In response to my “trolling” on Facebook, my friend Katherine Sas published a post on her blog Raving Sanity in which she discusses why some film adaptations fail even though they seem to superficially resemble the book. In “A Series of Uncorrelated Events,” she notes that adaptations can sometimes get bogged down in trying to convey the details of the source material without paying sufficient attention to the story in the film (a “paint by the numbers” adaptation). Although I generally agree with her argument, I think it worthwhile to look more closely at the different types and range of adaptation choices.
Before going further, let me clarify that I do not intend to engage in a debate with Kat Sas about the Watership Down adaptation. I enjoyed the novel and thought the movie was passable, but truthfully do not feel particularly well versed in either. Rather than pretend to be an expert on that story, I will engage with her analysis of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium.
Counting Phaser Shots…
I have a confession to make. All else equal, I prefer movie and television as a storytelling medium to books. Film fuses multiple types of art to tell a story, including the acting, set design, music, special effects, and, of course, writing. Three of my favorite films – Blade Runner, The Godfather, and Jurassic Park – are adaptations of novels. Even worse, I like those movies better than their respective books.
Unfortunately, all else is not equal. Film productions face numerous storytelling constraints that authors can ignore. In most cases, the only cost of writing a novel is the author’s time (and, when published, marketing). On the other hand, studios must pay for actors, sets, special effects, etc. Former Star Trek staff writer Ronald D. Moore recalls that writers would have to count the number of phaser shots in each episode to make sure they fell within the budget.
In order to recoup those costs, movies and TV shows must make lots of money. This limits the length of the story. For movies, studios and cinemas want to sell tickets. A 2-hour film can be shown more times in a single day than a 4-hour film. For TV, most networks block shows in hours and sell time to advertisers. The less time for storytelling, the more time for commercials. By contrast, the only limit on a book’s length is what publishers think readers want to read (George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books regularly run over 800 pages).
Because of the economics of film, books cannot be adapted word-for-word. Much of the adaptation process is driven by necessity. One of the first questions a screenwriter confronts when adapting a novel is how to condense the story. Some plot points and characters will have go. A filmmaker might also realize that the world-buidling in the source material is too complex to fit within a 2-3 hour film, and thus might omit some terminology or context. Failure to do so will prevent audiences from becoming immersed in the subcreation (see David Lynch’s Dune).
Nicholas Meyer, writer and director for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, claims that “art thrives on restrictions,” and the contrast between Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies proves his point. In comparing the adaptation process for the two trilogies, I think the biggest difference is that the former seems was driven largely by necessity whereas the latter was driven by a desire to tell an epic story. In adapting LOTR, the creative team had to condense a 1,200+ page novel into three 3-hour movies. This forced Jackson and company to be more deliberate in their adaptation choices.
Jackson and company could not have done a pure “paint by the numbers” adaptation even if they’d wanted to. Even if Tom Bombadil were universally popular (and he’s not), his character would always have been a prime candidate for removal because his scenes are not integral to the story. Unlike a novel, which can have a long denouement, moviegoers expect a fairly quick resolution to the story after the climactic conflict. Even if Jackson liked the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter from the book (and he’s said he doesn’t), it would have dragged out the ending of The Return of the King (even this did not stop Jack Nicholson from complaining, “Too many endings, man.”).
In writing the screenplays for LOTR, Jackson made few changes to the basic structure of the story. A one-page synopsis of each film would be nearly identical to a one-page synopsis of each book. The movies generally capture the epic nature of the book and evoke similar emotions. Rivendell feels like an ethereal place of rest; Gollum is both repulsive and pitiable; the Battle of Pelannor Fields feels like an epic last charge; etc. The LOTR films are not a “paint by the numbers” adaptation, but are perhaps a “CliffsNotes” adaptation, in which the film follows the source material to the extent it can do so given the limitations of film.
Adaptation Through Zombification…
This is most assuredly not the case with The Hobbit trilogy. Jackson and company faced far fewer constraints in making the prequels. The Hobbit is a shorter, less complex book than LOTR, yet the filmmakers had the same amount of screen time in which to tell their story. Moreover, the studio increased the budgets for the films; even accounting for inflation, the budget for the first Hobbit film was double that of the first LOTR film. Had Jackson wanted to, he could have done a “paint by the numbers” adaptation. Indeed, Kat Sas even notes, “virtually every scene from The Hobbit novel [is] included.”
Instead, the Hobbit adaptation process was largely additive, in that it added materials or characters to make it fit the style and tone of LOTR. However, without the pressure of restrictions, it appears the writers did less to justify why each scene was necessary for the story. With around 12 hours to tell the story, why not include virtually every scene? Sometimes this means including scenes from the book that do little to advance the story told in the film. At times, the film seems unsure how to integrate some of The Hobbit‘s lighthearted moments into Jackson’s more epic take on the story. At worst, the movie distorts key scenes from the book beyond recognition.
This is adaptation through zombification, in which scenes superficially cover the same plot points as the book, but differ wildly in context, spirit, or tone. Even if the plot is the same, changing the tone of a scene can drastically alter its meaning. Emil Johansson of the LOTR Project has used statistical sentiment analysis to map the tone of each page of Tolkien’s books. There is a pretty clear overlap between the tones of the LOTR films and books, but much less so for The Hobbit films and book. This becomes especially problematic when changing the tone or context of the scene undermines the very raison d’être for that scene in the first place.
For example, in the novel, Thorin’s company goes to Rivendell for a respite from all of the action and adventure. It is a place for the characters – and the story – to breathe. A good story needs to balance moments of excitement or peak emotion with relaxed states. But in An Unexpected Journey, Rivendell is not portrayed as a place of refuge. The dwarves are greeted by an armed company of Elves and flee for fear that Saruman will prevent them from fulfilling their quest. Aside from the banquet, the mood is quite tense. Without that breather, the film – unlike the book – becomes a blur of action and fighting such that by the end I had become nearly numb to the tension.
book!Rivendell also introduces Bilbo (and vicariously the readers) to the Elves, showing that they are fundamentally good-hearted and noble. This becomes important later when the Woodland Elves imprison Bilbo. It’s easier for readers to accept that the Woodland Elves and King Thranduil are not mere villains because we’ve already witnessed the nobility of Elves. By contrast, one could be forgiven for thinking that all film!Elves are obnoxious jerks. Frankly, one wonders why film!Bilbo would have wanted to retire in Rivendell after his 111th birthday.
The Director Who Never Read the Book…
There seems to be an expectation that film adaptations of novels should innovate and find a new way to tell the story. Kat Sas credits The Hobbit films with at least trying “to bring something new and creative.” However, this type of innovation might not be equally suited to all types of books. Some books become beloved for their philosophical or social commentary. The characters and plot exist primarily to service those Big Ideas™. Readers who enjoy Asimov or Clarke’s science fiction typically do so for their visions of technology or alien life, not for their characters. In adapting such works, it might make sense for the filmmaker to radically alter the text so as to better explore those ideas on film, or to engage with those ideas in a new way.
Philip K. Dick’s stories have become popular in Hollywood for precisely this reason (he has 23 writer’s credits on IMDB, and more on the way). Dick’s books rarely focus on plot details or character development, and instead explore Big Ideas™ such as the nature of reality and humanity. Blade Runner demonstrates how innovative adaptation can enhance the themes of source material despite major changes to the plot. Ironically, director Ridley Scott never even read Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? Despite this, he latched onto the theme of human empathy and pushed it in new directions. It’s notable that Philip K. Dick fans generally do not bemoan the changes to Rick Deckard’s character, but rather regret that the film did not include other thematic elements, such as the religion of Mercerism.
Tolkien’s works present a different type of adaptation challenge. Tolkien’s works engage with important religious and philosophical themes, but the stories are very much concerned with plot and characters. Tolkien infamously describes minuscule geographical details and wrote hundreds of pages of text detailing the traditions and languages of the peoples of Middle-earth. Detail matters. How many other best-selling novels come with appendices? Readers who love The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings typically do so because they love the characters or the plot. As such, it becomes far more important for a film adaptation to engage seriously with those details and think about how they work within the larger story.
