shakespeare famously borrowed plots — Hamlet was based on 12th century author Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”). In Saxo’s version, Hamlet lives, and goes off to other adventures. Shakespeare, of course, opted for a slightly more downbeat ending.

‘Hey man’, an arrogant film director might say, ‘If Shakespeare borrowed plots and even changed them around too, what’s so wrong with that? Why can’t I add a little elf-dwarf romance to The Hobbit?’

First, because he is Shakespeare and you, Mr. Filmmaker, are not. Have a little humility. Yes, you can put your stamp on the material, just don’t stamp on it with your Orwellian boot; it’s not a face to be kicked in.

Second, because while in the process of adaptation you may end up borrowing plots, characters, and on rare occasions even the mysterious original ‘core’ of the material, what you are really wanting to borrow is the built-in fanbase of the book.

This is precisely why I have turned down multiple inquiries about acquiring the film options on my books. I have no interest in seeing Hollywood do its usual number on them. From Lloyd Alexander and Frank Herbert to Susan Cooper, CS Lewis, and JRR Tolkien, I have seen Hollywood repeatedly botch the translation and re-telling some of my most-cherished books. Whether it is small or large, I’m not going to let them borrow my base; if the visual editions are going to be made, then I will make them myself one day.

While I very much enjoyed seeing The Lord of the Rings and appreciated how Peter Jackson brought Middle Earth to visual life, I failed to place sufficient importance on was an observation of Spacebunny’s concerning the way in which Jackson insisted on showing what Tolkien had only implied. That minor element only expanded over time, until Jackson’s story entirely took over Tolkien’s.

The one exception that merits being pointed out is A Game of Thrones, which despite its occasional flaws bids fair to surpass the books of A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps as soon as this coming season. Of course, there GRR Martin appears to have done Hollywood the service of ruining his books in advance with his own sequels, so it could be a matter of a better choice of medium – the miniseries rather than the movies – or perhaps it is merely a matter of lowered expectations.