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The Original Wasn’t Better

By (August 1, 2010) One Comment

Puritans don’t die; they just become purists. —Roland Joffe

Literary purists often groan about Hollywood adaptations of classic literature, but the genre of the film adaptation has been around since the very beginning of filmmaking, and it’s clearly here to stay. Film theorist and historian Timothy Corrigan, in Film and Literature: An Introduction, mentions several adaptations among the very first commercial films ever made, including very early adaptations of Cinderella (1900), Robinson Crusoe (1902), Gulliver’s Travels (1902), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), and The Damnation of Faust (1904). And another film theorist, Dudley Andrew, once made the claim that “well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals—though by no means all of these originals are revered or respected.”

It’s impossible to verify that astounding claim (made in 1984), though a cursory look at this summer’s American box office offerings suggests something approximating that number, especially if we include adaptations from comic books (Iron Man 2), sequels of adaptations of illustrated children’s books (Shrek Forever After), and adaptations from television (The Last Airbender). Admittedly, the number of intelligent and worthwhile adaptations from literary fiction is much, much smaller, though the genre is generally disproportionately represented in the annual list of Oscar nominees and winners.

From the perspective of readers and critics, the question on the table is how serious readers can come to peace with Hollywood adaptations of classic works of literature. (There is also, of course, a growing body of non-western adaptations of canonical western literature, including a pair of highly recommended recent Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare, Maqbool/Macbeth, and Omkara/Othello—but that’s a subject that deserves its own essay.)

Here, I want to suggest that while readers are right to be wary of specifically Hollywood film adaptations of classic British and American literature, there are in fact times when the old truism that the “original was better” turns out not to be true. To begin with, one can think of several instances where adaptations outshine the original literary works from which they are derived. The most obvious cases are the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film version of The Godfather. With The Wizard of Oz, the source of its cinematic immortality is hard to pin down to a single element: is it the breakthrough exploitation of Technicolor? the exceptionally catchy tunes? Judy Garland? For any or all of these reasons, The Wizard of Oz stands as a massive benchmark, not just in the history of film adaptation, but in the history of American cinema full stop. Interestingly, Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s story is not especially “faithful” to its source text—many episodes are removed, characters are transposed and combined (for instance, the two good witches become one), and most importantly, the world depicted in Baum’s novels as a “real” place exists in Fleming’s film only as a dream. As an author, Baum was able to milk his world for several sequels, but the “it was only a dream” approach taken by Fleming and company made it—thankfully!—impossible to think of “franchising” Oz. (I’m sure someone will try it all the same at some point: imagine a 3-D Oz with heavy CGI à la the recent Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland. Now imagine thirteen sequels, using Baum’s books as sources.)

As the Oz example suggests, in thinking about film adaptations more generally it is important to get past a fixation on “fidelity.” At times, it seems most appropriate to consider film adaptations, not as straightforward translations (or, as film theorists say, “transmediations”), but as highly idiosyncratic interpretations of classic literature, given a personal touch by screenwriters, directors, and actors—akin to a modern literary critic’s “reading” of a text, where the director doesn’t attempt to claim an authoritative and representative command of a text, so much as to offer an idiosyncratic (if still faithful) “response.” In a word, this is not The Definitive Interpretation of The Tempest, it’s my interpretation of The Tempest. This is adaptation with a dose of humility—an attribute not normally associated with film directors and producers—and it’s still somewhat rare.

More radically, it can be worthwhile to approach film adaptations as entirely autonomous from their source texts—that is, adaptations as wholly new creations, which transform the original in radical, self-conscious ways. One of my own favorites along these lines is Spike Jonze’s meta-adaptation, Adaptation—an instant classic, now widely discussed by film theorists in academic journals. Jonze’s film, scripted by Charlie Kaufmann, is an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, which adds an original element of self-reflexivity: a frame narrative surrounding Orlean’s story focuses on the difficulties of the film’s protagonist in adapting Orlean’s book to a screenplay. The German film critic Eckart Voigts-Virchow calls this approach, where film adaptations self-consciously depict the challenge of creating a film adaptation, metadaptation (according to Voigts-Virchow, metadaptations are “films and other texts that foreground not just the film-making process or other processes of text production, but also the adaptive processes between media, texts and genres”). Another great example of meta-adaptation is Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which transfers the spirit of Sterne’s “unfilmable” novel to a contemporary situation: a film crew attempting to film Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. And of course, having brought up The Tempest already, I think of Peter Greenaway’s own meta-adaptation of that play in Prospero’s Books.

