On Rings of Power and Adaptation

This past week in the Return of King Arthur class I’m precepting, my students got a little break from weekly academic writing and had the chance to write something creative instead. They produced a wealth of glorious Arthurian Adaptations, retelling bits of “The Sword in the Stone” narrative (or other parts of the Matter of Britain) in wonderfully and wildly varied ways. Arthur became a woman or a revenant, Lancelot a Martian. They set the tale in Chicago, at Disneyland, in a trailer park in Pennsylvania, or in an abandoned Residential School in the Canadian Outback. They turned it into Skaldic verse or a police report. They wrote from the POV of Arthur’s dog Cavall or Arthur-turned-into-a-kitten or an immortal Virgin Mary. Marvelous and amazing indeed.

We had a conversation in class that started something like this: Suppose a literary scholar 300 years from comes across your collective Arthurian adaptations from this class, gathered together into an anthology or some such. What would they deduce were the priorities of the North American culture that created these works? The answers were fascinating and revelatory, mostly having something to do with individualism, democracy, and plurality. One student pointed out that not one of them cared a bit about the historical Arthur: nobody tried to set their adaptation in the 500s, and nobody was at all afraid of talking the most enormous liberties with the source material we’ve encountered so far this semester.

And that’s as it should be. Each adapter is an artist with agency and the power of choice.

By now, you’re probably well aware that Amazon is making a Lord of the Rings adaptation for Prime, entitled The Rings of Power. Here’s the (in)famous trailer that dropped during the Superbowl:

There are (of course) lively conversations happening on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere, in both official and unofficial channels. The Prancing Pony Podcast guys have started a spin-off show to talk about each new reveal and then later about each episode after it airs. There’s all the usual chatter on YouTube, Reddit, and everywhere else you’d expect.

Not everyone engaging in these conversations is acting like a civilized adult.

And, you know, to a certain extent I get it. I used to be one of those insufferable snobs who thought I knew better than the filmmakers about how to adapt a work from the page to the screen, and I condemned those who were so shallow-minded or uneducated as to like a movie or TV show that was obviously a dilution or defilement of the pure original.

I apologize. I apologize not only to my family and friends, whom I must have mistreated in those conversations in those days, but also to Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and–oh, say, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Maria Dahvana Headley–or Martin Scorsese or Alfred Hitchcock–or basically all creative artists ever who were also adapting earlier works, often playing fast and loose with the “originals.”

All those writers and directors mentioned above adapted quite famous earlier works into a different genre. Tennyson took long-form prose romances and turned them into his poem-cycle Idylls of the King. Shakespeare hardly ever worked with a brand-new plot, instead using stories from previous plays, historical narratives, mythology, and more. Maria Dahvana Headley has a recent translation of Beowulf that’s quite free with the diction, although reportedly faithful to the verse. Scorsese and Hitchcock put plays, novels, short stories, and other genres on the screen.

All that is to say that adaptation itself is not the problem. Adaptation has a long and distinguished career.

Charles Williams arguably based his life’s work on adaptation, as the Arthurian legends formed the basis for his most significant poetry. Arthuriana is a great body of work for an adapter to tackle, because it has no ur-text: there is no original. Yet there are versions that have established some kind of authority in many people’s minds: Malory’s is the most obvious; T. H. White’s is another. Some readers think there’s a “right” or “true” or “correct” version of the Arthurian tale. Such audiences might object, then, to Williams’s turning Lancelot into a (temporary) werewolf, “a delirium of lycanthropy.” Other might not like how he sets Arthur off on the wrong foot, spiritually speaking, from day one of his reign. Then there are the creepy demonic octopods, the sexually perverted headless emperor, the historical conflation of the Roman and Byzantine empires, and any number of other things that aren’t in any previous Arthurian texts.

But these changes do not make Williams’s Arthuriad wrong; they make it original. While one might be justified in objecting to any of them on artistic, theological, or other grounds, it simply makes no sense to object to them on adaptation grounds. There is no “true” story of King Arthur; Williams was free to do with whatever he jolly well pleased.

Can the same be said for the team adapting material from The Lord of the Rings appendixes for Amazon’s show, though? Well, yes and no.

