When Christopher Tolkien recently broke a 40-year public silence in Le Monde, he did not have kind words for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
Tolkien snubbed an invitation to meet with Jackson, and, as his father’s literary executor, he has sworn not to allow adaptations of material over which he has control (like The Silmarillion). Had it been his choice, Jackson’s blockbusters would likely never have been produced, and certainly not in their present form. But it wasn’t his choice. In 1969, United Artists made a prescient purchase from the elder Tolkien: £100,000 for full rights to movies and derived products for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And that was that.
The result, according to Christopher Tolkien, was nothing less than disastrous: “[J.R.R.] 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.”
Admirers of Jackson’s work may find such comments a touch melodramatic, if not downright inaccurate. Salman Rushdie, for instance, appears to favor the films over the originals: “Jackson’s cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien’s prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits.”
Then again, there’s A.O. Scott on The Hobbit: “Tolkien’s inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.”
Taste is a difficult thing to arbitrate, making debates like these fun but virtually irresolvable. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the participants all share a common assumption, which often remains unexamined. Rushdie puts it simply: “Everyone accepts that stories and movies are different things.” Indeed. But how, exactly? Is one a higher art form than the other? More illuminating? More demanding? Does one strengthen children’s brains while the other is more likely to rot them?
Perhaps it would be best to leave pronouncements of relative quality to the critics, and instead take this opportunity to reflect on the objective differences between books and movies.
There is no better place to start than with J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who analyzes precisely this issue in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which appears in Tree and Leaf. Concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of illustrating fantasy, he devotes a long footnote to the difference between “true literature” and all art (including drama and the “cinematograph”) that offers a visible presentation:
Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.
This is strong language from a man whose color illustration of The-Hill-at-Hobbiton served as the frontispiece for most early editions of The Hobbit. Was Tolkien ruining his own book, forcing impressionable readers to accept his picture, denying them the opportunity to exercise their imaginative capacities?
The idea that books leave more room for the imagination is a commonplace, and this quality is usually understood as a virtue. Books, even trashy ones, require some effort from the reader, while movies allow for unadulterated passivity and laziness. Tolkien’s so-called “dramatic producer” does the work for you, making the artwork easy and less personal.
Yet the notion that movies are by nature limiting needs to be nuanced. Sure, there are no visuals in an unillustrated book. But it is not therefore true, as Jen Doll asserts at The Atlantic Wire, that books are simply “a compelling descriptive outline,” which you can “play your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.” One virtue of books is that authors can reveal characters’ inner motivations in great detail — a virtue that limits the readers’ ability to speculate about those motivations. (Proust’s Narrator isn’t exactly up for grabs in In Search of Lost Time.) Another virtue of books is their length — which allows authors to narrate scenes that in films must be left to the readers’ imagination.
And while we’re on the subject, what’s intrinsically great about freedom? If we push Tolkien’s logic a little bit further, authors do readers a disservice whenever they narrow the scope of imaginative possibilities. James Joyce turns me into a passive lump of receptivity when he describes his protagonist, Gabriel, in “The Dead”:
He was a stout, tallish young man. The high color of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes.
Better: “He was a young man.” Now my imagination can run wild!
Similarly, dramaturges would be doing us a disservice by putting on plays, directors would be cheating us by bringing screenplays to life, and chefs would be destroying the pure literature of recipes by specifying both appearance and flavor.
One rarely hears complaints about vividly detailed descriptions as such. Nor do people assert that “adaptations” of screenplays into movies or plays into stage productions somehow reduce aesthetic and philosophical impact. The upshot of all this is that exercising the imagination, whatever that means, is not always best, and books aren’t necessarily better at doing it than movies. (Which is a great relief to me, since I don’t want to feel bad about passively populating Roald Dahl’s entire universe with Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations.)
Even the most die-hard critics of cinematic adaptation have their own favorite exceptions. I love Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it by reading Kesey’s book. And so, if we accept that books aren’t formally superior to movies and adaptations aren’t necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment?
Part of the answer is that Tolkien is wrong: when we read about bread, we don’t just think of bread in general. Our minds fashion a specific image of the bread upon first encountering it, and then that image stays with us, in all its specificity, as we continue reading. The Elvish bread known as lembas does not change form each time it appears in Tolkien’s ouevre: my mind decided what lembas looked like when I first read the word, and it supplies that initial vision whenever I read it again.
These fixed images then compete with the fixed images provided by a director, and the power of first impressions is difficult to overcome. For that reason, even skillful novelizations of good movies (like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars novels) can feel like they miss the mark. Attachment to original experience is a powerful force.
Another problem is that adaptations are usually inspired by masterpieces. Richard Brody puts it well: “A director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others… but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Asymmetry of ability favors the more talented artist, regardless of form. That’s why Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss is better than Cameron’s original. Arthur C. Clarke + Stanley Kubrick = Great. Arthur C. Clarke + Pretty Much Anyone Else = Doubtful.
That said, there is one quality of films that makes them susceptible to being lousy. They are expensive. Studios must ensure the profitability of their product, and when it comes to good art, the customer — or the product placement sponsor — is not always right. Limiting artists with the demands of consumers often hampers the creative process and product. (In a similar vein, the limitations on filmmakers imposed by MPAA ratings are nicely documented in This Film is Not Yet Rated.)
In this sense, Christopher Tolkien is right to bemoan commercialization. The upcoming adaptation of Candyland from board game to film will undoubtedly fail to do justice to the original. Why? Well, I don’t think I’m remiss in suggesting that Hasbro Studios, the force behind films like Battleship, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Candyland, might be less concerned with good art than with profit. The same principle explains the frequency of bad film sequels (a phenomenon that is substantially less common with books).
The recent explosion of extraordinary graphic novels is evidence that bias against a particular art form is likely unjustified. (A comic book? scoffs my mother when I recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories.) Contra Tolkien, “true literature” is not inherently more progenitive. Great art of any kind can work from mind to mind. And, in the end, it is not books but great art that is sacrosanct, and it is great art that is threatened by adaptation.
That’s why the goons at Hasbro would do well to heed Brody’s cautionary words before reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Eleanor Abbott’s Candyland: “Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.”