Today we celebrated the Epiphany liturgy. Tomorrow, the traditional date of Epiphany, it’s back to work, weather permitting. This seems a good time to reflect on the Christmas season that’s drawing to a close, especially two movies we watched over the last couple of weeks: A Christmas Carol (the 1951 English version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge), and the first installment of Peter Jackson’s take on The Hobbit. As you will see, I have rather more to say about the latter of the two.
But first we need to deal with the term “purist”: whenever someone criticizes the cinematic rendering of a given book, others, with the slightest of derisive sneers will dismiss him with that label (“purism”, apparently, being a mindless obsession with minutiae that renders one’s opinion unworthy of serious consideration). Allow me to say at the outset that I am not a purist, if that’s what the word means. I understand that elements that work in a novel don’t necessarily work on the big screen and vice versa, and also that a workable movie can include only a small portion of the detail found in a novel. A movie maker must often leave out subplots, minor characters, and sometimes condense or even change events from a book to make a good movie (for instance, when Peter Jackson left Tom Bombadil out of The Fellowship of the Ring it might have been regrettable, but it was perfectly understandable).
Not all such changes, however, are equal. Most stories operate on two levels: the “surface story” made up of the plot, specific events and characters, and what can be called the “sub-story”, which is made up of any deeper meanings, the moral universe in which the narrative operates, the “character”, if you like, of particular characters, and so on. This is what people often mean by the “spirit” of the story. Most tales can survive changes to the surface story, if they are not too many or too extreme, and remain more or less the same story. Change the sub-story in any significant way, however, and even those elements of the surface story that have not been changed can take on a very different meaning, and you can end up with something that looks very similar, but is in fact very different.
In my next couple of posts I’ll examine some of the ways the different filmmakers treated the two books mentioned above, and why it is that the 1951 A Christmas Carol is a Good Movie, while Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is a Bad Movie.