Monday, March 12, 2012


Harry Potter and the Da Vinci code are not reducible to the MSS that J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown submitted to their publisher. This is true even if the published text was very close to those MSS and not, as sometimes happens, co-authored by their editors. At the very least, several hundred people were involved in drawing covers and typesetting and printing and physically manufacturing the object that you bought in Waterstone. And someone else created the marketing campaign; decided that it would be cool for bookshops to open in the middle of the night to sell the first editions; carefully honed the Rowling persona; spotted that a series of school based children's fantasy stories might be the sort of thing that kids would want to read. No-one but JK Rowling could have written Harry Potter but if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter, some other publisher might have identified some very similar author to place at the center of a very similar maelstrom.

It is tempting for a writer to think "It is my words that the Public wants, and all the publisher does is put them in the hands of the reader."

It is equally tempting for a publisher to think "I make beautiful books, and one small part of the process is the artisan who I hire to write the words which go into them."

It is tempting for an actor to think: "I have a special talent: people come to see me act, and the director's job is simply to decide where I should stand so that the audience can hear me declaiming.

It is equally tempting for a director to think: "People have come to see my version of a play, based on my knowledge of literature and stage craft. An actor is simply a skilled individual whose job it is to read the words and perform the gestures that I am tell him to."

Would it therefore be unreasonable for the theatre architect to say "I am in the business of giving people an exquisite evening. You create a beautiful building, and then you hire anyone to sell ice cream, pour drinks, and strut about on the stage?"


You can sometimes get a very small child to eat his greens but arbitrarily declaring that these are special Tellytubby greens. It works better if the person performing the alchemy is Mr Sainsbury: the spinach that was wrapped in official Tellytubby packaging really does taste better than the kind which Mummy says came all the way from Tellytubbyland.

I am sometime told that Peter Jackson's parody of Lord of the Rings has to be judged on it's own terms: it doesn't matter whether or not it is an accurate translation of Prof. Tolkien's book.

It is certainly true that Lord of the Rings works very well as a Hollywood pop corn flick. I would place it almost precisely on  a level with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, full of sound and fury but signifying less and less as it goes along.

This is not to deprecate Lord of the Rings. I like the Pirates of the Caribbean series very much indeed. They provide a huge dollop of cutlasses, cannons and eye patches, wrapped in the illusion of a narrative, and enough macguffins and plot coupons to propel the ships from exotic location to exotic location. They are, in short, exactly what you want from a pirate movie. 

I feel much the same way about Lord of the Rings: it is the Goonies with dragons, ill matched semi competent protagonists dropped into the middle of a story in which far too many precipices collapse underneath them and far to many dragons drop rocks on them for anyone to have any chance to work out what is actually meant to be happening. 

Saying that the Lord of the Rings is to be judged on its own merits is the same as saying that Jackson, having made his big budget cartoon, used the name Lord of the Rings to give it a quite spurious gravitas: that the Lord of the Rings movie is only a Lord of the Rings movie in a manner of speaking, just at the Tellytubby spinach is only Tellytubby spinach in a manner of speaking.

If I say this, I am accursed of snobbery by the meta geeks.  


Mike Taylor said...

"It is certainly true that Lord of the Rings works very well as a Hollywood pop corn flick. I would place it almost precisely on a level with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, full of sound and fury but signifying less and less as it goes along."

*lost for words*

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Saying that the Lord of the Rings is to be judged on its own merits is the same as saying that Jackson, having made his big budget cartoon, used the name Lord of the Rings to give it a quite spurious gravitas

By that reasoning, any production of Hamlet that isn't entirely faithful to the staging and direction used by the Lord Chamberlain's Men is using the name of Shakespeare's play to gain spurious gravitas as well.

Phil Masters said...

The thing with Shakespeare, though, is that we don't really know much about the original staging and direction. I mean, people like the modern Globe in London bust a gut to reconstruct such things (and I enjoy their "original practices" productions), but even they admit that they're largely guessing. The plays we've got are essentially reconstructions from what were basically prompt scripts.

Whereas some later creators (Wagner, Shaw) specified set designs and so forth in excruciating and sometimes pointless detail ("her eyes dilating as she listens..."). So, given the budget, one can reconstruct a Shaw production as the author intended far more accurately than anything Shakespearean.

Which is better? Does this matter? Or are Shakespeare plays often like classical Greek statues - exquisite white marble creations which would in fact originally have had garish paint jobs?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Phil: that's true, though given that there is a difference between adapting a written work to a visual medium and staging a new version of an existing play, perhaps that gap between the words we have and the plays as they were originally staged makes my analogy stronger - we can never know, after all, what the Middle Earth in Tolkien's head truly looked like.

That said, if we had stage instructions for Shakespeare's plays, would that make them better? Fashions in acting have and will continue to change. When I read about performances by noted 19th century Shakespeareans like Edwin Booth or Sarah Bernhardt, they sound absolutely excruciating, and even someone as recent as John Gielgud can seem overheated to 21st century audiences. (The interesting but severely anachronistic film Stage Beauty gets into this issue, transitioning from an allegedly authentic 17th century production of Othello at its beginning to a thoroughly modern, naturalistic production of it by its end.) I think there's even an argument to be made that part of the resilience and timelessness of Shakespeare's plays is rooted in the room they leave successive generations to recast them into modern forms, even before you get into questions like is Hamlet mad and are we meant to hate or pity Shylock.

So, to answer your last question, neither one is better. The issue isn't one of better or worse but of what constitutes the essence of the work in question. In Shakespeare's case, this is purely the words. In Wagner and Shaw's, this is the words plus the stage instructions. In an episode of Doctor Who, it's the words, the stage instructions, the actors, the camerawork, the music, etc. A lot of this comes down to chance - for example, I'm fairly certain that the tradition of using the same actor to play Mr. Darling and Captain Hook started out as a cost-saving measure, as the two characters are never on stage at the same time, and only accumulated its thematic weight, becoming folded into the essence of Peter Pan, later on.

It's, of course, in identifying this essence that the rub lies, particularly when transitioning from one medium to another as in the case of The Lord of the Rings. And I would argue that it is entirely possible for two people - Andrew and Peter Jackson - to have very different ideas of what that essence is without either one of them necessarily being wrong.

Mark Schaal said...

That seems an awfully mechanical view as to the essence of a piece. Andrew is talking about art and heart and soul, not about science. We can say 26 protons is the essence of iron, but we can't say "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall" etc is the essence The Comedy of Errors. You could have somebody read those words in a monotone drone over the PA at K-Mart (umm, Tesco?) and all the words would be present but the essence would be lost. On the other hand, a group could take liberties such as the Flying Karamazov Brother's version and still capture the essence of the play.

Last year I saw a complaint about a change of hair color in a translation from book to TV. I was skeptical. Most of the time the hair color, although from a mechanistic view is a specified part of the work, is simple not of import to the essence of the piece. But, for instance, in Anne of Green Gables the fact that Anne is a red head is a crucial part of her identity. It makes her noticeable, it marks her as different, it makes her feel unattractive, it makes people jump to assumptions about her character.