On Adaptation: contextualizing the trailer for “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

And the Jackson saga goes on and on… Here is the trailer for “the defining chapter of the Middle-earth saga” (so they say):

Of course, the internet goes kind of crazy when anything like that is released. Half of the web is boiling with frenzy over how cute Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lily are and how the writer is dying to see the film.fangirl 2

The other half is seething with anger over how awful these films are, “nothing like the books,” Tolkien would roll over in his grave, etc., etc. Witness this quote from a Huffington Post article:

The spirit of the book has been almost entirely lost and replaced by a movie that looks as if it was made to spin off theme park rides and videogame derivatives rather than to tell the story as written in the beloved children’s classic. Unlike The Lord of the Rings film trilogy that largely succeeded in maintaining the spirit and details of the books, The Hobbit departs so far from the text that is has little to nothing to do with the original.

A colleague of mine (whom I respect very much) posted on facebook: “I think there were three, maybe four, moments in that preview that may have resembled scenes in Tolkien’s book. Maybe.”

UntitledJRRT’s son Christopher hates the movies. Hates them. In an interview with Le Monde, he said:

Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.

That is a lot of negativism!

What both groups seem to miss is the nature of Peter Jackson’s LOTR and Hobbit films as ADAPTATION. The first group, the drunken-fangirl posse, appears not to consider the the source texts and their complex relationship to the films. The second seems not to consider the film’s complex relationship to the source texts.

We should take two steps before evaluating the Hobbit films (or any other page-to-screen adaptations):

1) We should think about the nature of adaptation itself. How is it done? What does it do to both the original and the derived product? What inevitable changes occur in the process? To do this, I recommend reading A Theory of Adaptation by Linda Hutcheon. Think about what can be done in writing that cannot be done in a movie. Think about what can be done in a movie that cannot be done on the page.

2) We should be more aware of the vital history of adaptation. Ponder this for a moment: almost all the great “classic” works of European literature are adaptations. (If you click here, you’ll get an excellent lecture about The Hobbit and adaptation by Dr. Corey Olsen.) Virgil riffed off of Homer. Dante riffed off of Virgil. Chaucer adapted Boccaccio. Shakespeare adapted Boccaccio. Shakespeare adapted Chaucer. Shakespeare adapted Geoffrey of Monmouth. Shakespeare adapted Plutarch’s Lives, and Saxo Grammaticus, and Edmund Spenser and …. Tom Stoppard adapted Shakespeare. And so on.

Think about the Arthurian legends, those endlessly adapted and adapting tales. There is no source, and they just keep conforming themselves to the new times and places in which they are told.

And then let’s think about Charles Williams.

Charles Williams was an excellent adapter. Outlines of Romantic Theology and The Figure of Beatrice adapt one of Dante’s central ideas. A Myth of Shakespeare is some pretty hard-core fan-fiction, including huge chunks of texts quoted straight from the plays. Heroes and Kings adapts tales of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and of Lilith.

And then, of course, there’s the Arthurian material. From 1912 until his death in 1945, Williams mashed up Arthurian characters, plot elements, themes, and symbols in glorious proliferation. Starting with the Arthurian Commonplace Book and ending with the great final volumes of poetry, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, CW read, studied, imitated, modified, appropriated, and lived into the Matter of Britain until he gave his family and friends mythic names and tried to make everyone around him act out the story in their daily lives.

keep-calm-and-read-tolkien-2Then he met C. S. Lewis, who then dropped Merlin into his Ransom cycle (under CW’s influence), and J.R.R. Tolkien, who gave up ever finishing his Fall of Arthur (probably under CW’s poetic eight). Tolkien went on to write The Lord of the Rings instead, with its significant elements of chivalry and sacramental quest.

And then Peter Jackson came along and continued the endless project. The Hobbit films are only today’s episode in the never-ending [Arthurian] story. Enjoy them, analyze them, critique them, but above all: read Tolkien.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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15 Responses to On Adaptation: contextualizing the trailer for “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Two good bits of Tolkien to (re)read in this context are the parts of “On Fairy Stories” about the differences between narrative and drama but also about specificity in adaptation with respect to Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall, and Letter 210 with extensive selections from his comments on Zimmerman’s “Story-line” for a “film ‘treatment’ of The Lord of the Rings.

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  2. Pingback: Faint Hope for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Teaser Trailer Release) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  3. Took the words right out of my mouth, Sorina! Thank you and I’ll take your point further and mention that Tolkien was influenced by Shakespeare and many other classics. Adaptions are simply a different form of art.

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  4. Mark says:

    Let’s see, there’s going to be the battle of Laketown, the battle of five armies, the battle of Dol Guldur, and don’t forget there’s some scores to settle, the battle of Thorin and Azog, and the battle of Legolas and Bolg. Maybe it should be titled The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Battles.

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  5. Gary Fisher says:

    Thank you so much for this reminder that the purpose of film is not to replace our own imagination, nor to duplicate it, but perhaps to enrich it.

