Last time we talked about the difficulty of adapting the long, intricate storylines of a comic series into a movie. X-Men went on to be a trilogy although if you’re looking for good writing, there’s only two movies.
What if you already had a trilogy though? Wouldn’t that be tailor-made to a movie trilogy? What if that trilogy was the one work that stands as the genesis of modern fantasy? Wouldn’t that be tailor made to a fantasy movie? Well…
The Lord of the Rings: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson
The live action movies from Peter Jackson aren’t the first attempt to bring Tolkien to the big screen. They aren’t the first to make changes in adapting the story either but they are the only success. So how did Jackson and his team pull it off?
It’s a trilogy: The story is that Jackson concieved of a movie trilogy but couldn’t sell it. Everyone wanted one movie, which is flat out impossible. Apparently they sliced it down to a two movie draft and finally somebody at New Line said “Shouldn’t this be three movies?” to which PJ and team undoubtedly said “That’s a great idea! It’s a wonder we didn’t think of that.”
Making it a trilogy is an important adaptation because the books aren’t a trilogy. They’re six books that were published in three volumes to make it look like a trilogy. Whole books are devoted to one set of characters, and what they do, while we have no hint what everyone else is doing. Then Tolkien just goes back to where we left the others and takes a book to tell us what they did. That’s not going to work in a movie.
Each film should be an act in the trilogy but also has to have enough story to be viewed on its own. The biggest change to that end is cutting back and forth between Frodo and Sam’s adventures and the rest of the Ring Fellowship’s. In the books, the attack in Shelob’s lair happens at the end of The Two Towers. It’s a low point for Sam but just before the end we find out Frodo’s alive. I’m sure it made a helluva cliffhanger when the books came out but the pacing is wrong for the movies. A viewer has just gone through the grim battle at Helm’s Deep where, against all hope and reason, the good guys win. What’s next? A grim battle against the mutha of all spiders where, against all hope and reason, the good guys win. So, PJ just moves it into the third movie and it becomes an action packed opener and conveniently bulks up the third act which is pretty anemic in the books.
That takes us to pace. Forget about language, little people, funny clothes, and a WMD that looks like a wedding band. The real problem of adapting Tolkien is pace. In the book, after Bilbo’s party, Gandalf tells Frodo not to use the ring. Then Frodo sits around and gets fat for about twenty years. Twenty years! Finally Gandalf tells him this ring is some seriously bad mojo and he needs to get his ass out of the Shire. Frodo must have taken that to heart because it only takes him spring, summer, and most of autumn to leave. Somehow the Enemy picks up his track. Not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff. Contrast that with the movie:
Gandalf: Don’t use the ring
Frodo: Okay (goes and gets drunk at the pub. Comes home to find Gandalf hiding in his house)
Gandalf: That ring is evil! Run away!
Frodo: Yeah but I just–
Gandalf: I said run, man! You’ll be fine as long as you don’t see any dudes in black on big black horses.
Frodo: Okay (Runs away with Sam. Turns around and sees a dude all in black on a big black horse.) Holy crap! Run faster!
More tension. Faster pace. Stuff happens. Most people would not rank these movies as particularly fast paced (watch the director’s cuts back to back and you’re going to need most of a Saturday). But the writers had to make brutal cuts to get a movie pace. Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs is gone. Aragorn’s back story is hinted at and doled out slowly in the books, it’s a quick scene in the movie. The Scouring of the Shire is gone, the time in Lothlorien is cut down. Treebeard and the Ents get condensed.
In fact condensed is the best term. The leisurely pace and melancholy vein of the books are condensed by shortening and streamlining timelines By shortening speeches and sometimes ‘modernizing’ dialog. By giving dialog from charcters that didn’t make the cut to characters that did. By being in love with the source material enough to want to make it a good movie. That meant making some changes to what is a sacred text to a lot of people.
Next movie: Conan the Barbarian