Adaptation Troubles (Part Four)

Alright, so presumably you’ve read all three previous parts of this series, which means I don’t have to explain very much to you. Suffice it to say that his is it, the promised final post, where I clear everything up for everyone and tie everything up in a neat little package. Hopefully, anyway.

Let me begin with the complaint regarding the three women: Arwen, Tauriel, and Susan. Here’s the deal: my problem is not as much with the “women fighting” concept in and of itself (that is a discussion for another time), but with how these three women in particular are characterized. I’ll start with Arwen: her characterization goes all over the place, from awesome horsewoman who can outrun Ringwraiths in Fellowship to fragile flower who, admittedly briefly, wusses out on her commitment to Aragorn at Elrond’s behest. Tauriel’s problem is not so much that she’s there, it’s that her very presence apparently causes jokes about trouser content (I’ll be hanged if that didn’t feel out of place), a detrimental to the story romance subplot that causes out of character behavior from everyone, an utterly unnecessary splitting of the dwarves, and thirty minutes of random nonsense that could have been spent on, say, further developing the Dol Gulder subplot, character development for the dwarves, or chronicling Bilbo’s time in the elven caves–also character development. And Susan–well, while the romance subplot with Caspian isn’t as bad, it still feels tacked-on and ridiculous, while the action scenes with her by herself are kind of nuts. Cool, but still–and also seem like they’re there to further the romance subplot. Said action scenes are part and parcel of the next problem, which is…

The inclusion of utterly unnecessary conflict, and it is rampant in all of these adaptations. Hey, we’ve got a book with two possible storylines: a small band going to reclaim their ancestral home, and the driving back of a rising evil. Oooh, let’s add in two different class conflict subplots and add in a romance subplot and mix it a little with one of the class conflict subplots to add to movie runtime, while also throwing in a revenge subplot that will further the romance subplot. All of this adds at least an hour of runtime to the two Hobbit movies, an hour that could have been saved or used for furthering the characters or the actual plots. But no. For that matter, we’ve got a book with an epic war and a quest going on. Ooh, let’s have the romance subplot not be settled yet, have someone act out of character and try to derail the quest, have leaders of nations cause problems for everyone by acting like moronic dirtbags, have the returning king question whether he’s supposed to be king, and have good entities act like they’re neutral. Oh, wait, there’s a subplot about a people coming into their own? Nah, can’t fit it in. Sorry. Then, oh look, we’ve got two stories about those who should rule a kingdom overthrowing those who don’t. Let’s have the king in the first one doubt himself, then, in the next one, have the same character be an utter jerk towards his sister and the king-to-be, and get a bunch of people killed so we can have a conflict over whether to call back the previous usurper to “help” and further the shoehorned-in romance subplot with a rescue scene that would have been completely unnecessary without the raid scene. However, even all of this unnecessary conflict would have been more bearable if…

A whole bunch of characters hadn’t been undermined to cause it. The romance subplots in the Tolkien adaptations turn Thranduil and Elrond into bullying jerks, while the outward conflict subplots require turning two competent and not-quite-villainous authority figures–the Master of Laketown and Denethor–into incompetent psychotic dunderheads, and two competent and awesome authority figures–Theoden and Faramir–into whiners, each a weakling in his own way. Meanwhile, the inner conflict subplots–Arwen and Aragorn–turn two confident, heroic characters into self-doubting angst-ridden teenagers. Meantime, Gandalf loses to the Witch-King so’s Eowyn looks even better. Meanwhile, in Narnia, Peter, especially in the second movie, changes from the High King to the High Jerk, and does so only to provide some sort of obvious character development (a common problem, by the way–apparently no one does subtle character development anymore) as well as a source of conflict, because apparently there wasn’t enough dramatic impact in fighting back attempted genocide–literally. It’s almost like the directors in question didn’t quite get the books…

And they didn’t. This is really the overarching problem, along with a heaping dose of postmodernism. Apparently, somehow, despite the fact that the books as written are some of the biggest bestsellers of the entire late 20th century, the directors thought they could improve on them by pulling out elements like the return of Narnia to the Narnians in Prince Caspian, or the Shire to the Hobbits in Return of the King and throwing in elements to make them more “accessible” to 21st century audiences–heroes who often don’t act heroic, even though they should by now, as they have already done their growing (there’s the postmodernism), lack of subtlety (especially in the humor), and the belief that, because conflict is needed for a story, more of it automatically makes a story better, and the movie will also make more money. In the case of the Narnia movies, this was proven to not always be the case, as the first made hundreds of millions of dollars, while the second made much less than that. This is also true of the Tolkien adaptations–the first trilogy made it back tenfold, while the Hobbit movies have been hitting fivefold, max. Still a good return on investment, but not as good as previously. Why?

Because, not to put too fine a point on it, fixing something that isn’t broken tends to make it not work as well as it used to. If a story is told well, don’t assume that you know better than the original storyteller how to tell it, because you’re more advanced in your thinking than he is. To think so is the height of arrogance and provincialism of the temporal kind, and will lead to trouble.

If you’re telling a story, just tell the story, ‘kay? And if you think you can’t tell it as it is for some reason or other, let someone tell it who can.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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