What do directors owe authors?
By Dan Brown
CBC News Viewpoint – January 7, 2004
By now, most Lord of the Rings fans will have seen The Return of the King several times. Your pop-culture correspondent, on the other hand, has seen the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s big-screen trilogy only once, and I was a tad disappointed. The problem isn’t that Return of the King is a bad movie (it’s a fine movie), the problem is that the movie isn’t the book.
My favourite part of the entire trilogy – the J.R.R. Tolkien books, that is – is the sombre ending. Because Tolkien’s story unwinds very slowly after the One Ring is swallowed up by Mount Doom, readers get a full picture of just how deeply Frodo has been scarred by his quest. There’s even a final confrontation with Saruman in the homeland of the hobbits, the Shire, which the evil wizard has transformed into an industrial wasteland.
In the movie, however, Jackson only hints at Frodo’s torment, and he leaves out Saruman’s last stand altogether. Perhaps the director is saving the relevant footage for the DVD, but that doesn’t change the fact that these elements are essential to the books.
And this isn’t the first time Jackson has messed with the source material, either: he also deleted Tom Bombadil, a character from The Fellowship of the Ring, while expanding the role of the elf maiden Arwen to give Liv Tyler more screen time.
I could go on listing discrepancies, but there’s a larger issue here. Does Jackson even owe Tolkien anything? When a filmmaker undertakes an adaptation, does he or she have an obligation to faithfully reproduce the story and characters as they were originally presented on the page?
These questions aren’t going to go away. As long as Hollywood needs fresh ideas, books will inspire movies. February will see the release of Deepa Mehta’s The Republic of Love, which is based on the Carol Shields novel of the same name.
Shields fans are in for a jolt because Mehta has changed the setting from Winnipeg to Toronto and generally put her stamp all over the plot. Mehta has even included an allusion to her own filmography: there’s a scene in which the female lead, Faye, watches a Bollywood film on television. I’m no Shields expert, but I don’t think that was in the book.
By the same token, there are some moments in Return of the King that owe more to Star Wars than J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t know about you, but the battle scene at the end with those giant elephant creatures reminded me a lot of when Darth Vader tries to overrun Hoth with Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.
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