The narrator of The Hobbit, in his thoroughly British way, relates how Bilbo’s ancestor, Bullroarer Took, lopped off the head of Golfimbul the Goblin Chieftain. The severed head “sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down the rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented in the same moment.” In the film, it is not the narrator, but Gandalf, who relates this story to Bilbo, who scoffs, “I do believe you made that up.” Gandalf responds, “All good stories deserve to be embellished.” It is a beautiful moment because it performs, defends, and illustrates the adaptive and innovative intentions of the trilogy as a whole: the scene makes an authorial intrusion a wisecrack from a wise character, and attempts to ameliorate the ire of fans of the novel Hobbit as they discover that the film is, in fact, not a mere replication but an interpretation of the story they love.
As it happens, I think the Hobbit trilogy is a congested mess with some worthwhile gems, a lot of fluff and a lot of cinematic disaster. But I think the self-awareness of the first film, captured in Gandalf’s quip, provides something very wise that readers might keep in mind when they approach adaptations of works they love. This is not to say that readers cannot be disappointed by changes, but the criteria for disappointment for changes should not simply be that there are changes. A novel is not a play or a proto-screenplay; a novel does not put a period on the artistic expression and contribution that media can bring to a previously written story. The Shannara Chronicles is not, as Terry Brooks explicitly stated he did not desire, a paint-by-numbers version of The Elfstones of Shannara. But it is also not another story with similarly named characters and a vaguely similar plot. In atmosphere, essential characters, and the texture of the driving mythos, the premiere lives and breathes within the Elfstones narrative in an organic way, and its changes are grown, like the Ellcrys in Arborlon, from the rich soil of the original.
What follows actually contains only a very little discussion of the premiere itself, because I wish to avoid spoilers. What I attempt to present, instead, is a rationale by which I, as a long time reader and dedicated fan of Terry Brooks, regard the Shannara Chronicles premiere as highly satisfying in its methods.
From Scroll to Screen: Representative vs. Adaptive Translation
As an academic, I have translated texts, in whole or in part, from Latin, Old English, Middle English, and Middle High German. When I am initially translating for myself, I follow what is called a “word for word” translation, where, as close as possible, I match the number of words in my translation with the number of words in the original. Because most ancient languages have a case system, this means that the initial translation makes no sense because it lacks many of the words we use in English to create syntax. The next step in translating is to correct this problem; what makes my syntax not only correct but also familiar and common English usage? By the time these changes have been made, to make the translation readable, I will have probably made several changes that a different translator could have handled differently. These are permutations that would be correct for both of us. This allows for greater flexibility than one might expect in the process of a rather literal and even strict translation process, and this change is only concerned with preserving correctness of expression from one set of words to another set of words. This is what translators call “sense for sense” translation. Translation of media, from pure language on the page to visuals on the screen, will necessarily, in a similar but in some ways very complex way, require choices on the part of any film maker that could produce a staggering array of differences, even among great retellings that attempt close reiteration of the prose telling.
But the first type of translation has two purposes: to help students learn how the original language works by seeing how it correlates with their primary language, and to help those who do not know the original language at all. In other words, the first type of translation helps students to better understand the original text, and that type of translation will eventually be set aside by the student as she reflects more carefully on the original. The second type of reader, the one with no interest in learning dead languages, is using the translation as a stand-in, a replacement. I will probably never learn Old French, at least not fluently, so translations of The Song of Roland largely do this work for me. But I have translated Beowulf myself, and I still refer to other English translations because those people are more expert in Old English and can give me guidance as I become a better reader of the original.
But there is a third type of translation: the adaptive translation. The adaptive translation does not simply seek “word for word” or “sense for sense,” but also is willing to depart from the original because the content of the original inspires the translator to associate it with their own creative perceptions. The adaptive translation does not simply try to stay “true” to the original, because access to the original is already assumed. When everyone is translating the same text (like Beowulf, as students of English all once did), it becomes less necessary, when retelling it, to stick to the details, because the ideal audience already knows the details. The pleasure of permutations occurs here: the sequence of words, sentences, events, character interactions and so forth has a meaning understood by the audience, and they are able to see how changes to the story, or selections from or additions to it, play with the meaning of the original. This is how many tales were shaped in the Middle Ages, including those of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and many others. Reverence for a story requires both replication and innovation; embellishment is here not bad representative translation, but playful or beloved adaptive translation.
Film is Essentially Adaptive, not Representative, Translation
Although film (whether for the big screen or television) requires technologies that are newer than books, that historical fact does not make the choice to write a novel simply a stand-in until it can become a movie (though some may write after this fashion, which is fine). Now, great films can and do take a “word for word” and “sense for sense” approach to novels in many cases, and that is a legitimate choice on the director. But it is not a necessary one, and I daresay it is not the best approach. It is likewise not the best approach to adaptation to simply eviscerate the original novel and create some other thing with nothing but copyright-level similarities between the two. Adaptive translation is not abandonment, such as I feel happened with World War Z (the novel pushed the limits of the traditional zombie story in fascinating ways, and the film was just boring and uninspired, standard zombie flick fare). Often readers feel abandoned at the least permutation, at the addition of characters or rearrangement of plot. But abandonment film translations are repugnant because they are dishonest: they claim intimacy with a written story and betray a total lack of that intimacy.
