Thursday, 2 April 2015

Some reflections on Adaptations

I have a great interest in film adaptations of literature, as evidenced in my 'Based On' series of posts. Adaptations are an interesting beast in the world of film. They often have ready made audiences who look forward to seeing their favourite books/plays/comics presented with all the magic of film: this audience, however, approach the film with a highly critical eye. Adaptations get received differently depending on what type of adaptation they present of the text, as well as the original text's status within current culture. Popular bestsellers are treated differently to 'classics,' which are again treated differently from biography or stories from history.

There are several different types of adaptation. The most common approach assesses the film's faithfulness to the original text. How many scenes and characters are included? Do the characters resemble the author's descriptions of them? How much dialogue is included from the original text? In this reading the original text casts a shadow over the film; everything is viewed in how it relates to the book. Inevitably the film comes off second-best to the book.
'There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs,'
This is the main way fans examine this films; they are purists. The movie doesn't have their favourite scene, or line of dialogue, or the characters don't look the same; therefore it is somewhat wrong. While this reaction is understandable, overall I think this is the wrong way to approach film adaptions. The idea that a film could ever be as the original story was is foolish. On a most basic level films are visual, and books (the mostly commonly adapted sources) are word based. They also have different tools they use to convey meaning: books can give detailed explanations of a character's inner life; films, unless they use voice-over, have to find other ways to probe character depths. A well executed example of this is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange which included Alex's first-person narration from Burgess' novel, giving us intimate access to the character's thoughts. adaptations of stageplays, the space the story plays out in is the greatest change. In film you can put your characters in any setting you want and make it look realistic. You can move from a tiny cramped room to outer space (sometimes in the same shot). On stage you are limited to the space of the stage, and dialogue is often used with scenery to represent the setting.
“Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love ; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.”
Not all adaptations aim at faithfulness. Denise Faithfull in Adaptations* lists three others: variation, appropriation and intersection. Intersection is the attempt to 'absorb' the original text into cinema; to find visual, aural and verbal correspondences to the original text's language, rhythms, patterns and tone. The first two types don't treat the original text's as sacred, untouchable sources but choose to play around with them a bit. Amy Heckerling's Clueless is an appropriation, setting Jane Austen's nineteenth century novel Emma in 90s California.

For me, the most interesting adaptations of novels or plays presents a particular reading of the text.  This doesn't mean an academic reading, but rather one that follows a particular theme, or chooses one genre to pursue (focus on the drama, comedy, romance, etc.). Because novels tend to have far too much material to include in a film (or even a series of films), the screenwriter, producer, and director have to make choices about what and what not to include. If the filmmaker is serious about making a cohesive film, the choices must be based around the chosen theme or emotion. An example of such choice is the Harry Potter films: the detail about everyday life at Hogwarts, homework, exams and classes, were largely excised from the finished films. They were only included when they provided information essential to the Voldemort/Harry plot. As a result the books feel darker and more serious than the novel, which have episodes and B-plots that provide comedy.

Filmmakers should heed the advice of Orson Welles, a prolific adaptor: 'you must say something new about a book, otherwise it is best not to touch it.'

How do you approach screen adaptations? Are you a purist or an anarchist (or somewhere in the middle)?

*Denise Faithfull (with Brian Hannent), Adaptations, Currency Press: Sydney, c2007.

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