The “no” part is obvious: There’s a settled text (the appendixes themselves). Unlike with Arthuriana, there’s one author. So that could mean these adapters don’t have as much wiggle-room.

On the other hand, “yes”: the producers, directors, screenwriters, and so forth do have quite a bit of freedom. Here’s why.

  1. There really isn’t one settled text of Tolkien’s works. He was an inveterate reviser, always niggling at his writings, never satisfied. He changed his mind about where orcs came from. He went back and forth about how some characters looked and what traits some of his races had. He drastically rethought in-world reincarnation. He even changed [and unchanged??] the whole shape of the planet in his world! He originally named Frodo “Bingo,” for crying out loud! Many, many of his works were not published–not even finished–in his lifetime, but were completed and published by his son Christopher. So while we may hold something in our hands that looks like the official, definitive source-book, that appearance is deceiving. There’s a long manuscript history behind that printed work. Something we may think is JRRT’s official or final word may not be. So we should be careful saying “Tolkien thought such-and-such” or “So-and-so is the way it is in Tolkien’s works.” He rarely thought just one thing for his whole life, when it came to a plot point or an element of his secondary world, and there is hardly ever just one way something appears in all the vast scope of his drafts, revisions, manuscripts, scribblings, and more.
  2. Tolkien himself was not “faithful” to either his source materials when he used them nor to his own earlier visions of the Legendarium. His Arthurian poem The Fall of Arthur, for instance, departs in a shocking way from most previous Arthurian works. In a ton of King Arthur stories from across 1500 years, Arthur refuses to pay tribute to Rome, then decides to go take on the Roman Empire and become Emperor himself. (In some, he succeeds). However, in Tolkien’s story, Arthur goes to defend Rome against her enemies! That’s pretty drastic. There are other changes in the ways he characterizes some of the key people, changes the tone, and so forth, but that’s a big one. He even tried to fold the whole Matter of Britain into his elvish mythology: a bold adaptation move if ever there was one.
  3. When a book is translated to the screen, it is utterly impossible to simple transfer the events, plot points, characters, etc. page-by-page or frame-by-frame, as it were. Even it such a thing were possible, it would be undesirable, because the result would be a bad movie. For one thing, books are so much longer than movies, and even in many cases than TV shows. The five volumes of A Game of Thrones for instance, take about 201 hours to listen to in audiobook format (that’s 8.375 days); the show (all 73 episodes from all eight seasons) would take ONLY three days and 16 minutes to watch. Clearly, a great deal of compression and selection must take place.
  4. Books and movies are completely different genres (as are, say, Medieval romances and modernist poetry). They require vastly different sets of techniques, conventions, skills, and so forth. To judge them against the same standards would be silly. Therefore, it is far more savvy to ground our appreciation of a book-to-film adaptation upon what makes a good movie, not on what it “got right” or wrong based on an artificial, superficial understanding of adaptation. In Linda Hutcheon’s words, let’s move beyond “fidelity discourse.”

So let’s do two things.

One: Let’s move beyond the tiresome repetition of “fidelity discourse” (what’s changed from the books) and instead engage in the much more interesting and thoughtful conversations about how stories change from one genre or medium to another, from one creator to another, and from one time period or culture to another.

Two: Let’s be kind. Let’s be humble. I sure don’t know all these little details about what JRRT wrote when about what, so I’m never going to assume anybody’s adaptive choices don’t have textual grounding. I’m going to try to give adapters the benefit of the doubt and the respect due to artistic freedom when I encounter the choices they make. I won’t always succeed; there’s still too much of that teenage snob left in me. But I know for sure that I’m thrilled to welcome diverse folks to the page, screen, and stage in any new adaptations and in the conversations about them. Let’s keep the lively conversations going, but never forget: we are called to be among

…those who lived by a frankness of honorable exchange,
labour in the kingdom, devotion in the Church, the need
each had of other; this was the measurement and motion
of process—the seed of all civil polity […].

This the Acts of the Emperor decreed to the world,
[…]
the taking of another to itself
in degree, the making of a mutual beauty in exchange,
be the exchange dutiful or freely debonair;                                             
duty so and debonair freedom mingled,
taking and giving being the living of largesse,
and in less than this the kingdom having no saving.

