Book-to-Film: Hobbits, Rabbits

 

I had not read the book since I was eleven. Picking it up and putting it down within a couple weeks, I had reread it. It is a story about the exodus of a band of common folk; one of the members of the group has prophetic visions of doom and blood coming to their home. Thus, they set out. Along their journey to a safer land, they face many dangers: raging waters, wild animals, a death cult, miles of dangerous countryside, a totalitarian regime that governs its citizens like slaves, a warlord that comes to conquer their way of life. Throughout the book the heroes are shot, hung, mauled, and imprisoned. It is a tale of danger, hope, and vision. It is also a tale about rabbits. 

Watership Down: a book that has been famous for many decades already. It is in no need of my endorsement, and you readers have surely heard of it. I hope you’ve even read it. It was a deep pleasure to discover as a boy, and upon my return to it I was entertained as profoundly as before. Watership Down is truly an odd little book, which is why I think it’s easily enjoyed by adults and children. In fact, it was its transcendence of age that caused the author, Richard Adams, some trouble when first submitting it to publishers. In the introduction to Watership’s 2005 paperback edition, Adams recountswhy the manuscript was repeatedly refused, on the grounds that, “Older children wouldn’t like it because it is about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it is written in an adult style.” Like most successful authors, Adams stayed true to his tale and kept going, adding, “I refused to alter the draft in any way, and went on knocking on doors.”

It's okay. He's the bad rabbit.

It's okay. He's the bad rabbit.

The book went on to great fame and acclaim, and was adapted as an animated film in 1978. Some deem the cartoon a cult classic, others aren’t aware of its existence. I’m not particularly fond of it myself; as a story it feels uneven and unfocused, but I write this article to address more recent information. Last night I learned that Watership Down will be adapted yet again to film, produced by Netflix and the BBC. As with any ensuing cinematic rendering of a book I hold dear, I have mixed feelings about the announcement. Before I continue, I would clarify my belief that terrible movies do nothing to damage the source material, as some people protest. If a book is good, it remains good. I’m not worried about that, and there are more than enough examples of this occurrence; the Narnia films are hardly classics (and hardly Narnian), and I still adore the seven chronicles by C. S. Lewis. Worse still, years before the 2005 Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a script floating around where the Pevensie children were Americans, and Edmund wanted the White Witch to conjure up a hamburger for him, rather than Turkish delight, all because someone in the writing process had said, “Kids won’t get it. We need to make it relatable to them.” Clearly, this is the logic of true creators. Relatability, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Older kids think rabbits are babyish, younger kids won’t understand it, so Richard Adams compromised and wrote whatever the publishers told him to, as did Faulkner before him, and Twain, and Melville, and Milton. Except not.

When it comes to adaptations, we readers often feel both excited and discouraged by the prospect of the book coming to life on screen. Even when our tastes overlap, we humans experience everything to a unique degree; when we read, we imagine what we are reading, and we see the characters and scenery the way only our minds can see it. Films override that; they make the visuals of the book an absolute. There, Aragorn looks like Viggo Mortensen in a wig, he doesn’t appear how you imagined him. This too is something I hardly care about, if the depiction is close enough to the author’s descriptions. I care, most deeply, about the book being presented on screen. I am as close to a purist as they come, depending on the source material. My reasoning is this: studios are willing to spend millions of dollars to create films about (rabbits, elves, dragons, etc.) because the author has given them the idea to do so. The author has come up with something brilliant, endearing, exciting, all by himself. He has attracted a following due to the quality of his own ingenuity, so successfully that a studio takes notice, and says, “Let’s shoot it. Get the rights.” So when I read a book, I am imagining it in my own way, my own colors in my mind, but I am imagining the events contained within. The story is what I watch in my head. I do not add a thing. There are many books (like Watership Down) which are easy to visualize cinematically, and this again speaks to the skill of Richard Adams. I watch rabbits trek across a field; I do not supplement a monstrous cow stampeding in their path for the sake of excitement. I’m already captivated by what I’m reading, as are thousands of other readers when they open the book.

a modern-day genius

a modern-day genius

Yet time and again, the studio brings in screenwriters, and the screenwriters examine the book; they pick it up, they read it (sometimes I don’t think they make it this far), and then they begin to write their script; somewhere in all of this, these screenwriters say to themselves, “You know, this book is cute and all, but I’m going to make it even better. So-and-so may be a beloved author with a timeless story that is enjoyed all over the world, but wait till they see my ideas.” It’s arrogance, or maybe more innocently, it’s resignation. Hollywood writers are fond of explaining that books are books and movies are movies, and the changes are inevitable. In some cases I think they’re correct, some books are too long or too complicated to adapt to the letter, but this same attitude tends to give lesser talents the defeatist license to go ahead and pull machete from sheath and have at the crummy book, integrity be damned. Rarely do such adaptations prove successful, or if they do, it’s because the book’s audience is fairly faded, or the book is so old that people have already seen a dozen different renditions and don’t mind a fresh take on it. 

I’m not a complete purist. Not every single line and moment and breath of the story should be put to film. Certain events may need some moving around to tighten the pacing. Game of Thrones is a near perfect example; the books are brilliant but chaotically digressive tales, growing more unfocused with every new plotline, and in watching the HBO series I find myself agreeing with nine out of ten changes the showrunners make. Films are films, books are books, I don’t deny that. But some films are purely films, written to be films. If we’re to make a movie of a book, let’s honor the book, not give an excuse for every far-cry alteration.

 

"I'm thinkin' a giant molten-gold dwarf statue sequence. Cool right? Let's make it happen."

"I'm thinkin' a giant molten-gold dwarf statue sequence. Cool right? Let's make it happen."

As one final tragic example, I remember watching the first part of the recent Hobbit trilogy back in 2012. Again, I’d been anticipating it for years, my childhood friend had come to town so we could see it together, I’d reread The Hobbit the previous summer and written a fantasy novel as a result of its inspiration—and the movie began. I remember afterwards describing my experience, “It was as though I had read The Hobbit in one night, and fallen asleep, and had a dream where my brain was trying to report what I’d read, and whenever the dream became too accurate, a kangaroo would suddenly appear, and I would only want to wake up.”


Sometime in the near future I hope to discuss the Watership Down adaptation further, but this is enough for now. The BBC and Netflix have an overall decent track record, the series is said to be 4 hours long (which should allow for a complete telling of the tale), and the cast looks passable. Here’s to hope and disappointment. And the simple fact that no matter who tries to retell a story and how abysmally it is told, the book remains. 

 
 
 

Birdkind

 
 
"Owl" drawn by my wife, Alyssa.

"Owl" drawn by my wife, Alyssa.

 

We had an ostrich egg in our school room. We kept it next to the bumpy crocodile skull with the missing teeth. The ostrich egg, as big as the glass around a lightbulb on our ceiling fan, with one hole in its top, or bottom, depending on how you wanted to hold it. One hole. It was square shaped, but with more sides to it, a scattered connection of straight-edged fractures which let me look inside to the same beige stiff egg-material.
     I am unable to explain my fascination with birds. I don’t have any ornithological ambition. I don’t own binoculars or wide-brimmed hats. I couldn’t sit and identify the birds of Texas with you, or anywhere else. My memories, though, prevail to remind me of bird-experiences.
    There was one day with a baby sparrow trying to learn to fly. I took our video camera out; I was nine years old. In Midland, it was all sparrows and doves and grackles. You’d think it’d be roadrunners and buzzards and hawks. I didn’t meet those old assassins till we moved to the Hill Country. So I took our video camera out and filmed this fat, ugly baby sparrow bobbing around and pretending it had the gift of flight. It flew as well as I could, and I had tried many times to fly. I had so many dreams of flying as a child, so in real life, I would leap into the air as high as I could, in the house or outside, eyes shut, feeling for that one gigantic second that I was flying…that I was about to fly. I came so close every time. I filmed the baby sparrow, crouching and walking along after it as it cased the little brick walls around our driveway. My little brother tried to pick it up and we yelled at him.
  

 Filming. Yes, I watched the film of the baby sparrow several times. But I suppose I used the camera as binoculars on a later occasion. We were in the salty wind of Gulf Shores. We were trotting down our pier to tug up the crab nets and add to our stock in the freezer for our annual boil. But I saw a heron or crane (I told you I don’t know much about birds) standing on a neighboring pier. I had to. I had to run back to the beach-house and get the camera. I zoomed in on the tall bird, filming it as it stood unmoving. It was a terrible film, shaking in the elbows of a skinny child, pixelated in the strained digital zoom of a home video camera built in the 90’s. My siblings still make fun of me when we remember the ten minutes of tape I wasted on that bird. And I make fun of myself. But I loved that bird. Every year we’d see him and his brothers. They were hilarious if you paid attention. When we’d fish on the beach, with our wide blue bucket with crabs or fish in it. We’d stand out there and you’d see the heroncrane, stalking slowly up and down the beach. Like a stately connoisseur strolling along a wine-tasting, tall and proud as if he belonged there, surveying the contents of the fishermen’s buckets. Plodding evenly, nodding at his fellow man, though he was a bird, and hoping desperately to become a thief.
    I drew and draw birds. They’re easy to doodle. They’re silly. They’re strident and noble. A beak can be anything; a toothpick, a hooked nose, a triangular outcrop of outrage, the shape of anything. Sketching their legs is next best. Such strange, stilty devices. Grooved with ringlets from flank to talon as whittled into existence by God on His day off. 
       

A Bether. Something like a bird.

A Bether. Something like a bird.

    Indeed, a bird’s legs. A bird’s beak. Their wings are difficult, they’re never quite right. I think I’ve always been far more interested in birds when they are on the ground. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care to improve at drawing their wings. Isn’t that the point of a bird though? They fly. They are what we’ve always imitated in our quest to fly. I won’t mention the losers of the bird world, the penguin and emu sort. They are dear to me because they do not fly. A flying bird soon becomes a wilted V in the sky, leaving for good.
    I don’t care about the mechanics of flight. I don’t care. I don’t care how incredible it is that a Peregrine falcon can dive up to 400 miles per hour (that’s not true). I want to see the bird. See it hop along, or dawdle, or meander, or sit still in a tree watching my thoughts. We saw baby barnyard owls in Laredo. They were huddled in an old hunting blind. Three horrific ghosts blinking at us. Scraping the rotted wood they had hatched in. Scrambling to stay forever in that plywood box where they could hide from the sunlight that explains why they feel ugly, why they are ugly. Why their alien eyes and pimpled skin should never be seen. Do you understand? That’s what birds are. They’re everything. They are beauty, like swans and cardinals. They are disgust, like vultures eating the maggots and mealy flesh from a raccoon’s corpse’s throat. They are curiosity, like the dodo who died regrettably before I could see one alive. I wish I could see a real dodo. Pattering up to me. I wouldn’t kill it as the sailors and cats did. 

    

