Suitable for Filming

by Rogorn with responses

Tolkien said about the BBC radio broadcast in 1955-56. From letter 175: ‘I think the book quite unsuitable for 'dramatization', and have not enjoyed the broadcasts.’ Then it resurfaces again in letter 194, still about the radio adaptation: ‘Here is a book very unsuitable for dramatic or semi-dramatic representation.’

I have always been puzzled by this remark, as when I read LOTR, from a book without illustrations, and way before seeing any films or indeed any paintings from it, it looked to me quite the opposite: I felt like I was ‘seeing’ the story in my head. A poem or an largely introspective work, or a story without much action going on might be ‘very unsuitable’ for filming, but LOTR? In fact, I can’t think of many books more ‘suitable’. As you read, you can perfectly imagine what is being told, and there is always something happening, moving the action along, even when static. Of course, what each reader imagines in a visual way will be different from each other – but this happens with any other book, even those filmed. There are lulls in the action, but that doesn’t mean they CAN’T be represented. There are long paragraphs of description, but these can be shown in a few seconds – the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words.

Then he expresses his reasons: ‘The more nearly dramatic results in too great an emphasis on dialogue (mostly with its setting removed). Both the 'scenery' and the 'characters' become flat: without precision and colour; and without motives or conflicts.

And he says how it’s best done: ‘Personally, I think it requires rather the older art of the reading 'mime', than the more nearly dramatic. I cannot help thinking that longer actual passages read, as a necklace upon a thread of narration (in which the narrator might occasionally venture an interpretation of more than mere plot-events) would, or might, prove both more interesting to listeners, and fairer to the author.’

So Tolkien says that ‘hearing’ the tale being read, even with proper inflexions and different voices, is incomplete. Indeed, the reason why a physical person reading a tale to a child is much better than playing them a recorded tape is that, when it’s properly done, the teller will ‘mime’ some of the action and make it more exciting: meaning, in fact, that some kind of ‘visually represented’ action not only enhances the listening experience, but also that Tolkien even recommends it.

Besides, we can remember that Tolkien drew maps, landscapes and buildings himself, believing them very useful to aid, not the listener this time, but the reader. He also showed a lot of care in the visual presentation of the books, looking at the artwork others drew, making suggestions, and going to the length of forging himself lost pages from the Book of Mazarbul. So, visual representation in LOTR is there from the beginning.

However, I do reckon that taking this seed of principle to a visual representation of the whole story is another thing altogether. But Tolkien thought about it too. Here are suggestions from him: ‘If that is attempted it needs more space, a lot of space. It is sheerly impossible to pot the two books in the allotted time — whether the object be to provide something in itself entertaining in the medium; or to indicate the nature of the original (or both). Why not then turn it down as unsuitable, if more space is not available?’

This was the problem that has always been cited to film LOTR,. The film industry that Tolkien knew in this time, the 50s (or rather, that he didn’t know, as we’ll see), didn’t indeed have the means or the format for it. Tolkien wouldn’t have settled for people disappointingly dressed as trees to be Ents, as it happened to him when watching Macbeth as a younger person. There was the experience of making very long films (many ‘blockbusters’ of the era being well past three hours long), but things such as a saga of films was not in the map. You did have Abbot and Costellos and Chaplins showing up all the time in a sort-of-saga way, but nothing like what we see today.

However, all this has changed a lot, and technically it is very possible to achieve anything Tolkien might have suggested visually. It is often said whether Tolkien would have liked PJ’s films, or whether he would have used the internet and computers. That can’t be known, but I think that the possibility of being able to se exactly what he had in mind through the use of today’s media would have at least tempted him.

So we come to the central point, for me: this quote is more about technical and out-of-habit formatting of films, especially in his time, than about actual impossibility. Of course, to achieve something like a true likeness of LOTR on screen, many rules of the cinema of that time would have had to be broken – and that’s what’s happened with the recent filmed trilogy, 50 years later. In the eyes of many, this might not have been enough, but I feel that a decent crack has been attempted, which lessens the ‘unsuitability’.

This does not mean that I forgive the changes made in all the adaptations so far. If anything, the sheer will and hard work put into PJ’s last effort makes one sad that they couldn’t have gone the extra mile and achieve a more fitting adaptation. All they had to decide was what to do with the screen time that was given to them, and sometimes they got it wrong but sometimes they got it very right.

Tolkien said: ‘Final query: can a tale not conceived dramatically but (for lack of a more precise term) epically, be dramatized – unless the dramatizer is given or takes liberties, as an independent person?’ He left the question unanswered, but then he added: ‘I feel you have had a very hard task.’

Undoubtedly. So I’d make it ‘very difficult’ to adapt, and not ‘very unsuitable’. And he admits: ‘But, as I have said, I lack experience in the medium, and this is in any case no criticism of your text, but a sighing for something quite different — a moon no doubt.’

The moon hadn’t been reached when he wrote this. Now that ‘moon’ would be possible.

We enter now into the direct testimonies from the times when the possibility of a movie presented to him in 1957: ‘From letter 198: As far as I am concerned personally, I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility. I think I should find vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the B.B.C.’

