I'm 51 and Bilbo-free. Somehow
The film version of "The Hobbit," directed by Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, opens Dec. 14. Like any movie adapted from a novel — there have been a lot lately, and more to come, including "
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Some will approach the film from the perspective of an intimate friendship with Bilbo and Gandalf and Smaug the Magnificent. Some from that subset inevitably believe that if they change anything for the movie version, their lives will be over.
For these literalists, the idea of paying money to see what interesting new ideas a director and a screenwriter can bring to a well-thumbed literary mainstay is a joke. Adaptation should be synonymous with transcription. Shouldn't it?
I always go back to
Or take Robert James Waller's massively popular novel "The Bridges of Madison County," one of the silliest love stories ever published. As with the more recent "Twilight" books, a screenwriter couldn't lose with these properties. The best (or least lame) of the "Twilight" films, the first two, are considerable upgrades from their sources. And "The Bridges of Madison County," newly toughened up for director
These are easy; it's easy to improve limp prose. It's tougher to find any sort of cinematic success with
Wright wanted his take on these endlessly self-theatricalizing characters to unfold in and around an old theater, so that the audience slipped in and out of the theatrics, often without realizing the action had turned realistic (in the scenes of country life). It's more of a statement than a blood-pumping solution to the adaptation problem, but at least it's something. And
But Russell is a smart filmmaker and a generous storyteller: He brings to life an entire messed-up Philadelphia family, widening the focus to make sense of those who know the protagonist best. The protagonist is played by
"Silver Linings Playbook" had its fans in book form, but not the way the international best-seller
The film works, too, and some people are kuh-RAY-zee for it. Fetching as much of it is, I don't know if I'm capable of falling in love with any film hatched in this corner of the digital uncanny valley, with computer effects amping nearly every key moment. Lee's film is a work of taste and relative restraint, full, nonetheless, of sights to behold, from flying fish on down. But it's more engineering than poetry. A quick revisit to one of my favorite films, Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" (taken from Walter Farley's adventure novel), told me what I was missing from the very worthy "Life of Pi." "Life of Pi" has everything and more; "The Black Stallion" has everything without the "more."
Perhaps "Life of Pi," long considered unfilmable, should go on the shelf with
And the hell of it is, there's not a single guideline in the art and craft of adapting a novel to the screen that can be followed with confidence. The best movies made from books are scrupulous, high-fidelity achievements, such as
Literary-sounding adaptations don't work; take a look at the more recent "All the King's Men," and tell me Steven Zaillian's script works, in any way. But hold on a second. What is Spielberg's latest film, "Lincoln," if not a consciously literary-sounding project, freely adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's nonfiction account "Team of Rivals," adapted by playwright and screenwriter
So. I hope that clears that up. The key to a successful film adaptation of a book, great or small, is simple: Remain simultaneously true and unfaithful to the source, its spirit and its letter, and your movie will fail.
Or, sometimes, fly.
Michael Phillips is the Tribune's film critic.