This is why the radical changes to the plot of The Hobbit bothered so many fans. Most viewers who go to a Hobbit movie want to see Thorin’s quest realized on the big screen. However, by The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson’s additions to the story, particularly Tauriel the Elf and the expanded Dol Guldur scenes, started to draw attention away from Thorin and company. Moreover, these additions sometimes conflicted with the parts of the film more closely rooted in the novel. Even small changes can have a big impact in a story as tightly structured as Tolkien’s original Hobbit novel and can have important knock-on effects.
To take one seemingly small change in the films. At the end of Desolation of Smaug, Thorin left four Dwarves behind in Laketown. This change didn’t revolutionize the story as those Dwarves did little in the latter half of the book. It did open up some interesting possibilities. Perhaps those Dwarves would be more sympathetic to the plight of Laketown, especially because Bard saves them from Smaug? Perhaps Kili would speak up for the Elves, given that he had fallen in love with Tauriel?
Nope. When the Dwarves return to Thorin’s company in The Battle of the Five Armies, they fade back into the crowd. They join the other Dwarves at the gates of Erebor and cheer Thorin on as he spurns Bard’s request for a share of the treasure. They never once argue that Thorin should share the gold. Nor do they express any ill will over the fact that Thorin abandoned them in Laketown. Seeing the lack of character growth for those Dwarves, it became harder for me as a viewer to care about them. The film pulled on one piece of threat without considering how it connected with the larger tapestry, undermining the entire work.
More Than Painting Numbers…
If I had my choice, I would always prefer a good film adaptation over a bad film adaptation. However, if I had to choose between a mediocre “paint by the numbers” film adaptation and a mediocre adaptation that did “something new and creative,” all else equal I would always choose the former. Why? Because film adaptations are more than simply the translation of a book’s plot to the big screen. Filmmakers must decide upon the look and sound of the subcreation. There are potentially many more aspects of a film adaptation to enjoy than simply the way it conveys the plot.
Even if the the screenplay of a film adaptation fails to convey the essence of the source material, it can provide memorable audiovisual representations of the characters and locales. No matter how well written, Jurassic Park the novel simply cannot evoke the sheer wonder of actually seeing dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film. Sometimes, even lousy film adaptations can produce an image or soundtrack that speaks to the emotions of a story. For example, Kat Sas rightly criticizes the pacing of the first two Harry Potter films, but John Williams’ soundtrack gave the films an ambiance of magic.
Peter Jackson’s films generally excel in their audio and visual representations of Middle-earth. The films are a visual feast. New Zealand looks beautiful on screen as Middle-earth. Jackson chose great actors to play the characters. I for one have trouble imagining anybody but Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Even in The Hobbit films, I have no problem seeing Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and the depictions of the Shire, Goblin Town, and Laketown have become my definitive visual references of those locations.
However, in departing so much from the book, the Hobbit films also undermined my ability to appreciate the audiovisual aspects of the adaptations. For one, Howard Shore’s soundtrack is much too ominous and brooding for the story told in the book. I cannot listen to the soundtrack while reading The Hobbit, which is a shame because I always listen to Shore’s LOTR soundtrack when rereading those books (Graham Plowman’s The Hobbit score does a better job at capturing the feel of the book). To be clear, this not Howard Shore’s fault; his soundtrack fits the tone and content of the films. I simply use this to illustrate yet another risk of deviating significantly from the source material.
To Adapt, or Not To Adapt?
I hope I do not come across as overly critical of film adaptations that differ from the source material. When it comes to adaptations, I am not a purist. However, I think it is important to consider when and why changes to the source material are warranted. Some change is necessary because of the differences between film and print as storytelling media. I also think deviations make more sense when the source material focuses on exploring a concept or Big Idea™.
That said, I suggest that erring on the side of a “paint by the numbers” – or “Cliffs Notes” – adaptation is the lesser evil when adapting a work focused on characters or plot. I am particularly wary of adaptations that incorporate plot or scenes from the source material but deviate drastically from the tone or spirit of the original story (“zombification”). After all, if a filmmaker really wants to tell a different story, he or she is perfectly free to do so. Some of the greatest films, from Star Wars to Pan’s Labyrinth, have taken inspiration from great works of literature without actually attempting to adapt them.