    Birds are fear. My fear. I don’t mean phobia. I told you I love birds. I mean that feeling that leads and keeps you at bay in the same breath. My friend and I explored the spread skeleton of an amusement park in the Hill Country. It was twilight and we walked down old stone steps and past broken metal rides. We wandered among trees and faded swirling patterns painted underneath rust. We found an old barn, or something. Who knows. It was a concrete slab with no walls. Except on one edge there was a shack with walls. A quiet, brown shack. We walked near it and heard…hisses, bodies drawing themselves back and forth inside the shack. But they weren’t what you think a hiss is. We heard, that night, in that shack, the sound of a ceaseless rampant wind caught in a tempest of teeth and death. We thought it was some mythic cat trapped in the ruins of a failed theme park. Some jagged-hackled beast who would rather scare us than kill us. My friend and I retreated, finding sticks to use as clubs, and returned to the darkness and the monster. 
    And then: a turkey-buzzard burst out of the shack from an opening we had not seen. It flew away, and we peered into the shadows inside. Babies. Young babies fated to eat the dead. I never imagined turkey-buzzards could hiss like that. Could concoct thoughts of lions. And that’s fear, I think. We are pulled to our source of fear, unprepared, only useless mock-swords in our hands. To find young, harmless baby birds. Ugly. Afraid. As we fear. As we are ugly. And so, what is it that I fear? It’s never what I expect it to be. I’m rarely afraid when I choose to look finally into the shadows of the shack and see what imaginary lions are really like.
    Birds are not anything you want them to be. They are what they already are. Fragility, comicality, morbid fatality. Every bird, any bird, is the polychrome of feeling. That’s what they are. They are the softest of pleasures and the sharpest of dooms.
  

    I have both deep reverence and deep laughter for birdkind. 
    

    I would like to hear a loon on a lake. At night. I’ve heard audio recordings, but the real thing would be real. Those are the three dimensions; hearsay, hearing, and the real thing. A loon on a lake. Loons cry out in the night, they make that married sound of marvelous eerie. And they make it for themselves. They don’t exist simply for me to make them into a poetic metaphor or a manifest piece of my soul. The loon is crying for himself. 

 
 

If you're lazy or simply like the dull timbre of my voice, you can listen to an audio recording of the above-essay. Click play and enjoy.

 
 

Introductory: Who and What I am

On Books


Hello, I'm S. Forrester Lybrand. This website, simply put, is a place for me to share my books, thoughts, poetry, doodles, and snapshots of my life. Like just about every site these days, it has a blog. If you’re into that kind of thing, read away. Comment away. Let’s share, let’s argue, let’s agree, come what may. But I’m not looking to start debates or comment on topical topics for the sake of going viral or whatever. I aim to share real thoughts I have about what I’m reading or creating or learning or seeing; I hope for your feedback too. I won’t be writing about a dress-color debate, or why the latest episode of a TV show was “problematic.” There are a million other people trying to make their voices heard on such fleeting, flimsy events.

Above all, however, I’m a writer of books.

I write for those who like to read, who do read, and even those who write. I write for myself, as I believe all passionate writers do first and foremost. The books I hold most dear to my heart involve friendship, a love of beauty, and moral goodness standing up against oppressive evil. All the books I’ve written so far reflect these values in some fashion, though that doesn’t mean they’re all the same tale or bear the same outcome. There’s a fourth characteristic in the books I cherish, one that finds its way into my own writings sometimes, and it’s hard to title or categorize. I believe this characteristic has something to do with oddness, or whimsy, or absurdity. Every human is a little strange in their own way, but some commit to peculiarity as a lifestyle; I don’t mean to make myself out as so many strange people I’ve known, who try to force their entire identity on the world with an attitude that shouts: “Look at me, I’m special because I don’t do what the majority of humanity does! And everything I do is meant to affirm my specialness.” No, I’m not special. And I rarely try to stand out. But the books that I cannot escape are those that contain a lovely, fantastical oddness, so to speak.

I mean books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There (both very misunderstood by the mainstream, yet still beloved for their weirdness by all who know of them). Lewis Carroll’s imagination notwithstanding, Sir John Tenniel’s wondrous illustrations must be credited for creating such a special, strange world to explore. The story and the drawings are symbiotic and should never be separated (as an aside: if any filmmaker truly wants to do those books justice one day, they would use Tenniel’s drawings as the only concept art, no exceptions. It was done right from the first, and too many lesser minds have tried to reinvent Wonderland). That old pen-and-ink Victorian style which presents grotesque and silly creatures, all bouncing off Alice’s unflappable wit and curiosity. Reading those books for the first time was like going on a conscious tour of a dream, and a powerful dream at that. It’s the imagery and the characters that made those stories stick with me, not any Gothic impositions or drug-related interpretations. I never read them as dark books, yet too many people mistake them as such. They are smart books, they are clever and rich. While they are not strictly childish, “dark” is inaccurate. Alice’s adventures are not morbid. Weird, of course. Not nightmarish. I think the haunting uniqueness of her travels was mistaken by much of her audience, being recrafted into something altogether unpleasant and untrue. One does not have to be haunted by nightmares and ghosts only, but by strange and pleasant landscapes, as I was. Intended, I believe, by Carroll and Tenniel. The author prefaced the first tale with a poem, in which he muses on its purpose. I find his words a better description of the stories’ appeal than what I’ve tried to convey,

“Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band”

 

Other books that I found a kindred joy in were such stories as The Wind in the Willows  and the Oz tales. Willows is full of beautiful scenery and adventure. It put a body and a history to all children’s love for animals, our wish to speak with animals, our first toys being animals and dear friends to the toddler and onward. Ratty, Mr. Toad, Mole, and the incorruptible Badger. Many chapters devoted to adventure and travel, or of simply longing to explore the world, wayfarers all. And, for a young child, it introduced me to the climactic battle-ending found so often in books, not the little nursery tales I was used to at that point in time. The retaking of Toad Hall, while not graphic, was a sudden violent venture motivated by putting everything to right before “The End” could interrupt the tale. I remember marveling at that chapter most of all when I first read the book. Toad, joined by his friends, taking up swords and sabers, sneaking into his old home at night to battle the weasels who took it. I loved that. Surely my book, The Beast-King, owes Kenneth Grahame his due credit.

And the Oz books, truly in my opinion more strange and ridiculous than Carroll’s inventions. Oz was a wild country continuously being expanded in each new story; L. Frank Baum added more cultures and creatures as he went. Its illustrations too were helpful for the imagination, not inhibiting but enabling it to understand all that Oz had to offer its reader. The zoology of that fairy country and its neighboring nations contained much more than cowardly lions and living scarecrows, what with the orks, the growleywogs, the nomes, the mangaboos, and on and on and on.

And of course I read The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings later. And of course I read The Chronicles of Narnia. And Narnia, with its strong moral themes and slowly unravelling world, was a favorite place of mine above the others. The chivalry, the creatures, the magic, the outstanding personalities (Puddleglum, Reepicheep, and Trumpkin, for example). In Narnia there was the weirdness of fantastical creatures in a magical land, but with a noble purpose unfound in Wonderland or Oz. They are books about justice and truth. And Middle-earth wears that purpose even more blatantly and gravely, but even old systematic Tolkien couldn’t avoid including outlandish races and peoples in his dramatic epic. Silly characters like Tom Bombadil and Treebeard populate a dark, intense story. The heroes are hobbits, laughable and simple. Yet heroes.

This whole ramble is an attempt to explain to you something of myself. These are only a few books/series/authors I love (I haven’t mentioned Kipling, or Bradbury, or Lawrence, or others), but I’m trying to tell you what I’ve read and what has influenced me. My books are not copies of these tales, but they follow the spirit of them all. My books are whimsical and strange, yet serious and sad. They tell of weak sinners trying to be good, and of noble archetypes from other worlds. They are inhabited by creatures, beasts, and monsters, by heroes and wickedness and horror. By beautiful landscapes and dark rooms.

Again, I am primarily a fantasy author, at least at the time of this writing, and I hope to tell many different kinds of stories before I’m gone. Wander takes place in the real world, in Texas, without magic or fate, and yet it isn’t discordant with the rest of my tales. It reflects on themes of the unknown, of the struggle to understand goodness, and it seeks to find beauty in the world it explores.

I, like any author, hope you will read all of my writings. I hope you will appreciate them and find joy in the adventures therein. And I hope above all to hear from you; please, share your experience of reading my books and others, as I have tried to do with you in this brief essay. Enjoy this website, enjoy what you find here, and enjoy all adventures, writ and lived.

Sincerely,

 

S. Forrester Lybrand