The Alchemical Sledgehammer – Gold Becomes Lead

by May 3, 2000Critical Viewpoints

Will The Lord of the Rings movies be perfectly reforged on screen just as Narsil was reforged into Andúril?
Sometimes we see priceless gems on the side of an oft-travelled road… I did yesterday. Hama posted on our Messageboard the following essay he wrote which examines how exactly a movie may rewrite a literary work when brought to screen–it is indeed a powerful treatise on the methods, structures, and ultimate outcome of the cinematic arts as they visualize the literary arts… and it is indeed a gem.

The Alchemical Sledgehammer

by Hama

May 2, 2000

For my 300th post on this board I thought I would write a little essay on the adaptation process as I currently see it. This is based on nothing more, and nothing less, than my observations, as a consumer, of both the literary and the cinematic arts. My general premise is that adapting a book to a film quite often fails, precisely because of the way in which the themes of the original work are handled during the adaptation. What appears to happen is that one particular theme or philosophical viewpoint that exists within the original work is taken, almost in isolation it seems, and extrapolated until it becomes blindingly obvious to all observers. However, this process also results, sometimes inadvertently, in a transformation of the original idea into something completely different. By magnifying one particular theme, by concentrating on it so that other equally legitimate issues are either mentioned only in passing or excluded entirely, that original theme, its supporting concepts removed, is destroyed either in part or in full. Here is an example.

Think of Atreides superiority in David Lynch’s Dune. In the original book by Frank Herbert the great house of the Atreides had a superior fighting force not based upon weaponry, but instead based upon human skills. Why? Because in the Dune universe, any machine that mimicked the mind of man, ie a computer, was deemed a proscribed device. Thus the possession of any machine that exhibited intelligence was considered to be morally, ethically and religiously criminal. There were exceptions of course (Ix, Richese), there always are, but in the main, the empire of man thus described had almost an anti-machine ethos. Devices still existed in abundance, but they were subservient to the mind of man, or enhanced his already impressive abilities. Starships were piloted / navigated by certain talented humans who had been modified by their addiction to a drug called melange. Using the drug, these navigators could see into the future and thus guide their ships on the safest course. There were men trained as mentats, the human equivalent of computers, who could not only remember every fact given to them, but could forecast outcomes, plan strategies and wage war on the basis of the information they had been given. There were women, the Bene Gesserit, trained in physical and political skills that could almost read a mans mind by observing the minutest movements of his body. There were men trained in warfare, sword masters, who were a valuable commodity, imparting fighting and tactical skills to others. In short, we had a feudal society based upon human skills and human abilities.

In the original book, the reason why the Atreides house is thrown down by the Emperor is because of the small and skilful fighting force they had created. The whole point was that they threatened the position of the Emperor himself, because they threatened his power base, a fighting force called the Sardaukar, who were reputed to be the best warriors at that time. In the film, this theme is taken up in such a way as to make it immediately obvious to the audience what is going on. The screenwriter invents a new weapon, the weirding module, which is now touted as the reason for Atreides superiority in battle. However, by doing this, David Lynch has just destroyed the entire basis upon which the Dune universe existed in the first place. Where are the fighting skills? Where are the human abilities? Even the marvelously subtle Bene Gesserit abilities are reduced to mere telepathy. There are still many human talents on display in the film, but this new creation, this ‘weirding module’ weapon, has relegated them to the sidelines. In an act of ultimate irony, a machine has ousted the principle reason behind the conflict between the Emperor and Duke Leto Atreides, and, in contravention of the books major premise that man, not machine, has the upper hand, the machine has taken centre stage. Whereas in the book, human abilities and skills win the day, in the film it is all down to the use of a weapon. In the book, the Fremen do not defeat the Emperors forces with superior weaponry, they conquer through superior fighting abilities. Using his alchemical sledgehammer, the screen writer has cracked a nut of gold and created a kernel of lead.

Now I am going to be completely fair here and turn my attention from one less than successful adaptation to another very successful and influential film. My next target is Bladerunner, based upon the Phillip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. In the book, the society painted by the author is markedly different than the one you see in the film. Many parts of the novel do not make it from page to screen, the mood enhancing technology, Deckard’s wife Iran, his pet sheep (more important than it sounds). I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the story, so I suggest that others read it and find out what the author was originally saying. Suffice it to say that the film and the book are not comparable, their respective moods, and many of their themes, are quite different. An example is the social climbing Deckard engages in, by virtue of the kudos inherent in owning a real animal, as opposed to a constructed one. Bladerunner is a magnificent film. So good, in fact, that it has eclipsed the original work. The alchemical sledgehammer has all but rewritten the story, the pursuit of the replicants the only survivor, though in this case it might be fair to say that the ends did indeed justify the means. Or is it?

And so we come onto ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Where will the alchemical sledgehammer will strike next? Well, I think it has already been so wielded, and it has passed its transforming glory across two of the many themes with which Tolkien laced his story. One such theme is the idea of Machine versus Nature, and the other is the tragedy of Elven fading.

Here are some relevant Machine versus Nature quotes concerning Saruman. The first is from Treebeard:

“I think that I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

The second is from the description of Isengard:

“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake. But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The road were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble some of copper and some of iron, joined by heavy chains.”