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  6. MisterDavid says:

    Disagree. The real issue is not the changes that have been made, but that the films aren’t good enough. The first question should always be ‘Is it any good?’ Having answered that, the next question should be ‘Why?’

    The Hobbit is 3-out-of-5 cinema: good in parts but generally pretty average. Is that the fault of the source material, or does the fault lie with the film-makers? Is it poor in spite of the adaptation, or because of it?

    In my view, it’s poor because of the adaptation, and that’s why people are grumbling. If they were astounding films, complaints about diversions from the source material would only be ideological. But they aren’t, in spite of the fabulous wealth PJ & co. were bequeathed by the book.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It’s fun to compare Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be or not to be”, as it appears in the “bad” First Quarto with the familiar, and justly famous, Second Quarto version. They are obviously not equally good. Why? Take the comparison test…

      Then compare PJ & co’s encounter with the three trolls in the first Hobbit film installment with Tolkien’s. It is as if, having the Second Quarto text available, PJ & co nonetheless chose for the First Quarto version of “To be or not to be”. Except, there is no existing equivalent of the “bad” Quarto where the trolls are concerned: they had to invent one. It is, in its degree, a sort of paving Paradise to put up a parking lot – and then calling the parking lot, “Paradise”.

      Before the largely boring first Hobbit film installment came out, I was attracted, not only by the leisure of lots of screen time for a comparatively shorter, simpler book, but also, in principle, by the idea of LotR-Appendicizing The Hobbit, supplying more of what we (and Tolkien!) came to know later. But how badly how much of that was done! I sat through all that just for the few enjoyable minutes of the Council meeting? Not something to render the second or third installments into even vaguely tempting pastimes…

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    • Sørina Higgins says:

      MisterDavid: Yes. You are exactly right. All that really matters is whether they are good movies, and they aren’t! You’ve got it.

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  7. I enjoy them for their visual beauty ( I’m a sucker for beautiful looking films) and how they introduce the basic story to audiences not familiar with Tolkien. Considering the horror that is the Rankin/Bass and Bakshi film, I’d say Jackson’s are a vast improvement.

    People who don’t read Tolkien’s works and don’t understand them understand the films and from there I have some common ground when discussing themes in his work with family members and friends who otherwise never understood why I loved his books and wrote me off as a weirdo. but they understand and love the themes behind the work. For this reason to me, the Jackson films are doing a good work! 🙂

    Are they perfect? Certainly not. I have issues with the over the top action sequences and the far too many digital effects in these Hobbit films. I love Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, I like his Hobbit films so far, but when I want to read Tolkien, I read Tolkien.

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  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    victorialadybug said, “Considering the horror that is the Rankin/Bass and Bakshi film, I’d say Jackson’s are a vast improvement.”

    I hadn’t been reading Tolkien’s fiction for that long when the R/B Hobbit (1977) and Bakshi Lord of the Rings [Part I] (1978) came along – having been put off by the emus and odd tree, etc., of the cover illustration of the American paperback edition of The Hobbit for about a decade. (Now there was a bad adaptation for you!) But I was dreading film versions – especially given what I had heard about the earlier Bakshi (Fritz the Cat – !, Heavy Traffic – !) and how weird Wizards (1977) was. So, I was rather relieved, finding it a lot better than I feared, and somehow peculiarly enjoying the adapted footage from Eisenstein’s Alexander Njefski (1938).

    I think I only caught up with the R/B later, being in England for a semester,when it was first broadcast, going along to Allen & Unwin to buy The Father Christmas Letters and, when it came out, The Silmarillion, and Boswellianly barging in on Humphrey Carpenter at home, who charmingly stopped his home-improvement work to invite me to join him for a cup of tea and gave me an exciting conversational glimpse of his work-in-progress on the Inklings (little did either of us suspect that a couple years later he would submit to being landed with supervising my work on C.W.). Again, I was basically relieved, though I thought the feline visual imagination of Smaug an odd and unconvincing innovation.

    I got a good buy on a dvd issue and rewatched the Bakshi sometime after Peter Jackson’s version had started coming out, and was surprised to notice at least a couple major Jackson debts to Bakshi, where the Nazgûl are concerned (I see that the Trivia at the IMBD Bakshi LotR article confirms that it wasn’t just my imagination)! Now that I’ve become a more conscious André Morell fan (thanks to the television version of Quatermass and the Pit (1959) and his Tiberius in The Caesars (1968) – fascinating to compare with the later BBC I Claudius!), I ought to give it another viewing…

    But my favorite adaptation is Brian Sibley’s for BBC radio. I even recall enjoying the odd, frenetic BBC radio Hobbit (1968) – ought to try to hear that again, someday, too. (I like the Dutch radio adaptation even better.) But has anyone done a really good Hobbit adaptation, yet? But perhaps I am spoiled for any adaptation by repeated listenings to Rob Inglis recorded performance of the unabridged text…!

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  9. Pingback: On Ambigous Villains: RIP Alan Rickman | The Oddest Inkling

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