On adaptation

Someone I follow on Twitter (whose account is locked, so I won’t quote them or call them by name, I hope that’s OK) was complaining about a recent adaptation. Again, I’ll be vague, but basically they were annoyed that the adaptation didn’t really bring anything new to the table. I think that’s worth thinking about some more, as I basically agree.

The original person’s point was specifically that the adaptation was so close to the original that it was sort of useless. That is, the original thing was so influential in its field that a very accurate adaptation ended up using all the things that are kind of tired in the genre.

That is, I think, one of the perennial problems in adaptations, whether the original was influential or not. Basically, if you do a really careful, “accurate” adaptation, it’s boring if the audience is familiar with the original. There’s a certain pleasure just in seeing it, if it’s a movie or show, certainly. I won’t deny that. I’m enjoying The Ancient Magus’ Bride, for instance, and I don’t think it’s doing a lot that’s not just “animating the comic.” Of course, it’s also been a few years since I read most of the comic, so it’s a bit like re-reading it.

The reason this is complicated for something like a film is that “adaptation” has always been the way filmmakers get their stuff. A lot of the “important” films in film history were adaptations, like Birth of a Nation (shudder), Dracula, or Frankenstein. BoaN and Frankenstein were both adaptations of plays popular at the time. Dracula was, I think, based on the novel. It has just been a fact of filmmaking that movies are based on source material. I couldn’t begin to give you the “real reason” that is. I can speculate: it was probably cheaper, at one time, to adapt something rather than write it fresh. It’s probably still quicker to adapt something than write it fresh, as there wouldn’t be that many stops and starts during the process. So now that licensing fees are a thing, it would still smooth production.

And, naturally, nowadays filmmakers try to adapt popular stuff, so they have an audience already. If you have Amazon Prime but have not looked through the Prime video offerings, you should sometime, just to see exactly how many attempts they’ve made to get something that can compete with Game of Thrones. It’s a lot.

That process, though, leads to some particular issues: the biggest is that a filmmaker doesn’t really want to disappoint the original audience. But they also want to get people to see the movie. Well, you have to promise people that they’ll get it even if they haven’t “read the book.” If the adaptation covers several books, that probably means something is going to get left out.

Is this still the most famous example? I’ll assume it is. Tom Bombadil. A lot of Lord of the Rings fans were disappointed that Bombadil was left out of Jackson’s adaptation. I was, too. I like the character. He’s even important, when you start to consider the theological issues in the novels, because he proves there are powers totally free of the power of Sauron and, in fact, all the Valar. But, as Jackson said, he sort of presents a weird anti-road bump. Why is there this powerful guy in act one who does basically nothing? Plus, he’s a deus ex machina to the first big conflict, anyway. So, uh, he gets cut.

Here, though, is what I’m here to say: adaptations are readings. When a long-suffering literature instructor asks a student to interpret a piece, that means something specific. The student is supposed to say what the piece means, with relevant references to themes from the work. So that’s never a statement of the facts of the piece. Those are the building blocks the interpretation is built of.

So, who cares? Well, all adaptations, loving or crassly commercial, are actually interpretations of the works. That means they’re actually built on readings. If two directors made a film of one book, they’d be different, just because the two directors would have slightly different interpretations of the book’s meaning.

So, back to Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, I am sure, know the theological import of Tolkien’s work. They were and are huge fans of it. However, at some point, consciously or unconsciously, they chose to privilege other themes when they started spitballing ideas for their adaptation. There is very little in the six LotR films that is theological, except where it remains tucked into the back pocket of something else that made it in. Shelob is no longer a reminder that there are evils in the world other than Sauron — which implies that evil will never be vanquished, because it was inadvertently woven into the fabric of the world itself — she is a lynchpin for the failure of Frodo Baggins and a reminder of what still redeems him despite that failure.

If Jackson and Walsh had wanted to make a more theological LotR, they could not have left out Tom Bombadil. It would have ruined the movie, instead of improving it. Bombadil is a reminder that the theological forces in the world are bigger than the war between good and evil. Manwe might have fought Morgoth, but there were other strands than the Valar’s in the world. Iluvatar uses a light touch, but Bombadil may be one of his fingerprints on the world. Bombadil’s earthy ineffability is incredibly important when approaching LotR from the perspective of philosophical, theological, or even ethical meaning.

But he means absolutely nothing to the humanistic pursuit of individual dignity against the forces of homogenization, which is one of the themes the films focus on with gusto.

What about that original example? Remember it? It was the unnamed adaptation that stuck too close to the original? Well, technically, that’s not possible in this model, as any adaptation brings its creator’s ideas in. But, in this model, that adaptation focused on the genre-specific markers in a way that made them more important than the themes of the work.

What’s the difference? Just a matter of perspective, of the way we interpret these things.

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