On Friday night, I finally saw the new(ish) movie version of The Hobbit — the Peter Jackson version that came out earlier this year. I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their flaws, and I was looking forward to seeing what Jackson did with The Hobbit. To be honest, I have been excited about this movie since I first heard that it was being made, and my excitement only increased when I learned that the marvelous Martin Freeman would be playing Bilbo Baggins.
I am sad to say that I found the movie stunningly disappointing. Let me pause here to make clear that I am not a movie purist. I was fine with many of the decisions Jackson made in his retelling of LOTR, including those that strayed from the books as written by J.R.R. Tolkien. I do not believe that a movie director need be bound absolutely by the text from which s/he is working, and in fact I thought that one of the strengths of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games was that it strayed from the book in ways that actually enhanced and deepened the story. I should also add that I didn’t hate everything about the movie. I thought Martin Freeman was excellent in the title role, I loved the riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum and felt that Jackson handled that key moment with the perfect blend of humor and menace, and I liked Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. But . . .
The problem with the movie adaptation of The Hobbit, as I saw it (and, of course, this is just my opinion), was not simply that it added in scenes that had not been in the book. Rather, it was that the scenes that were added seemed designed to turn the story into something that it isn’t and was never meant to be. The Hobbit was written as a children’s book. It was meant to be whimsical, lyrical, and fun. Yes, there are moments of high suspense and excitement in the book. But it is not a book of epic battles. It should not feel like a video game. It is not a story of the dwarf king’s Moby Dick type obsession and blood feud with a hideous albino orc. And while the book certainly lays the groundwork for The Lord of the Rings, it is not a true prequel to that work and should not be so similar to it in mood and tone.
This is more than the rant of a disappointed fan. Peter Jackson’s mishandling of The Hobbit points to a larger issue that authors often face in their work, and that aspiring writers in particular grapple with again and again. No book can be all things for all readers. When I had you all critique the opening of the third Thieftaker book, I received one comment that basically (and in part) went like this [paraphrasing]: “I enjoy these books very much, but I wish that your magic system was presented with a greater sense of wonder. The magic system as it is seems consistent and logical, which is good, but it’s a bit too workmanlike.” This was a terrific comment, and it was dead-on accurate. Now, the commenter offered this as a criticism and was suggesting that perhaps I do something about this, and it is one thing that I did not change in my revision of the opening and the rest of the book.
I LOVE books where the magic system is wondrous and mysterious and even poetic. Some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are like that, and I’m a huge Kay fan. I think that some of my earlier work, particularly the LonTobyn Chronicle, has that sense of wonder about its magic system. So I know exactly what this commenter meant, and I sympathize with the reader’s desire to see that sort of magic in the Thieftaker books. But that is not the kind of book I am writing in this series. I wanted the magic to be prosaic; workmanlike really was the perfect word. These are earthy books; Ethan is a homely character in the sense that he is rather plain and unaffected. There is nothing fancy or wondrous about him or his life. A wondrous magic system would have been out of place with the rest of the story.
And that really is the point. Obviously when we work on a book we need to know what it’s about, what the lead characters do and want, what the setting is like, etc. But in a larger sense, we have to know what kind of book we are writing. This is not to say that a book can’t be more than one thing — the Thieftaker books have elements of mystery, urban fantasy, and historical fiction. But while they have magic in them, they are not high fantasy. While there is nothing in them that is sexually explicit or gratuitously violent, they are not young adult or middle grade books. While they have humorous moments, they are not comical or light-hearted. And while they are, I believe, well written, they are not poetic. It’s not that I can’t write humor, or YA, or high fantasy. It’s not that I can’t write lilting prose. I can, and maybe I will with my next project. But the Thieftaker books are what they are: moody, atmospheric, suspenseful, somewhat dark, and, yes, workmanlike.
I have recently read manuscripts by young writers that were competently written, but that did not work because they were trying to be too many things at once. The writers had several story threads that fit together loosely, but each thread represented a different story type (memoir, mystery, fantasy, family history, crime caper, etc.) and each seemed to be vying for supremacy rather than blending with the others into a coherent story with a fixed identity. And that confusion, that lack of story identity, was becoming an obstacle that each project had to overcome. At the same time, as others had offered critiques of these projects, they had sought to impose yet more disparate identities on the books, and the writers had not idea how to respond to them.
So, as you work on your current WIP, make sure you know what kind of story you’re writing. A book can have different elements, but it should only have a single identity. If your WIP feels incoherent or seems to lack direction, it may be because you haven’t yet decided what kind of book it is. Or if comments from your beta readers seem intended to take your project in directions you don’t think it should follow, it may be because your readers are not working within the identity you have chosen for your book. Does any of this sound at all familiar? Let’s talk about book identity.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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