‘Quite apart from the glint of money.’ I have read often that Tolkien wouldn’t have sold the rights if it hadn’t been because he needed money. This disproves it. Now, what his conditions would have been if his economy and age would have been different is a different kettle of juicy sweet fish. In fact here’s from letter 202: ‘The Story Line or Scenario was, however, on a lower level. In fact bad. But it looks as if business might be done. Stanley Unwin and I have agreed on our policy : Art or Cash. Either very profitable terms indeed; or absolute author's veto on objectionable features or alterations.’ Fair enough. But the desire is there.

How to go about it? ‘An abridgement by selection with some good picture-work would be pleasant, & perhaps worth a good deal in publicity; but the present script is rather a compression with resultant over-crowding and confusion, blurring of climaxes, and general degradation: a pull-back towards more conventional 'fairy-stories'. People gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation; Lórien becomes a fairy-castle with 'delicate minarets', and all that sort of thing.
But I am quite prepared to play ball, if they are open to advice – and if you decide that the thing is genuine, and worthwhile.’

It doesn’t sound too difficult to do. If something is deemed uncinematic, licence is given (and even preference) to leaving it out instead of showing it unfairly. No problem: this was done in all the adaptations. Now, the trouble is in being true to what is being shown. It is difficult, and that’s why the film-makers get paid the big bucks, but I don’t think it makes it ‘very unsuitable’.

Tolkien said about his cinema knowledge: ‘I am entirely ignorant of the process of producing an 'animated picture' from a book, and of the jargon connected with it.’ Furthermore, we read in 267: [Robert Graves] introduced me to a pleasant young woman who had attended it: well but quietly dressed, easy and agreeable, and we got on quite well. But Graves started to laugh; and he said: 'it is obvious neither of you has ever heard of the other before'. Quite true. And I had not supposed that the lady would ever have heard of me. Her name was Ava Gardner, but it still meant nothing, till people more aware of the world informed me that she was a film-star of some magnitude, and that the press of pressmen and storm of flash-bulbs on the steps of the Schools were not directed at Graves (and certainly not at me) but at her.’

This is wholly circumstantial evidence, but I’d say that if one doesn’t know one of the most famous persons in a given field, neither by face nor by name nor by reputation, one can argue how much that person knows about that field. To borrow his own phrase, I think Tolkien was quite unsuitably placed to know what would be possible to do in films with his work.

This doesn’t mean that his stance about adaptations was wrong. I only put into question his knowledge of the medium, not his (brilliant) ability as a story-writer. The ammendations to the script he was sent (the very long letter 210) show that he knew what that particular film company was meaning to do. And, as he says: ‘The canons of narrative an in any medium cannot be wholly different ; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.’ In other words: different as a book is from a film, they share enough of a common core to be compatible.

Therefore, I’m inclined to think that, while this quote might have applied at the moment in which it was written, the advances in film-making and in the knowledge on Tolkien’s own work have made it, if not wholly obsolete, at least too harsh to be fair. I know that Christopher Tolkien used it when PJ’s films came out. But, as I have said, I disagree with it, or at least, with so broad a dismissal.

Thanks for reading.

Response from Bregalad:

Thanks Rogorn. A very thought-provoking essay. It solidifies what seemed to elude me whenever that quote by Tolkien about 'unsuitability' was used. We always seem to forget to put it in its proper context, the era from which it came. Many of the things he said ring true to this day, but some have to be put in the context of his knowledge of the world at the time and what was possible then.

Technology runs ahead of us at breakneck speed. Twenty or thirty or fifty years from now, another attempt will be made to film this story. Technically it may be superior, but the adaptation is a whole different kettle of 'sweet, juicy fish.' The attempt may fail or it may give us a version more closely adapted to the books, or not. Only time, and the passion of future filmmakers will tell.

I agree about the "exaggeration and intrusion of unwarranted matter". There are so many examples of why this is so obviously PJ's take on the story. His 'style' is stamped throughout (an avalanche of skulls come to mind). Not that this seriously degrades the whole. There is much more of the true heart of the story than not. It is simply that we see it through his eyes. If Tolkien had lived and become a director (a very fanciful thought obviously), what would the result have been? As cinematic restraints would still have to be contended with, I'm not sure any of us could say with certainty.

I applaud PJ's effort as I think he did an admirable job. And of course, his version will be the cinematic benchmark against which all future versions are judged.

Response from Daisy Gold:

On one of the extra dvds in ROTK, I remember someone saying that there were now two versions of LOTR,... Tolkiens' and PJs'and both would be remembered in years to come.
I can well believe the book will never be out of print but it says a lot for PJ's movie that it may too become a classic.

Tolkien could not have envisaged the great leaps in cinema technology we have now that makes PJ's production possible. Fantasy films in the 40's to early 60's were very hammy!! Errol Flynn as Robin Hood Shocked Cool Maybe Tolkien felt he couldn't trust this media to do justice to his story, his baby when he saw what they did to our folk hero Robin Hood.

I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money

I read this quote too and I thought it strange he would prefer a cartoon version to real life.
Cartoons at this time , 50's were Tom and Jerry or Disneys. I for one would not like to see Frodo, Sam and co. in cartoons.

I also wonder if someone, say the BBC would make a drama series of LOTR. It must be possilbe to do this now.The BBC have tried their hand at CS Lewis books, quite successfully. In this way you could maybe include more of Tolkien's characters, and story. I would certainly love to see someone try.