I think we need to have a conversation about adaptations.
What filmmakers tend to get wrong is what adaptations really are. When a book is being made into a movie, I truly do believe production teams try their best to be faithful to the book as best as they can until they either realize they are way too in over their heads or the studio doesn’t like the source material. The easy thinking of adaptation is to use the action, dialogue, and settings in each chapter, put it in a screenplay, take out some lines, add a couple more, cross off story points that are too long or random, shoot film, cut, boom we got a movie.
We need to begin with our own source material: the word adaptation – to adapt. Let’s look at the first definition with the help of our friend Merriam Webster:
Adaptation – noun
1 : something that is adapted
a new adaptation of an old recipe
specifically : a composition rewritten into a new form
a screen adaptation of a novel
The first definition is what we just talked about. That simple word rewritten turns a good book to a bad movie (and vice versa). It’s just not as simple as “rewriting” a book to be a movie. Let’s look at the second and third definition:
2 : the act or process of adapting
a process undergoing adaptation
: the state of being adapted
adaptation to changing circumstances
3 : adjustment to environmental conditions…
The words I highlighted are very important. Adaptation is the act of changing circumstances….to adjust to environmental conditions!
It’s winter time, and you’re going out to meet friends. You see your favorite blue t-shirt but you know it’s in the low 20’s. You love that blue t-shirt so much that you want to wear it regardless, but you can’t just wear the t-shirt, some sort of pants, and call it day? So what do you do? The film industries answer is sewing sleeves onto the shirt and applauding each other for it. Sleeves are important to winter, makes sense. So now you have your favorite shirt with sleeves, you go outside and…you immediately go back indoors if you’re wise. Or you can go out and freeze to death! Obviously what hypothetical you was missing was a winter coat, gloves, a scarf, a hat, maybe even a second pair of socks. The thing is, you could have put on all of that and still have worn your favorite blue t-shirt.
Film and Novels are two different media, and each one of them calls for different conditions. These conditions are the gears and wheels that makes a book a book and a film a film. They need to be changed and translated to fit the new medium correctly. Lord of the Rings does this right. Just to finish off this segment, let’s read the rest of third definition of adaptation:
3 : adjustment to environmental conditions such as
a : adjustment of a sense organ to the intensity or quality of stimulation
b : modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment : a heritable physical or behavioral trait that serves a specific function and improves an organism’s fitness or survival.
So why is Lord of the Rings hard to adapt?
If Lord of the Rings was adapted cover to cover, it would become one of the worst films of all time, and that’s because the focus of the book is so vastly different from the focus of the movie. It has to be different, it has to adapt to the new environment otherwise it will wither into nothing. The same can be said vice versa, if the Lord of the Rings movie was adapted into a book, it would be horrible.
Lets look at the gears and conditions of books and movies. A book has more mobility than a movie. You can take a 300 page book with you anywhere you want and read it whenever you want. Of course you can watch a movie anytime you want now with smartphones, but the experience of a movie is different from a book. Books take much longer to digest, and can be stopped and picked up wherever and whenever, which is something the medium allows. Though you can pause a movie, pausing it for the day then picking it up the next day defeats the purpose. A film wants you to sit down and watch the whole thing in one sitting, while a book allows the audience to take a breath (though some people certainly plow through books like they are movies, this is not the standard for book readings).
When it comes to a picture, a book can get away with long paragraphs describing mountains and denizens, but a film cannot. The action in films are dictated through camera shots and dialogue, while the action of a book is dictated through paragraphs and narrative. Action driven movies that move the plot look good and do well, and that is exactly what Peter Jackson does. In their video on the differences between The Fellowship of the Ring movie and book, Cinefix states:
These cuts [in the movie] aren’t strictly edits to the narrative, these cuts, instead seem to shift the focus of the narrative from the journey being long and arduous in the book to the immediate danger posed by the ring in the movie…it’s not leaving the safety of the shire that imperils our heroes, it’s the ring, and the urgency with which it must be moved to Rivendale that drives the action.” (Cinefix, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings – What’s the Difference?)
The keyword in this quote is urgency. As we discuss further into the books and movies you will see how little urgency Tolkien put into the original work, and how much Jackson had to flesh out in order to make it a good movie.
I think the thing that is trickiest is adapting the reason why a book is so special in the first place, and Lord of the Rings captures this perfectly. The Lord of the Rings novels were groundbreaking and genre defining for the literary world, and so were the films. Tolkien wrote so much about this world that it feels real. If you watch the behind the scene movies to the Lord of the Rings films, you’ll notice how the entire film production poured so much love and sweat into the movie that they truly made Middle-Earth real. People travel to New Zealand and tour the Hobbiton set as a vacation. There is a Youtube series about two LOTR fans walking from that set to the mountain the movie used as their Modor location (click here to watch). It’s mythos is just as large and in-depth as Greek or Roman myth. To be fair, Tolkien wrote all of these books to become a mythology for England.
For our next post, we will hop straight into this world that I and many others love so much, going right from Bilbo’s Big Birthday Bash and ending it with a rest at Rivendell. I hope you join our next adventure in this corner of the bookshelf, because this corner certainly enjoys your company.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126392958@N03/