Friday, February 24, 2006

Of Movies and Books

Kevin Wolf didn’t like Peter Jackson's King Kong. I haven’t seen it. The main reason I didn’t go is that 3 hours in a movie theater is too much for me. I’d rather watch a movie of that length at home, perhaps over two nights. I expect that I will eventually rent the DVD and watch it. I will probably enjoy it on a certain level, but part of the reason that I believe that is because I don’t expect more than it can deliver.

It’s difficult to discuss any Peter Jackson effort without mentioning “The Lord of the Rings.” I’m going to admit right here and now that I can’t be objective on the subject, because I’ve read “The Hobbit” and the “LOTR” trilogy more times than I care to admit, and I thought that Jackson did a fantastic job of bringing the story to the big screen. (I choose those words carefully. He brought the story to the big screen.)

I mentioned that I liked the film version of “LOTR” in the comment section of Kevin’s original post, and the erudite Simon responded in the comment section with this:

“I guess everyone has different interpretations of things, luckily they captured the essence of the books to your eyes. It was so far from my own personal concept that I wondered if they'd even read the last two books, let alone understood them.”

“For example, this is a small detail, but *very* important. At the end of their journey Jackson shows the hobbits returning home to an untouched shire. I'm not pedantic enough to be too fussed that the 'Scouring Of The Shire' has been removed, but the *emotional weight* of the cost of the war to the hobbits is downplayed. After a brief sense of feeling like outsiders, the hobbits slip back into their old roles. The concept becomes "everything can be exactly how it was again" where the books make it quite clear that the experiences of war have changed them and their world, and gives the books greater weight than being just a silly fantasy story.”

I started to respond to Simon in the comments section, but I realized that his thoughts prompted more than just a couple of sentences.

Movies are linear; books are not. Movies are two-dimensional; books are not. When we read an excellent book, we disappear into the book. We feel as if we are active participants. We experience the story, instead of merely being told the story. The story happens to us. Not so with film. In the best books, the characters become real in a way that is just not possible in a film. You often become privy to their thoughts, their motivations and their emotions. The medium of film is different. We are watching the story. In the best films, we connect with the characters, we feel their emotions on a certain level - but we are being shown and told the story. It is a completely different form of communication than the written word.

When a filmmaker decides to bring a book to life in the form of a movie, he has to accept up-front that he is retelling the story in a different form, and has to choose which themes he is going to attempt to preserve. Now I’m not a literary professor, nor am I an expert in film, but I believe that the medium of film has a limit to the number of themes it can adequately convey, and that number is somewhat smaller than what can be conveyed in a book. When a filmmaker attempts to translate a book as thematically complex as “The Lord of the Rings,” he has to make those choices, or he is destined for failure. I think a fair discussion would definitively include the question, “Did the filmmaker choose appropriately?” In this case, I think he did. Sometimes a movie version of a book will actually prompt me to read (or re-read) the original, and I think this is a good thing.

I can infer from Simon’s original comments that Peter Jackson’s choice of implying that the Shire was untouched by the war was a cop-out, done to make the film more palpable to the American audience, and perhaps he is correct. The cost of war -- in terms of human suffering, damage to the culture and the land -- is certainly something that many Americans need to learn more about, but is it realistic to expect a film to teach us that lesson? I don’t think so. Besides, I believe the cost-of-war theme is not entirely absent from the film to begin with, so his choice of omitting the war's effect on the Shire is at least defensible as an artistic one, especially when you consider the length of the films.

One of themes that Jackson did preserve from the book was at the end of the first installment, where Samwise tells Frodo that there is good in the world that may be worthy of their suffering and perhaps their deaths. I often think of that scene when I become jaded and pessimistic and I feel like giving up the fight against the neo-conservative movement.

As I’ve gotten older, I look to different art forms for different reasons. More and more I watch a movie for its pure entertainment value. Some of my favorites are “Men In Black, “ Galaxy Quest,” and “Dodgeball.” For classics I like “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” and “12 Angry Men” to name a few. I love those movies, but they aren’t as important to me as my favorite books, which in addition to the “Lord of the Rings” include “The Glass Bead Game, “Siddhartha,” “Zen in the Art of Archery” (which I really need to read again soon,) “Huckleberry Finn,” and (dare I say it) some of Stephen King’s novels. Though I believe that film as an art-form is capable of enlightening an audience as well as entertaining it, due to the realities of the business I don’t think it is reasonable to expect both. Some may view this as tragic or at least disappointing, but I choose to accept it as a product of our fast-food culture. While I’m delighted when I come across a film that delivers on both (“A Clockwork Orange” comes to mind, and more recently “The Remains of the Day” or “13 Conversations About One Thing”) I’m quite content to just sit back and enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie purely for entertainment. When I want more than that, I reach for a book.


Blogger fgfdsg said...

Good thoughts Viscount, I hope you didn't take my comments as a personal attack on you for liking LOTR, we've all got different tastes and my opinions are just my opinions. I was just explaining why King Kong didn't work *for me* and why I thought Jackson was a bad filmmaker, (admittedly surrounded by very talented people).

Trust me, I like some *very* stupid films. (Yes, including "Galaxy Quest" - and I'm probably only one of the five people on the planet who greatly enjoyed "Sky Captain and The World Of Tomorrow" which is a better "King Kong" than Jackson's).

