I find [Christopher Tolkien's] attitude refreshing in a time when crass commercialization is not only expected, it's essentially demanded. There is no purity to anything anymore, and fans demand endless waves of tie-in products to sate their desire to own a piece of their favorite book, movie or TV show. There's a place for that, but does everything have to become dolls and sticker albums and Coke cans and video games?
Here's where I find myself, once again, with a foot in each world. I felt a twinge of what Christopher was talking about while watching the first of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, and watching the escape sequences near the end play out as if they were a particularly expensive variety of video game.
I'm not such a fuddy that I can't grasp the distinction between a film and a book, believe me. I understand that any movie made from a literary property has to find what in the original is cinematic. This is why I hated the movie version of No Longer Human: they couldn't find a way to film the book, which is heavily driven by internal monologue and observation, and instead settled for a lame plot synopsis with director's digressions.
But The Hobbit — and The Lord of the Rings behind it — both bugged me because even though Jackson made very good movies from them, the aesthetic used was a product of how movies work today. Unavoidable, I suspect, but irritating. Think about it: if we hadn't had that gargantuan climax, with the heroes doing their best Lara Croft impersonations, then every fan from Perth Amboy to Port Chalmers would have complained long and loud about it.
The other part of what Devin touches on in the above, the franchise-me! attitude towards culture, is another thing uncomfortably close to my own heart. We see it mostly as a matter of course that if something is culturally successful in one arena, we feel almost obliged to make it into something else. I can't complain too much about this, because then I would have to object to the splendid films that got made from The Wall and Quadrophenia, not to mention all the movie-to-book adaptations that actually work — The Accidental Tourist, the Michael Radford version of 1984, the daring and radical reworking of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and so on.
What I can complain about, though, is the way these things encourage — not always intentionally — both the denaturing of the original material, the despoiling of the creative earth they were harvested from, and the befouling of the environment they are placed into. The nadir of this is in the way fantasy is written archly and self-consciously in the Tolkien mode, or with books clearly thrown together with at least half an eye turned towards how they can be filmed. The former issue is bad enough, since Tolkien's work was just one possible mode of many in his time; others have been all but forgotten thanks to having been just about marketed out of existence. The latter issue is even worse, since it encourages the kind of writing which takes that much less advantage of what can only be done on a page. Why encourage producing something that's only all the more difficult to stick in front of a camera?
I don't believe there's malice involved in most of the work that goes into creating spinoffs, adaptations, and the parade of products surrounding any franchise. Nobody doing this stuff actively hates anything; if anything, most of them are involved in such work because of their love for the material. But I'd submit that one of the other emotions that needs to be exercised here is respect — that perhaps sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone, and not create something whose most pressing need to exist is to fill a shelf. Sometimes the best way to express your love for something is to take what it teaches you and move into an entirely new direction.
This is not because of some untouchable sacrosanctity in the original material. Rather, it's about the larger culture of such material. If all we ever do with any one thing is make it into four other things of wildly uneven quality, it becomes less about making the one thing any good and more about simply filling the room with misshapen variations on a theme.
I don't bring all this up because I think things were better back when Tolkien Sr. was doing his thing; there was arguably just as much denaturing and dilution going on then as there is now. (Small wonder the elder Tolkien despised Disney then.) I mention it because each succesive generation prints and films more than the preceding one — and because there is far less ephemerality to all this material to boot. Once something comes into existence, it has a tendency to stick around all the longer, sometimes because it's so terrible (see: MST3K), in much the same way industrial waste gets into soil and ground water and stays there, and soon your children are being born without fingers.
The solution is not to mandate that we produce less culture, because that's obviously unworkable. But the idea that we can just franchise one thing after another with no consequences to the next (or current) generation of audiences and creators — that's specious. So far the only solution I have is to call it out as it happens, and to remind people of the consequences.
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