The purpose of a film adaptation should not be to make the book obsolete; murderous usurpation is not intimate. The film adaptation should not pilfer bits of the book to create some other story than the one advertised; lying and stealing are neither of them intimate. A film should not subserviently seek to represent the book as if differences of media do not exist; self-esteem matters as much for good artistic relationships as it does for interpersonal ones. When you meet the intimate of someone you love, you do not lose sight of that person. They do not disappear. Better yet, when you see a dear friend in a new role, you do not stop seeing them, but you see them in that new role as the one you knew. So we might say that The Shannara Chronicles is in adaptive friendship with the Elfstones of Shannara, or we might say that the Elfstones story is a friend who participates in two roles: as a novel or as a TV show.
Charity: The Responsibility of the Reading Viewership
I don’t like every detail of The Shannara Chronicles’s adaptive choices, but no choice in it breaks with the charitable appreciation for the original story. Each change observed an authentic concern within Elfstones and sought to breathe a unique life into those concerns in a new medium. I reread Elfstones last year in preparation for the premiere, and as a lifelong reader of Terry Brooks who has read all of his published work, I felt respected as an audience member. But respect is not condescension or pandering, and immediately the Shannara Chronicles, much like our fierce female leads Amberle and Eretria, asserts its right to be its own artistic expression with its own narrative integrity, even as it strives to keep profound friendship with its parent novel. And I think that newcomers to the story will find the TV show delightful and fantastic even if they have never read Brooks; and should they pick up the novel, they will not be picking up an earlier version of technology like picking up a Nintendo 64 instead of picking up a Nintendo Wii U. They will be picking up the independent source of an embellished adaptation, a younger friend of an older friend, or maybe an old friend’s new hobby.
The sets of The Shannara Chronicles are beautiful, sometimes stunning. The actors tap into the spirit of their characters in ways that persuade me thoroughly. The mythos of Elfstones is preserved in all of its urgent splendor. Watching the premiere excites me for what future episodes hold, but it also refreshes my ability to appreciate the original presentation, providing a pleasing contrast that makes both tellings distinct in their integrity but confluent as reflections of the same story.
The Shannara Chronicles is a respectful embellishment of Elfstones, so far at any rate, and as such adapts the mythology to the small screen in a strikingly pleasant way. It is a charitable adaptation, and deserves a charitable approach from those in the viewership who are readers of Brooks. That doesn’t mean readers can’t dislike the televised version or levy legitimate critiques, of course.
Sub-creation and Renewal of Perspective
But instead of seeing the novel and the TV show as in a battle, Druid the Novel against Demon the Show, in a bitter showdown, why not see them as Bremen and Allanon, or Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, or Aragorn and Gandalf? They’re both rather daring attempts at storytelling, daring for different reasons, but they are on the same side in a simple belief, held by Terry Brooks himself, in his essay, “Why I write About Elves”:
“Good fantasy mirrors reality, but it doesn’t reflect an exact image. That is what makes it so valuable. It shows us reality in disguise, then allows us to unmask it. It frees us up to reconsider our attitudes and beliefs.”
That is what fantasy does for us in what Tolkien calls the Primary World, in an essay entitled On Fairy Stories where he enlarges on similar themes. Tolkien calls world-building subcreation, and like Brooks defends the fantasy impulse to reinvent the world as a way on meditating upon the human condition. That sense of wonderment that allows us to recreate this world we encounter in the guise of fantasy is, I think, the same impulse that inspires truly charitable adaptations from novel to film. What better compliment can be paid to a fantasy world than that it inspires fantasy-world building? Translation and adaption, too, is a compliment to the primary text, just as stories about fairies in gardens are not insults to gardens but a way to illustrate the beauty they provide.
A good adaptation, using Terry Brooks’s words as a method, mirrors its source text, but it doesn’t reflect exactly the same image, and it shouldn’t. As with fantasy itself, film adaptation frees us to consider how the stories we encounter shape us, brings into finer reliefs assumptions we have made as readers, and gives us a chance to reflect on what motivates our participation in the stories we love. Returning to the words of Brooks himself, we read:
“The problem with much of what we read is that we have our minds made up about any issues the story might presume to address before we turn the first page. We know how we feel about things. We expect to have our beliefs confirmed, not changed. But that sort of baggage gets left behind when we read fantasy.”
The Shannara Chronicles does not reiterate Elfstones, but refreshes it through adaptive embellishment. If we remember the lighter feeling we first discovered reading fantasy, we might be able to relinquish some of the baggage of our assumptions about film adaptation.
Let’s not forget about magic in the midst of a city of elves.