Trilogy Day 2012: The Peter Jackson Treatment

As we finish up “The Fellowship of the Ring” [IMDB] I’ve been considering the those stories that haven’t been as lucky in finding funding and filmmakers who would honor them.  As any fan of epic adventure knows one of the surest ways to ruin a quality story is to allow hollywood to adapt it (or to let the SyFy channel within 50 miles of it).  So with that in mind here is a short list of stories that I feel truly deserve the respect (and budgets) that Peter Jackson was able to give to “The Lord of the Rings”.

Tarzan of the Apes

Few stories have been adapted so often and so badly as Edgar Rice Burroughs classic  story of an infant raised by apes.  While the original story, first published in 1912, may seem dated to modern audiences there’s a good reason that Tarzan remains one of the most well-known characters in all of fiction.

In a very real way Tarzan represents the genesis of the modern super-hero.  A regular man overcoming a tremendous hardship that leaves him with “skills and abilities far beyond those of normal men”.  Coupled with the titles and holdings obtained after he returned to England Tarzan was Bruce Wayne long before Batman.

Adaptations have been generally awful.  Early hollywood introduced us to an Adonis man-child with “Me Tarzan, you Jane”.  Later works were better but suffered from various failings.  1981’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” [IMDB] is best known for Bo Derek’s breasts and Disney’s 1999 effort “Tarzan” [IMDB] was somewhat promising but vastly overly simplified.  Perhaps the best modern adaptation is 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan” [IMDB] but it suffered from a cloying presentation, budget issues and some laughable effects.

A Tarzan adaptation needs to capture his intelligence as well as his power and Jane’s strength as well as her beauty.  Even poor Clayton should be treated with the respect he’s never received.  The apes need to be portrayed with depth and finesse.  I would welcome (and expect) updates to the racial and sexual attitudes present in the original book but little else need be altered.  Counting both film and TV there have been well over a hundred adaptations of Tarzan: it’s long past time for a good one.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin’s  fantasy classic is a hard sell to hollywood.  Although the story is short it features long stretches of introspection and no real battle or romance.  There are few characters and no real roles (in the first book at least) for women.  Also (although many people like to forget this) all the main characters are black.

The terrifyingly bad Sci-fi Channel adaption, The Legend of Earthsea [IMDB], epitomizes the worst possible way to adapt a beloved work.  Screen writers (who must be assumed to be working via committee) rape the books for names and interesting words and make up what amounts to essentially their own story.  Because, as should be apparent, some idiot working for scale can, of course, create a better story than an author that’s sold millions of books over decades.

This adaptation changed ages and locations to force a ham-fisted romance.  It altered fundamental facts for no apparent reason.  It added a ridiculous subplot involving conquest to mix in more action.  It offended fans of the books on every possible, conceivable level.  Seriously, the way they could have possibly fucked this up more is if they had included a little-green space genie named “The Great Gazoo.”

“Earthsea” deserves some tenderness and respect after all this time.  Any good adaptation will be quiet, subtle and without spectacle – more drama than adventure.  While I fear that hollywood will never risk such a thing it could be something truly special.

Watership Down

Richard Adam’s classic tale of adventure and brotherhood is somewhat of a cheat because it has already had an excellent adaptation in the 1978 Martin Rosen animated feature “Watership Down” [IMDB].  While quality of this adaptation is indisputable it did suffer from budget issues.  The animation is high-quality but low-framerate and lacks depth.  The shortish length of the film eliminates many beloved moments and characters and forces a faster pace than feels comfortable.  Unfortunately Western audiences, even after 30 years, still automatically equate “animation” with “children”.

Yes, the story is about bunnies.  But instead of a fable telling a human story with animal faces this is, at its heart, a rabbit’s story.  It humanizes the rabbits only to the extent needed to make us understand their story.  It’s a dramatic telling of a grand adventure every bit as epic as “Lord of the Rings”.  Challenge, hardship, community, friendship, oppression – all themes explored in-depth.

What Watership down deserves is a 3-hour epic live-action feature using the latest technology.  This is a story which may be a hard-sell to modern audiences but has universal appeal like few others.  I feel confident that if given the opportunity this story, which has consistently proved itself for 40 years, will easily be able to prove itself again.

I’m sure there are others, many others, that could be mentioned but those are my top-three.  Of course there’s no indication that Hollywood will do anything more than continue to pump out hackneyed remakes of films that don’t need remaking and transitioning third-rate sitcoms to the theater.  Still, somebody slipped up and gave Peter Jackson what he needed at least once – we can only hope that such mistakes will continue.

Updated: April 21, 2012 — 9:28 pm

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