A Taxing Inheritance (But Not a Political Post)

I’ve written here before about what happens to writers’ works after they die. In particular, I’ve talked about the continuation of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and I’ve suggested that while it’s presumably financially worthwhile, it may be a poor artistic decision.

There’s also the weird stuff that happens when books (even by living authors) get turned into movies — ask Lawrence Block, whose Bernie Rhodenbarr got a sex change when he was played by Whoopi Goldberg in the execrable film Burglar. (Admittedly, the mere mention of Ms. Goldberg may have rendered the word execrable redundant, but hey…) Of course, as another writer noted, the filmmakers didn’t “do anything” to the books, which may still be found on your shelf, more or less uncontaminated by their cinematic representations.

Even so, this sort of thing can prove problematic, particularly for the authors of game-changing works and those authors literary executors and heirs. An admittedly extreme case in point is that of Christopher Tolkien, his father’s literary executor. The younger Tolkien has been notoriously reticent over the decades, but with the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, he granted an interview to Le Monde, an English translation of which may be found here. He’s not a fan:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

That’s one advantage to my own literary insignificance — the Spawn will never have to worry about that.

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to the Zoopraxiscope.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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7 Responses to A Taxing Inheritance (But Not a Political Post)

  1. Jeff says:

    While I fully get where Christopher Tolkien is coming from, I think Jackson, for all his flaws, has made something slightly better than “an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.” There’s lots of corn and camp in Jackson’s Tolkien movies that shouldn’t be there, but at their best, they offer elevated moments that moviegoers don’t usually experience. For example, I remember a couple of teenagers seated next to me in the movie theater sobbing over the death of Boromir. JRRT knew people longed to be moved like that by art.

  2. dave.s. says:

    I think it’s a separate work. Hobbit, from all reports, is more faithful to its book than LOTR, but in all cases you have to do what you think will work as film. Larry ‘Best Little Whorehouse’ King just died, and his obits dutifully recorded his unhappiness with the film. Okay.

    And if Christopher Tolkien has an interest in looking on the bright side, a LOT of people will read the books because of the movies, now, rather than their getting submerged in the shadow of Harry Potter etc.

  3. Alpheus says:

    I wish the interviewer had asked Christopher Tolkien how *he* would have filmed LOTR. It almost seems as if his objection may be to film as a medium rather than to Jackson’s adaptation specifically. I have a lot of trouble imagining how Fellowship and Two Towers could have been done better (though I admit I hated a lot of the choices Jackson made in Return of the King).

  4. Andrew Stevens says:

    Alpheus: I agree that I couldn’t improve Fellowship a lot – tweaks here and there, mostly reversing changes Jackson made pointlessly. (I was stunned by the film, far better than I had any hope of its being.) I could improve Two Towers considerably though. And Return of the King immeasurably.

    I recall one Internet commenter insightfully pointing out that there was a war going on between Peter Jackson the crowd-pleasing filmmaker, who wanted dwarves burping and elves skateboarding, and Peter Jackson the Tolkien fanboy, who wanted to stay utterly faithful to the books. If either one had just dominated the other, the movies would have been better. But instead we get either a Hollywood blockbuster punctuated by pointless scenes which are in there just because they were in the book or you get a faithful adapation punctuated by pointless scenes which are there just to turn it into a summer popcorn movie.

    I can, however, tell you what Christopher Tolkien would have said, because he has said it before. “The books are unfilmable.” This is correct. If you want a faithful adaptation, you have to make a TV miniseries.

  5. mike shupp says:

    I rather like the LOTR movies — and respect them — because they bring to life a lot of stuff, such as the pointlessness of that Helm’s Deep defense in The Two Towers, which readers such as I overlook while eagerely turning the pages.

    As for the broader issue of whether movies spoil books… last I looked, Moby Dick was still readable. And Starship Troopers. And Funeral in Berlin. And David Copperfield. And Pride and Prejudice. And, for those who interests run in those lines, the Bible. I have faith that people will go on reading Tolkein.

  6. Andrew Stevens says:

    Mike Shupp: Did you mean “hopelessness” or something else rather than “pointlessness”? If so, I probably agree with you, but the defense of Helm’s Deep wasn’t pointless, though it wasn’t so much that Helm’s Deep was worth defending so much as it was a rock on which to break Saruman’s army (which is what happened).

    While I mostly agree with you on the point about movies not “spoiling” books, I do sympathize with the claim about poor artistic decisions. People often forget that Rocky was a really good movie; it has been completely overshadowed by its four terrible sequels. I think a book which is not famous or a classic can be overshadowed by a more famous adaptation. Did the famous flop Bonfire of the Vanities make people less likely to read the book? Perhaps not, but maybe.

  7. Kenneth Hall says:

    Andrew Stevens nailed the strategic significance of the battle of Helm’s Deep in one elegant sentence. It was providential. Saruman emptied Isengard, leaving it vulnerable to the Ents (Birnam Wood done right, heh), which made easier Gandalf’s task of breaking Saruman. Oh, yeah — they got the Palantir into the bargain, which allowed Aragorn to push the Enemy into making his move before he was ready….

    Tom Shippey covers a lot of this ground in Author of the Century,; I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested.

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