Picking at Movies’ Nits
I used to take great offense to the many film and television productions that don’t stay faithful to their source material–such as books or historical events/people or even previous film renditions of the screenplay. For a long time I was one of those people who felt the need to nitpick every movie I watch that’s based on something else–and to a degree, I think I took a certain amount of pride in being in a position to make such criticisms. Verily, it was like I saw it as my duty to find and point out every time a movie deviated from its source. While I like to think I’ve freed myself from that kind of negativity, even now I occasionally catch myself unconsciously picking nits and have to remind myself to just enjoy the !@#$ing movie.
The Lord of the Rings movies might be the first set of films where their deviations from the source material didn’t really bother me. I felt like, for the most part, Peter Jackson’s omissions were surgical–cutting out a lot of dead weight that would have slowed the pace of the film–and, again for the most part, his additions to the film helped bring out a better understanding of the characters and situation. I felt, for example, that enlarging Arwen’s part in the flick helped gave her character depth and relatability.* (I mean, in the books, she’s just kind of… present–I think she has one line of dialogue in the entire trilogy.) Similarly, the omission of scenes like Tom Bombadil’s forest and the Barrow Downs and Gan-Bury-Gan’s tribe really broke the pace of the story in Tolkien’s books, and I felt, both then and now, that removing them from the films was justifiable.
I believe it was seeing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that did most change of attitude toward accuracy in movies. I went in to the theater expecting it to have little in common with Douglas Adams’s wacky sci-fi series–and thus found myself pleasantly surprised at what they did get right. While Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox was a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t overly bothered by the many deviations from Adams’s original vision of the story. I thought Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Arthur Dent was hilariously effective, and Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman were awesome as body actor and voice of Marvin the Robot. Plus, this was my first experience with Zooey Deschanel, who is delightful in everything she does. And I wasn’t particularly bothered by the scenes the directors added, as I felt they kept with the overall spirit of the story (and largely were additions Douglas Adams made when he wrote the screenplay).
From a standpoint of events and chronology, HBO’s Rome was only moderately historically accurate. As a lover of Caesar’s Commentaries and an avid reader of Adrian Goldsworthy’s studies, it wasn’t hard to go through and spot the historical deviations. I’m sure this would have bugged me years ago. I mean Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus were rival centurions briefly mentioned in the Commentaries, but the film makes Pullo a legionary, subordinate to Vorenus and makes both of them key figures in the cataclysmic events leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, almost nothing is known about Octavian’s mother, Atia, but in the film she’s a key character and a central, moving force to the events surrounding the civil war, Caesar’s assassination, and Octavian’s rise to Emperor of Rome. But what it lacks in accuracy, I feel it more than makes up for in brutal honesty. It tells tales of people from all levels of Roman society and the dirty, violent reality they lived in. And I feel does so with respect for the characters and their culture and time period. And, unlike many film representations of the ancient Romans, doesn’t carry a bunch of heavy-handed, anti-imperialist undertones.
I’ve discovered that, in general, I tend to enjoy movies better since my change of attitude. I’m sure I enjoyed Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator much more than than I would have had I seen them a few years previous. When The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, I thought it was delightful and very well done–despite several of my colleagues’ arguments to the contrary. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, was immeasurably better than the novel Far Side of the World, a god-awful story by the otherwise incredible Patrick O’Brien. I’m one of few people who read the novel Jurassic Park before seeing the film, but find that I don’t like Spielberg’s vision any less than Crichton’s. I haven’t completely forgiven George Lucas, but I think I tend to be less hard on the Star Wars prequels than I used to be. And, now that I think of it, Disney’s animated films are seldom faithful to the stories, novels, fairytales, and folklore they’re based on, but on the whole I enjoy those as well.
This isn’t to say that I’ll tolerate just any such change to a story. There are plenty of films that I’ll likely never see again because of how they deviated from an original storyline. The first movie that comes to mind is the 2004 movie Troy (or Brad Pitt and the Giant Toga Party, as I once heard it called). And while I haven’t seen 300 in it’s entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want to see the rest as it’ll just make me mad. The Fantastic Four movies were hardly accurate to the source comics, though that’s hardly the only thing that makes them bad movies.
I feel like so long as the production treats the source with respect and makes the change for reasons beyond making it appeal to modern audiences, it’s a change that I can rationalize. And, honestly, if someone is that bothered by deviations from historical fact, they should probably never read Shakespeare’s many wildly inaccurate historical plays.
*The only issue I had with the way they added Arwen to the LotR films was that they had her replace Glorfindel–easily the most badass of the surviving elves. I mean, dude rode a Balrog down a cliffside in the Silmarillion; I’d like to see Orlando Bloom top that!