Is Goodness Boring?
The process of turning a book into a movie has always fascinated me. The world has seen many good books and many good movies, but how many stories have made both a good book and a good movie? Books and movies achieve their effects differently, and it seems to require great skill to decide what aspects of a book can survive translation to the screen. In C.S. Lewis’s marvelous essay On Stories, he laments how the movie version of King Solomon’s Mines lost the very qualities he most admired in the book:
At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not “cinematic” and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me.
Recently two movie adaptations, Mansfield Park and The Lord of the Rings, have caused me to think again about the transition from book to screen, about the decisions every director must make concerning what to keep, change, or throw out from the book. Mansfield Park and The Lord of the Rings are two very different books and two very different movies; yet in both the directors faced the same sort of choice: what to do when the defining, pivotal feature of a story is a celebration of virtue. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for these two directors at least, virtue is not exciting enough to sustain a movie audience; goodness is boring.
(Warning: what follows contains spoilers concerning both books and both movies.)
Mansfield Park is perhaps the hardest of Jane Austin’s books to like. Its central figure, Fanny Price, lacks the wit, intelligence, and independence that make the heroines of Pride and Prejudice and Emma so memorable. She is timid, fearful, and so emotionally sensitive that she is virtually incapacitated. In spite of being the key character in the book, Fanny doesn’t actively do anything; she is not the mover behind any of the book’s events. Fanny’s role is to watch and to suffer.
What then is there in such a book to interest us? Why should we care about Fanny at all? The drama in Mansfield Park derives from the moral vision of its protagonist and the conflicts she must endure because of it. Fanny, alone among the characters in the book, both prizes virtue and has the clarity of vision to recognize its absence. Her uncle Thomas is a kind and virtuous man, but his respectability and uncritical loyalty to his family has blinded him to their moral failings. Fanny loves the compassion and moral strength of her cousin Edmund, and yet even Edmund cannot always see straight. Fanny must watch helplessly as he falls in love with an unprincipled and acquisitive woman. Even worse, everyone pressures Fanny to accept the proposal of Mr. Crawford, a man whose lack of character seems to go unnoticed by everyone—except Fanny. The drama of the story heightens as everyone whom Fanny loves accuses her of arrogance and ingratitude for refusing the hand of such an eligible man. This charge is all the more painful because Fanny alone understands that she is actually acting from a clear moral vision and in obedience to what is right. Yes, Fanny does nothing in the book, but it is a profoundly eloquent nothing. We, the readers, watch through her eyes and see the selfish motives that no one around her seems to see, and we know (even if none of the other characters knows) that Fanny’s refusal to compromise reflects her profound understanding and strength. In the end, of course, Fanny triumphs, but not merely (nor even primarily) because she gets her guy. What really satisfies us as readers is the way Fanny’s moral vision is vindicated. In the end, her uncle and her cousin come to acknowledge that she has been right all along, that she has seen what they did not see.
How, then, do you transfer to the screen a story about a girl who does nothing? I recognize the difficulties, and I feel quite certain that if I tried to write a screenplay from this book, I would fail miserably. Still, since I had been relatively happy with recent productions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion, I was not prepared for how much I loathed the movie version of Mansfield Park. The filmmakers seemed desperate to give everyone something more exciting to do. They take boring, kindly old Uncle Thomas and turn him into the embodiment of the evils of British colonialism, on whose plantation native women are raped and native men are lynched. Fanny’s aunt now takes some sort of dope, and we in the audience are saved from boredom by the timely insertion of a semi-graphic sex scene. But worst of all is what they do to Fanny. Fanny has now become one of those strong, independent female characters like Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. Most mind-bogglingly of all (it took my breath away when I saw it), when Mr. Crawford proposes to Fanny, she says yes. Granted, she eventually changes her mind, but the damage is done. The filmmakers have missed the entire point of Mansfield Park, or at least they have decided to replace it with a new one of their own. Fanny is the dramatic center and the moral compass for the entire story; take away the clarity of her moral vision and the whole story just shuts down. We are left with a story about a perky girl who loses the guy and then finally gets him.
