Dr. Richard Purtill is a former professor of philosophy at Western Washington University and an accomplished author of fantasy as well as textbooks on philosophy. His books include Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Reason To Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (e-book) and C.S. Lewis’s Case for the Christian Faith, as well as several works of fiction. He recently was interviewed by a former student, Gord Wilson (www.alivingdog.com), who has an M.A. in English from Western Washington University and who has written for Campus Life, His, CCM, New Oxford Review, HM, and various animation magazines and local publications.
Dr. Purtill shared his thoughts on the several recent movies based on the works of Tolkien and Lewis.
Q: Steve Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies proved very popular, as has the first of the three Hobbit films. But aren’t they being released backwards? Wasn’t the Hobbit written first?
Purtill: There’s nothing wrong with writing a prequel to an existing book, or in this case, a movie. That’s the back story to something. There are various reasons for writing a prequel. Sometimes you write something interesting and you say, how did this situation evolve? Or it may be that your first book wasn’t successful, but your second was, so it’s released first. There’s nothing wrong with it in principle. It may be that you encounter the Hobbit first, as many of us did. Or, you may read The Lord of the Rings first, and then you want to read something about Bilbo Baggins, and read his story in The Hobbit.
Q: Do you think seeing the movies will make people want to read the books. Do they have the same audience?
Purtill: Not necessarily. There are a lot of things in the movies that are expansions of things that aren’t all that important in the books. It’s hard to say. It’s probably an individual judgement. Some people might like the movies. Other people may say, oh this isn’t like the book, I don’t like it.
Q: If someone were new to reading Tolkien, would you suggest starting with The Hobbit?
Purtill: I would think so. If you say, this is an example of the work of Tolkien, I think it would be a good idea. It’s a very good book and very interesting.
Q: How can The Hobbit be stretched out over three movies?
Purtill: That is a problem. I can see it doing two movies. You have the scene at the end of the first movie with the eye of the dragon. The Hobbit isn’t really a small book. It’s 317 pages in the old hardback edition I have. It’s quite an interesting book, with lots of things to discover.
Q: So we have two more Hobbit films over two more years. Is there any more of Tolkien that could be filmed?
Purtill: Actually, I think you could make a rather interesting story, which would be very unlike than The Lord of the Rings, out of “Leaf By Niggle”. That’s a story that I talk about in my book, Lord of the Elves and Eldils. It’s a story about a man who has to go on a journey, and could be interpreted in three different ways. It was published separately in a book called Tree and Leaf, but the most convenient way of getting it is in The Tolkien Reader, which contains that story and other works by Tolkien.
Q: What about C.S. Lewis‘ Narnian films?
Purtill: I think the first Narnian movie, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was rather unsuccessful. They tried to add too much of their own interpretation. The second one, Prince Caspian, was better, and the third one, despite my initial negative reaction to it, I’ve come to decide is a pretty good movie — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They’re going to find it very difficult to do the next one, The Horse and His Boy, because it takes place completely in Narnia. Except for the kings and queens, who are lightly mentioned, it’s really not a story about our world at all. But the BBC also filmed the first three Narnian books some time back. They did so on a somewhat lower budget. They’re sort of like filmed plays. But they stick close to the books, and are very good.
Q: Are there any other Lewis books one could film?
Purtill: I’d be interested in seeing somebody do Out of the Silent Planet, which has a lot of good scenes in it. You could make a very interesting movie out of it. The thing is, there are too many scientific facts we know now about Mars, which are wrong in the book. But you could get around that by saying that the eldils who rule Mars (Malacandra) have decided they don’t want any truck with human beings so they alter the instruments of our Mars probes to make Mars look like a desert planet. You had the same situation with Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ John Carter of Mars, which Disney just made into a successful movie.
Q: Out of the Silent Planet is the first book of a trilogy, isn’t it?
Purtill: Yes. Perelandra is the second book, and they’d have to do the same thing with that, because we know too much about Venus. That Hideous Strength, the third book, I think would make a very good movie. In fact, it might make two or three movies, as it’s a long and complex work.
Q: What do you think Tolkien would have thought of the films?
Purtill: I think he would be against filming his books. I think he would say, “What I’ve written I’ve written”. He didn’t like any vulgarizations, as he called them. But he would probably also be delighted to see how popular his books have become, and surprised to see us analyzing them. I’m not sure what he’d think about my books.