There is an important point that, if more widely recognized, might defuse some of the controversy incited by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, New Line Cinema and MGM, 2013). Any work of art, any aesthetic creation, is irreducible and so untranslatable to any other medium. A written story, whose action takes place in the imagination of the reader, can never be faithfully reproduced on screen (even if the dialogue is taken directly from the original text).
A poem is an excellent example of this. How can a poem be “translated” into prose without irrecoverable loss? Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,” because “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” The “message” or “meaning” of Jackson’s film versions of Tolkien’s books thus introduces a new “change of scale or pace or pattern” which many lovers of the books understandably find jarring and troubling. But this change in message (from Tolkien’s meaning of the story to Jackson’s) is the unavoidable result of a change in its medium (from book to movie) and so to be expected (even if not, by some, welcomed). Thus, the vehement backlash in some quarters toward Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film “adaptations”: first of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954–55; New Line Cinema, 2001, 2002, 2003) and now his trilogy of Hobbit films (2012, 2013, 2014).
C. S. Lewis related a similar experience and expressed well the disappointment when confronted by the irreducible nature of an aesthetic work, when, after seeing a screen adaptation of a story he very much loved—Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines—wrote in 1947: “there is death in the camera.”
We can, of course, seek to point out where we think a certain adaptation departs from or misinterprets the original. A teacher should rightly point out a student’s deficient answer to an essay question on a particular text, for example, “Your answer obviously corresponds to the movie you watched and not the book you should have read.” But if we go to a movie expecting it to mean for us what the book meant, we will be disappointed when it cannot do what is impossible. Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth as presented in his books died on the screen this past December. There is death in the camera.
Thankfully, however, that is not the end. For there is something else present to the viewer that is very much alive—namely the film itself. And, like the work upon which it is (however faithfully) “based,” it is its own unique aesthetic creation and, like the text that inspired it, irreducible to any other medium without catastrophic and defacing loss. We can criticize an adapted work for its failure to be faithful to its source material, or for so greatly altering it as to make it unrecognizable. But it is silly to criticize it for being a movie (following another’s imaginative vision and invention) when what we really want and love is a book (which invoked our own private imaginative experience). A film adaptation of a book will not mean what the book meant but will mean itself. And we would do well to remember that while something must inevitably die in the camera, something else there (and only there) also lives.
 Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1964/1994), 7.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 8.
 C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 1947/2000b.), 93.
Image Credit: New Line Cinema and MGM