While we’re downplaying fidelity to the text, it also helps the discussion greatly to put away the imperative to be “true to the period” in adaptations of classic literature from earlier periods. Especially with respect to ancient and medieval literature, there are enough gaps in the historical record that we simply may not know enough to be “accurate,” and filmmakers, costume-designers, and set-designers inevitably operate from guess-work and informed approximation. Even in more recent historical periods where there is no shortage of historical data describing the incidentals of everyday life, filmmakers have to choose how to make a story relevant to their present moment. Since the early 1990s, many intelligent adaptations have explored important aspects of the historical context surrounding their source texts – there have been successful adaptations of Vanity Fair (2004) and Mansfield Park (1999) along those lines, as well as unsuccessful adaptations, like The Scarlet Letter (1995).

Highlighting issues of race or empire in adaptations of 19th century novels is sometimes attacked as “political correctness,” but in all three of the instances just mentioned, the justification for exploring these themes actually lies in the source texts themselves. With Mansfield Park, it’s hard to get around the fact, clearly indicated by Austen, that the source of the money that so crucially structures social relationships in Austen’s world is a slave plantation in Antigua. For any number of reasons, Austen does not explore this theme in great depth in her novel (the focus of her critique is more on modern business practices, not racial exploitation per se), but it seems reasonable that Patricia Rozema chooses to elaborate on this aspect in her 1999 adaptation of the novel.

In the case of Joffe’s infamous 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, the motivations associated with the imperative to “make it relevant” may not have been so noble. Among the novelties in Joffe’s adaptation is a scene with the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale skinny-dipping in a pond, an explicit sex scene in a barn, an entirely new Native American component to the plot, a voyeuristic female African slave, a witch trial, and of course, Demi Moore in the nude.

Joffe’s adaptation was widely attacked by critics for its revisionism especially regarding sexuality, a fact that ought to make it of at least some interest to critics who enjoy intelligent revisionism. Unfortunately, upon revisiting the film, I found that Joffe’s Scarlet Letter earns every Golden Raspberry it received. And yet the critics were still wrong about why Joffe’s adaptation stinks so much: the problem is not the revisionism so much as the failure of Joffe’s film to avoid repeated bouts of over-the-top unintentional silliness—the red tanager symbolizing sexual desire that flutters through the film, for example, or Robert Duvall having some kind of seizure with a deer carcass on his head.

Despite the numerous absurdities in Joffe’s film, though, most of the criticism immediately following its release centered on Joffe’s choice to insert a semi-explicit sex scene in an adaptation of a hallowed work of American literature. The Washington Times’ reviewer, for instance, condemned Joffe’s steamy take on Hawthorne as “thinly veiled vulgarization.” The title of Newsweek’s review expressed a similar complaint: “Hester Prynne’s Hot Tub.” In response to all the criticism he was receiving, often couched in witty puns (many critics predictably played on “adulteration”/”adultery”), Joffe delivered a worthy bon mot of his own: “Puritans don’t die; they just become purists.” He surely has a point: is it really such a wild idea to include a semi-explicit sex scene in a post-Hays Code adaptation of a story that is, after all, about adultery? That said, it needs to be acknowledged that Hawthorne’s novel is, to a very considerable degree, about the psychological impact of the repression of sexuality on its characters, and on Puritan society as a whole. To refuse this dynamic, as Joffe’s adaptation does, is to risk making the story incoherent. Revisionism, though often beneficial and to some extent inevitable in contemporary film adaptations, may nevertheless have its limits.

Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp in Mira Nair's Vanity Fair

Charges of historical infidelity and political correctness were also made by critics in response to Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation of Vanity Fair. Nair emphasized the Indian and Imperial elements of Becky Sharp’s story in her adaptation, and was criticized by Stephen Holden in the New York Times as egregiously inserting a “Bollywood hoochy-cooch” for doing so—though in point of fact nearly all of Nair’s choices along these lines are closely derived from Thackeray’s text, beginning with Jos Sedley’s outrageous dress, the eating of curry in an early scene (in the novel, Jos enjoys Becky’s surprise at its fiery effects), and the Oriental influences in Becky’s masquerade. The one major deviation Nair makes is at the end of her film: instead of the novel’s conclusion, which hints that Becky has murdered Jos, in Nair’s version Becky and Jos end up together as ‘Nabobs,’ triumphantly ascending to a Rajasthani palace on the backs of expensively accoutered elephants. This happy ending was Nair’s way of making a feminist statement—don’t we really identify with Becky Sharp after all?—but for many critics who knew and loved Thackeray’s “novel without a hero” in its original form, Nair’s radical revision of the ending was a step too far.

One of the biggest challenges facing any filmmaker engaged in producing an adaptation is duration: most commercial films have to clock in under two hours, while the complete plot of a novel (or, for that matter, Elizabethan play) might require considerably more time. By contrast, page-turning thrillers and mysteries tend to work quite easily as film adaptations. Even in printed form, thrillers almost require a certain amount of impatient skimming as the reader awaits the next step in the action, and they generally do not take much longer to read than the film adaptations do to watch, nor does one feel that “the original was better.” The film adaptations of The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, and The Godfather are wonderful, suspenseful films, but they derive from texts that are especially well-suited to the limited duration required by film adaptations.

It’s much harder to do condensed versions of literary texts that operate differently from thrillers – one thinks of long Victorian novels, of experimental modernist texts like Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, or of more contemporary postmodern works, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. In most cases, successful film adaptations of experimental literary texts operate heavily in the mode of transcreation. Sean Walsh’s 2004 version of Ulysses, Bloom, picks up on some of the most accessible and provocative parts of Joyce’s story and reconfigures them into a limited, linear narrative. And the film adaptations of the Kundera and Jelinek novels work in part because they are much more conventional than their source texts. Interestingly, Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation The Hours might be seen as a metadaptation of a different kind: Daldry’s film is an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel, which has itself been described by Seymour Chatman as “an alternative version of Mrs. Dalloway.” Both Michael Cunningham’s novel and Daldry’s film were successful, though Virginia Woolf scholars and biographers found much to complain about in Daldry’s film, from Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (as Hermione Lee wrote, “[she] doesn’t look like Virginia Woolf. She looks like Nicole Kidman wearing a nose”), to the fact that Kidman’s Woolf seemed to be so utterly humorless and dour.

Of course, none of this saves us from the occasional Hollywood (or commercial art house) stinker. Why did Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement seem so lifeless? Why did Julian Jarrold’s recent adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited fall flat while, a few years earlier, Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (an adaptation of Waugh’s often-overlooked satire, Vile Bodies) seemed to hit the nail on the head? There is no formula, and no clear way of predicting what will work. After considering so many examples, we can perhaps make two small claims: adaptations that stress fidelity are generally less interesting than those that stress social or political relevance to the contemporary moment; and adaptations that appear to be star vehicles or Oscar bait are less likely to be interesting than those that seem to be driven by a particular vision on the part of screenplay writers and directors.

In a Bookforum “Reflection” on film adaptations in June 2007, Dutch author Tim Krabbé, who was burned by a “Hollybowdlerization” of his unrelentingly dark novel The Vanishing (Het Gouden Ei in Dutch), offers a pair of aphorisms which neatly sum up how best to navigate this complex terrain. To readers wary of film adaptations he said, “If you liked the book, don’t see the film. Why let the images that the words stirred up be overruled by some director? . . . As the goat said after it had eaten a few reels of film, ‘I like the book better.’” But Krabbé doesn’t downplay the potential power of film adaptations, or the possibility that film adaptations can eclipse their source texts, especially in an era so dominated by screen-based media. Accordingly, he addresses film fans as follows: “If you liked the film, don’t read the book.”

Amardeep Singhteaches British modernism and Postcolonial literature at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He blogs about matters of interest to South Asian diaspora culture at Sepia Mutiny, and about literature and literary studies at The Valve.