... Peter S. Beagle ... on Rings, scripts and awards

Peter S. Beagle... Peter S. Beagle ...
... on rings, scripts and awards

zur deutschen Version For quite a while Peter S. Beagle had been a red rag to me, because he wrote the screenplay for the animated version of the ›Lord of the Rings‹. And I didn't like that film. Peter S. Beagle also dared to not tell my favorite episodes in the appropriate epic.

Now Peter S. Beagle will soon be given the World Fantasy Award for his lifetime achievement. So, this is a good occasion
to ask him a few questions (of course about the Lord of the Rings as well) and to congratulate him ...

Zauberspiegel: Congratulations on the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award. What does this mean to you -- receiving an award that celebrates your lifetime achievements?
Peter S. Beagle: The film actress Marlene Dietrich once warned actors about accepted honorary awards for a lifetime body of your work. She said: anytime they give you one of those things it means they think you’ve got six months to live. So on the one hand, I’m certainly honoured. I’ve been at this a long time and it’s nice to have that fact noticed. But at the same time I can’t take it very seriously. It’s nice, that’s all. And I’ve still got a lot more “lifetime” to achieve!

Zauberspiegel: How do you feel, being in this illustrious number of predecessors? So you have to burst with pride, don't you?
Peter S. Beagle: I’m very proud, but not of any particular award. Instead I’m mostly proud of stories and poems and books of mine that have never been particularly celebrated, but that I like, because they mean something to me. No, organizations and awards won’t do it. But I do swell with pride when a writer whom I admire says to me “you’re really good,” or maybe “your work has mattered to me for a long time.” Other people give you awards that organizations just can’t.

Zauberspiegel: You were the one who wrote the script for the animated version of "Lord of the Rings". I was very angry with you for years -- I hope you are sorry now. This was due to the many omissions in the film. And I was not happy with it, and have cursed the writer in particular, and the filmmakers in general. What about you? You're a fan of the novel yourself. Were you happy with the script? Or to ask more precise:. According to what guidelines did the script come about?
Peter S. Beagle: I thought that film was a mess, frankly. There are some very nice bits in it and some excellent vocal work, but I thought that it was poorly conceived by the producers and that somebody should certainly have realized that there was too much being crowded into something that had originally been planned for two films, let alone one. To be honest, I don’t think that either Ralph Bakshi or Saul Zaentzknew the book very well. Not really. When I was three-quarters of the way through that first of what became at least eight drafts, I mentioned to Ralph, “you know, I’m getting near the end of this and I haven’t even gotten to the riders of Rohan yet…” and he literally groaned as though he’d been punched in the stomach, because he’d completely forgotten about having to do the riders of Rohan. From day one it was a problematic production. I’ll take some of the responsibility for the film’s flaws, obviously, but I can say in all honesty that I did my best with it given the circumstances.

Zauberspiegel: How do you approach such cuts as a screenwriter?
Peter S. Beagle: Well, to begin with I outlined the story in great detail and kept the trilogy close by while I was writing the first draft of the script, and I tried to make choices that were cinematically sensible. That’s why I left out Tom Bombadil, for example. He was always a favourite character of mine, but he also brings the story to a dead halt – and movies can’t afford dead halts. So he had to go. Peter Jackson left him out of the live action version as well, and I’m sure it was for the same reason. Animation needs to animate. It needs to move. If  there’s one thing animation hates, it’s backstory: people sitting around a table at a council, such as the council of Elrond, passing information back and forth to each other. Animation won’t sit still for backstory, but The Lord of the Rings, as we know it, is 90% backstory! It probably shouldn’t have even been attempted until it could be done as a live action and in three movies. The recent films ended up being made for better reasons, I think, than ours was made. There’s this, though: a teenage boy in New Zealand named Peter Jackson, who had never read Tolkien at all, saw our animated version of The Lord of the Rings and was inspired enough by it to go read the original books. Without that, his live-action version of the trilogy may never have existed. So I’m proud of that.

Zauberspiegel: In retrospect. Would you write the script differently today?
Peter S. Beagle: I’d probably do most things differently today, because we’re always rewriting, we just stop at a certain point when somebody takes the manuscript away from us. It’s a cliché to say that books aren’t finished exactly, they’re just abandoned. But it’s also true. Of course I would do it differently, depending on the time I had, the people I was working with, the budget available, and the understanding of just what needs to be done with a work as unique as The Lord of the Rings.

