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.