One Book, Two Movies: A Confession

I did not fall in love with The Lord of the Rings until shortly before the first of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster adaptations was released but, when I fell, I fell hard. By the time they were queuing to see the first film, everyone who knew me knew that I was a fan. That is why some of them were a little reluctant to tell me what they thought. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” admitted a friend without quite meeting my eyes. “How could it just end like that?” She hadn’t read the books so she expected each installment to have its own shape with a satisfying ending but Tolkien didn’t write his books that way. He never meant for them to be published as a trilogy at all and had to grasp for titles for each of the severed pieces of his very long story. (He was not satisfied with the title The Two Towers and over the years fans, too, have expressed confusion over precisely which two towers he meant.)

Fantasy fans tend to be people who love long stories. We buy books that come in sets. We binge watch whole seasons or even multiple seasons of our favorite TV series.  We love sequels, prequels, reboots, extended editions, anything that comes in multiple installments or manifestations. We never want the experience to end and usually grieve when it does. When I learned that the final volume of the Harry Potter novels was going to be adapted into two films, I was relieved but not because I expected this approach to do greater justice to the story. It was because I was not ready to have my last Harry Potter first. Before that, there had been the release of each of the books to look forward to then the films. At the time, Pottermore was nothing but a twinkle in Jo Rowling’s eye and I didn’t expect to have the luxury of visiting the Wizarding World theme park any time soon. (As it turns out, I will be arriving there in a few days but I didn’t know this then.) It felt like something that had been very important to me was coming to an end. I needed something else to look forward to. The wait for Deathly Hallows II was an exquisite one.

The “one book, two movies” trend began with HP 7:2 but it has continued with the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series and with Jackson’s latest Tolkien adaptation, The Hobbit. Ryan Lambie writes about the practice for Den of Geek. He suggests that Peter Jackson proved with The Lord of the Rings that it is possible to effectively convert a generous story into an economical film. “How strange, then,” he continues, “that J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim volume, The Hobbit, is being given the two-movie treatment.”

It does seem strange if one attempts to justify the decision as an artistic one. Why would Jackson deny us the satisfying denouement of “The Scouring of the Shire” then pad The Hobbit with material that Tolkien never saw fit to insert into any edition of the original? Perhaps it is because the trend so far has not been just to adapt any old book in the series into two films but to squeeze an extra two hours out of the last book filmed. The decision is a retroactive one, born of a reluctance to let go of a good thing. If this means squeezing the price of at least one more ticket out of movie-goers—and who are we kidding? True fans see these films in cinemas multiple times—then why should we complain if it prolongs the experience?

Here are a few of the things more time tacked onto the end of the Potter films did not buy us. We never got to meet Peeves the Poltergeist or to know Charlie Weasley as more than a guy in a grainy family photo glimpsed in The Prisoner of Azkaban. We never learned why Helena Ravenclaw stole her mother’s diadem or discovered how The Bloody Baron figured into Helena’s story. We missed out on the sad tales of the much-abused Winky the house-elf and Tom Riddle’s mother, Merope Gaunt. Wormtail disappeared from the story without explanation. We never learned why Dumbledore’s father killed those three Muggles or what Dumbledore was talking about in that cave by the sea when he confessed that some mysterious outcome was all his fault. We didn’t  get to meet the charmer Teddy Lupin or the charming Victoire and even the most observant viewer could be excused for an inability to understand exactly where this dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald came from or how Dumbledore ended up with his wand. We are, in fact, never given enough information to make up our own minds about The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore so Harry’s struggle to come to terms with the truth about his hero is left largely undepicted. In spite of all this, I don’t want to dwell too long on what more time watching beloved books play out on screen doesn’t give us because what it does give us is, well, more time.

It gives us more time, not only with the characters we love to encounter, but in the worlds we love to visit. It gives us more time to look forward to our visit and more time to say goodbye when it ends. More time, much more time, is exactly what my greedy fan heart craves the most. I know that most filmmakers would claim that they aspire to give us art rather than a theme-park tour of our favorite fantasy worlds. I want the Rowling-inspired films and the Tolkien-inspired films to be regarded as art just as I want the novels to be regarded as art (more so because the novels often unjustly are not) but I will settle for films that simply allow me to relive the first time I encountered art in the novels. I will even go so far as to say that I am willing to let go of the hope of a perfect film in exchange for the grosser pleasure of more time.

