Margaret Graton | 20 Feb 2017
For literature lovers, the news that a treasured book will soon become a film is always a double-edged sword. We’re simultaneously thrilled to experience the book’s setting, plot, and characters onscreen while afraid that the film won’t meet our expectations. Fantasy and YA fans might fearfully recall “bad” adaptations like the Eragon movie, where the plot underwent so many edits that adaptations of the following books became impossible. However, for every “bad” adaptation, there are plenty of movies that fans defend loyally, even in cases where the adaptation strays from the book.
It’s probably true that there have always been bibliophiles wary of film adaptations of literature, complaining that they’re never as good as the book. Richard Stam writes that using the word “unfaithful” for an adaption vocalizes our disappointment when we think the film “fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source,” making the adaptation therefore not as worthy as the book (54). When our experience and understanding of the book has not been adequately captured by someone else’s interpretation, we often see the adaptation as a betrayal. Betrayal is not the only word that comes to mind either; books that have been adapted tend to be seen as victims of violence, of censorship, or of other edits, misreadings, and omissions that do not do the story or author justice. When there’s a bad interpretation, or film adaptation, we’re tempted to ask if we even read the same book as the directors, screenwriters, and producers. This criticism can come from a belief that other readers will have formed the same interpretation of the book as we did, but this is rarely completely true, as a turn to the filmic adaptations of Tolkien’s worlds can show.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, with their eleven Oscars and obvious monetary success, were not without their faults (like, for example, Arwen’s inflated role and the appearance of the elves in the fight at Helm’s Deep). During production, the critics were vocal, and people were worried that the movies wouldn’t live up to Tolkien’s vision and legacy. After the films proved a success, many expected that Jackson would direct The Hobbit; however, fan apprehension regarding this choice began with the announcement of three Hobbit films, and it hasn’t ended with the film release. In fan forums, on news sites, and at fan conventions, both praise and criticism flowed deep and wide on a variety of topics: for the character of Tauriel (and her subsequent romance), for the screen time (or lack thereof) allotted to certain scenes, and for the focus on the battle elements and CGI that Jackson is famous for. Some lamented that it didn’t even “feel” like Tolkien, yet others thought Jackson had yet again perfected Middle-earth. Interestingly, in this mix, some of the same fans now criticizing The Hobbit films staunchly defended the LotR films, sometimes in the same sentence.
Tolkien was himself always wary of a film adaptation of his works, especially since these works began as such a private venture for himself. Personal elements, like his languages and the influence of his children in the case of The Hobbit, run through these works. In his essay “On Fairy-stories”, Tolkien explains that “drama is naturally hostile to fantasy,” that readers might have an original image they associate with literature, and that drama limits that image. Allison Harl further probes this idea through the thematic elements of the film, arguing that “the filmmaker imposes his singular form onto the readers’ multifarious imaginations. Because Tolkien’s central theme in The Lord of the Rings centers on the destructive nature of an evil power that seeks to dominate ‘things and wills,’ it could be argued that the text has been more than just perverted in a film adaptation; indeed, in many ways, Tolkien’s narrative purposes have been overthrown” (67). In this sense, Harl takes the argument beyond a single reader’s understanding and into the realm of an actual betrayal of the text; any film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, even done exceedingly well, would in this context be a violent act, comprising the destruction of Middle-earth.
Unavoidably, however, the filmic betrayal against fantasy depends on thinking of literature as the superior medium. This betrayal need not always be true, especially if we avoid the dangers of thinking that literature will always be better than film. One medium may feel more like home than another; we may prefer our image and interpretation over the illustrator’s, producer’s, and director’s. We can enjoy someone else’s vision and use it as a platform for creative and literary criticism. However, the language of betrayal and disappointment still stands: if the theme and message of the book can be so easily violated, then filmmakers need to take note and act accordingly.
A transplanted Georgia peach, Margaret is working on an MSc in comparative literature; her research interests include translation, fantasy and magical realism, and ecocriticism. When she’s not studying, she might be found hill walking, baking, or let’s face it, buried in a book in any of the wonderful Edinburgh coffee shops.
Edited by Dominic Hale and Ryan Edwards.
Harl, Allison. “The Monstrosity of the Gaze: Critical Problems with a Film Adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.” Mythlore 25.3/4 (2007): 61-69. Humanities International Complete. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation, edited by J. Naremore, Athlone, 2000, pp. 54-76.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2006.