Monday, December 9, 2013

Artistic License...How much should we allow?

Hi folks, Mark here with a few thoughts on what will likely be a lively debate about how much film do or should deviate from the texts from which they come.

I cheated and stole a peak at the early reviews of The Desolation of Smaug over on For those who haven't made it over there yet, it has grown into the essential all-things-middle earth website. I have a soft spot for the place, actually, way back when it first got started I won the contest to name the chat room.  When you go into Barliman's for the gossip and the flame wars, well, you're welcome.  No real glory there, obviously, and I never figured out how to use the email addy they gave me. I feel like Willy Loman naming the boss's son 'Howard'...

But I digress.

When The Desolation of Smaug hits the screens next week, I'm almost convinced it will bring a firestorm of critical response. Rumor has it Jackson makes several glaring deviations from the original text, as if the stuff that showed up in the first installment wasn't enough, and those 'adjustments' are sure to bring a strong response from the two camps in question: the literary purists and the fans of film for the sake of film.

I have mixed emotions about the controversy. As a fan of sci fi and fantasy films in general, I want a good show. Entertain me. Enlighten me. Just don't bore me.  Radagast's sleigh rabbits, the endless race over the uplands before finding the secret way to Rivendell, the cgi barf in Goblin Town and the ridiculous Bilbo to Thorin's rescue at the end left me yawning somewhat, and yet I understand the why of it, to a point.  What gets me riled is when it seems the alterations stem from the ego of the producer/director rather than an intent to tell the story in a slightly different way.

I suspect the latter will be front and center of the discussions that follow the release of the Desolation of Smaug.

Of course I will see the film. I haven't made it to Ender's Game yet, but that is on my matinee list form the holiday break. I'm sure I'll like it, but if what I have read so far regarding spoilers and deviations is true, I'm sure I will mixed emotions. For me, Lewis and Tolkien were my introduction to the genre. My fifth grade teacher read us The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and my sixth grade teacher read us The Hobbit, complete with voices for the dwarves, Gandalf, Bilbo, et al. I was hooked. Living in Germany at the time just added to the magic. New Zealand has proven an excellent source for locations, but I recall feeling pretty strongly about a few places in southern Germany and Austria...

What all this sickly anticipation has me thinking about is how much poetic license should we allow folks like Peter Jackson. As an author, how much control would I be willing to give up to see my works transformed into film? Like many of you, I would love to get that phone call/email/tweet.  And yet I find myself trending toward caution because of what I have seen done to Tolkien. LeGuin's Earthsea was roundly butchered by the SciFi channel and suffered a confusingly derivative animated version from Myazaki's son.  So I would like to leave you with some questions:

As an author, what are you willing to allow? How much creative control would you like to keep? Card resisted early attempts to film Ender's Game because he wanted to keep his original schematic intact.

And what great stories would you like to see tackled next?  I would love to see someone have a go at McKillip's Riddlemaster series, or perhaps a try at Cherryh's Elvish/Welsh fantasy duology The Dreaming Tree.


Terri-Lynne said...

I enjoyed the Hobbit for what it was. I am trying very hard not to watch movies with the books in mind. There is no way a movie is ever going to measure up--especially for those of us who revere the written word as we do. I intend to enjoy the next installment, mostly because it's a thing I do with my boys. It's tradition--all the LOTR and now Hobbit movies, we see together.

I would LOVE to see several of McKillip's books, though I have to say, not all. Some of them are just...I can't imagine them movies. They would lose too much of the magic. Like...the Bells of Sealy Head would make a great movie. So would Alphabet of Thorns. But In the Forests of Serre??? Where so much depends upon NOT seeing things so plainly?? That would be a trick.

As an author, I would have to say I hope I would feel the same way about a movie-maker as I do about readers--it's up to their interpretation. Once it's out--or bought!--it's out of my hands. I wrote the book. The movie would belong to someone else.

Anonymous said...

A number of years back, I was watching a show about 80's Hair Metal bands and how if you had a band that was playing the Whisky-A-Go-Go back in the early 80's you practically had people beating down your door to sign you. The same was true for a while in the early 90's with standup comics getting their own sitcoms. But nowadays, and I don't know if it's due to the lack of imagination on the part of Hollywood, or just that the producers are now getting exposed to it, but YA is making some serious waves in movies.

