Sep 252010
 

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, my former student Richard Hartshorn and his brother Philip set out on an amazing adventure. They made a feature-length motion picture from scratch with nothing but their own inventiveness, persistence, and money (not to mention a tight group of intensely creative friends). Lots of people talk the talk, but very few ever actually do the work. Through the production Richard kept Numéro Cinq up to date on their progress with his film diary. This is the first in a series of ten diary entries describing the filmmaking process from conception to final cut. Each entry ends with a link at the bottom to bring you back to the table of contents. There are photos and videos, training videos, trailers and posters.

Rich is an actor, dramatist, game blogger, screenwriter and teacher. His diary gives NC readers a chance to see inside another art form, an art that is related to writing but slightly different. Nevertheless the process of imagining and assembling scenes, adapting a book to screen, directing actors, editing and so on are all fascinating in themselves and full of parallels in the world of pure writing. Besides that, I am all for people making art, whatever it is, rather than sitting on their butts in the living room. The sheer chutzpah involved in just going out and making your own damn movie is amazing and should be applauded. The world of art is an outlaw world, you can do anything you want.

What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.

Table of Contents

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I recently attempted to adapt some of the earlier works of J.R.R. Tolkien into screenplay form.  This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, and the film project that has resulted from this adaptation has been a blast to work on so far.  The challenges in the first stage of adaptation (the bare-bones screenplay) included, among other things, the following: 1) This text is beloved by many people (including myself) – How do I keep it true to the source material while translating it to “movie” form?; 2) These stories have many different versions, as they are from work considered “unfinished,” so I am essentially working from second and third drafts; 3) This isn’t modern run-of-the-mill fantasy; it’s the work of a Professor of Linguistics at Oxford who gave a fictional “history” to his invented languages by writing a mythology (which came in the form of The Silmarillion, The Book(s) of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, The Lays of Beleriand and others).  Many of the early drafts are written purely in Old/Middle English.  How do I maintain that quality while making it my own work (not to mention keeping it coherent for someone who doesn’t know/care much about the text itself, since this will eventually be a piece of visual media)?

I.  The Opening – The story takes place at the end of Tolkien’s “First Age,” i.e. tens of thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit.  I’m working from material from three physical books, one of which (The Silmarillion) is an overview written in a style similar to the Norse Myths.  The second, Unfinished Tales (namely the story “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”) is written in a close third-person narrative.  The third, “The Fall of Gondolin,” from The Book of Lost Tales 2, is very much a draft, originally hand-written and posthumously published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher (and also packed with footnotes by the latter).  As such, words are smudged and sometimes illegible and only left to speculation:  Did this character originally die here?  Was this guy supposed to have a different name?  Which version do we think Tolkien would have revised/canonized had he lived to publish this work himself?  Speculation, in a way, for me, is part of the beauty of this thing – rather than wondering how someone would have done something and completely limiting myself, I’m choosing what seems the most powerful.  I’m also working from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, in which the author discusses with friends and readers elements of his work that beg explanation (a very interesting one which I’ll come back to later: did the “Elves” have pointed ears?  The logical conclusion is “no,” as Tolkien used commonly known terms from European fairytales – Elf, Gnome, Troll, Ogre, Goblin – to describe his original creations, and later expressed deep regret for doing so, as using these words inevitably places inherent assumptions in a reader’s head).

So, the opening.  Essentially, I’m saying “Dear viewer; let’s catch you up on the last thousand or so years.”  There are a million interesting things to talk about, but I need to keep it limited to what’s important to this film alone.  People who have read it already know and appreciate the mythology, and people who haven’t won’t care (and if they do, they’ll go read it).  My brother’s reaction to my wordy first draft, which opened with the entirety of the Doom of Mandos, was something along the lines of “Dude, I know the stories, and I don’t even get this.”  The second draft toned this down – I used relevant lines from the Dooms for ambiance, while writing my own little “prologue” which featured a voiced-over character in the film describing a few events that directly led up to what’s happening in our immediate tale.  It seems simple enough, but it was surprisingly difficult to add something that wasn’t there (even though it kind of was…just not in my words).

Case in point, writing a prologue of an adapted work that many consider “thick” is something that takes a bit of thought and many breaks to go outside and breathe clean air.

—By Rich Hartshorn

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  5 Responses to “Wings Over Arda Film Diary 1: Notes on the Adaptation Process — Richard Hartshorn”

  1. [...] evidenced by my last post, my free time and brain-space has been heavily occupied by a writing/film project based on a few [...]

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