Thoughts on adaptations

by Tom Ingram

My review of The Hobbit focused almost entirely on how the movie relates to the book. I thought this was odd as I wrote it—I wanted to mention more specific information about the acting, the visuals, the music, but I couldn’t find a way to work it in and it didn’t seem all that important, compared to the overriding question of how well the transition to the screen was carried off. We know that The Hobbit is a good yarn, we know that Peter Jackson won’t make a movie that’s not at least watchable, we know Ian McKellen can act and Howard Shore can bang out a tune. These are not interesting questions to ask. On the other hand, “Did Peter Jackson fundamentally misconceive The Hobbit?” is.

We’re dealing here with a matter of minor controversy in the genre fiction community. On the one hand are the people who want to be told a story, preferably with guns and aliens and simplistic morality, and don’t care all that much about the way it is told. Such people are the reason that, e.g., Stephen R. Donaldson has a career as a writer. TV Tropes is important to them. Adapting a book to film is, to them, paying it a great compliment, and the result will always be judged based on how well it adheres to the source material.

On the other hand are the more educated and intelligent (but sometimes too clever by half) people, the ones who are able to join in on beatdowns of this guy while simultaneously holding this guy in contempt. They will point out that there is more to a novel than the sequence of events it narrates, that not everything will adapt well to the screen, that perhaps the adaptation should try to be good in its own right, in film terms, instead of slavishly following the book. They have, in general, a nicer and more sophisticated way of looking at the world, and if they read it they’d probably object to my Hobbit review. I think they’d be wrong.

Film adaptations are, at least in certain quarters of the genre fiction community, treated as a kind of performance art. These days the performance includes not just the final product, but an elaborate preshow during the development and a long after party consisting of reviews, breakdowns, and speculations about sequels. The adaptation has a source—some beloved comic book or science fiction novel—that is like the score of a musical work or the script of a play. We generally judge performances of plays or symphonies on their adherence to some Platonic ideal performance that does not actually exist but ought to—the “spirit” of the work. If you intend to deviate wildly from the generally accepted spirit of the work, the results had better either be interesting on their own terms or reveal that the consensus view is wrong.

For example, Glenn Gould’s recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier are bizarre, counterintuitive, and unlike any other rendition of the oft-recorded work. Some have found this inspiring, others irritating, but everyone agrees that his conception of Bach was interesting enough to justify the deviation from the spirit of the 48. Another example, again by Glenn Gould, is his infamous 1962 reading of Brahms’s first piano concerto. Gould’s performance was novel in particular for its unusually broad tempos: his Brahms was about 53 minutes long, ten minutes longer than, e.g., this 1953 recording or his own 1959 recording with the WSO. The reason for his long interpretation was (according to the Wikipedia page, following the liner notes) “some discoveries he had made while studying the score” and further research has vindicated him to some extent. And, it’s worth noting, modern performances of the Brahms concerto are usually of a length comparable to Gould’s (examples: 1, 2, 3). In other words, he convinced people that the way they had been thinking about Brahms all these years was wrong (whether he was correct or not is another matter).

[I apologize for the lack of a link to Gould’s complete recording. I have heard it, but it doesn’t appear to be available in full on Youtube. Here is a part of the first movement.]

Another special case is films that supersede the novel because for better or for worse, no one is likely to read the novel again now that there’s a movie (e.g., High Fidelity). These are more likely to be judged on their own terms simply because the source material is not familiar and it feels like a new work—just as a review of a concert including a non-repertoire piece is likely to focus on the piece itself just as much as the performance.

By this view, a good book that goes unadapted is like a good score that languishes unperformed. This is a little insulting to literature, perhaps—it implies that, at least for some purposes, a novel is no more than a sequence of events that exists solely for the hope that it may one day grace the screen with its presence. It allows some really terrible writers to continue to publish because their work is entertaining and might make a good movie (though it will probably never be adapted). Film theorists will probably not like it either. But it’s a theory that can explain a lot. It will take better aesthetic minds than mine to decide whether and to what extent this way of looking at movies and books is a good thing. But it seems to me it’s a view that is held by an awful lot of people but has never been formulated in any systematic way.