Charles Williams, The Founding of the Company

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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10 Responses to On Rings of Power and Adaptation

  1. Ed Powell says:

    The primary issue with Rings of Power is: if an adaption is done that deliberately adapts Tolkien’s material into an allegory (or quasi-allegory) of modern times, do you believe Tolkien would have approved or not approved of that adaption? And if you think Tolkien would have not approved, on what basis should fans of Tolkien bother giving the adaptation anything but scorn? If a person has to choose between being on the side of Tolkien (from Letter 210) or JJ Abrams, who of sound mind would chose JJ Abrams?

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Tangential note: trying to find out more about the writer of the script about which Tolkien is writing in Letter 210, I see that Janet Brennan Croft has written a paper, ‘Three Rings for Hollywood: Scripts for The Lord of the Rings by Zimmerman, Boorman, and Beagle’, published in Fantasy Fiction into Film: Essays (2007) and available at her Academia.edu account (as Janet Croft) in which she begins by noting that a copy of Morton Grady Zimmerman’s script with Tolkien’s annotations is at Marquette in the collection of Tolkien papers, there (before she goe on to discuss it). I also note that the edition of Tolkien’s Letters only includes “Some extracts from Tolkien’s lengthy commentary” and has elision marks (…) in much of the text which is included. How fascinating it would be to have an edition of the whole of that annotated script and all of Tolkien’s letter! Meanwhile, we can indeed be grateful for what has been published, e.g., ” The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggertion, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” (Matter for an essay question – or more than one: ‘Discuss.’)

      Like

    • Those are some good questions. I don’t think we need to choose, though. I think we can enjoy both as very different works in very different media with very different purposes.

      Like

  2. mehitchcock says:

    I actually just wrote a response on this very subject to someone else so I’m going to re-post it here so you see it. Two caveats: one I am aware that your calendar told us not to use the word actually and that you agree with it, but I’m keeping it right here because… Modern conventions. Two I am aware that La Morte D’Arthur is not THE definitive original work, But in many peoples minds it is and I think the way I use it here is clear. I just think it’s funny how similarly our thoughts ran on this topic.

    I feel the legendarium as written are beautiful and complete and one of our job as creatives and lovers of creativity would be to be the best possible stewards of his work and to pass the works on with diligent accuracy in their complete richness so that everyone has a chance to approach them in that same richness that once captured and set aflame our own imaginations. Christopher Tolkien very successfully made this his life’s work. And I feel gratitude towards him.

    The Amazon series is taking the long age of the story’s span and adapting it to within the lifetime of some main characters. The long years of the ages of middle earth are an important part of the story. Elves live forever and men must die and a constantly rotating cast of human characters wheeling around elves and gods is an integral part of the story. And focusing more on these immortal characters to achieve that same continuity and familiarity is a perfectly elegant solution the creators chose not to do. I imagine even adding a silent Ulmo or a watchful Olorin to the background of scenes they may not have actually been in would be a way to change details in the adaptation in a way that preserves the purity and meaning of the work.

    But all that being said, I am not bothered or at all concerned by the compressing of the events of the ages into the lifetime of some main human characters. I have a reason from within the text, a psychological reason, and a meta-textual reason that has to do with adaptations in general.

    The Silmarillion is written from the point of view of the immortal elves and it contains and exists in that ageless timeframe. It’s the history of the first children and as such it will always have primacy. But this television show is apparently told from the point of view of short-lived men and centered around men. So I don’t mind changes in that level of focus.

    One of the reasons humans have trouble seeing large slow changes that take place on a longer time span than a human life is because whatever life was like when we were between the age of 10 and 18 or so seems natural to us and any changes that take longer than 10 years are almost invisible to us. We minimize those changes psychologically. There’s some research on that.

    So even though the long slow decline of the Numenoreans is exciting to those of us who found a way to love it that particular type of story it’s less comprehensible to people and less exciting for television.