There are others, but these will do. Here we see two points of interest, the nature of Saruman’s mind, (what he has become), and the nature of his actions, (how he has changed the world about him). So for the film, this theme has been taken up and has been made over. Orcs are to be grown in cocoons or pods! This illustrates, very strongly and in a very visual manner, the depth of the perversion of the world that Saruman is willing to undertake to achieve his ends. But in doing this for the film, other facts, facts made abundantly clear by the original author, have been ignored.

Here are two quotes from the author. The first is from the Silmarillion:

“orcs multiply after the manner of the children of Iluvatar”

The second is from Morgoth’s Ring:

“Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to orc level and then they would or could be made to mate with orcs producing new breeds more large and cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the third age, Saruman rediscovered this or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of men and orcs.”

However minor this visualistion might appear to be, five seconds of film showing an orc foetus wallowing in goo, this kind of addition is symptomatic of a much larger problem. By making this unsubtle extrapolation, something of the magic of Middle Earth has been removed. Even the mechanical creations of Saruman fit in with the world Tolkien created. Great wheels, steam engines, antique machinery. There is a feeling of something almost prehistoric here, even in these inventions. They belong to an older world, whereas orc cocoons do not. Here we have an image from the brave new world of genetics, of eugenics. This image is more fitting for the likes of Aldous Huxley than for Tolkien.

To move on, let us now consider the expansion of Arwen. In order to make more time for the romance between Aragorn and Arwen, other, more legitimate, elements from the story have to be cut. This is problem one. Problem two, far more serious, is the placing of Arwen in new situations so that she can have more screen time and hence more interaction with Aragorn. She is now rumoured to meet Aragorn and the Hobbits at Trollshaws, helping Frodo to escape on her horse by riding with him. We do not know whether she takes Frodo across the ford, but certainly Arwens presence, at this juncture, complicates matters. Does Frodo still defy the Witch King on the opposite bank of the Bruinen? And if so, is Arwen still with him at this point? And if not, what happened to her? And how can the growing power of the ring be shown in Frodo’s reluctance to flee on Glorfindel’s Elf Horse, when he is being ferried from place to place by someone else?

Tolkien makes the point again and again in the story of LOTR that the Elves are beyond the point of active concern in the affairs of Middle Earth. Gildor says it plainest of all to Frodo in the woods of the shire:

“The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth.”

And Galadriel states it again:

“‘I pass the test,’ she said, ‘I will diminish, and go into the west, and remain Galadriel.’

No Elves marched with Aragorn’s army to the gates of the black land, except for Legolas and the sons of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir. The Elves were no longer taking such an active role in the struggle. They had had their day, and knew it.

Tolkien also says that in order to do justice to the tale of the destruction of the ring, a tale told from the hobbits point of view, the tale of Aragorn and Arwen had to be relegated to the appendices.

But to have Arwen turn up, at Helm’s Deep, leading a contingent of Lothlorien Elves (the most insular of all the Elves yet remaining on Middle Earth), now has the alchemical sledgehammer of the screen writer smashing the gold of Elven fading into worthless scrap metal. Apart from anything else, it also consumes film time. There is a final oddity here. Reports from the set state that there is a difference between the clothes of the Elves of the second age, during the last alliance, and those of the Elves of Lothlorien. The Elves of the second age have brighter, more alive clothing, while the Elves of the third age wear garments with an autumnal look. And the reason for this? It is to signify their fading. This detail now seems meaningless in the light of Elves riding down from Lothlorien and giving aid to mortal refugees. (A footnote! Wouldn’t Sindarin Elves (from Lothlorien) be clothed differently from Noldorin Elves (Gil-Galad’s forces) anyway?)

What is my point in all of this? My point is a very general one. I am not so much concerned about the specifics of this film adaptation as about the general approach to the subject matter in hand. I do not care that Legolas is blond, that the Balrog does or does not have wings, that Elves have pointed ears or that the Uruk-Hai have plate armour as oppose to mail. These matters are very small beer when compared to the larger issue at stake here, that of transferring one mans literary vision, and the concepts and ideas enshrined therein, from the written word to the silver screen.

The handling of the various elements as revealed by these rumours, and they are still rumours in the main, does not, in my view, bode well for certain aspects of these films. By making certain concepts presented in the book more visual, there is a danger of changing that concept into something else, something at variance with the world it is meant to exist within. Such changes have a knock on effect. And again, by concentrating on a particular idea or set of ideas to the exclusion of other, equally valid, considerations, results in a change to the whole. We end up with themes that are either in direct contradiction to the original author’s conception, or we have themes that have no basis in any of the author’s writings. This of course results in further difficulties that need resolving. And the solutions to these difficulties become a new danger in themselves, moving the feel of the entire story in utterly alien, when compared to the original, directions. Inventing new scenarios, or new visual elements, have unforeseen knock on effects. The plot unravels, careful considerations by the original author, matters historical, geographical and motivational, start to unwind. The alchemical sledgehammer falls and the story loses its original cohesion. Gold becomes lead.


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