Value in the Difference of Media: The Hobbit
Posted by erikthereddest
Hello everyone! Dr. Williams’ excellent post (and repost) regarding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as movie adaptations have highlighted a few broader issues that have been on my mind for some time now. Since the first of these Tolkien movies was released, I have wondered just why people respond so differently to them. Why does it bother people so much that Jackson created a film so different from Tolkien’s vision? More recently, this question has lead me to another, possibly more direct question:
Why do critics’ opinions of The Hobbit differ so significantly from those of the public?
While I certainly recognize that these movies have been marketed and generally understood as being adaptations (to adapt: to make fit [as for a new use] often by modification – Merriam-Webster.com), I think this word may not serve well for its intended
purpose. We would assume, for instance, that the ideal state of an adaptation from novel to movie is as an exact replica of the tone, setting, story, plot, characters, and spirit of a text to film, giving us a faithful rendering of every aspect of a book like The Lord of the Rings. I say “ideal” because everyone intuitively knows that every aspect cannot be rendered for the simply restriction of time. However, I believe we have become very wrongheaded about how we approach adaptations (and indeed, how directors approach adaptations), and this has created an irreconcilable tension between those who can enjoy the movie as a movie and those of us whose enjoyment is hindered by the pain of seeing our favorite book blasphemed. It strikes me that perhaps, industry-borne pretension aside, the critics may hold the answer.
At Least They Didn’t Whistle While They Worked
I have a story I like to tell about a family road trip where I convinced everyone to rent a dramatized audio version of The Hobbit to listen to as we drove. After enjoying the story at first, it wasn’t long until we came to the first song of the dwarves. This audio version was in no way abridged, and the actors playing the roles of the twelve dwarves rendered the songs with as much fidelity as possible. The result was nauseatingly silly and my family had a hard time believing this story was as good as I had told them it was. Luckily, I convinced them not to change to the local radio stations and we got past the awful singing to the rest of the story, which they enjoyed.
With this memory in mind, I was apprehensive when I heard about Jackson making The Hobbit (in three parts, no less). What could he possibly do with this charming story that Tolkien wrote to read to his children that would match the tone of the Lord of the Rings films? The Hobbit has a distinctly whimsical tone, focusing on Bilbo exclusively and rendering the other characters, even Gandalf, in very shallow terms in favor of simplicity. What were the motivations for each of the dwarves to join Thorin’s company? It doesn’t matter. Why did the goblins come out to fight in the Battle of Five Armies? It doesn’t matter. What is the place of dragons like Smaug in the broader world of Middle Earth? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is Bilbo’s adventure, being a small person completely out of his comfort zone, doing grand things and learning that even he can change the world.
I am not pointing to any weakness in Tolkien’s writing of The Hobbit by making it accessible to children. It’s not even very hard to justify its place with the other books because Tolkien cleverly made Bilbo himself the author. The whimsy and child-like qualities of the narrative can easily be interpreted as a hobbit’s version of the adventure, whereas if Balin or Gandalf had written it, we could imagine the story being told in a completely different manner more like the rest of the stories. The problem is this: how do you make a movie about Bilbo’s adventure that meshes with the gritty tone of the trilogy?
Like Translating Koine Greek to English
For starters, with the example of The Hobbit in mind, there seem to me a lot of things you can do in a novel that you can’t do very well (or in some cases, at all) in film:
- Omniscience – While it’s not very hard to show what a character sees from his perspective, it is next to impossible to show a character’s thoughts, especially multiple characters’, effectively in film. It quickly becomes very confusing to hear thoughts aloud, and there is no natural way to get inside the viewpoint character’s head.
- Transcending Time and Place – Novels can easily work at whatever pace the author sets, and he can take as long as he wants to describe landscapes, people, and events while truncating and stretching time intervals to fit whatever pace he wants through summaries. Films can skip time periods fairly easily (“Two years later…”) but there is no way to summarize events without narration, which rarely works in most films.
- Timelessness – There is no CGI in novels. Writers have very few technological hurdles to confront, whereas movie makers have to be very careful about how they handle special effects so that they don’t endanger the effectiveness of their story.
Likewise, there are many things that can be easily done in the medium of film that can’t be pulled off well in novels most of the time:
- Spectacle – There are entire movie franchises that are successful for the shear spectacular nature of the visuals they use. Add this attribute to a compelling story and you can leverage well-crafted imagery to augment every other aspect of your film. Complicated scenes can be absorbed in one mind-blowing glance, rather than taking page after page of description to fully sink in.
- Visually Implicit Meaning – How many times have we seen a vaguely cross-shaped object in a film and recognized its connection to a character or act as describing a Christ Figure? Now imagine trying to describe that as effectively in text without becoming either too vague or too heavy handed. This is the advantage of an expressly visual medium: subtlety of action, body language, and imagery can be taken instantly through visuals rather than description.
- Subconscious Cues – While this is possibly the most often abused tool of film-making, the use of musical or other audible cues to affect the emotions and perception of events is a basic example of how a film can affect its audience subconsciously. A text can of course also work on its reader on a subconscious level, but there are many more direct methods of doing so in film than in a novel.
All of this is simply intended to point out some ways in which reading a novel and watching a film can be different, which is important to remember when we attempt to dissect our reactions to these films. Critics, I would argue, are not only “not fans,” as Dr. Williams pointed out, but are intentionally looking for different things than we are when they see these films. What did they criticize in these films? What did they praise? Rottentomatos.com‘s critic aggregator, for example, puts The Hobbit at a passable 65%, whereas its audience rating sits at a very good 85%. That’s a pretty big difference.
While it is easy to write off negative reviews by criticising the critics (“Ooh, look who’s the artiste telling us pedestrians what to think about art”), I think the real issue is that movie critics are looking at where The Hobbit fails as a film, whereas we (myself and Dr. Williams included) are looking at where The Hobbit fails as an adaptation of a novel.
The problem amounts to a difference of value systems between differing media. We are attempting (especially in the case of adaptations of novels) to apply our value system for novels to a different medium, in this case, film. This is not to say that these value systems cannot accommodate different media, however, we must first examine what elements transcend books and film before we can accurately evaluate whether an adaptation is successful based on these values we find in books. Simply, we cannot expect to see something we value in a novel translate to film if film does not have an adequate analog. We will always, unfairly, find it lacking.
But, this is far more than enough for one week. Next week I’ll start breaking down what elements transcend media and attempt to define how I believe we should approach different media as writers as well as audience. Until then, what parts of The Hobbit do you think didn’t translate well in Jackson’s adaptation? How would you have done it differently? Let me know in the comments below!
About erikthereddestI'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.
Posted on February 13, 2013, in Authors, Books, Erik Marsh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and tagged books to movies, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.