I have frequently claimed that I try to experience a book and the film based on a book as separate entities, judging each on how well it succeeds in its own medium. I now realize that, when it comes to films based on the books I love the most, this claim is false. This doesn’t mean that I am not delighted when an adaptation succeeds as art in its own right; it means that, as long as the film is not terrible, I am not terribly disappointed when it does not. Here is an illustration.

To my mind, a superb book-to-film adaptation is Harold Pinter’s inventive interpretation of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It is a book that employs a narrative device that would seem to make it unfilmable but, from a book within a book, Pinter brought us a movie within a movie. He introduced characters and storylines that were never conceived of by the author but that perfectly captured the time-transcending spirit of the novel. Pinter made a work of art that is less based on than inspired by another work of art. More fidelity does not a more apt adaptation make. I suspect that I wouldn’t mind never seeing Tom Bombadil or Marvolo Gaunt on screen if such omissions made it possible for a film-maker to realize an inspired vision. If I had the chance to sit through an ingenious reworking of The Lord of the Rings that was somehow, in spite of its deviations from the original, as Tolkien as Tolkien himself, perhaps I could renounce my lust for more time. Until that happens, I will, to put it crudely, gratefully consume the Cheese Whiz of a second film over the caviar of a more skillfully executed single one. I love Hogwarts and Middle-earth too much to turn down a ticket to travel there one last time.


13 thoughts on “One Book, Two Movies: A Confession

  1. Just after I posted this, I realized that there are two things I should have found a way to work into my argument. First, I sincerely hope that with The Hobbit Jackson produces something that is more like caviar than Cheese Whiz and I promise to do my best to give the movie a chance. (Of course, I am not denying that I am also looking forward to the midnight premiere as a chance to show-off my new Bad Galadriel get-up.) The second is a question I put to myself. Does this desire for more time apply as much to the no-less fantastic worlds created by Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters as it does to the wizarding world and Middle-earth? Considering how many times I have watched adaptations of and modernized riffs on Pride and Prejudice and Emma and the fact that, if I owned a Star Trek-style holodeck, I would probably spend a considerable amount of time at Thornfield Hall, I can honestly say that the answer is yes.

  2. Thanks for a fun read! I think, for me..I don’t mind making more one bit, but the movies/tv series really need to live up to some basic standard of quality, or I will probably turn away from it. And with fantasy it’s used to be so sad, because of the rarity in which these books were filmed. By now, I trust Jackson, he made a product, or art if you will that was quite good enough for me. I have Tolkienist friends who had issues with some things in the movies, but for me, Jackson came close enough with enough things, that his art ended far enough on the plus side to really extend my experiences quite a bit. When movies are like that, I view them as those Tolkien calendars coming out each year with different artists showing their vision of the books. Nothing is really *wrong* if it simply is genuinely from some honesty place and fulfills some particular basic demands.
    Sadly, I feel that with fantasy (again), being faithful to the *feeling* of the story in question (as opposed to every detail in the events) is a pretty new phenomena, I remember some horrible horrible adaptations in the 80’s and 90’s of books, which were just dead inside. Had no soul, if you know what I mean. They were tryouts for blockbuster money (or tv money) and rarely succeeded, and the producers, probably didn’t quite grasp why, until Jackson, a fanboy, and his fangirl wife and their fangirl friend, sat down and wrote a loving script with a loving vision and then, amazingly got funding for what ultimately, in the beginning was nothing more than a fan-project.
    That was the first time it was done in such a famously broad and successful way. It had been done before, but mostly with small independent projects. So, if nothing else, I am certain we have Jackson to thank for this vague but powerful phenomena. That producers realized how truly powerful it can be to satisfy fandom enough by being somewhat faithful to the spirit of the story. Without that, it’s doubtful in my mind that we would have such projects as Game of Thrones on tv or Hunger Games films today. Not in such relatively uncorrupted shapes at least.

