The other day I heard of plans to turn The Lord of the Rings into a musical. I'm dismayed at this. Though I think that Peter Jackson et al have presented a wonderful--albeit populist--tribute to Tolkien's genius, I think this musical business goes too far. I fear any stage treatment would be nothing more than spectacle. And that would be the most cutting form of disrespect.
Tolkien created anthropologies of such magnitude that even the film revises as it condenses, simplifies. Film, after all, is a populist medium. While the stage has traditionally been a less populist medium, the emphasis on the instantaneously accessible--the spectacle--is increasing. Witness the recent success of The Lion King (which I have yet to see). Recent trends in theatre may result in an even more reductivist treatment of The Lord of the Rings, leaving audiences with the lowest common denominator in Tolkien's work: the spectacle.
The man is an incredibly descriptive writer, yet to truly access his worlds, one must experience the languages, the cultures, the geographies--not simply the spells and the battlefields. One must read the novels. Unfortunately, though, in a fast food culture which prides itself on accessibility (information superhighway, anyone?) and instant gratification, few dare to go beyond the surface.
Stefan Zweig's essay, "The Monotonization of the World," speaks much more articulately on similar matters than I could in this medium.
I do, however, feel a little conflicted--socialist that I am. To hold a hallowed place for literature and to degrade more populist forms of art seems elitist of me and more than a little hypocritical. Still, I cannot reconcile myself to the idea of "bite-sized" literature. Literature is meant to be read, not distilled into sixty second sound bites.
At least, though, socialist that I am, I believe that everyone should have access to literature and the tools, namely literacy and education, with which to appreciate (in the Sontagian sense--"an erotics of art" [from "Against Interpretation" by Susan Sontag]) it.
Am I making sense? Or am I going to be horribly embarrassed when I read this in the morning? Methinks the latter to be true. Time to head off to bed.
Okay. So I'm not embarrassed as I thought I would be.
I do, however, feel the need to clarify one point: I do not have anything against musical theatre in general. Growing up, I acted in many a musical. Nor, really, do I have anything against books-turned-musicals. My favourite musical, Les Miserables, is based, of course, on that chef d'oeuvre of Victor Hugo's.
I am not opposed to novels-turned-films either. Had I not seen Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, I would never have become reacquainted with the entire Fantasy genre (I was a Fantasy nut when I was little, but I moved away from such novels when I learned it was "uncool"--even nerdy--to surrender to Fantasy. Yes, I'm ashamed, but hey. I was only a kid. We all do stupid things when we're young. I'm much happier in my own, uncool skin now.)
What I do take issue with is the impulse to reduce every novel to a screenplay or libretto. Not every work lends itself to dramatic treatment. Ultimately, whenever a novel is transferred from page to stage, or sentence to screen, much is "lost in the translation." Still, some novels are more amenable to translation than others.
The Lord of the Rings, given its scope, is not one of these.