Sep 252010

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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