I’m a huge Tolkien fan; grew up watching the cartoons, listen to the BBC dramatizations, and of course reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy annually. I was endlessly excited about the first movies, dressed up with friends to go to the theater (something we sometimes did anyway, just for fun), and I even went to Trilogy Tuesday when The Return of the King was released. I could go on for hours discussing passionately why it bothered me every time they showed an elf using tack on a horse, or the character assassination they did of Faramir in The Two Towers, or how perfect Sean Bean was as Boromir, or…well, you get the idea.
There’s a situation every fan of an original work faces when an adaptation is made: how forgiving will you be of changes to the source material? As a geek, I tend to obsess and analyze pretty much everything. While there is nothing wrong with that approach and while it can be quite enjoyable, sometimes that can get in the way of appreciating the storytelling that is being offered.
It can be hard to separate the feelings and emotions and nostalgia you might have for the original from the adaptation, especially if it’s a story that has a lot of personal history for you. Seeing the adaptation, you might spend the whole time arguing in your head with the choices the creators made, picking apart every flaw and alteration. This can be a good exercise in critical analysis, but it’s not exactly a helpful frame of mind for losing yourself in a story.
My approach lately, thanks to the Bardic training over the last two years, is to think about adaptations in terms of oral storytelling traditions. The heart of the story is always present, but the details and events will evolve with each retelling and each storytelling, altered and embellished to become the most compelling it can be, the most meaningful or exciting, to that particular audience at that particular time. The idea that there’s only “one right way” to tell a certain story comes from having written accounts, but that’s an illusion. The old stories grew and changed as much as the people telling them; they were living things. Seen that way, new adaptations of original stories are simply the latest fashion in a very ancient and honored tradition.
With that line of thought, I can separate the original story — which is still whole and complete and able to be revisited at any time — from the evolved version, and enjoy it for what it is. I can compare the different versions from a position where my emotional investment isn’t at stake. I can see it from the viewpoint of a storyteller, and judge it accordingly.
That said, I’m really enjoying the Hobbit movies so far.
Yes, there’s a lot of changes and additions from the source material — even more that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in certain respects — but I honestly don’t have issue with that. They have kept a lot of little details while I get a thrill out of seeing (the blue butterflies above Murkwood spring to mind). I loved that they used some of the songs in the first movie, by the way, because the books are so full of songs and poems that it seems a shame not to include them. Parts of the first movie came off a bit silly for some people, but The Hobbit was a story for a child. It’s meant to have silly bits.
Of course, making one short book into a trilogy is a bit of an ambitious move, to say the least. However, I personally thing that a lot of the material they added was actually a very appropriate move. Including events Tolkien wrote about in the Indexes gives the story a broader picture of that time in Middle Earth. It’s still drawing from the same source, and it ties the story back into The Lord of the Rings Trilogy as setting up for the epic conclusion.
There are things they added that have no basis in the original writings, of course, but again I can see them as a product of both the medium (what works better in a movie than in a book), and of the times (what current storytelling requires in this era, as apposed to that era). There are very few changes that do not fall into one or the other of those categories.
It’s like the way the story of King Arthur grew and changed over the years and continents, adding the Round Table, adding the Holy Grail, added the love triangle, adding the sister and bastard son. Those parts can tell you so much about the society and politics, about the cultural priorities and beliefs. They become the rings of a tree, that can tell you the age and conditions of the original tale, and map out the path it took to get to you.
The words Tolkien wrote will always be center in my heart. The movies will join the cartoons and the BBC dramatizations to become part of the tale, to add to my experience and pleasure, to creating new paths and new places where I can immerse myself in Middle Earth. And for that gift, I will always be grateful.