Philippa Boyens on Adapting Tolkien
"We don’t start writing until we know where we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.” Phillipa Boyens talks about the writing and adaptation process, and explains why changes were necessary.
By Scott Essman and John Davis.
Assistance and Research by Chelsea Beebe.
No one could deny that Peter Jackson’s double trilogy of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, have been hugely successful. In fact, they are one of the biggest movie franchises in history, grossing over $5 billion worldwide, whilst the latest release, The Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies, has taken over $250 million box office gross in the US alone.
However, the films have often been criticized for the liberties they have taken with Tolkien’s novels, and their increasing departure from his much-loved characters and stories. Now, as The Hobbit trilogy reaches its conclusion, Philippa Boyens – the Oscar-winning screenwriter who has worked with Peter Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh throughout the franchise – talks candidly about the writing and adaptation process, and explains why changes were necessary.
From the start, the task of adapting Tolkien’s novels for the screen presented unique challenges. Not only did Boyens and the writing team have to bear the massive responsibility of adapting source material that was precious to so many, but that source material rarely conformed to conventional story-telling forms and structures. Crucial information, key to understanding the plot, may only ever be hinted at, or discovered in appendices. Main characters may not appear until late into the books, if indeed at all. Important events frequently occur ‘off screen’, tantalizingly referred to by characters but never fully described, whilst so far from adhering to any conventional narrative structure, the pace of the novels accelerates and slows according to its own internal rhythms, with Tolkien thinking nothing of spending an entire chapter describing a conversation, or conversely describing a vital battle in little more than a paragraph. Meanwhile, the multiple plotlines are not always presented chronologically, but rather with frequent leaps both forward and backwards.
All of which somehow work in the novels, creating a unique tapestry of unparalleled richness and depth. But it meant that any sort of ‘direct’ adaptation was out of the question.
“Multiple story lines and characters, huge periods where things you didn’t know before are picked up…” Boyens illustrates. But as she is quick to add, “as a screenwriter, that’s a great privilege.”
Tone and Aesthetics
Before writing the script, then, the writers first discussed the aesthetic landscape of Middle-earth – the books’ iconic setting, which is arguably as important as the characters and stories that populate it. “We tried to get a sense of the tone,” says Boyens. And of The Hobbit in particular; “There was a children’s book quality that we did want to keep. Tonally, it would shift towards the darker Lord of the Rings throughout the films.”
History Not Fantasy
Tolkien did not approach his work as if writing ‘mere’ fantasy. He sought nothing less than to present a fully-realized and realistic world, complete in all its aspects, from its history to its geography, from its languages to its mythology. And this, too, then, was important to translate to the big screen.
“Being able to make these films as if they were a piece of history and not a piece of fantasy was the key,” Boyens explains.
Tolkien was not primarily a writer, let alone a novelist, but a philologist, concerned with the study of language. Indeed, he often said that he created the world of Middle-earth as a setting for his invented Elven languages – it had to exist because they did. And it is not surprising then that his writing style, and the way his characters speak, are uniquely rich. Another aspect of his works, then, that it was crucial for Boyens and the writing team to capture. Where possible, they used Tolkien’s own words, if not always in the mouths of the characters who originally spoke them. But beyond that, Boyens explains, “in terms of adapting Professor Tolkien, your ear gets attuned to the way he wrote and speaking that language. People mistake lines of ours for his.”
To craft The Hobbit scripts, Boyens first read Tolkien’s book all the way through. But perhaps surprisingly, having done so she would then reference the text only to recall specific story or character details. A literal translation, she explains, was not something she believed would work well on film. “The Hobbit [the novel] is episodic. It introduces all the dwarves multiple times, and you get so many moments throughout the book that are not inherently cinematic. Then there’s a lack of female characters, which is why we created Tardil. But we never changed anything lightly. We did it, I hope, for the right reasons. It’s just as you see an adaptation of Hamlet. And there are a million different ways to play Macbeth. Tolkien’s material can withstand it.”
Tolkien wrote alone, often late at night, and though he sometimes sought the advice and approbation of fellow Inklings such as C.S. Lewis, his novels are entirely his own. In contrast, Boyens worked closely with Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson throughout the films.
“We genuinely work all together,” she says. “We do the draft together – there’s not one single scene where we don’t work together, and each has a say on it and has thoughts on it. Often, once Pete starts filming, it’s left to Fran and I for fine-tuning. We get the draft written, and Peter is part of the process to see if it’s working in terms of the storytelling. Literally, it does come down to me and Fran. We are neighbors in Wellington; I cross the lawn, then we sit up in bed with laptops writing.”
And what does Boyens think of the films, now that they are finished?
“The Hobbit films were our toughest films to sell;” she says, “as they were set against the success of The Lord of the Rings films. We were realistic in never being able to fulfill everybody’s expectations. We just had to trust ourselves and our own vision, not what other people thought we should do…Nearly 17 years, with a few movies in between; it’s been fun, every single one. I’ve learned something new every single time.”
Boyens looks upon the series with fondness and satisfaction. What has been most important to her? “As a writer, I hope it’s been finding those characters and staying true to the heart of the storytelling,” she says. “Creating these moments that I hope are memorable and stay with people. It’s the best fun you can have on film – to go in there and have that blank page and play the story out in your mind: infinite possibilities.”
If you enjoyed reading this article, why not check out our in-depth interview with Peter Jackson: “It’s Just a Movie”?
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