Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light

C.S. Lewis on movie adaptations; also my Hobbit review

My wife and I went to see the second Hobbit film this afternoon. In many ways it was a fun movie, but it lacked, shall we say, the wonder of Tolkien’s imagination. It reminded my wife of this excellent bit from C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” in which he reflects on the problems involved in adapting literary adventure to the screen.

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins—not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)–the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

The female elf-warrior of the movie does not quite fit Lewis’s description of the “totally irrelevant woman in shorts,” but that whole action sequence, along with the overworked one involving molten gold under the mountain, seems to have been invented to fill hours that might have been better spent in enjoying Beorn’s hospitality or even observing the councils of the High Elves, who were entirely missing from this episode.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light
The Hobbit needed more of this, less pinball physics (credit: OneRing.net)

All that said, the second Hobbit was probably better than other recent action movies and not a terrible way to spend a few hours, so you might as well go see it.

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Holgrave

THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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