published in the national daily newspaper Malaya, February 18, 2002
Rarely do I see an adaptation of any literary text without having first seen it on paper. Not out of some obsessive-compulsive need to know the story ahead of time, but out of the need to find out wherea given adaptation comes from, as this does not only give one a history of the text itself, but a sense of how it’s retold through another medium. The downside to this is the fact that most of the time, the adaptation – and in this day and age of “Disney-ized” fairytales, these are mostly movies – are such failures compared to the original texts. Too often, I’ve found myself regretting having paid 50 bucks for a movie that not only missed the point of the original text, but also added onto the original in an effort at selling the movie version. Think Rica Peralejo in the role of, uh, an originally old, fat, ugly maid who becomes the Tatarin.
Having been disappointed far too many times, for far too long, and quite recently (while Tatarin may be forgettable, Harry Potter is not) with movie adaptations, I wasn’t too hot about seeing the firstinstallment of the movie version of Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. But since I read the trilogy as an adolescent and didn’t really remember much of it, I figured I had less to lose. At least the disappointment in yet another adaptation will be hampered some by a certain level of unfamiliarity with the original text. At least, without my usual expectations, I could dismiss the movie as just another adaptation that miserably failed just because adaptations are meant to – what with producers who are only out to make money, directors who work against instead of with the original text, and writers who just decide to take on a text literally, albeit with some “needed” subplots and additions (a kissing/sex scene, an action scene, a god in a basket).
But director (and co-writer) Peter Jackson wasn’t one to disappoint. As the story of The Fellowship of the Ring was told me all over again, it didn’t matter that I could barely remember the original text. The movie took it upon itself to tell the story, without taking the easy way out and just putting the story on the screen word for word, event by event. Instead, it took on Tolkien’s original story and made a story of it for the big screen – choosing events and concepts that would tell a whole story. Too often movie adaptations suffer because there is an unthinking effort towards re-creating the whole text for the new medium. The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t even work towards this goal, and in the process, the movie did not only remind me of what the original story was all about, it also brought me back to that point in adolescence when I was fascinated and awed by this world that Tolkien had created. The only way the movie could’ve done that was by being fascinating in itself, in the manner in which it told Tolkien’s story.
In the end, one realizes that the power of a text’s adaptation lies, not in its “faithfulness” to the original text, but in its ability to take the text and make it the medium’s own. A text that’s different altogether, but which is clearly and honestly tied down to the original. That Jackson, together with his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, was able to do this is not only tremendous; it’s proof that one cannot give up a text to another person who does not admire and respect the text enough to give it as much work as it deserves. Jackson has spent the past 7 years of his life working on this film and the years before that being a fan of Tolkien’s writing. He had wanted to take on the film when there were countless others who could do it; then he feared having to do the film when it was obvious that he was the only one who cared enough to keep working at it. It is this kind of respect for a literary text, and for the writer who brought the text into being, that produces a retelling that becomes, not only a success for the director and writers, but for the writer of the text himself/herself. One finishes watching The Fellowship of the Ring not only awed at the cinematic experience that it was, but at J.R.R. Tolkien himself, more than 50 years after he wrote the piece.
This is not to say that this adaptation was so unlike others that it did not add onto the original text. As is the issue with practically every LOTR discussion, Arwen is given more mileage in the film than in the practically all of the (three!) Lord of the Rings books combined. But that the movie’s writers had found this to be the only worthy, major addition is admirable, as it does not make the text suffer. Instead, it re-invents Tolkien and makes him more, um… gender conscious, than he actually is in the original trilogy. That’s not a revision that Tolkien – or any male writer in the year 2002 – would (should) want to go against.
And yet I find that the most thrilling experience I’ve had in relation to this movie, is realizing that like British Harry Potter, The Fellowship of the Ring did not only have Finnish Tolkien for a writer, the author’s estate also decided to have a Kiwi director take this on. In this day and age of America touting itself as the savior of mankind from anything that’s remotely un- or anti-American, it’s just fantastic that some people can still ultimately, snub America.