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Adapting a Fantasy Novel is Hard, But Keeping It Fresh Is Harder

Adapting a Fantasy Novel is Hard, But Keeping It Fresh Is Harder

  • Culture
  • Life
As a reader of fantasy novels, I often wonder if deep down, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling cringed when someone approached them with intentions to adapt their stories into audiobooks, film, radio, graphic novels, animation or television.

Their concerns are valid, because their work is a culmination of inspired creativity mixed with influences that informed their worldviews and writing. In other words, they stand on the shoulders of giants, and every cyclical adaptation of great fantasy must be treated with respect.

In interviews, they’ve credited inspirations from the likes of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, that Old English Beowulf poem, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Charles Dickens, Williams Shakespeare and even the Bible.

Safe to say, without these influences, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones would have been (God forbid) entirely different. 

To adapt an idea and truly make it original or fresh, especially something as complex as a fantasy novel, the creator needs to respect the source material while improving the experience. 

In today’s reality, it gets harder, especially when they are influenced by a technological, bureaucratic or social media spin. For example, the book-to-screen adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea and Terry Brooks’ The Shannara Chronicles flopped because they failed to stay true to the authors’ source material or improve the experience for today’s audience.

So, as a consumer, is it possible for me to accept film and TV adaptations of these beloved fantasy works in good faith, or listen to their audiobooks with a fresh perspective? Will the experience move me as much as reading the books when I was growing up? 

More importantly, will I feel transported as if I’m literally there, and help me form emotional connections with the characters? If these adaptations can at least succeed in doing these, they’re halfway there in offering something original and fresh beyond the source material.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

At 95,356 words, Tolkien’s The Hobbit takes between 6-7 hours to read. With the audiobook though, it’s between 10-11 hours if you set it at 1.0x speed. 

The reason you would take your time is because this is a 2020 recording with Andy Serkis as narrator. Yes, Mr. Smeagol/Gollum himself. Listening to Mr. Serkis narrates Tolkien’s book is ultra special, not just because he reads with different voices, intonation and depth, his rendition of Gollum in Chapter 5: Riddles in the Dark, takes you back to the CGI character of the same name from Peter Jackson’s trilogy (yesss, in all his “My Precioussss” glory).

Using his deep bass British-accented voice, he keeps his reading pace easy to follow, helping me fill in the blanks as he describes Bag End, Rivendell, Lake-town and the Lonely Mountain.

As for the film adaptation, sadly, Peter Jackson’s trilogy was criticised as a bloat-fest, with scenes too violent for children and exposition too draggy for adults. So, whether you’ve read the book or seen the films, I would place Serkis’ interpretation of The Hobbit as a stand-out masterpiece. 

The audiobook managed to invoke a sense of adventure within me unlike any other I’ve ever experienced, whisking me away to Middle-Earth as only a master storyteller at the top of his craft could do.

The audiobooks for The Lord of the Rings—split into three books, last between 16 to 20 hours each. While I could speed up the narration speed to 2.0x, I settled on 1.25x instead.

With narration by Rob Inglis, who’s been known to do one-man stage dramatisations of Tolkien’s works, he reads all three books like a king delivering an impassioned speech in court. 

Naturally, there will be moments when character voices sound near similar, but Inglis peppers his narration with either a Dahl-like youthfulness or an age-old nobility. In hindsight, his voice sounds like a cross between John Noble (who played Denethor) and Bernard Hill (who played King Theoden of Rohan) from the film trilogy.

While the film trilogy is much loved and captured the charm of the hobbits, the resilience of Gandalf, the fellowship of humans, elves and dwarves against the impenetrable doom of Sauron, Saruman and their minions, the audiobooks still have their places as a reminder of moments the filmmakers deliberately left out. 

For example, there are 20 songs and poems throughout the books, deep-dives into the history of Middle-Earth, which the films only show/mention in passing (eg. the Old Forest), and missing characters (eg. Tom Bombadil). If you’re expecting a love story between Aragorn and Arwen as depicted in the films, I have to disappoint you because Tolkien relegated their romance to the appendices (sorry Arwen). 

Of course, with increasing anticipation for Amazon Studios’ series adaptation of Middle-Earth during the Second Age, it was still a pleasure for me to journey back into those 600k words once again, this time, with Inglis as my Sam.

 

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series

As a fan of HBO’s A Game of Thrones series, who’ve seen and felt fear, sympathy, and yes, disappointment towards the concluding 8th season, I’m content to know that author George R. R. Martin is still hard at work on his final two books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

The good news is that leading up to their yet-to-be-confirmed release dates, I have the option to revisit Westeros, King’s Landing, Winterfell and The Wall through the first five audiobooks in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, from A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows to A Dance with Dragons

Narrated by Roy Dotrice (except the prequel Fire and Blood, which is narrated by Simon Vance), each book ranges between 27 to 50 hours at 1.0x speed. While Dotrice narrates with grandiose and the occasional boisterous and throaty voice (King Robert Baratheon for example), Vance’s voice, though limited to just one book, is smoother and wistful, like someone seated by a fireplace telling you a story with a faraway look.