    Finally, for a story to become a legend and then an enduring myth, and I say this as someone who looks into the night sky and thinks “Eärendil” before I think “Venus”, it takes the work of many hands over many ages and cultures. The story of King Arthur, which is so rich and beautiful, and which has so much relevance in every new age, keeps that relevance by being retold in every new age using the language, genre conventions, and artistic advancements of its time.

    So for someone for whom the source material is important such as you and I and anyone who read this far as well as other scholars, we can take heart in the fact that at this point the only reason anyone is ever reading La Morte D’Arthur is because they saw Jonathan Boorman’s Excalibur, Disney’s sword in the stone, Camelot, Spamalot, or most recently, the green knight. After the Amazon prime series, more people will read the Silmarillion than would have before.

    So bring on this Amazon prime adaptation using all of the latest and most stylish genre conventions! Let’s get as many eyes as possible onto the old legend. The Silmarillion and Tolkien‘s work is only in the very late stages of being a mere story, and only in the very earliest stages of becoming an enduring myth and legend. Some purists will do the important work of passing on all the original works, the notes, the criticism, and the letters. While other creators and lovers of this work will continue to make new versions of the work. And so for these reasons I think all of us who truly love the work should be glad of the adaptation, no matter the niggling concerns we may have about accuracy, purity, or tone.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carl F. Hostetter says:

    “When a book is translated to the screen, it is utterly impossible to simpl[y] transfer the events, plot points, characters, etc. page-by-page or frame-by-frame, as it were.”

    So far as I am aware, at least as regards Tolkien, virtually no one disagrees with this statement. I certainly don’t. In fact, my criticism of various film adaptations, including (and perhaps most especially) the Peter Jackson films has nothing to do with what they left out, but with what they put in that had no business being there.

    It IS however, perfectly possible to “transfer” the major plot-points, characterizations, THEMES, and physics/metaphysics to the screen, if the creators care to discern and adhere to them. As Tolkien himself said of the Zimmerman treatment: “He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale adequately.”

    I honestly cannot see how this could or should be at all controversial, IF the desire is to make or receive a faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s work, that recognizes Tolkien’s own characterizations, themes, and physics/metaphysics. And to summarily dismiss ALL those who are concerned about such fidelity as simply “ists” or “phobes” (though I am sadly sure some are), is just, well, I’ll say it, lazy at best,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carl F. Hostetter says:

    An additional point: there is, surely, a difference between “reimagining” a work or body of work that has long since passed into the public domain (like Shakespeare), and one which must still be specifically _licensed and marketed_ to seek to profit from such a body of non-public-domain work. In the latter case, those who know anything about that body of work mostly expect a certain fidelity to that work. And dismissing those who object to lack of fidelity as simply “ists” or “phobes” isn’t likely to engender kindly feelings or interest in those people, There is NOTHING inherently wrong in fans of a body of work wanting fidelity to that work; nor is there ANYTHING inherently wrong in said fans objecting to an adaptation that fails to exhibit that fidelity. I objected vehemently to Jackson’s bastardization of the characters of Aragorn, Faramir, and Denethor (inter alia), and of Tolkien’s major themes of providence and perseverance in spite of the expectation of defeat; and to his insertion of such nonsense as Aragorn plummeting off a cliff and being thought dead, only to be revived by his horse kissing him, which he imagined to be Arwen; and to Gimli’s “no one tosses a Dwarf” line. Does THAT make me an “ist” or a “phobe”? Is EVERYONE wrong to have any expectation of fidelity to a licensed work, simply because it was “bought and paid for”?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tarí says:

    My concern is not with “fidelity” to the source texts as much as fidelity to the man. In the movie “Tolkien” JRRT’s devout faith was written out. The “show runners “ of this Amazon creation have “religious backgrounds”: that is vague enough to be pretty sure they are not Christians and may proceed to write out the values that were core to JRRT. He pointed out that LOTR was not an allegorical but Christians and Jews can recognize the Biblical underpinnings (the weak and small taking on giants, sins of the fathers, sacrifice, redemption, the third day and so on). Just saying you wouldn’t create a documentary on German shepherd dogs with your experts being a couple who had once visited a dog park. N’est-ce pas?

    Liked by 1 person

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