Adaptation vs. Transformation – Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Experiment

So we’ve seen the first Hobbit film. What now? Lovers of Tolkien’s world were warned a couple of years ago that material was going to be added to the movies (originally two, now three), based on additional Middle-earth lore, primarily from The Silmarillion. The movie met those expectations and now many of us have firsthand experience of the fact that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is, in many ways, not Tolkien’s. Does that make it bad?

Anytime I ever talk about the problems of adapting books to film I begin with C. S. Lewis who said, “you cannot judge any artefact except by using it as it was intended. It is no good judging a butter-knife by seeing whether it will saw logs.” [1] Lewis was speaking about literature specifically but art in general. Lewis additionally said, “Every art is itself and not some other art.”  One of the common critiques about movie adaptation is that “the book was better.” [2] We’ve all said this, but English teachers like myself and other book lovers are notorious for snubbing film—for seeing it as eternally inferior to literature. I think this comes, among other things, from trying to judge movies as if they were books, failing to realize as Lewis did that movies are movies, not some other art. Movies are not books; they do things differently and should be judged accordingly.

But even if we do separate film from literature and judge it by its own merit, there comes that particular instance where the two are intertwined in the form of adaptation. Stories have been adapted from literature to movies since film began, and it’s only natural to compare the film version to the book. In such cases we still tend to say “the book was better.” To break myself of this knee jerk reaction to book adaptations I spent some time studying film and trying to consider what film does different from and better than books. The things books can do better—more plot elements, inner dialog, more character development—are obvious. Films, however, do certain things better than books: they compress time; they communicate imagistically, aurally, experientially; they communicate intuitively; and they communicate in a medium which the viewer can ignore (no need to translate letters into words, sentences and paragraphs when watching a movie—it’s all right there for you; in other words, film achieves what critics call the “illusion of non-mediation”). My point is that, even when we judge a film adaptation, we still have to judge it as a film.

The key word is adapt. Film must convert books—adapt them into a new medium. The film will not be the book, and it never will (save for coming close in one of those ten hour PBS renditions of an Austen or Bronte novel). And so if we acknowledge that books and movies are different, we have to judge a film adaptation as just that—an adaptation of the book, not the book itself. The book must inform my judgment, but it shouldn’t limit it. Some critic somewhere invented a term we all know, and it’s a good one: “faithful adaptation.” Here we have a good way to judge a film. Since it has to adapt the book, the film calls us not to ask which was better but to ask whether or not the adaptation is faithful to the original. What then constitutes a faithful adaptation?

First of all, the movie adaptation has to be a good film. Some adaptations are so faithful that they become dull (like the PBS examples I mentioned above). Secondly, the movie has to keep the major elements of the book’s plot, character, and tone intact. When film makers change the plot too much, viewers wonder why they bothered to call the movie by the same title as the book. Troy was okay as a summer blockbuster, but it was a bad adaptation of the original Trojan stories because of plot changes: the elimination of supernatural presences—the gods—and the killing of Menolaus (who actually gets Helen back and is one of the few Greek heroes to survive the war). For those of us who knew the original story, Troy was a bad adaptation (seeing Menolaus die ruined the movie for me), but people who did not know the original story saw an entertaining movie.

In contrast, though The Lord of the Rings films make a lot of changes (to Frodo’s age or the characters of Aragorn and Faramir) and leave out a lot of plot elements (Tom Bombadil or the scouring of the Shire), their overall faithfulness to the books (again, so long as I grant that books and movies aren’t the same thing), especially in the extended editions, is good. The LotR films are good adaptations and good movies both!

Doubtless there are people who will disagree with me—that’s pretty typical for criticism in any art form. But I hope I can save some readers from forever hating the movie versions of their favorite books by encouraging them to think in terms of film being film, not literature, and adaptations being faithful, not word for word. I think it’s even a good exercise to try to think about in what ways a film adaptation proves to be better than its literary original. Tolkien only gives a few pages to the battle of Helms Deep. I think Jackson did it better. And I think the film version of Gollum’s fall into the fires of Mount Doom gives us something absolutely amazing, something Tolkien doesn’t give us: that look on Smeagol’s face as he falls to his death—that utter euphoria at having the ring even though he’s about to die. This computer generated creature’s facial expression communicated as much about Gollum’s addiction to the ring in a single cinematic moment as Tolkien did in two book’s worth of pages (and maybe more).

