What would J.R.R. Tolkien do?

The Hobbit movie poster featuring a stern-faced warrior-like Bilbo Baggins

This movie poster features a Bilbo Baggins looking far tougher than I ever pictured him in the book.

While watching the new Hobbit movie, I couldn’t help but wonder what the grandfather of the fantasy genre would think of the adaptation of his 1937 novel.

What would he think of the special effects that made the exotic environs of Middle-earth leap off the 3D screen?  What would he make of the big stars impersonating the now-classic characters Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Lady Galadriel?

Would he be honored by the new life Hollywood has breathed into his mystical world, or would he be put off by the overwrought choreography of each brutal battle scene, the bastardization of his epic through streamlined storylines and themes, and the oh-so-frequent slow-motion “hero shots” requisite of every 21st century action movie?

The quandary of characters outliving their creators reared its ugly head again this week when, after more than twenty years since the release of book one, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga came to a conclusion with a book that bears an additional author’s name.  In this instance, the late Mr. Jordan had tasked his wife to find someone to finish his fifteen-book series, knowing his end was near.  Brandon Sanderson answered the call.

If fans had to choose between a newcomer’s finishing the work and not getting an ending at all, I’m fairly certain they’d opt for the former.

It reminds me of how, after the accident that nearly claimed Stephen King’s life, he jumped back into his off-and-on Dark Tower series, vowing to complete it before the Reaper took another swipe at him.  If King had been killed by that car back in 1999, readers would never know the fate of Roland and his ka-tet.

What about good ol’ J.R.R.?  When movie-makers come a-calling, authors typically don’t retain a lot of creative control.  Then again, J.K. Rowling made the Harry Potter movies the way she wanted, so perhaps, had he still been alive, the first high fantasist wouldn’t have completely cut the cord either.

But would Mr. Tolkien have been onboard with the film’s beefed-up rivalry between Thorin and the Pale Orc?

Of course, we’ll never know the answer.  One could argue that it doesn’t really matter because tough decisions have to be made when translating a novel (or series) into one or more movies.  Also, films often reach a broader audience.  Maybe these compromises are a necessary evil so that the story—in some form or another—goes farther.  And just maybe a person will be so impressed by the film, he or she will seek out the source material.

Which means the ends justify the means.

Movie adaptations aside, any ending is better than no ending, so hopefully those authors who write grand epics (a.k.a. the never-ending story) have a Plan B.  I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin…

Personally, I can’t decide whether I’d want another novelist, screenwriter, or otherwise artist usurping my characters—even if I’m not around to experience the fallout…not to mention any financial gain.

What do you think?  Do characters naturally transcend their creators?  Is it an honor to see one’s heroes and villains taking on life beyond an author’s control?  Or is it just another money grab?

Please comment below!



Filed under Writing

12 responses to “What would J.R.R. Tolkien do?

  1. I am no author but I think it would be incredibly frustrating and maddening to have someone take your creation and twist it into something new. Especially so if that something new strays too far from your original intent. And then they win massive recognition, awards, money etc based on your idea.

    • I suppose the answer to that would be “No one can change what an author put on the page — the first representation of the characters and story.” Making a bad movie about “The Count of Monte Cristo” doesn’t in any way mar Dumas’ classic. But, yeah, I can’t disagree with you, Kim. If the future incarnations disrespect the original intent, that’s gotta hurt. Then again, if a movie gets more people excited about reading the source material (i.e., one’s novel), then it’s probably like winning the lottery.

  2. I think it depends on the characters. The memorable ones definitely outlive their creators. Take a look at Sherlock Holmes…Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been dead for how many years now? Certainly Frodo, Sam and Aragorn have outlived Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings films, in my opinion, consisted of Peter Jackson somehow channelling the spirit of Tolkien and spitting out three beautiful masterpieces of media that, while somewhat different than the original works, still captured the essence of the epic story.

    The Hobbit on the other hand, has Tolkien rolling in his grave in my opinion. It’s like Jackson completely disregarded entire themes in the book because I guess, in his mind, he knew better. A bit presumptuous of him. One does not simply CHANGE the core themes of LOTR. I enjoyed the Hobbit as a film independent of the book…but the moment I compare the two I get a little angry inside.

    But back to your first question: I think yes, characters DO outlive their creators. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. Look at folk tales…and I don’t care if you’re Christian or not but the bible is one of the most re-told stories in all of history. Anything wholesome and good will out-live it’s creator- and I think there’s nothing wrong with that..so long as the person picking the story up where it left off has the proper respect for the individual work. That being said: wheel of time needed to die long before Robert Jordan did. No offense to any fans…haha

    • Well put!

      And to be honest, I stopped reading Wheel of Time after the third or fourth book because I knew it was going to be a looooong ride. Now that there is, in fact, an end, I might go back and read the entire series (I have most of them on my shelf, anyway). We’ll see.

  3. Thomas P. Ramirez

    As usual, dear friend, David, beautifully written, profound questionings.

    I somehow see you, in the distant future, becoming a main contributor to “Saturday Review.”

    Now let’s see some cogent comments about some of John Updike’s stuff–an “American” author who truly matters. Try “Couples” for a starter. His “Rabbit” series is exceptional also.

    Would love talking to you about such.

    But then again, we all have our niches, enna?

    Thomas Agrommus


  4. Jordan Bradford

    What about when a creator doesn’t really understand what made his original work so good and spends his lifetime subsequently ruining it? This would be, of course, George Lucas with Star Wars.

  5. Jessica Burde

    Mixed reaction – on the one hand, god it would twist me up to see someone take my characters and make a mockery of them in some Hollywood horror. Given that my current large project includes high levels of sexuality and several types of alternative lifestyles I shudder to think what Hollywood would do to it.

    On the other hand, I want my stories and characters to live on after me. And like it or not, 75 years after I die anyone who wants can do whatever they want with them anyway. So I’d rather have them do it when I’m alive, or soon after I die, which increases the chance of my original work being remembered and valued.

    • I agree. So many authors (including many writers of the classics) don’t get recognized until after their deaths. I think we all probably want to be remembered through our works. They represent a sort of legacy. But, yeah, if we can get a little love and appreciation while we’re still around, so much the better!

  6. I would honestly love it if someone enabled me to see my characters on screen. I’m all for books being translated into movies, as long as screen writers don’t deviate too much from the book, as they did with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If you’ve seen it and read the book, you’ll know what I mean.

    • Ah, but then there are those rare moments when the movie is (subjectively) better than the book. Some might argue that screenwriters and directors have as much right to inject their creativity as the original author because sometimes they improve upon the book…or, at least, they make it more suitable for the big screen. I’m not saying I agree…just playing devil’s advocate.

      It’s funny that You mention Prisoner of Azkaban. That’s my favorite of the Harry Potter movies! It just goes to show it comes down to individual opinions.

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