Appendix: Tolkien/Godot/Analagy, redux, or, "Someone on the Internet is Wrong"

 [A reader from another site said that my references to Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings were unfair, and a fruitful discussion occurred. My side of the debate is reproduced here.]


This is indeed a problematic passage which has been the subject of much debate by Rilstonian scholars.

It has frequently been noted that Rilstone presents the argument as a dialogue, between unspecified "Tolkien fans" who claim that Peter Jackson damaged Lord of the Rings, and an unspecified interlocutor who retorts that the text of the book is unchanged. Rilstone puts quotation marks around the second comment ("The book is the same as it always was".) It is therefore fallacious to assume that the matter inside the quotation marks necessarily represents Rilstone's own position: he, after all, regarded himself as a Tolkien fan, and had been virulently critical of the Rings of Power TV series.

Rilstone says that there is an analogy between this argument and the theatrical argument which is the subject of his epistle. He has just referenced two reviewers who have specifically identified the act of adapting a theatrical work with the act of physically damaging a painting. One writer has said that actors who had staged a production in which male characters were played by female actors were "vandals" (not "like vandals" -- actual vandals). Another had said that disregarding an (admittedly fairly important) stage direction was the same as "doodling on a Rembrant". Rilstone had also referred to claims that eliding racial slurs in books was the same thing as wilfully desecrating religious sites; and that adding content warnings to texts was the same as, or would inevitably lead to, Nazi book burnings.

The analogy he was drawing, while inexact, was clear enough: on the one side, those who think that film adaptation should merely transpose texts to the screen; and that theatrical productions should merely be neutral presentations of an authors supposed intention; and on the other side, those who think that any production of a playe and any cinematic adaptation of a literary text is by definition a new work, to be judged on its own merits, and in no way superseding or abolishing the source-material.

Rilstone can be demonstrated to have been familiar with Malory's Morte D'Arthur, and was also an admirer of John Boormans movie Excalibur. The latter was certainly inspired by the former, and was promoted as an adaptation thereof, but is in fact a highly creative and personal interpretation of some of the themes of the medieval work. Had Boorman adapted Lord of the Rings (as he had wanted to) it can be assumed that he would have treated it with similar latitude. Doubtless some people would have argued that this would have done posthumous harm to Tolkien or even impeded his passage through the afterlife. But it would probably have been an interesting film.

Changes to covers, introductions and illustrations, while an interesting study in their own right, are not strictly relevant to the point Rilstone is making. The idea that a dramatic adaptation mediates and informs subsequent readings is much more interesting -- although even this doesn't amount to an alteration to the text. It could very well be argued that a single, highly successful production of Waiting For Godot with a female cast could be so influential that all subsequent readers would automatically assume that the characters were female; and that even a minor production would have a small tendency to do so. For much of the 20th century reader response to Hamlet was conditioned by Lawrence Olivier's highly successful movie version: indeed, many non-specialist readers probably imagined Olivier's to be a neutral, unmediated account of "what Shakespeare really meant." In fact, Olivier was presenting a very specific and partial interpretation of the text, strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud and John Dover Wilson. But if this is true, it is necessarily true of any and all productions of theatrical works: we read plays in the light of decades or centuries of stage history.

Rilstone was open about the fact that his cinema and theatre reviews were hastily written: his original plan had been to supplement his serious writing with a lighter series of morning-after reports on artistic outings, which might only amount to "it was a nice gig, I enjoyed it" and although his arts diary had expanded beyond that remit, it was never as considered or as closely argued as his blog. He was always gratified, if wryly amused, when people responded to his remarks, but in general, refrained from responding and went back to the series business of over-thinking comic books.


Rilstone watchers waited with baited breath to see what his next move would be. Would he

1: Double down on the language. "Yeah -- well so's your face!"

2: Simply restate his not especially controversial premise "There is an analogy between saying that unfaithful movie adaptations damage books and saying that unfaithful productions of plays are the same as physically altering paintings."

3: Flounce out and say that he is obviously wrong about everything and is never going to review another play until he dies.

Two questions remain:

Would the match have been more interesting, albeit less entertaining, if his opponent had said "Actually, the two things aren't very similar, for the following reasons..."?

Why do twenty year old adaptations of century old novels induce such strong emotions?


Analogy and Meta-Analogy: The Deep Structure of Rilstonian Rhetoric

To clarify the central argument of Rilstone's text, it is helpful to present it in tabular form.