If you’ve not read the books but watched all 8 seasons of the HBO series, you’ll be pleased to know that there are many parts, including major plot twists and characterisation, that differ between the books and TV series (not to mention that A Dance of Dragons actually ends in Season 5 of the HBO series, so Seasons 6-8 supersede the books).

From passing scenes like Robb and Jon’s riding race in Book 1 (before the discovery of the dire wolf pups), to minute details like Daenerys being 13, blonde with purple eyes (but 16, brunette and hazel-eyed in the series) and the addition of Strong Belwas, Victarion Greyjoy, Quentyn Martell and Lady Stoneheart, there are many “gems” in the books which didn’t make it on set.

In fact, while listening to the audiobooks, I was surprised that it was Catelyn Stark who persuaded Ned to accept King Robert’s offer as Hand of the King, not the other way around in the TV series. I also didn’t know that Jon Snow and Arya Stark had “warg” abilities like their brother Bran (what’s warg? Listen to the books). Oh, and there’s that character “Young Griff” who is rumoured to be the son of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ brother), and still alive in the books (but presumed killed by Gregor Clegane in the series).

So if you’re worried that you already know the story of Martin’s masterpiece from the HBO series, fret not, as the stories in the books, including the ending, will be different (as Martin himself has said). 

Listening to the audiobooks may take some getting used to, as there are as many characters as there are histories and plot-twists. But once you ease into the rhythm of Dotrice’s and Vance’s narrative voices, prepare to enter a world of intrigue, betrayal, honour and heartbreak. As Cersei Lannister says in the book, “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

 

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series spans 7 books and presumably spawned the young adult fiction category in bookstores. Thanks to Pottermania, we now have many upcoming young adult novels being adapted for streaming services, like Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha Trilogy (starring Ben Barnes) for Netflix, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for HBO and Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy for Sundance Now.

While the eight-film series (with the last book, Deathly Hallows, split in two), was very well-received, there were still omissions from the books due to length and plot.

These include House Points (scores for the different houses), absence of characters like Charlie Weasley, Peeves, Professor Binns and Andromeda, Harry’s date with Cho Chang, his bright, green eyes (which are blue in the films) or Voldemort’s red eyes (which are white in the films). 

Thankfully, the audiobooks, narrated by Stephen Fry, more than make up for these gaps.

What I found insightful from the audiobooks is how Ron Weasley is actually far more chivalrous and intelligent in the novels, but deliberately portrayed as a wuss for comic relief in the films. With his professorial wit and occasional sighs, yawns and sniffs, Fry’s narration kept me familiarised with Rowling’s narrative right away.

The books averaged between 8 (Book 1) and 31 hours (Book 6) to complete at 1.0x speed. Still, what gripped me the most was Fry’s skills as a dramatic actor in using his voice to express nuances in dialogue and characters. He has a way of switching character voices with ease, inserting a chuckle or whimper for effect, and then resuming his narration without the noticeable pause. It’s as if he’d memorised the entire book and recited everything from memory!

For me, having seen the films, it is difficult to pull myself away from associating characters from the books with the actors from the films. But I’d agree that these adaptations were able to stay as true to Rowling’s vision as much as possible (the author herself was a consultant for the films)—handy if you’ve not read the books but want a different way to approach her series.

While I’ve covered only three fantasy authors, there are several more fantasy (and science-fiction) novels, which will be adapted for films and TV series within 2020 and 2021. 

They include Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time for Amazon Studios (starring Rosamund Pike and Sophie Okonedo), Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem by the HBO Game of Thrones creators for Netflix, Frank Herbert’s Dune—soon, a highly anticipated film by Denis Villeneuve, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series for Apple TV in 2021.

If you’ve not read these books (or do not remember much having read them a long time ago), some of their audiobooks should give you enough prep-time to catch up with the authors’ original visions, just in case their screen adaptations disappoint.

Let’s hope these adaptation cycles remain fresh and original, and the magic continues.

This article is sponsored by Storytel. You can start exploring fantasy and science fiction stories (currently or already adapted for the screen) on Storytel, where the following titles are available in audiobook or e-book formats:

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings (Book 1: The Fellowship of the Ring) by J. R. R. Tolkien
A Game of Thrones (Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R. R. Martin
Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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The books featured are available as audiobooks on Storytel, a subscription-based audiobook platform. RICE readers get a 30-day free trial, so download their app to get started.

 

Author

Terry Ng Senior staff writer