    Hm, maybe I should write a post about this…

  3. Reodwyn’s observation that artistry must measure up to “some basic measure of quality” resonates with me. To frame artistry as an issue of quantity versus quality, as Badgaladriel frames the matter, is useful if only as a means of questioning filmmaking conventional wisdom, which has assumed for most of my life that I am a typical statistical signifier who would feel outrage at the prospect of sitting through a movie lasting longer than 90 minutes. In fact, I find the whole issue of artistic “quality” somewhat murky in interesting ways. Pondering the menu options of succinct caviar versus voluminous Cheese Whiz, an important question comes up that I have never been able to resolve. Which is which? How do we know for sure that art caviar is really art caviar, and that art Cheese Whiz is really art Cheese Whiz? Seeing a “basic measure of quality” in art is inherently an idiosyncratic expression of subjective aesthetic preference. We accept the term “fine art” as reflecting some kind of objective measure of quality. But it can just mean that a particular piece of art gets caviar prices, while other art goes for airport gift shop Cheese Whiz prices. When I was an assistant curator at a major art museum, I learned that to inquire about art quality standards is to delve into the mystical side of art history discourse. I heard no good reason, for example, why Bruce Nauman’s “fine art” museum-quality film of him setting a fence post for twenty minutes should enthuse an art museum. I recall the staff meeting for that acquisition. I stood there in utter amazement watching the most boring footage ever, while listening to the curator’s most stilted efforts ever at justifying this particular work of fine art. The bottom line seemed very much a pretentious bottom line. That is, the standard of “museum quality” pretends to be one of objective expertise in art, but the truth is that if the marketplace adopts your fencepost artwork, you get to tell us all your definition of “quality” and we’ll pay our prettiest pennies for your wisdom. I guess this is why I keep returning to what seems a rational perspective on this issue. When it comes to art “quality” it seems most useful to simply ask myself what I would hang on my wall. This measurement of “quality” at least has the charm of appealing to my inner aesthetic beasts, even if these are mythical creatures. I feel glad to see Badgaladriel hang Harrypotterfilms&books on her wall because I know that she can usefully explore what this signifies to her in her inward world. Seeing her at work with this project, we can better orient ourselves to our own possibilities. So when I decide to move forward with setting my own fenceposts somewhere in the outer world, I feel a little less worry about whether I’m planting them in caviar or Cheese Whiz.

  4. It’s not that a very long movie or one book adapted into two movies can’t be art. It is just that, in the case of some adaptations, I am willing to risk sacrificing quality to get more quantity. I’m not proud of it, especially as someone who spends a lot of time writing about aesthetics, but I just want to hang out in Middle-earth as long as possible and I like having a second film to look forward to. I am the kind of sucker Hollywood loves! I would much rather see a very, very excellent adaptation of the books I love but I know that there is a limit to how many films will be made and, if it’s fun but not perfect, I would rather get as much fun out of it as possible. The experience that would make my head explode with joy would be to see truly excellent TV series length adaptations of both Potter and Rings! Will someone make those for me, please?

    Having said that, I think that, when it comes to art, we can discipline our responses so that we reduce the background noise of our egos and appetites and become very good judges of quality. I enjoy both roller coasters and Rembrandts but I enjoy them in different ways. If I ask myself how I am responding to art (Lewis makes a distinction between receiving and using), then I can discover what kind of response it evokes. A genuine aesthetic experience can be thrilling or titillating but it is also more. I wrote a piece on the erotic in art that addresses this. I know you’ve read the piece already Tal but I thought I would post a link anyway. I am going to spend the evening celebrating the fact that I am not watching a film of a guy setting a fence post!

