Right to the Source – Adaptations Good, Bad, and Ugly

Did you know that animation legend Gene Deitch was involved in a semi-animated version of “The Hobbit” in the 1960s? Seriously! Go Google “Hobbit” and “Gene Deitch” and you’ll see. In it, Dale, the City of Golden Bells, is destroyed by the dragon Slag. Three survivors of the destruction of Dale (a nameless watchman, Thorin Oakenshield, the general of Dale’s Garrison, and the Princess Mika Milovana) get help from the wizard Gandalf to find someone to slay the dragon. Gandalf leads them to Bilbo Baggins, who is prophesied to be the one who will defeat Slag…which he does by making the Arkenstone into the point of a giant crossbow bolt and using it to slay the dragon. Then Bilbo, who is in love with the Princess, rules Dale with her for a while before they return to Hobbiton to live.

So yeah. No dwarves. No elves. No goblins or spiders. No Battle of Five Armies. The Ring is sort of in it, as is Gollum (or Gooloom), but it’s lacking a great deal of what makes The Hobbit the work of art that it is. Bilbo goes instantly from reluctant adventurer to hero without any clear growth. I mean, admittedly, it’s only 12 minutes long, but they’re a pretty bad 12 minutes.

Now, what makes this a bad adaptation? That’s something that came up a lot recently during the post-film discussion of another bad adaptation – The Lorax.

The Lorax – Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The whole point of the original Dr. Seuss book is that the world has been made desolate by the selfish actions of the Once-ler, and it’s up to the reader to take action to make things better. In the movie, the Once-ler isn’t the villain; he’s the victim of family/peer pressure. And the “hero” isn’t acting out of any obvious desire to make things better…he’s just trying to impress the girl he likes. It might be stated that he eventually comes to give a crap about trees, but it’s a fine line, honestly.

In the book, the Once-ler might be repentant now, but he was selfish and greedy. By giving the Once-ler the out of being manipulated by others, the film-makers take away some of the point. The Once-ler is only guilty of not standing up to his family. He’s not a villain; he’s a victim. And the Lorax himself is like a wacky neighbor, rather than a harbinger of doom. It almost feels like he’s more upset about the Once-ler breaking his promise than laying waste to the land.

The reason both of these movies are bad adaptations is that they miss the point of the Source material. The Lorax is about taking personal responsibility. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.” And it doesn’t end with car chases and big show-stopping tunes. It ends sadly, but with a note of hope. If you want to show your family a good version of the same story, find a copy of the Friz Freleng animated Lorax. It’s much more satisfying.

How Many Times Can We Return to the Tomb of Horrors?

Before 3rd edition came out, my friend Jason ran Bruce Cordell’s “Return to the Tomb of Horrors”. It was rough and vicious, and we lost a few people along the way.

More recently, we tried the 3rd Edition version of Tomb of Horrors that was released in Dungeon Magazine. My players really cake-walked through it. Almost effortlessly.

There’s been a 4th Edition version of the Tomb which I’ve read, and which seems extremely dangerous while not retreading the same terrain.

The problem with the 3rd Edition version is that, while the Tomb was nicely brought up to date with the system changes, players have gotten more cautious. The group went very carefully, assessing threats, using magic to good ability, noting features of the Tomb to utilize later, which ultimately culminated with one of my players grappling the Demilich Construct and running it into the antimagic room, which rendered it almost helpless.

One thing I like about the 4th Edition module is that it seems to have stepped up the danger, and it has some challenges that won’t be predictable at all. In this, it really stays true to the original source which, when it came out, no one had seen anything like. Surprises and danger from shocking directions is what made the original Tomb deadly.

The Inevitable Trilogy Discussion

I know no one will be surprised to have me bring up The Lord of the Rings here. Are Peter Jackson’s movies perfect adaptations of the books? No. Are they excellent movies? Well, in my opinion, yes.

What the movies do wonderfully is capture the feelings and important elements of the original material. There’s a quote in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Aragorn is telling the story of Beren and Luthien. He says that the tale is a sad one, as are all the tales of Middle-Earth. That quote really embodies the feeling of the story. The Lord of the Rings is an inherently sad story. Although there is victory, there are many sacrifices. Frodo, arguably the hero of the piece, sacrifices his life to save the world. He doesn’t die, but his life is over. And poor Sam, who’s only goal was to help Frodo and bring him home, has to be left behind in the end.

If Peter Jackson hadn’t had the ending at the Grey Havens, I would’ve felt robbed. The catharsis of the ending it what ties it together and makes it the work it is.

So What Am I Getting At?

When assessing an adaptation of a work into another version of that work, what can really make or break the piece is not how well it sticks to the story, or specific elements, but how well it keeps the feeling of the original. An adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with a happy ending misses the point of Romeo & Juliet. A version of Watchmen without the ambiguous ending would miss the point. The success of an adaptation is in the ability of the adapter to interpret and capture the original feel and theme of the Source.

Your Turn

Am I off-base in your opinion? Do you think there’s something else that makes for a good adaptation? Do you maybe think I’m wrong about the Lorax being a bad movie, or Lord of the Rings being a good one? I’m up for debate. Let us all know what you think.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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