Every person who ever wrapped tape around the bridge of their glasses or was slain by a rogue elf in a roaring game of Dungeons & Dragons is frothing at the mouth for the upcoming film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings. The trailers are eye-catching and enticing, but I can’t shake the feeling of dread that Hollywood is yet again trifling with forces it doesn’t understand.
Movie studios have the habit of trying to make good things better. They try to redo good stories and interesting characters for a population with an ever-shrinking attention span. This isn’t a fault in itself, however it can, and often does, become bad alchemy – with studios turning gold into lead.
Hollywood seems to continually screw up and never learn from its poor attempts at converting novels to feature films. Book adaptations are difficult to do and rarely worth the effort. Case in point: “Kiss the Girls,” “Sphere” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Trying to condense a novel into two hours is a difficult task and few screenwriters are up to the challenge. Putting a book on film usually means that subplots are extricated, themes are boiled down and interesting characters are omitted. What ends up on screen is a withered husk of the author’s original story. Books and films employ different mechanisms to tell the story. The printed page utilizes words to create fine nuances and visual images in the mind of the reader; film relies on music, imagery and actors – much less subtle media. Of course there are exceptions – “The Shawshank Redemption,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Fight Club” – but for every success, there are three adaptations that fall flat with a dull clunk.
One of the more tragic examples of bad alchemy is what happened to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Miraculously, Hollywood did Jackson right with “The Haunting” (1963), directed by Robert Wise. It was edgy, scary and smart. But Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone. The 1999 remake, directed by Jan De Bont, not only butchered the original book and movie, it made “The Care Bears Movie” look like “The Exorcist.”
Visible on the horizon are three more book adaptations: “Hearts in Atlantis,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As much as I would love to see a couple of these on the big screen, something tells me they will suffer from the “Jurassic Park” syndrome – all material substance is removed to make room for flashy, big-budget special effects. I hope I’m wrong, but be prepared to hear “the book was better” in the coming months.