Now, quite beside the legal imbroglio between the Tolkien Estate and New Line over the royalties that may or may not have been paid over the LOTR films, I understand Mr. Tolkien’s opposition. I’m constantly telling my own students they need to understand that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth are two very different places. Why?
Well, to begin with, Professor Tolkien was a scholar writing his works with a deep knowledge of Northern European literature during a time frame from around the First World War until the 1950s; and he was doing so from the perspective of a quintessential early 20th century WASP male (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant --- except he was Roman Catholic, not Protestant; but you get my point). That’s one reason why, I think, Tolkien’s female characters generally suck like a vacuum cleaner. The late Roger Ebert said in his review of the first LOTR film that Tolkien’s tale proceeded at times with the leisurely nature of a Victorian travel guide.
Peter Jackson, on the other hand, was making films by and for 21st century audiences, and as Mr. Ebert also says, Jackson couldn’t help himself from ramping up LOTR into a special-effects laden, swords and sorcery action extravaganza. (It’s a matter of personal sorrow to me when I tell my students that, if Professor Tolkien were alive and unknown as an author today, and brought the LOTR manuscript to publishers, I very much doubt any would publish it. The same holds true with C.S. Lewis, I’m also sad to say. Literary and filmic audience tastes change dramatically over time, and today’s jaded audiences are nothing like those of 70 years ago.)
Getting back to my assertion that the two visions of Middle Earth --- Tolkien’s and Jackson’s --- are markedly different… it took me quite a while to reconcile that truth for myself; I didn’t especially like the Jackson films at first (I’ve since made my peace with them and can enjoy them on their own merits) because they were guilty of the sin I think many film adaptations are guilty of: in a number of respects --- some films more than others --- they’re not faithful to the books from whence they come. And as a purist, I don’t care for that very much. It seems like a desecration, somehow.
(One of the worst examples of this is a 1950s cartoon adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm --- apparently funded in part by the CIA --- in which the story’s ending is rewritten so the animals overthrow the pigs in order to restore truth, justice and the American way to Animal Farm. Are you freaking kidding me, guys? I remember thinking in outraged disbelief when I first viewed this abomination. You just destroyed the entire point of Orwell’s masterful tale, you morons. Sigh. Oh, the humanity.)
And all this comes about because of a little phrase we see in the opening credits of films: “based on the book by…”
Based on. Not “retold verbatim.” Not “faithfully rendered according to the Master’s words.” Nope. Based on. Which means, essentially, “we’ve paid for the privilege of obtaining the rights to the author’s story, and so will now proceed to tell it in whatever manner we think is most effective --- including adding and deleting events, characters, dialogue, settings, themes, motifs, symbols and just about anything else we want. At will. And boy oh boy, sometimes, we have a lot of will.”
So… why has the Tolkien Estate made this deal? And in general, why do authors sell the film rights to their stories? (I doubt Christopher Paolini can possibly have been pleased with the filmic adaptation of Eragon.) Well, being a poor and obscure author myself, I can only speculate as to the reasons.
The first and most obvious one is Money (although apparently Tolkien originally sold the rights to The Hobbit and LOTR for a relative pittance). If one has a hot literary property, the film rights can command a pretty penny, and while I think most of us would like to pretend the writing is all about ars gratia artis and all that, there’s no denying even writers gotta make a living.
The second reason could be Exposure. It’s a sad truism in our visually obsessed society nowadays that many people don’t want to read words on a page (or a screen); they want everything done for them so that all they have to do is watch, glassy-eyed. So converting a literary masterpiece over to film can immeasurably widen a work’s exposure to the public.
Finally, a different medium can strive to bring a New Vision of the tale to life. It can obviously work: I’ve never heard that J.K. Rowling was unhappy with the filmic adaptations of Harry Potter; Diana Gabaldon is evidently okay with what Ron Moore is doing with Outlander; and George R.R. Martin is actively involved with the TV version of Game of Thrones. I guess it depends on how it is done.
So… would you do it? I hear you ask. Sell the film rights to your literary baby? Hmm. Not sure. To repeat my own words, I guess it would depend on how it was done, and how much control I would retain. As an unknown, that probably wouldn’t be a lot.
But… it would be an interesting dilemma to have, I must admit.