  5. Tal, I think, why discussions of art often are so complicated, is because it’s a double edged sword. On one hand, to some extent, art is subjective, on the other, I will stubbornly keep thinking that there are some traits which make art just that, and not just a drawing, or whathaveyou. Like post modernism, to me, it’s not an “anything goes, depending on who’s watching” kind of truth that I’m willing to buy into. Art is a unique mix of context, vision, heart and skill/knowledge. Sometimes not all these criteria are necessary to create art, maybe only three of them, but strongly. Sometimes all five come together but ultimately fail. I would call the film you suffered, a failed attempt at art, where something went amiss, perhaps. But there are traits necessary to create art, and it’s I believe pretty hard. In the beginning of the .com boom, when things such as came around, it was very hard to explain to people that it took possibly even *more* thought and work to write “free” poetry than bound meter. And yet, “free” poetry was what was mostly abound on such sites, in various formats which oddly often lacked both originality, vision and heart.
    I sound mean when I write this, I realize. Writing, drawing, creating is good for humans, cathartic, and no one should be denied this. But if you create for the public around you, there are some minimal levels of knowledge, work and vision to the pursuit..or I would hesitate to call it art. I am trying to not sound like a horrible person and a snob here! 🙂
    I would even say that I am often a very forgiving viewer of art. I enjoy many genres and levels. You come a long way in my book if you (a general “you” here) manage to inject that mystical quality which I in this (long ass) answer call “heart” into vision and project. But it’s a difficult quality to define, and not all that common. Many try. We all try. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes not.

    • I don’t think you sound like a snob at all though I sympathize with the worry of sounding like a snob. Art is a difficult thing to talk about. The Inklings wrote about experiences that were also difficult to talk about because they could be called wholly subjective. Barfield wrote about “a felt change in consciousness” when reading poetry. Tolkien wrote about a “thrill,” Lewis about “longing,” and Williams about “falling in love.” All of these have a lot in common with aesthetic experiences because if they are left “uncorrected” as Williams put it, that is if we fail to examine them in light of our other experiences and beliefs, then they can be quite shallow. There is a difference between immature and mature love, just as there is a difference between immature and mature aesthetic experience. Just like the experience of love, the experience of beauty is not verifiable by the scientific method but (to quote a book on The Inklings called *Romantic Religion*) “not all verification is the same , since not all statements are the same.” Religious beliefs, for instance, are verified by religious experience. Aesthetic beliefs are verified by aesthetic experience. In both cases, just as in falling in love, it is possible to fool ourselves, but humanity has millennia of practices such as meditation and contemplation that we can apply to help us experience beauty, love and even the mystical in a mature way. I think the whole distinction between subjective and objective should be examined.

      Hope I don’t sound too preachy. This is my favorite topic. How cool that a discussion of a movie sparked this conversation. I love Grey Havens!

  6. Sorry for that *&^%$ smiley guys. I didn’t realize that there would be some yellow troll face popping up in such a serious art discussion!!

  7. Ha ha! I don’t mind yellow troll faces no matter where they pop up. My airport shuttle arrives at 6 a.m. but this discussion is so interesting that I can’t pull myself away!

  8. Reading Talelmarhazad’s comments about the Nauman film, I find it difficult to agree with his position. Immediately after saying that the identification of art as “art” is subjective, he then implied that according to his unidentified criteria, the film might not be “art.” I would suggest that the film didn’t qualify as Talelmarhazad’s preferential kind of art. But for others, that film might well provide the kind of ineffable magic that people tend to look for in “art,” as with Reodwyn’s “mystical quality” that puts “‘heart’ into vision[,]” and what Kelly describes as a “mature aesthetic experience[.]” If it so happened that we all sat down to view the Nauman film together, perhaps we could have a more direct dialogue about the nature of art as an aesthetic experience. Talelmarhazad accused the film of being “pretentious,” but for others it could be unassuming – a scathing indictment of self-conscious artistry that equates baroque decorative flourishes with art. Some could argue that the film looks for a more direct experience of art as a vision of life itself, the way we live, the manner in which we build things around our spaces. In the end, perhaps it helps us to enrich the meanings of our lives to look at our assumptions from multiple perspectives. And finally, don’t get me started on the immensely variable culture construction of the very idea of art!

  9. Ooh, I had sort of forgotten about objective idealism Kelly, even though, that was what I fumblingly, and partially was trying to channel in my comment up there! Thank you!
    Also, it sounds to me like we should all watch something like the Nauman film, and then discuss it. I would also enjoy seeing rogerechohawk and Talelmarhazad debate this. In fact, I would pay good money for the privilege to watch that!! 😉

  10. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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