In a recent episode of Folding Ideas, the paper-built host discusses the problems faced by film adaptations using the Sci-Fi channel’s adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series as an example of an adaptation gone horribly awry. I’ve decided to steal my title from that episode. There’s no argument that Sci-Fi’s Earthsea is an abomination unto man, but thinking on that particular travesty makes me wonder whether book adaptations are really worth it all. That question came to a head when I (finally) watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night and spent most of the running time completely baffled by the choices Peter Jackson & co. made. This touches on a conversation I’ve repeatedly had with a good friend of mine every time we wander onto the topic of the latest book-to-film, most often HBO’s Game of Thrones series.
Mainly, why do we want book adaptations? Why does every popular book these days have to expand into a franchise with, at least, the holy three media covered: the novel, the comic book, and a film/television version? The Hunger Games and Twilight became films alarmingly quickly when compared to other projects. This feels like the transformation of a story into a commodity, rather than letting the story just be a story—shades of what Alberto Manguel sees as a major problem in the publishing industry.
Recently, I’ve found it hard to muster enthusiasm for film adaptations of books I like. You could even say I’m sick of ‘em. There’s some I wish I’d never seen, Earthsea being one. I have to reconcile that with the fact that some of my favourite movies and shows are adaptations, and close ones at that: Hogfather, Stardust, Game of Thrones, even The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series based on Pride and Prejudice. I really loved Hogfather, the book, yet I’ve watched Hogfather, the film, far more times than I’ve read the former, and beyond clear respect (even love) for the source material shown on screen it’s hard to say why.
These are all rare exceptions, though. More often, we get something like Disney’s The Black Cauldron, which might share a name with one of Lloyd Alexander’s books but little else. The parallels between that animated feature and Earthsea are many.
There’s a scene in Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword where the characters argue over a stage adaptation of the book-within-a-book, The Swordsman Whose Name was not Death, which demonstrates the only major benefit I’ve found to adaptations: generating discussions, and bringing more folk to a well-liked novel. Nothing really sets a bookish person off into an extended conversation than bringing up the film adaptation of a book they like—unless the only reaction is a withering cry of despair.
Which brings me to The Hobbit. My copy of the novel barely scratches over two hundred pages. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films and nearly three hours long at that. This would be the one chance we’d ever see of a direct, word-for-word adaptation/illustration of a novel, something that I’ve never actually seen done before despite so many cries that such an approach would make a terrible movie.
Jackson & Co. didn’t do this. There are exactly two scenes that really capture what was in the book—the troll scene, and the riddle-game with Gollum. Those are the only points where I really found myself full-on enjoying the film. Everywhere else, there are additions to the story which all feel woefully out-of-place; even taken as a film the addition of “big bad” Azog, Radagast, the Necromancer and the White Council all feel like muddled side-shows when we’re mainly interested in Bilbo Baggins, the every-man. It was predictable, to some extent, though the changes felt even more egregious than Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers in that you could have left them out without changing the story one whit. If you’re going to devote so much screen time to inventions, at least make them good ones.[*]
I should’ve seen this coming. I haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings films in years, to the point where they’ve faded from memory. All that upset me in those came back here, but amplified to an even greater degree. That’s the main problem with adaptations, I’m far more likely to get annoyed at how they mangled the story than impressed, and the memory can actually harm my memories of the book itself. Whereas a bad movie with an original screenplay is a bad movie I can just forget about entirely.
So I’m not to keen on wanting books to become films anymore. One, there’s an underlying assumption that the story would somehow be better on film (going the Orson Wells direction that film is a superior means of conveying narrative than text), which has never been the case if you’re a book-lover in the first place. Two, and deriving from that, there just doesn’t seem much point. A story well told is a story well told, and while retellings are interesting, there’s no guarantee they’ll be better. Once, I thought Dune would make a nifty movie. Now that I’ve seen David Lynch’s almost gloriously bad attempt to do just that, and the Sci-Fi channel’s rather sad second go at the material, I have no desire to see it done again.
Most importantly, some have bandied about the idea that Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books would make a killer series of films.
To which I respond: No.
That’s not something I want to see at all. For all the reasons mentioned above.
[*] I understand, too, that had the LOTR movies been made to my liking they wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. There isn’t much incentive to make a faithful adaptation because fans of the book will see your movie anyway; it’s everyone else you’re trying to get into the theatre. If it is a direct adaptation, then translation to a different medium just gets a “hmmm, that’s nice” reaction from jaded readers anyhow.