How much license should creators take with sequels or adaptations? The value of keeping true to the themes rather than the details

4 Feb

In nerddom, there is an urgency to be true and loyal to the original down to the details. I absolutely understand this impulse; when story is deeply loved, any change to it seems sacrilegious. For me, I try to focus on whether this new piece of the series holds up the themes and feeling of the original, rather than how much creative license is taken with the details. Some details are telling and important to the characters and plot, some are not. One example that jumps to mind is the recent controversy over casting 5’7” Tom Cruise as 6’5″ Jack Reacher. This may seem petty—but it is clearly mentioned often enough in the books to have people balk over the casting. A height like that can be representative of an abstract quality that separates Reacher from other action heroes, makes him distinct. To take away what makes him unique is to make it bland and kill the special bond that character has already made with his fans. However, sometimes big-picture truths can change without destroying the essentials of character.

I finally saw The Hobbit part one this weekend, and generally really enjoyed it. The actors were well-chosen, particularly Martin Freeman, who nailed the hesitant but somehow heroic young Bilbo, torn between the two sides of his nature, Took and Baggins. (After this and the hesitant hero Watson, it will be interesting to see if Freeman is typecast for future roles.)

One of my favorite parts of reading and rereading The Hobbit as a kid was putting the songs to different tunes and singing them to myself. The film’s versions did not at all disappoint. And of course, it was very pretty.

Of course part of the buzz about this movie is its length and the decision to split the book into three movies. Given the length of the book, there was obviously going to be additions to the plot and probably extra characters (at least I hoped so, lest there be whole hours of walking through New Zealand). What I hoped—though I was prepared to be disappointed—was that the additions would keep true to the themes of The Hobbit, which are very different than those in The Lord of the Rings. I have always preferred The Hobbit to LOTR because The Hobbit always seemed tighter and more economical in theme and character. It’s about discovering your own abilities, pushing limits, cleverness overcoming brute power, and that the journey trumps the prize, which is probably my favorite of all the themes books can have. This is not present in the same way in The Lord of the Rings, which seems to suggest the opposite—that the peace, as an end, is worth suffering for.

Given the grand, sweeping battle scenes that Peter Jackson became known for with the LOTR trilogy, I was nervous that these smaller themes would be lost in these prequels, burdened by the additions of other characters and battle scenes. I do not mind when movie makers do not stick closely to the text in detail or even in plot, but it does bother me when the characters are used to portray very different themes than in the original. A fine distinction, perhaps, but I make it.

For the most part, The Hobbit kept true to the themes, though with one or two wrong notes. Comedy was more in the forefront than in LOTR, as in the book, which lightens and personalizes the story. The addition of Radagast was wonderful, I thought, and completely fitting into the feel of the story, because he is not powerful, but he is clever, and cares for the smallest of creatures, another trope found in the book. The necromancer was an obvious elaboration since he is mentioned in the book and affects their journey in major ways, even if he is off-page (the textual equivalent of off-screen), and Jackson did an admirable job weaving these elements into the story, foreshadowing LOTR, all the while keeping true to the more personal themes, the lighter tone, and somewhat smaller scale.

I know I am not alone when I say I was bothered by the addition of the pale orc, but it not disloyalty to the book that bothered me. The conflict between Thorin and the pale orc seemed to be one of power vs. power, not power vs. cleverness. However, upon some reflection, I think I’m coming around, because there is a crucial and lovely turn in the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo, that probably couldn’t wait for the second movie to happen, where Bilbo will presumably kill the spider that gives his little blade and symbolically makes him a hero. The orc may not have been how I would handle this piece of the story, but I must admit it was thrilling. To The Hobbit virgin, I doubt it seemed incongruous.

Now, for this next comparison, I’m aware that I’m very much going against the grain, but stay with me. One sequel that outraged most of the character’s loyal fans was, of course, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Defense of this movie is not the most popular route.

            Matt Stone and Trey Parker certainly made their feelings perfectly clear.

Many have insisted that there are only three real Indiana Jones movie and one crazy abomination. Yes, Kingdom is cheesy, but so is Temple of Doom. I mean, it’s called
Temple of Doom. Part of why those movies are so great is the two helpings of cheese that come with each one. Now, that is not to say I wasn’t a bit disappointed by Kingdom, I was. The updated graphics and film techniques were a jarring change in the aesthetics, making everything a bit too bright and clean. The fridge scene required too much of my ability to suspend my belief. The chase scenes dangerously bordered on Disney-like. Shia Lebouf added very little. But I loved that they brought back Karen Allen, and her dynamic with Ford was still funny and endearing.

However, most of the outrage seems to come, not from the aesthetic missteps, but from where the script and concept diverges from some of the tropes of the original trilogy.


However, this doesn’t strike me as odd in the Jones universe. It is, after all, a mysterious historical object that has more import beyond its historical significance and actually holds a great deal of power and knowledge. The inspiration comes from real life conspiracies and twisted religion, just like the first three subjects. But more importantly, it is thematically consistent with the other films, which for me earns Kingdom a place as a true part of the series (though clearly the worst). Indiana is a nerdy action hero, ever curious, sometimes bumbling. A professor, his driving force is a desire to know and understand. This is what gets him into trouble, as his noble quest for knowledge meets those who would seek it as a path to power. What saves him is his willingness to let go, even if it means he doesn’t get all his answers. He lets the stones drop, closes his eyes against the arc, lets the grail fall, and refuses infinite knowledge from the aliens. The bad guys fail because they cannot let go, and they alternately fall to their deaths or their brains melt. So Kingdom may be the worst of the series aesthetically, but it holds up the themes and most important tropes.

Including SNAKES


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