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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,Charles Williams, The Founding of the Company
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.