Please, do take some liberties

Part nineteen in my 26-Week Book Challenge, and this week I’m talking cinema, because the challenge is to name a favourite book that’s been turned into a film. For me that could give a lot of different candidates, but in the end I’ve got one clear winner and one runner-up.

My absolute favourite film from a book is The Lord of the Rings, and specifically The Fellowship of the Rings. Back when the film came out I became absolutely obsessed with it and I believe I saw it at least eighteen times in total in the cinema. There were various reasons for that, the main two being that I was off work with a very bad case of RSI and that I’d more or less fallen in love with Pippin. What can I say? I’m a sucker for Scottish accents.

Back when it first came out, this film divided Tolkien fans into two clear camps*: there were those who adored the film and felt that all the deviations from the book were all for the better, and those who hated all the bits that were changed and/or left out. If I had a pound for every lament about Tom Bombadil I came across, I’d be pretty rich indeed.

*Yes, there probably also was a camp of people who couldn’t give a fuck, but they weren’t part of any of the flame wars on the various forums.

From the title of this post you can guess that I sat (and still sit) in the first camp. I’ve always hated Tom Bombadil and his idiotic rhymes, so to hear that he wouldn’t be there was a dream come true. Replacing Glorfindel with a battle-maiden version of Arwen? No problemo, bring it on. Glorfindel always was a pretty useless cameo anyway. Beyond the first film I didn’t even have problems with the elves turning up at Helm’s Deep and Saruman dying at Orthanc. The only thing I initially disliked was how they mangled Faramir’s character, until I heard Peter Jackson’s explanation why, and even that made sense.

And that’s the overriding theme to all the changes that were made: they made sense for cinema. If they hadn’t given Arwen a bigger role, the trilogy would have been one massive sausage-fest until Eowyn showed up. (Which is exactly why The Hobbit came up with Tauriel.) Tom Bombadil is a useless lump of nursery rhymes who adds nothing to the overall story. Having the elves turn up at Helm’s Deep brings their fight to the audience more than an off-the-side remark that there’s fighting up in Mirkwood (which is what happened in the book). And in case you never heard the Faramir explanation (it’s in the myriads of extras somewhere): For the better part of two films the Ring has been set up as this ultimate tool of evil which is almost too big a temptation for a powerful wizard and the most powerful elf-queen in the world, so without time to set up a background it wouldn’t have made sense to have this human captain just say ‘I wouldn’t want it if it were lying by the side of the road’. Faramir’s strength is shown by making him go through the mental struggle and then set the ring aside, which his brother Boromir couldn’t do.

My gripes with the film are more to do with silly bouts of screwing with the laws of physics. If a giant stone pillar starts to topple, nothing is going to stop that momentum, certainly not a bunch of puny hobbits ‘leaning forward’. But all that is minor in relation to the overall enjoyment of the film, which is a masterpiece of production design, impeccable casting and fantastic screenwriting.

I remember seeing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone a week before The Lord of the Rings, and while it was enjoyable enough, it was just an illustrated version of the book with a boy actor who couldn’t act very well. Thankfully he got better over the years (and he’s grown up to be disturbingly attractive), but the slavish devotion to the book made the film a bit flat for me.

My runner-up film is StardustI’m pretty sure I’d read the book before I saw the film, but again the deviations from the plot were all perfectly acceptable, and I simply adore this film. Mark Strong is perfect as Septimus (and I nearly called one of my kittens Septimus simply because of him), Michelle Pfeiffer does a great job as Lamia, and I just love all the comic touches they’ve added to the film. The film certainly turned out more comical than the book is, even if it’s all there in the book to find.

I don’t think I’ve got much of a point I want to make with my post today, other than that people need to chill out when it comes to film adaptations of books. Some people don’t seem to be able to cope with even the tiniest plot deviation, and I just don’t get why. What’s the problem with Mr Darcy meeting Lizzie Bennet in a soaking wet shirt simply because it didn’t happen in the book?* It makes for a fantastic television moment, and as long as they don’t then dive off into the bushes to make hot, passionate love, you’re not destroying the essence of the story.

*Note: I do not actually know of anyone who had a problem with this. Certainly not me. Phwoar. (It didn’t happen like that in the book, right?)

Personally I think my first book would make a fantastic film. Yes, of course I would, but indulge me. If that ever were to happen, after the flying pigs and stuff, then I’d simply hand it to a screenwriter and tell him/her to get on with it. I’d like to keep some creative control, but only so the screenwriter doesn’t destroy the essence of the book. If (s)he were to say that I can’t have two twins because it’d be too confusing for the audience, then that’s fine with me. As long as they make the total thing work, go right ahead.

I suppose it’s all to do with letting go, which is a hard thing to do as a writer. It’s why you’ve had an unpublished manuscript for the past ten years, even though you finished the fourth draft six years ago. It’s why you get so upset at your editor or beta-reader telling you that something simply doesn’t work: letting go is hard. But when you let someone else at it, and they do it right, the results are fantastic.

What do you think? Do you like films that deviate a lot from the source material? Do you not care either way? Let me know in the comments!


6 thoughts on “Please, do take some liberties

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    I think movies and the books they’re based off of basically have to be different creatures — just because of the different demands and assets of the type of medium. One of my favorite comic books is Watchmen, but the movie version cut too closely to the source material, which made a lot of it feel rather hokey. If I were to have a movie made of my book(s)….well, honestly I’d want a miniseries or anime just so it could tackle all the various threads in a reasonable amount of time, and I have all these other ideas ….. uh, what was I saying?

    If my books became movies, I think I could be a certain amount of flexible. Not with any character whitewashing though. That makes me furious.

  2. Kira Lyn Blue

    It depends, sometimes the deviations improve the story or better fit the film format. Take LotR where they cut out endless pages of Frodo’s life from when Bilbo vanished to when he actually leaves with the ring. Vast improvement IMO because that part dragged anyway.

  3. Nathan (@reviewbarn)

    I am with you completely. My favorite Harry Potter movie was #5, and it dropped all kinds of stuff from the book. Startdust was much, much better with it’s additions. And Tom Bombadil had no place in the books, let alone the movies.


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