Sondheim on Smaug

fruitcakeSo. Still with Stephen Sondheim (at least as a jumping off point). The story of A Little Night Music (p282 of the UK edition of Finishing the Hat) was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. After the success of the musical Sondheim was approached by Bergman who wanted to collaborate on an adaption of The Merry Widow. Sondheim suggested Bergman see A Little Night Music before agreeing.

After Bergman has seen the musical Sondheim asked, with some trepidation, how he had found it (given it was based on Bergman’s own story). Bergman replied:

‘No, no, Mr Sondheim, please. I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story … after all, we all eat from the same cake.’

Which brings me to discussing a film I haven’t seen yet: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Ep III: The Lord of the Rings – Revenge of the Sith) and the question some of us come back to wrestle with ‘who’s story is it?’

Why does anyone wrestle with that question? Because ‘dwarves and elves don’t fall in love’ and ‘Why did they miss out Tom Bombadil’ and ‘Faramir doesn’t behave like that’ and countless other statements. But are all those questions missing the point? Yes, and (possibly) no.

Yes, because, just as musicals and films are different beasts (and Sondheim will tell you that) so books and the Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster (HSFB). Complaining that a book and an HSFB are different is as pointless as watching Verdi’s Macbeth while reading Shakespeare’s text and being upset when you realise Verdi has cut all the good speeches. But, in fact, the reason for the differences would be very similar, because we have gone from a comparatively-subtle, interiorising medium to one where all passions and conflicts are heightened.

The HSFB is not a vehicle for finely observed feelings, nuance or ambivalence. Everything has to be flagged up and clear, and everything, absolutely everything, has to be wagered on the last roll of the dice. Which is why the Master of Lake Town – a greedy, selfish, plotting fellow in the book – becomes the little dictator in order to be a proper antagonist for Bard, who in turn has to have a family history of failure against the dragon. With all that in place, downing the dragon with a very specific, last-of-its-kind, black arrow in a very specific, last-of-its-kind, dwarf windlass becomes an suitably charged act.

The whole Azog business in the first film (burning trees and that) was driven by the need to have an antagonist for Thorin (Bolg-Legolas have the same pairing): that is exactly the same structural requirement which gave us Lurtz at the end of Ep IV (The Lord of the Rings – A new hope). Once we accept the genre we have to accept all that sort of stuff: like putting up with ten-minute death songs in operas.

We’ve seen this sort of transformation before. Watch The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967), then read The Jungle Book (Kipling, 1894). Not as different as they could be (Sher Khan is a tiger in both), but one is ‘inspired by’, not ‘enslaved to’ the other.

That’s the ‘yes’: we are eating from the same cake and it just doesn’t matter that The Hobbit has given rise to Eps I-III.

What about the (possibly) ’no’. What case is there to be made for requiring a closer adherence to the seminal (in the seed-sense) book? I find it difficult to think where such a case might start. Perhaps it might start with the breath of the book, the pneuma or spirit. It is a little adventure. A perilous little adventure, certainly, but one which only becomes important because Someone (naming no names) found That Ring. Is that same breath in the film? Probably not. (Perhaps we could make something which was closer to that breath by making a cut of the three films which never leaves Bilbo. It would be weird, baffling and less bombastic.)

But in the end the book is the book and the films is the films. And we all eat from the same cake.