Dec 18

It has no other master.

Posted by A Writer


I'm not a big fan of the term "fanboy"; it conjures up images of XBox/Playstation 3 Geek Wars with everyone normal losing (just kidding, l33t denizens, I like video games too.  Not as much as you, but I like them. Smile).  But I have to admit that this morning's news that Peter Jackson has reached agreement with New Line Cinema to produce The Hobbit has gotten me more than a trifle excited.  Why?  First, because it means we'll get to see two more films based on one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers…and second, because it means we'll get to see the films based on the books, not based on the titles.  What made Jackson's handling of The Lord of the Rings films so spectacular was not the whizbang special effects (although those were admittedly cool) or the realism of the battle scenes (although those were absurdly sweet…have I hit full fanboy status yet?), but rather his understanding the fact that as cool as those things were, they weren't really the point of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.  Ultimately the heroic sacrifices and epic battles are being fought as much for the little, everyday places of The Shire as they are for the restoration of Minas Tirith's majesty–and thus even at the most elaborate, over-the-top moments of the film, Jackson never forgot the importance of Frodo and Sam's individual struggle to get through Mordor, both smaller and simultaneously more significant than the wars being fought elsewhere in Middle Earth.  In short, he was (usually) true to the spirit of the books, and that was probably his most significant achievement.  A friend of mine likened the accomplishment to walking through a minefield miles long with mines set at three foot intervals, somehow getting through the whole business tripping (perhaps) one or two of them at most.  Given the disastrous adaptations which have been hitting the screen in the past few years, a single blown mine here and there seems to indicate an act of miraculous genius.

But while I heaved a sigh of relief that The Hobbit will be in good hands (Jackson may only direct one of the films, but his rumored choice to direct the other would be Guillermo del Toro, and that guy's not too shabby either), I started thinking about why I had to sweat this out as much as I did.  Fantasy and science fiction has never been more popular at the box office (I'll leave The Golden Compass out, which I have neither seen nor read and which has been underwhelming in terms of revenue), and you could make the argument that in some ways this is the golden age of speculative fiction and film.  So why are the film adaptations so lousy?  It's certainly not the source material; I, Robot is a wonderful book; A Wizard of Earthsea is an underrated work of fantasy; Beowulf is obviously a seminal piece of literature; and Eragon…well, okay, yeah, Eragon is a piece of crap to begin with.  Even Jeremy Irons couldn't save that garbage.  But for the most part, we're dealing with great books which have tended to get terrible treatment on the silver screen.  What gives?  And how do we save more works of fantasy from entering the Dungeons and Dragons territory (I mean the movie, not the game.  Any time that one of the Wayans brothers is the best part of your film, you know you've got problems.)?

Some of the issues vary from film to film, but I think there are a couple of universal problems which need serious consideration.  So I've whipped up a couple of handy commandments for producers, directors, and writers to live by.  Follow these precepts and you're less likely to turn gold into lead, which while an impressive achievement is kind of a bummer for people who really think gold is a good thing to keep around.

Thou Shalt Not Forget The Point Of The Book.  Now I know that movies are different animals from books, and that you just can't keep everything in a movie adaptation without challenging the four hour mark (Bollywood routinely blows this mark away, but…well, actually, if this is a Bollywood characteristic I shouldn't have to say anything more about what's bad about doing it, should I?); this is why removing Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring movie was a good decision, even though I liked his character in the book.  Ultimately the book is not focused on him but on the Ring (in fact Bombadil's lack of interest in the Ring is a clue to this) and the Fellowship's quest to destroy it, and sticking around so Bombadil can chatter more funny stuff about weeping willows while smiling at his trophy wife just doesn't fit that focus if you want to save time.  But as I said before, the ultimate point of the books isn't lost in the films, and you get the sense that this is what Tolkien would have wanted in a film version of his work.  Compare that to, oh, say, I, Robot, (*spoilers ahead, though frankly the whole goddamn film is spoiled if you ask me*) where a book which was revolutionary because it suggested that robots would not take over and destroy humanity, and in fact might be better moral agents than humans, gets converted into an "OMG robots are so scary look they're trying to kill us and Will Smith knew it all along OMG they're so scary!!!111!!" dystopic flick (have I mentioned how tired I am of dystopias?) with a twist of "let's make Susan Calvin a hot chick so we can get a gratuitous shower scene" thrown in for good measure.  Or Beowulf, which I've already talked about elsewhere

In both of these cases, a great story is butchered for no apparent reason, with the result that the actual story will have to wait, possibly forever, to get told for real.  (I, Robot, in fact, is not even based on the book.  It was originally a half-assed script thrown together by some jackass which was ultimately tweaked and renamed when the I, Robot franchise came calling.  But hey, why should we use the Harlan Ellison version, which had Asimov's explicit approval?  As if Ellison knows anything about sci-fi!)  But the point here is that it is not necessary; the books themselves have plenty of action, drama, suspense, and plain old fun without throwing in random shower scenes.  When you start asking third-rate screenwriters to "adjust" first-rate authors, I promise something is going to get lost in the translation.  In the name of all that is holy, do your homework (like Jackson did), read the books, talk to experts, and find someone willing to draw upon the spirit of the work for the screenplay before seeing what happens when you throw the whole business into a blender with a high-heeled Angelina Jolie.

Thou Shalt Not Let SciFi Touch Your Work.  Ever.  Even If They Say They Will Be Really Really Careful With It.  Now look, no one is more grateful for the SciFi Channel and their constant Star Trek reruns than I am…and Farscape was pretty good, until they inexplicably cancelled it in favor of keeping Richard Dean Anderson in a job.  But anyone who was unlucky enough to see the abomination SciFi called Earthsea knows that it's a bad, bad idea to get the rights to a book without asking the still-living author how best to produce that book on screen–because this trash is the result.  It's bad enough that they tried to squeeze three books into one short miniseries, and even worse that Ged's shadow (*more spoilers, but seriously, why would you care?*) somehow became the Toxic Avenger, but changing colors (literally–Ursula Le Guin always emphasized the importance of the fact that the vast majority of her characters in the book were dark skinned) is unforgivable.  Instead the producers decided to roll out Danny Glover to play the black wizard supporting the far more powerful white kid who needs his help (what, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale weren't available?) while the rest of the super-white cast ogle each other in a series of nauseating Beverly Hills 90210 moments.  Now why Le Guin felt she needed to give up her rights in the first place is another story (and one I don't think she's very convincing in trying to explain), but the point is that SciFi is completely hopeless with this kind of stuff (and it's not getting better–look at Tin Man if you don't believe me).  Stay away from them like the plague.

All of which brings us back to Jackson.  Given how terrible the adaptation could have been, and how many mistakes he could have made with the seminal work of fantasy in our time, the fact that he made so few (yeah, Faramir doesn't work quite right, and Sam's advice to Frodo about the Ring in that same part of the movie is completely wrong…but that's still a pretty damn good track record on the whole) is well nigh miraculous…and that's yet another reason to rejoice that he's now in charge of the films of The Hobbit.  Ultimately, at least with Tolkien, Jackson subjugates his own ego to the work he is directing, and that's probably the biggest commandment of all: Thou Shalt Not Put Yourself Above Your Source Material.  The more that directors, producers and movie studios get this last commandment in their heads, the more we'll all be spared deadly robots and Toxic Avengers–and that, my friends, is (in the words of Gandalf) an encouraging thought, even for a fanboy.

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