Zauberspiegel: The animated version proved to not be very successful. Looking back, what do you think were the reasons?
Peter S. Beagle: I never know how successful, financially, a movie has been. Writers aren’t supposed to: studios usually hide these facts from us. But our animated version has been around and available since 1978, which does tell you something. Many people, to my amazement, have come up to me and said they preferred our half-assed, half-animated film to Peter Jackson’s live trilogy. I don’t see that myself for a minute, but I’ve run into that opinion enough times at conventions to understand that some fans really do feel that way. And certainly we were successful in terms of being an influence on what eventually came to be. As wonderful an actor as Andy Serkis is, his portrayal of Gollum’s character is clearly derived from the vocal work of a wonderful British actor named Peter Woodthorpe who was our Gollum, and also the Gollum for the BBC’s version. I’m undoubtedly biased because we Peter Woodthorpe and I got to be friends, and I’m very fond of him, but it seems obvious that if it weren’t for out Gollum, the Gollum in Peter Jackson’s version would have been quite different.

Zauberspiegel: Did you already make notes for the second part of the movie? Was there a plan?
Peter S. Beagle: The understanding was that I would only be getting my original small consultant’s fee for writing the first film, because they had shot their entire screenwriting budget on a draft by someone else that was totally useless, but that they would make this up to me by paying me more than my usual fee for the second film’s script. So I went ahead on that assumption, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what on earth we were going to do with the second movie -- what we would carry over from the first and bring back, how we would strengthen and extend relationships that had just been hinted at in the first film, etc. I didn’t have a great sheaf of notes and plans, but I did think about these issues a lot and I wrote down a certain number of notes and sequences by hand.

Zauberspiegel: Do you have an opinion about Peter Jackson's version? If so, would you share with us? Where do you see the differences and what might be the reason for the differences?
Peter S. Beagle: I don’t think any film in a theatre is ever going to be able to rival the film of imagination that runs in every reader’s head. Imagination has an unlimited budget. There’s simply no way to match it, working in a real world of budgets, casts, and technicians. But I do think Jackson created as good of a Lord of the Rings as you’re ever going to see on screen.

Zauberspiegel: You not only wrote the novel The Last Unicorn, you also wrote the script for the animated movie. You were a lot more successful with this. What was it like transferring your work from one media to another? Did you have complete freedom to shaping the screenplay?
Peter S. Beagle: No writer ever has complete freedom unless he’s also the director and the producer, and even then it’s a dubious matter. The real world will always have its say, whether that comes in the form of a studio limiting the budget, or an actor just not being able to say a certain line. But by and large, considering how hard the original novel was to write, the movie script went comparatively easy, and it was mostly filmed the way I wrote it. There are some exceptions, but it was a much easier task because my script for The Last Unicornwas treated with more respect than the one I wrote forThe Lord of the Rings. For example, when they recorded the voices for the film someone made the actor playing Frodo say “that’s sort of a relief.” Which isn’t in Tolkien’s books, and certainly wasn’t in my screenplay. It isn’t what I wrote for that moment and under no circumstances, in any universe, could I possibly have written that line, for that character, in that movie. But there it is anyway. Luckily nothing like that happened with the script for The Last Unicorn, perhaps because most of the major actors knew the book and loved it. People like Rene Auberjonoisand Jeff Bridges were offering to do their parts for free just to be in the movie. And Christopher Leepractically knew the book by heart – he very nearly made me justify every change I’d made in Haggard’s dialog. With people that involved in the product and its source you’re off to a good start.

Zauberspiegel: Where do you see the difference between writing a novel and a screenplay? What's the difference?
Peter S. Beagle: When you’re writing a script you have to take the budget into account. I was often told, doing television work, that if I wanted anything to get made, I was going to have to bring a lot of my outdoor scenes indoors, because any outdoor scene would cost so much time and money that the budget would be broken right there.With a novel you can go anywhere you like, and fill the story with characters without worrying about casting them, or paying their salaries. You can do anything and make it as in-depth and detailed as you like, so long as you make it believable to your readers. A movie is a totally different form. It can be powerful and moving on its own account, but I’ve never been as affected by a movie, no matter how good or how strong, as I have been by a great novel.   

Zauberspiegel: What will we get to read from you next?
Peter S. Beagle: Right now I’m on the last drafts of two new novels:a magical realist book titled Summerlong and a young adult novel calledI’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons. I’m also finishing several new pieces of short fiction, a couple of children’s books, and a collection of nonfiction essays. There’s a lot coming.

Zauberspiegel: Thanks a lot for the interview. Have a lot of fun, accepting the award

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