From Book to Screen: Filmmaker Beware

A good screen adaptation of a literary work should convey the author’s intention, not the movie maker’s.

Adapting Literary Stories as Movies

MANY FANS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN‘s novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien’s famous novel about Bilbo Baggins’s taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a heap of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he’ll distort this story of another beloved Hobbit, as well.

As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it, I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel. (By the way, I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga. Similarly, when it comes to Jackson’s film adaptation, I prefer the extended, “director’s cut” editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas.)

Giving Old Stories New Life

As a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition—at least, until the invention of the modern novel—bears witness to this fact. Unfortunately, in Hollywood even not-so-great and even downright lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales; sadly, most writers have been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (That’s a rant, for another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, in creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, is rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action hero or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

A good movie based on a good book about competing loves.

Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). The movie made nonsense of the whole book, in fact. I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.)

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I could explain while I thought the film trashed the novel. This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”?

What Makes a “Good” Film Adaptation?

My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important theme that can be found in the literary original, in such a way as to enrich—or at least ratify—an intelligent reading of the original, even if the film version has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective.

Erich Rohmer’s stylized Perceval le Gallois is both a beautiful film and an excellent interpretation of the 12th century poem.

A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. This corresponds to Lewis’s criterion for good books: they somehow enlarge your experience. On this ground, I suggest that Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval or The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon one major strand of the narrative (the adventures of Gawain), which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever (and for the better) after I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if a film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation, because it has fundamentally changed the meaning of the story. Note that calling it a bad adaptation is quite different from saying that it is a bad film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation.

At any rate, only a truly intrepid (or perhaps ignorant) filmmaker dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel to create three films suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who enjoy watching film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a movie you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Great Literature Readers, which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works. Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice about re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

[UPDATE: I tried to watch the first Hobbit movie and had to quit halfway in. I just love the book too much to find Peter Jackson’s hijacking of Bilbo’s story tolerable. It was clear he was turning the book into a series of action-adventure films in which little Bilbo—the protagonist!—was going to be overshadowed by the rock’em-sock’em dwarves. I didn’t even try to watch the other two.]

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love ’em, hate ’em? Click “comment” and chime in.

3 replies on “From Book to Screen: Filmmaker Beware”

Amazon has it on DVD and VHS (through their resellers). I wish they could make it available in streaming video — I've got the VHS, but no longer have a tape player. You can also find some excerpted scenes on YouTube.

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