Compelling stories, relatable characters, and an already formed fan-base. Which is fine by me, considering I don't really want to read a lot of the YA that is out there. I've read some good stuff, but even something as big as the Hunger Games sorta falls flat because I want more grit, more depth. But for movies, hell, hook me up! Then I can be in and out of the story in an hour and a half instead of the two weeks or longer it will take me to read the book.

Yes, I am a terrible reader. Glacial even. And no, I'm not hating on YA, it's just stuff I feel like I have outgrown much of the time. --Clint

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint, I have to admit to being woefully behind on my YA reading, and much for the same reason. I love some of it, and would probably love the Hunger Games books, but I've still not read them. I suppose...sorry to say...they're always last on a list that never seems to end.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Clint, I agree with the YA transfer to film and vid being a bit easier. And to be honest, I'd almost rather watch the films of some of those books rather than read them. The Hunger Games left me underwhelmed, especially by the third book, and Twilight became an exercise in turning pages rather than an enjoyable read.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Terri, I tend to gravitate toward your perspective regarding letting go once it gets the option. The caveat there, obviously, is we have to life with the results. LeGuin actually apologized to her fans for the SF channel fiasco. I wonder how we might feel if, one day, our works become staples of the genre with a little gravitas attached to them. Would we still give up control?

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Frankly, I found The Hobbit boring. And it really gets under my skin when people say, "Well, you shouldn't have expected it to be like the book." I did NOT expect it to be like the book, thank you very much. All I really hoped for was a decent movie.

There was one scene that almost made it worth yawning through the rest: The riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum.

Of course, I will go see The Desolation of Smaug, not because I expect it to be a good movie, but because the dragon looks cool - something I definitely want to see on the big screen.

I used to gripe a lot about changes made in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. Then I heard George RR Martin at ConQuesT last May giving the backstory behind why they deviated from the text in certain places. That made me realize that the constraints change, sometimes dramatically, when one tells a story through film instead of through the written word.

I thought the screen adaptation of Ender's Game was quite well done. I especially enjoyed the weightless battle drills.

I wish they had completed the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I think it's a tragedy that they stopped with the first book.

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--I would like to think my thoughts would stay the same, but I wonder...

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--the scene with Bilbo and Gollum was indeed worth watching the rest (that I found to be mostly video-game-esque, to be honest.) I am hopeful about the second. What can I say--ever the optimist!

I did see the Book Thief tonight. It was an extraordinary adaptation. Of course, some details were left out, but that did not detract from the greatness of the movie. The movie did the book justice, and vice versa.

David Hunter said...

When films get it right they may cut and compress, even change the odd thing but they always remain true to the spirit of the books, especially they remain true to the characters and more especially they do not add in unnecessary claptrap or piss about with excellent dialogue for no good reason. The irony within the Hobbit is that if it had been more like the book it would have been less boring. Same with the interminable and drivelling end to the final LotR abomination.

That's why The Golden Compass worked and why Jackson's films are dreadful (made more dreadful in fact by getting the odd thing right, it just makes the bulk seem more appalling by contrast).

Now sometimes it happens that you get a film that makes fairly substantial changes and yet improves on the book. Stardust is probably the best example. It gets rid of all the clutter of the book and distills it to the essential core of the plot.

Ridley Scott needs to make either Use of Weapons (tricky because of the twist but I think he could pull it off) or The Children of Hurin. Frankly he's the only director I think could be trusted with either -- and as neither offers the potential for him to indulge in his Achilles heel, which is moralising about democracy (eg the end of Gladiator and the film about the fall of Jerusalem whose name escapes me but had far too lightweight a male lead), the end result could hardly fail to be superb.

Terri-Lynne said...

As it so happens, I went to see The Book Thief last night, and I have to say I don't think I've ever seen such a good, complete, and complimentary adaptation. It got the book as a whole, even if much of it had to be left out. It was a good MOVIE. An excellent movie. And for those who read and loved the book? It was not a disappointment.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I wonder what we might have expected if the original plan for two films would have stayed in place. When word leaked about a third film--the money grab at the expense of decent art became crystal clear. The love fest folks had with LOTR, the genuine sense of history making and unity that came through the appendix videos, seems vastly understated this time around. The excesses in the first film merely presaged the bloating to come, I'm afraid.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Terri, Loved the Book Thief when a student let me borrow her copy years ago. That work had real heart in it. It had a similar effect on me that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas did. And THAT book made a super translation to film, but the author went along for the ride and kept involved. There were changes, but none of them felt as egotistic as the cgi fest we're getting from PJ.

Anonymous said...