I understand movies are just entertainment, and I can usually take them as such, but *on their terms*. If LOTR had just been a quick run through of the action beats of the books, then fair enough, but it hints at the deeper concepts with a lot of the characters speeches, (especially Sam's), which then makes me expect them to treat the themes honestly and fairly, since *they were the ones that took the dialogue to that level*.

Rather than just attack LOTR, I was more trying to expand upon the idea of just how different people's perceptions of the same source material can be.

I understand the obvious need for movies and books to be different, but for me, LOTR shares the name, characters and some events with the book, but the feeling from the movie is so different to my personal interpretation of its moods and thems that I can't quite reconcile it as "the Lord Of The Rings".

Did you see the movie of "Sense and Sensibility" that Emma Thompson adapted for the screen about 10 years ago? It's just as free an adaptation of the book, but to me she identified all the important underlying themes of the work, noted the important story points and added her own personal spin on the reality of the options of women at the time. It's not literally a straight adaptation, but works - so i can reconcile it as "Sense and Sensibility".

You think I was rough on it? One of my friend seems to know more about Middle Earth than real world history, to the depths that it scares me sometimes when he talks about it. We came out of the Two Towers, and he started a "What the hell was *that*?" Rant that ran almost as long as the movies. Some funny things I remember:

"Elves at Helm's Deep? I guess they didn't quite understand the concept of 'The Last Alliance of Men and Elves'"

"Sauramon is directly controlling Theoden? Why the hell does he need Wormtongue then?"

"Great, the Ents are supposed to be the most ancient and wise creatures in all of Middle Earth, and they're turned into moronic comic relief tricked by Hobbits"

"Sam and Frodo reach Osgiliath in time for the battle with the Witch King's Army that they actually see departing from Minas Morgul later on, when they reach the Hidden Stairs! Is this 'Back to the Future?'.

It's funnier if you imagine it in a Simpson's Comic Book Guy Voice. Even I wasn't that pedantic.

3:24 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

I hope you didn't take my comments as a personal attack on you for liking LOTR, we've all got different tastes and my opinions are just my opinions.

Of course I didn't take it personally Simon. I have too much respect for you and your opinions. I know you know the difference between a book and a movie, but I wanted to clarify my own thoughts on the subject which were prompted by your comments.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. When I don't agree with you I still find your writing and your opinions compelling and food for thought.

By the way, your friend is a geek.

3:52 PM  
Blogger cali said...

Someone very close to me is a filmmaker. She hates LOTR! lol...

Everyone now and then, a film can be as captivating as a book. I love films. The sense of place...the music and sounds...even the ritual of going to a favorite theater and coming out later feeling as if your world has changed in some waking from a beautiful dream

I've gone in the opposite direction from you, Al. I get cranky with mediocre films and can't watch them just to be entertained. There are too many undiscovered good films - films with meaning. I've grown extremely picky about what I watch. I'm the same with books now. If a book doesn't grab me fairly soon (and I don't read them without having first considered them worthy of my time via reviews and word of mouth from friends) I stop reading it and find another.

6:08 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

I've gone in the opposite direction from you, Al.

Maybe not.

I get cranky with mediocre films and can't watch them just to be entertained.

Me neither.

There are too many undiscovered good films - films with meaning. I've grown extremely picky about what I watch.


If a book doesn't grab me fairly soon I stop reading it and find another.

Me too.

6:14 PM  
Blogger fgfdsg said...

Viscount - the entire problem with my life is i've never been able to stop *constantly thinking*, even when trying to relax.


I'm the same with books now. If a book doesn't grab me fairly soon... ...I stop reading it and find another.

I had this thing when I was younger that if i picked up a book and started reading it, it meant i had to finish it. I suppose it's the childlike triumph of having read so much - perhaps a form of 'mental collection'. Then, when I was about 24 or so, i suddenly realised just how much bad writing there was out there, and how often i'd finish a book and think it was awful and i'd wasted my time.

I've learnt by now, if it's not good in the first 40 pages, (probably the most important part of a book), odds are it's not going to improve much.

As such, I mainly read non-fiction now.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Bob Dwire said...

I gave up on LOTR after part II (which was a non film for me) and have not sat through YAROKK. But I want to talk about film as book in particular reference to Brokeback Mountain. I discovered the booklet shortly after it came out (not in the New Yorker) and have read it about 5 times, a couple of times out loud, in a vain attempt to understand how it works. How on Earth does Annie Proulx tell so much story with so few words? To this day, I don't know.

When a friend said Ang Lee was making the film I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. (Note that he also made Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility.) I tried to keep away from trailers, previews, reviews and the like. And when I saw it I was blown away all over again. Somehow the movie is as spare as the book, and not just because Heath Ledger mumbles his few words so perfectly. Even though the film fleshed out the book to a considerable degree (and I love Larry McMurtry's books too), the feeling of much being made from nothing persisted. It's an amazing trick, and while there may be good (and bad) films based loosely on books, I know of no film that is quite so clearly the film of the book.

Galaxy Quest is simply brilliant, but that's another story.

10:35 AM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Galaxy Quest is simply brilliant, but that's another story.

It was good on so many levels. Even my kids, who of course didn't get the Star Trek references liked it on its own merits.

And Alan Rickman was perfect!

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Bob Dwire said...

We're all going to die.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Lance Mannion said...

Good post, made even better by the proper respect and appreciation shown for Galaxy Quest.

"Never give up...!"

7:41 PM  

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