The Lord of the Rings
I was both eagerly anticipating and dreading the three-film version of The Lord of the Rings (two of which have now been released). Tolkien’s epic story is without a doubt my favorite work of fiction, and I knew without question that it would be impossible to capture its unique qualities in a movie. I wanted very much to see the films, however, and I wanted to give them a break. As I sat watching the first episode, I scolded myself throughout the movie: “Don’t keep comparing it to the book; let the movie be its own entity; enjoy the movie for what it is.” I mostly succeeded. Taken on their own, the movies have to be among the most entertaining fantasy-adventure films ever made. The production design, delightful music, and epic sweep of the films are quite compelling, and one must say that the director, Peter Jackson, has done a good job with a very difficult task.
In the end, however, I cannot forget the books from which the movies were made, and by that standard the movies are a noble failure. Again the issue is “What did the filmmakers leave out?” I recognize that even three films are not enough to contain all the events of Tolkien’s epic, and I am not blaming the filmmakers for cutting out parts I like; it had to be done. The nature of some of the changes, however, is quite striking; it seems that, once again, when virtue is the driving force in the drama, it often is replaced with something more “interesting.” For example:
- In Tolkien’s version, Merry and Pippin discover Frodo’s perilous mission, and they bravely insist that they will not let him face it alone. In the movie, they stumble upon Frodo as he is leaving and become comically caught up in the events against their will.
- Later in the book Merry and Pippin beg to be included among the fellowship setting out for the terrors of Mordor; in the film, after they are told they can go with Frodo, for a cheap laugh they are portrayed as saying, “And where are we going?”
- One example that particularly distressed my daughter is the way Faramir was portrayed in the second film. In the book Faramir is a wise and virtuous leader of men. His role in the drama is to provide a satisfying counterpoint to his brother Boromir, who became consumed with lust for the ring and tried to take it from Frodo. In contrast we see from the beginning Faramir’s strength of character and how fortunate Frodo and Sam are to have encountered him. In the movie, however, Faramir actually decides to take the ring from Frodo and to remove Frodo and Sam to Gondor by force. Only in the end does he realize that he was wrong and agree to let them go. In a way, I can understand the filmmakers’ problem. They had decided to end the second film with this encounter with Faramir instead of the battle with Shelob that ends Tolkien’s book two. They seemed to feel the need, therefore, to juice up the Faramir story, to make it more of a cliffhanger. Will Faramir let them go—or will the quest fail? The way the filmmakers portrayed Faramir makes the end of the movie more exciting. What gets lost in the process, however, is the satisfaction of encountering a truly good character.
I could multiply example after example. Characters in the book who display long-suffering commitment to the demands of virtue become something else in the movie: sometimes angst-ridden and hesitant, sometimes gullible and the butt of the filmmakers’ jokes. Characters such as Aragorn, Sam, Gimli, and Treebeard have been diminished; they have become more entertaining and less inspiring. Time after time the filmmakers’ short cuts eliminate those small events, those gentle moral motions, that allow us to see virtue in action. I understand that a five-minute battle with a computer generated cave troll may seem more “exciting” to watch, but The Lord of the Rings is about more than excitement; it is about the constant battle to put duty and self-sacrificial love over personal comfort.
I have no grand sweeping conclusions to draw; I do not claim to have spotted some great cultural trend, nor do I think that it is impossible for films to celebrate virtue. Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, for example, communicates the self-sacrificing virtues of the character as well or even better than the book. Even the movies of The Lord of the Rings succeed at times in making goodness their focus.
It is interesting and instructive to note, however, that writers like Jane Austin and J.R.R. Tolkien found great drama in moral triumph, more drama than some who translate them to film seem to find. Virtue does not seem to be exciting enough for some filmmakers; to make a film dramatically satisfying we always need more action, more conflict, more comical misunderstandings, more tension between characters. I disagree. In the two books I have mentioned here, at least, the virtue is the drama. Goodness need not be boring at all; its portrayal satisfies a universal human hunger, at least in part. I hope that the artists of our own time do not forget.
Copyright May 2003 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.