Interpreting the Classics

Beam us up, Thorin

This Saturday was International Hobbit Day. I celebrated by having a breakfast that would make a hobbit proud. It was the first day which resembled autumn, chilly, a bit blue and a bit gray, like the American Civil War in the sky. I snuggled up on my warm couch in my warm hobbit hole, ate, read, looked out the window, and didn’t expect much of anything to happen.

And nothing really did. At one point Burke asked if I wanted to celebrate International Hobbit Day by watching The Hobbit films or Lord of the Rings, but by then it was almost 11 a.m. and we wouldn’t have time to watch all 11 hours of either film series. It was, however, time for elevenses. So I made something to eat.

Up until I read The Hobbit when I was about ten, books mostly involved brothers who solved crimes with alliterative titles, trees that were very, sadly, maybe too generous. There were the normal kiddo picture books, the ones that taught me words, and the ones that taught me lessons like that if I thought I could, I could.

But The Hobbit was an adventure. Even the subtitle, There and Back Again, held some mystery. Where and back again? I was hooked, scared at times, and mystified. It was the first of many times that I chose a character in a book to “be,” so that I could take some small part in the adventure as well. (Dwalin. Totally lived, too.)

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, as we were enjoying cheese, crackers, and olives as our twoses treat, we went on a video search. And what we found was The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

If you’re not familiar with this particular gem of interpretative art, it features Leonard Nimoy all but dressed as Dr. Spock (it was 1968), singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. It gets better. Assisting him in his, I guess, goal of retelling the story of Bilbo’s adventures, are several girls with pixie haircuts and pointy ears (whether they’re Vulcan or Hobbit we’ll never know), who dance spasmodically as if they had, in fact, taste-tested the brown acid that would appear at Woodstock a year later.

While there is no doubt that some film scholar could argue that Nimoy’s interpretation does have merit, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it did disturb me out of my Vulcan mind. Also, it exists. Also, for forty-ish years this was what people went to (I’m being hyperbolic, there were definitely others) when they wanted a modern retelling of The Hobbit, a story they no doubt loved.

Just imagine you’re a kid in 1976 who had just finished The Hobbit and on a Saturday night CBS puts on The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. You are so excited. And then there’s Mr. Spock and his gyrating pixie girls on acid.

What a letdown. And disturbing.

By late afternoon, I was down the rabbit hole. Almost literally. That is, I was watching clips of Watership Down on Youtube. I came to the book Watership Down late in my late thirties, but I vividly remember scenes from the movie from when I was a kid. My dad put on the cartoon when one Saturday afternoon, excited to see the film version of one of his favorite books. It didn’t take long for him and I both to react. I burst into tears. I have no idea what his initial reaction was because my face was buried in a pillow. But when I opened my eyes, it was no longer on the television and he was drinking whiskey, so I assumed he was distraught as I was.

It seems that whoever gave Spock’s pixie girls their doses of LSD, had taken a large dose of it himself and then made the film version of Watership Down.

If you’re not familiar with the book, Watership Down is a charming tale about some British rabbits who go on a journey to find a new warren. To be sure, the book has its sad parts, tense moments, and even violence. But there is nothing to prepare a child (or a forty-three year old man eating a variety of sausages) for the film adaptation that can only be described as Why would you do this to animated rabbits? I only remember refusing to go into the yard for weeks after watching the film and that my dad’s whiskey consumption rose sharply as his sleep intake declined. We still don’t talk about it.

I have no problem with a film director taking their own slant on a book, it’s another art medium of course. The Shining is one of my favorite movies and I loved the book just the same. Jaws, in my opinion, is a far better movie than it is a book. The author Robert Benchley was a writer for National Geographic, and he wrote about the shark as if he was a person and the people as though they were furniture. World War Z is an outstanding book which was “made into” a very good film, and they remain that way as long as you accept that their only similarity is a title.

In the late afternoon, Youtube clips of WWZ, Jaws, and The Hobbit having been exhausted, I reflected that they all had their place in our cultural lore. Besides, it was time for fourses and then I’d have to plan dinner.

What are some of the most memorable interpretations of books you love? Whether that means awful or awesome.

  1. #1 by PJ on September 24, 2018 - 6:24 pm

    I think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite book to movie transitions (obviously, the Gene Wilder version). It was a fun and only a little disturbing for me. The boat ride was both confusing and exciting. James and the Giant Peach is another great adaptation. As far as I’m concerned, the hobbit movies are a pale shadow of the greatness of the book but I think we all new that as soon as we heard they were making a trilogy of 3-hour movies from a 300 page book.

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