I went into The Golden Compass with a lot of momentum. I liked the movie. Hell, I even liked the video game. But about 3/4 of the way through, I realized I didn't like Lyra. At all. I stopped at book I. Though the scene with the little boy and the frozen fish is one of the most heartbreaking and well-done scenes I have ever read. It just didn't have enough power to pull the rest of the book out of the slow, dragging perdition that The Golden Compass became.

Unknown said...

Also, the Riddles in the Dark part was what finally got me into reading The Hobbit. Up until then, it was really stupid.

Terri-Lynne said...

The first book (Golden Compass) of His Dark Materials held me through to the end. I loved it. The second book...meh. By the third on that strange world with alien beings and such, I felt like it wasn't even the same story. Pullman went off on a tangent and just kept on going.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Pullman's work paled for me, too, by the middle of the second book. The sense of story got lost in the need to lecture. What Terri labels tangents were, for me, signs of a faltering story where the telling took a back seat to ideology.

By way of redirection: what work, what hidden gem or underappreciated novel would folks like to see translated to film?

Mark out.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark back in:

I recall feeling similarly when I dove into Brin's Uplift books. The first two were special, and then he swerved into the Brightness Reef and Heaven's Reach books. By the time those ended, I'd lost all my fascination with Brin's universe. I enjoyed them, mostly, but he, too, waxed philosophical toward the end of the final volume. Perhaps that is a key: avoid going metaphysical at all costs because you risk losing the wonder of your story and you might lose your audience.

Anybody here get a similar impression from the last 80 pages of War and Peace? :)

Mark out.

David Hunter said...

The Candlemass Road (historical fiction) would make a great film so long as they kept entirely the atrong dialect that might make it incomprehensible to those on the wrong side of the Atlantic (and indeed to many of those on the right side who were brought up in the benighted south) - but such gems as 'Then I'll none o' your baptism. Nay man, Hell road or any other, I ride wi' my gang.' or 'Even Ill Will would laugh if yet he had chops to grin withal!' deserve wider attention.

Or Black Ajax (again historical fiction), although a lot of the book's charm rests on its format which would be hard to convey onscreen.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here with a final addendum to this thread. Saw Jackson's film. It was quite a romp. Many things to take issue with, to be sure, but as a film it was relatively true to itself. There were some cringe-worthy moments. There were parts of LOTR that rose almost to the level of art. None of those moments showed up here. Entertaining, but mostly schlock.

Unknown said...

I was disappointed in the Hobbit movies and that nearly broke my heart. But I don't want this to be a rant against Jackson's vision. He made a film for kids and people who don't like high fantasy in order to sell tickets. Good for him.

I want to address Mark's question on artistic license, because I support this as long as the spirit of the work is enhanced.

The Hobbit was my first introduction to the heroic fantasy genre...but not the book. The 1977 film--and I didn't even see it, at first. I was 12 years old and I was given it as an audio recording. The music, the voices! I loved it.

Now, if you see this cartoon, and I hope you will, you will have another reason to shake your head sadly at Peter Jackson. That cartoon told the story--and told it damn good--in 77 minutes.

And in some places, they did it better than the book. .

Allow me to explain. Remember when Bilbo had to climb the tree in Mirkwood? If you read that part in the book, it is a sad, gloomy event. The dwarves and Bilbo have been walking through the forest for days. They are hungry, exhausted and discouraged. Bilbo is ordered to climb the tree and see how much further they have to go. He does. Tolkien spends lots of time describing giant purple butterflies. Bilbo cannot see the other side and climbs down and tell the dwarves the sad news.

Whoever wrote the script for the 1977 cartoon took that scene and added something so touching, so beautiful, it remains as one of the most memorable moments in heroic fantasy for me, a real "top 10."

In the cartoon, Bilbo is keeping a journal for Gandalf to read later. He writes how miserable the forest is. The berries which grow here are hideous!

Then he climbs the tree and see the sun for the first time in days. His eyes mist up with tears and he writes:

There are moments which can change a person for all time. And I suddenly wondered if I would ever see my snug little hobbit hole again. I wondered, if I actually wanted to.

Someone took an artistic license and brought out--in one scene--the essence of the story. The Hobbit is not about dragons and magic rings. It is a story about self discovery. Bilbo didn't ask for that adventure and didn't want it. But when it happened, the hero woke inside him like a sleeping dragon. And that hero shook the pillars of the world.

Terri-Lynne said...

AT--just going to respond with a hearty hear-hear! Really, you said it all.