But with Jackson’s new Hobbit movie we get something different. In terms of “faithful adaptation” he has violated my suggested rule of not altering the plot and tone too much. We might argue that, since Jackson is using Tolkien’s own material, he is not altering, only adapting. The Hobbit’s own history suggests some ways in which this argument is both true and false.

According to John D. Rateliff in his massive History of the Hobbit, Tolkien began an extensive rewrite of The Hobbit in 1960 in order to make it more consistent in plot and tone with The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff notes that “much of the wording of the original book remains, yet the tone is greatly altered.” [3] The narrator’s voice is “muted” and characters are changed—even Bilbo is “made more foolish.” [4]  These are just a sampling of the changes made, but then Tolkien abandoned the revision. At a certain point in the project, Tolkien,

loaned the [revision] material to a friend to get an outside opinion on it. We do not know this person’s identity, but apparently her response was something along the lines of ‘this is wonderful, but it’s not The Hobbit’. She must have been someone whose judgment Tolkien respected, for he abandoned the work and decided to let The Hobbit retain its own autonomy and voice rather than completely incorporate it into The Lord of the Rings as a lesser ‘prelude’ to the greater work. When he briefly returned to it in 1965 for the third edition revisions, he restricted himself in the main to the correction of errors and egregious departures from Middle-earth as it had developed…and left matters of style and tone alone. [5]

Here’s what I want to suggest: that by bringing in additional material related to The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has given in to the temptation which almost took Tolkien. Jackson’s Hobbit is not Tolkien’s. He is turning it from a children’s fairy-tale into an adult fantasy epic. But is it possible, to paraphrase Tolkien’s friend, that, though it is not The Hobbit, Jackson’s version might yet be wonderful? I’m not suggesting Tolkien would have approved. I’m suggesting Jackson is doing the thing that Tolkien started to do, and what may result, if not a faithful adaptation, could still be a good set of movies.

There are certainly things I didn’t like about the first Hobbit film: Christopher Lee’s acting was flat, and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond lacked a certain seriousness of command, a gravitas which he possessed in the LotR movies. Some of the action sequences were too unrealistic, even for a fantasy film (swaying on rock giant knees and the falling scaffold in the flight from the goblins). Tolkien would’ve probably been unhappy with the fact that Bilbo fights, being particular about his not doing so in The Hobbit.

I could list other things I don’t like, but there’s much that I did. And to go ahead and put all my cards on the table, I liked the additional material. I liked seeing Galadriel again, I liked Thorin having an Orc nemesis on his heels, I liked the transformation of Tolkien’s children’s tale into something with epic scope. I loved the opening sequence—seeing Erebor and Smaug’s attack—it was cinematically stunning. Perhaps I am just too much in love with Middle-earth and want to see as much of it as I can. Perhaps I am also putting a great deal of faith in Peter Jackson to continue to draw his material from Tolkien’s original sources. And of course, the next two movies are needed to complete the story and complete any critique of it. This, therefore, is only my preliminary conclusion: I liked the first Hobbit film. It was not Tolkien’s Hobbit. But it was wonderful.

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Dr. Charlie W. Starr is a Professor of English and Humanities and Chair of the Humanities Program at Kentucky Christian University. He is the author five books, most recently, Light: C. S. Lewis’s First and Final Short Story (Winged Lion, 2012).
[1] C. S. Lewis. “Christianity and Culture.” C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. London: Harper Collins, 2000. 90.
[2] Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge UP, 1961. 28.
[3] John D. Rateliff. The History of The Hobbit: Part Two: Return to Bag-End. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 780.
[4] Ibid, 781.
[5] Ibid, 811-12.

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