I'm 51 and Bilbo-free. Somehow "The Hobbit" has eluded me my entire reading life. What was I reading in junior high when I first noticed everyone else was reading it? "Big A: The Story of Lew Alcindor," maybe. Or William K. Everson's book on Laurel & Hardy. I had no special resistance to hobbits or to subterranean fantasy or to J.R.R. Tolkien. But we read what we read, and now here "The Hobbit" sits on my desk, next in line for takeoff. A big chunk of my non-screen work existence is spent reading material related, somehow, to films I'm covering. It's one of the great perks of the job. You read a lot, and then you put it away, so that the screen adaptations have a fighting chance to establish their own ground rules.
The film version of "The Hobbit," directed by Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, opens Dec. 14. Like any movie adapted from a novel — there have been a lot lately, and more to come, including "Les Misérables," which was a Victor Hugo doorstop before it was a stage musical — "The Hobbit" will not, cannot, please all comers.
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Some will approach the film from the perspective of an intimate friendship with Bilbo and Gandalf and Smaug the Magnificent. Some from that subset inevitably believe that if they change anything for the movie version, their lives will be over.
For these literalists, the idea of paying money to see what interesting new ideas a director and a screenwriter can bring to a well-thumbed literary mainstay is a joke. Adaptation should be synonymous with transcription. Shouldn't it?
I always go back to "Jaws" for a response to these hard-liners. You know what director Steven Spielberg's film had in common with Peter Benchley's novel? A shark, a few characters and not much else. By stripping it down for parts, and getting rid of the romance between the characters played on screen by Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, Spielberg created one of his peak achievements.
Or take Robert James Waller's massively popular novel "The Bridges of Madison County," one of the silliest love stories ever published. As with the more recent "Twilight" books, a screenwriter couldn't lose with these properties. The best (or least lame) of the "Twilight" films, the first two, are considerable upgrades from their sources. And "The Bridges of Madison County," newly toughened up for director Clint Eastwood's film by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, ran circles around the book.
These are easy; it's easy to improve limp prose. It's tougher to find any sort of cinematic success with "Wuthering Heights" or "Anna Karenina," both of which were treated recently to their latest screen adaptations. Director Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina," from a script by dramatist Tom Stoppard, is a distinctive half-success, garnering serious admirers, serious haters and seriously conflicted in-betweeners with its aggressive conceptual treatment of the Tolstoy novel.
Wright wanted his take on these endlessly self-theatricalizing characters to unfold in and around an old theater, so that the audience slipped in and out of the theatrics, often without realizing the action had turned realistic (in the scenes of country life). It's more of a statement than a blood-pumping solution to the adaptation problem, but at least it's something. And Keira Knightley and Jude Law are quite affecting.
The current "Silver Linings Playbook," a fairly faithful and heartily effective response to Matthew Quick's novel from writer-director David O. Russell, raises the question of tone — and of authorial voice. The book is told entirely from the perspective of its addled, combustible protagonist. He is delusional and unstable and charming and smart and ready to fall apart at any moment. The film allows the same general perspective, using the tools of voice-over narration (though sparingly).
But Russell is a smart filmmaker and a generous storyteller: He brings to life an entire messed-up Philadelphia family, widening the focus to make sense of those who know the protagonist best. The protagonist is played by Bradley Cooper; Jennifer Lawrence excels as the woman who signs up for duty as his chops-busting savior. The book is slight. The film is too, but it's also sharp and attuned to little things — conversational gambits, weird interactions — other films would've bleached out in the adaptation stage.
"Silver Linings Playbook" had its fans in book form, but not the way the international best-seller "Life of Pi" did, and does. Ang Lee's clever film adaptation, working from David Magee's distillation of the Yann Martel novel, strips the teenaged shipwreck survivor's psychological makeup of much of his religious questing without turning him into an athiest; Lee concentrates on the computer-generated poetics of life at sea, for weeks, with a Bengal tiger and various other supporting players. I found the book beguiling, though its popularity has less to do with grand themes and spiritual yearning than with a buoyant tall-tale readability.
The film works, too, and some people are kuh-RAY-zee for it. Fetching as much of it is, I don't know if I'm capable of falling in love with any film hatched in this corner of the digital uncanny valley, with computer effects amping nearly every key moment. Lee's film is a work of taste and relative restraint, full, nonetheless, of sights to behold, from flying fish on down. But it's more engineering than poetry. A quick revisit to one of my favorite films, Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" (taken from Walter Farley's adventure novel), told me what I was missing from the very worthy "Life of Pi." "Life of Pi" has everything and more; "The Black Stallion" has everything without the "more."
Perhaps "Life of Pi," long considered unfilmable, should go on the shelf with "Cloud Atlas," also allegedly unfilmable, also recently filmed and released. The Wachowskis, Lana and Andy, approached David Mitchell's six-story rope trick of a novel with both reverence and a sense of freedom. So far, so good. Their script took pains to explain or at least set up certain connections between the stories more clearly than Mitchell felt he must. In theory, a helpful approach — but already this sounds like potential trouble. The movie isn't bad, exactly. But it's hard to argue that it casts a spell, either dependent on or separate from that of the novel.
And the hell of it is, there's not a single guideline in the art and craft of adapting a novel to the screen that can be followed with confidence. The best movies made from books are scrupulous, high-fidelity achievements, such as David Lean's "Great Expectations." The best movies made from books ditch the book, more or less, the way "Jaws" or "To Have and Have Not" (Howard Hawks' lovely 1944 gloss on a minor Hemingway novel) did so blithely.
Literary-sounding adaptations don't work; take a look at the more recent "All the King's Men," and tell me Steven Zaillian's script works, in any way. But hold on a second. What is Spielberg's latest film, "Lincoln," if not a consciously literary-sounding project, freely adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's nonfiction account "Team of Rivals," adapted by playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner? The script is both literary and theatrical in its bones, yet it works as a blueprint for rich historical cinema. I love the film; it does nothing new, except do everything old — everything we know from a hundred other high-minded biopics — with exceptional grace and wit and eloquence. And the acting's not too shabby.
So. I hope that clears that up. The key to a successful film adaptation of a book, great or small, is simple: Remain simultaneously true and unfaithful to the source, its spirit and its letter, and your movie will fail.
Or, sometimes, fly.
Michael Phillips is the Tribune's film critic.
Tribune film critic Michael Phillips will host the Printers Row Book of the Month discussion, which will focus on film adaptations of books, including "The Hobbit." 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm St., Winnetka; free.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun