Frederica Mathewes-Greene discusses book-to-film adaptations in a piece in which she argues that Prince Caspian, the film, is better than Prince Caspian, the novel. Fair enough, I guess. I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't say whether I agree with her assessment. BUT.


She says she polled some friends and colleagues on some film adaptations they thought surpassed the original books. And Frederica? I admire you very much, but I'm forced to question the good sense and judgment of some of your colleagues where The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series' are concerned.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Them’s fightin’ words, I know. Among respondents there was a feeling that the series, as J. R. R. Tolkien wrote it, is just plain ponderous. A couple of years ago I recorded the whole thing for my local radio station for the blind, and found that reading all that inverted syntax and archaic terminology out loud, hour after hour, makes parody nearly irresistible. Director Peter Jackson had a better idea. He saw the essential beauty of the story, and brought it to the screen unimpeded.

You know (bracketing the TOTAL TRAVESTIES of a) not including Tom Bombadil and b) making Faramir anything other than an unqualified hero), Peter Jackson generally did a fine job of translating the story to film, given the limitations of the medium. But the medium does have those limitations, and even if the film adaptations are the best of all possible film adaptations? They are not. As good as. The books. I suppose one might find the novels ponderous if one is accustomed to receiving one's input in two hour audio-visual segments, or even if one has been taught that the ideal prose is that telegraphic, terse and altogether barren style which, unfortunately, dominates 20th century American fiction (yuck). The novels are not ponderous-- they are epic in scope and depth and richly textured. They are feasts meant to be savored, not pureed and sucked through a straw.

The Harry Potter series. Another nomination to fight over. The complaint I heard is specifically about the more recent novels, not the entire series. Readers claim that as Rowling’s celebrity increased her writing lost its edge, and therefore the later stories sprawl about, unfocused. Movies of these books do what an editor should have done in the first place — they select and tighten so that the story itself has a punch.

Goodness. I wonder what this set of folks have to say about Dostoevsky. It is my contention that the Harry Potter novels improved in quality as Rowling matured as a writer, not to mention her Dostoevskian use of detail-- nothing is insignificant. Everything seemingly mentioned in passing gets revisited later, and we find that it's been hugely significant all along. Please do not misunderstand me-- I am not saying Rowling is anywhere near as good as Dostoevsky, who is thegreatestnovelisteverinthehistoryoftheworldperiodIwillbrooknoarguments. But her novels are certainly superior to the films thus far-- which are fun, but, as with the Tolkien adaptations, subject to certain unfortunate limitations of the medium.

Here is the part that reallt flabbergasted me, though:

Many people also wanted to mention movies that they thought were just as good as the books. Jane Austen’s name kept coming up, and William Shakespeare’s.

FAIL. Of course there are some mighty fine (as well as mighty awful) film adaptations of both Austen and Shakespeare. They are entertaining in their own right, and the best of them open up the original texts in new and provocative ways. But honestly, I'm just so bemused that anyone could seriously advance this "just as good" claim with respect to either Austen or Shakespeare, I don't know how to respond. What are they teaching these days, if deficiencies in taste and judgment this profound are this widespread, even among what must be an unusually well-educated sample group?

Oh, my goodness. I'm really not so much of an insufferable snob as I sound sometimes. But some outrages are just beyond bearing in silence.


Kimberly said...

"some things cannot be born in silence"
Good to know what REALLY gets your goat.
The only quibble I would have with your analysis is that, for those that lack imagination to mentally create the worlds that Lewis, Tolkein, etc, describe in their books, the specific film adaptions that she mentions do do a pretty good job of visually imagining what is described in the books.

I personally have always had that greatest complaint about film adaptations. They don't "look" like they "should". These more recent ones have not given rise to THAT complaint from me.

Anyway, and I repeat myself, for those that lack the imagination to mentally visualize what is happening in these books, I can see how the books could be pondorous (sp?) (why doesn't blogger have spell check?) and therefore why the movies are more satisfactory. That isn't the fault of the books, but the reader.

M. Robert Turnage said...

The best comeback of all time is just to say the word FAIL real loud.

I haven't read Caspian in years and found the movie pleasant - I really did not like the first film and was expecting something really bad, but was pleasantly surprised.

I lost interest in the Potter movies about two films ago and the LoTR films suffer from a horror film director not understanding the nature of goodness or nobility. It is as if Jackson declared, "I can't really relate to Gandalf or Aragorn or Frodo or Sam or Faramir, so we will make the central character Gollum."

Film is a collaborative medium. The only people who believe in the "auteur theory" are film critics who do not understand the nature of creating films. Even known "auteurs" like Terry Gilliam think this theory is bunk.

Books are of a singular voice. There is an intimacy and a depth found in prose that is going to be missing from every film.

Veronica Mitchell said...

I am so with you. Saying that the LOTR movies were better than the book is simply saying they had more mass appeal than the book. It's the anti-mythical-creature snobs again; they'll tolerate them in movies, but not in prose.

Her article though has inspired me and I've been working on my own list of "better than the book" movies.

The only thing I might quibble with you on is the Shakespeare. It's not that the movie versions are always great, but since he wrote plays, the acting out of the play is the real thing, and the reading of it is just preparation. I suppose live theater is more true to his intent, but it's out of reach for most folks.

InvisibleMarketing said...

I just reread Prince Caspian recently. It would have been un-filmable (certainly unwatchable) had the movie tried to follow it to the letter.

The Tolkien books have plenty of plot - much more than the Lewis books. The creative problems w/Tolkien are (1) where to cut and (2) how to rearrange what's left for coherent pacing in film.

The Lewis books just don't have as much plot to work with. And the plot is much gentler - intended for children.

I found the LOTR movies rather offensive as a whole. They present an impoverished reinterpretation of the books. The rewrite of Faramir's character[ization] was dramatically unnecessary. So was the revision of Tolkien's Healer King. Taking the raw material and saying "well, it's more interesting if he doesn't know who he is, doubts himself, whines, or is evil" is like admitting "I don't actually think an epic war hero is interesting."

LOTR had some avoidably weak moments as movies, too. When Sam turns to the camera at the end of the second movie and monologues for 90 seconds about the Main Point of the Movie... well, if you did such a lousy job telling your story that you have to bludgeon me with monologues to get me to follow what you're talking about... then find a new screenwriter and fix the fundamental problems in your script.

The Caspian movie rearranged and re-architected the plot quite a bit. (also some demographic items: Caspian is blonde in the book, but he and his race are both swarthy onscreen). The filmmakers make defensible choices that improve visual and dramatic clarity. The movie's plot has a much clearer dramatic arc (not so episodic) than the book.

But the filmmakers didn't change the fundamental themes of the book or natures of any of the characters.

Where Caspian the movie may fail Lewis' vision is as a children's movie. Certainly the body count on film is much higher than in the book, the dramatic tension much more tense. Entire battles (and battle realism) appear in the film which were not in the book. It seems too violent for 8-10 year olds (the age I was discovering the books). In these respects, Caspian the movie is imitating its more violent film cousin: LOTR.

Beck said...

You know, I thought the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility had a mature weight that Jane Austen's - being written at some impossibly young age - just didn't have. Which is not to say that I thought it was better, but it was a fine adaptation.
But I'm just taking a pass on Walden's Narnia adaptations. I'm happier that way.