Rilstone refers to ten real and hypothetical events:

A production of Waiting for Godot in which the four male parts are played by women

The act of wantonly damaging a building or object (vandalism)

A production of Footfalls in which May is allowed to move freely around the stage

The act of making an intervention on a classic work of art (doodling on a Rembrant)

A movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings

The act of changing, destroying or altering ("violating") the text of Lord of the Rings

Deleting the word "n*gg*r" from Thank You Jeeves

Deliberately and specifically damaging a site regarded as holy, e.g inverting a crucifix or nailing bacon to a synagogue. ("Desecration")

Printing explanatory or apologetic text in copies of Thank You Jeeves

Prohibiting, confiscating and publicly destroying literary texts ("Nazi book burning")

He states that each pair of events have been claimed to be analogous:

I: The Spectator Magazine claimed that A is analogous to B.

II: The theatre critic of the Guardian claimed that C is analogous to D

III: Unspecified "Tolkien Fans" have claimed E is analogous to F

IV: Members of a P.G Wodehouse fan group have claimed that G is analogous to H

V: Other members of the P.G Wodehouse fan group have claimed that I is analogous to J.

Rilstone's proposal is that Claim I and Claim II are analogous to Claim III. His argument appears to be that since Claim III is fallacious, Claims I and II are also fallacious; or, more weakly, that they are three examples of the same kind of argument. He also asserts, less specifically, that Claims I and II are analogous to claims IV and V. This is clearly are rather complicated form of argument; since it involves drawing analogies between claims that are themselves based on analogy.

However, the shape of his argument may be clearly seen: cases A, C, E, G and I are all examples of the interpretation of literary texts; and cases B, D, F, and J are examples of making permanent changes to valuable objects. Rilstone's observation is that The Lord of the Rings, Footfalls, Waiting for Godot and Thank You Jeeves are not exhausted by the creation of new productions and adaptations, where destroying or physically altering a painting or systematically destroying extant copies of a work make that work, in its original form, permanently unavailable.

As a matter of fact, a desecrated church or temple could generally be reconsecrated; and the bowdlerisation of a text might, over years or decades, make the un-bowdlerised version un-available. To that extent, changing the title of Agatha's Christie's text to "And Then There Were None" is indeed analogous to Hitler destroying every copy of Betolt Brecht, because the end result in both cases is to make Mother Courage and Ten Little N-rs unavailable.

Anti-Rilstonian scholar [redacted] argues that the meta-analogy fails because

1: An adaptation of a literary work may result in a physical change to the form in which the book is distributed (new cover, blurb, back-matter, introductory material, etc.) and

2: An adaptation of a literary work will effect every subsequent re-reading of it.

It may in fact be that some enthusiasts would only wish to read Thank You, Jeeves in facsimile -- that any variation from the original 1934 edition (cover, blurb, back matter, dust jacket etc) amounts to the creation of a new and inferior work. In that sense the proposed changes to the book do make the 1934 version unavailable. Many comic book fans would validly say that a Superman comic printed on high quality art paper between hard covers is a different proposition from an original cheaply printed periodical with many advertisements for bubble gum, air-rifles and brine-shrimp interrupting the story. But this does not appear to be what the hypothetical claim (that Jackson violated Tolkien) and the supposed response (Tolkien's text is still unchanged) was referring to, and so, while very interesting, it does not effect the argument Rilstone is making.

It may in fact be the case that a film adaptation of a work conditions subsequent readings of it -- that once you have seen the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes will always look like Basil Rathbone in your head. The curved pipe, for example, inveigles itself into any reading of the texts, despite the fact that Doyle never mentions it. Readings of Mary Shelley necessarily struggle agains the image of Boris Karloff. Indeed, the better the adaptation, the greater the risk: very few people imagine Tolkien's Boromir to look like a Viking, because that so clearly clashes with the text; but nearly everyone imagines Gandalf looking and sounding like Ian McKellen because his portrayal was so faithful to the original. (Jackson was, indeed, very much presenting a consensus Middle-earth that can be traced back through Ralph Bashki and the Hildenbrandt brothers.) Again, this real possibility does not seem to be what is implied by the original "Jackson violated Tolkien" claim, and while interesting, is not relevant to Rilstone's argument.

It is, in fact, highly probable that "Jackson violated Tolkien" is simply a flowery way of saying "I did not think that his adaptation was very good" and, equally, that "It would be sacrilegious to remove the n-word from Jeeves" means "I would rather they didn't" and "Changing Beckett's stage directions is like smashing old buildings to pieces" means "I don't think that they should do this". The drawing of close analogies, and indeed the refutation of those analogies, is not particularly helpful.

Rilstone's case -- in an essay that was not about Tolkien but about a political clown show -- was that many people regard literary texts as being sacrosanct, and that he regards this view as fallacious.


But apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?