A Critical History of Film Adaptation

Adapting material previously published in another genre is not something that the film industry invented. Classical Greek playwrights adapted myths that had been passed on through an oral tradition; Shakespeare appropriated materials for his plays from various sources. And as soon as the makers of cinema recognized that telling a good story in moving pictures required a “good story,” adaptations of novels, plays, and short stories became commonplace. Shortly thereafter, critics began to analyze these adaptations, and various schools of thought developed.

Reading a Book / Watching a Film

Often, critics of film adaptation assume the aesthetic and cultural superiority of the printed word over the newer genre of film. Even established film critics have a difficult time allowing for film to assume the high cultural status of a play or a novel. For example, Pauline Kael, the famous film critic for The New Yorker, wrote in 1976, “If some people would rather see the movie than read the book, this may be a fact of life that we must allow for, but let’s not pretend that people get the same things out of both, or that nothing is lost” (qtd. in Peary 3). Although Kael shows great reverence for the art of film through her reviews, she separates the experience of film watching from book reading, showing a clear cultural preference for the more traditional experience.

book glasses

Similarly, George Bluestone, whose 1957 study, Novels into Film has long been recognized as the basis for much film adaptation study, separates the experience of reading and watching as passive and active endeavors, clearly favoring the active: “We observe that the word symbols in written language must be translated into images of things, feelings and concepts through the process of thought. Where the moving picture comes to us directly through perception, language must be fulfilled through the screen of conceptual apprehension” (qtd. in Peary 3). As the history of film adaptation criticism has evolved, many critics have taken a view that they are condescending from the act of reading to the act of watching a film, to them a “lesser” art form.


Another assumption comes through this early criticism of film adaptation is that as the art of film evolves, the adaptations become better, but according to Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, “There is no intrinsic reason for a film or a cinematic adaptation of today to be any less accomplished than some corresponding film ten years hence” (4). Just as both good and bad novels continue to be written every year, good and bad film adaptations are made each year. New aesthetic ideals as well as technological innovations might make a film more interesting or more marketable, but it does not necessarily make it better. Thus novels and film adaptations should be evaluated based on their unique attributes.

A film may be inspired by a novel, but it utilizes a different vehicle through which to tell its story. Films are visual, aural, and they are consumed passively in a collective environment—usually in a theatre with an audience, but also in the home, often in the presence of friends and family. Reading involves an active process of decoding words and creating visual images in the imagination. And unless the Nineteenth Century practice of reading aloud in the parlor reemerges, reading will remain a solitary, personal activity. The differences between our process of enjoying each genre, however, does not assume that the active is necessarily better or worse than the passive. They are just different activities and the products need to be judged by a different set of criteria.
Points of Difference

Films and novels differ in many ways, and because of these differences the way they convey their themes, plots, and characters will necessarily differ. Three of the most obvious differences between films and novels are found in the scale, the level of realism they convey, and the reflection of the author or filmmaker's ideology.

A Question of Scale

projector Since the screenplay for a standard feature film runs between 80 and 110 pages and a novel normally runs more than 200 pages, when a novel is adapted to film the story is necessarily shortened. The screenwriter, director, and producers make decisions to cut scenes, characters, and even major elements of the original piece in order to fit the standard 90 to 120 minute feature film length. Occasionally, the filmmakers will opt to make a longer film, but this is usually considered a risk, unless the original work is so well-known that the audience might invest the extra time in the theatre. (Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, for example, cuts very little of Shakespeare’s original play and runs over three hours.) But the most common preference is to shorten the original story in some significant way.

The other option that is sometimes taken when adapting literature into film is the mini-series. These adaptations are necessarily television-based and lose some of the visual and aural quality found in films made for the wide-screen. They also run from three to six hours and are generally shown over a period of successive nights or weeks. These showings might include commercials (as was the case with the BBC/A&E version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) or might be shown commercial-free, as in the PPS series, Masterpiece Theatre. In either case, the ultimate viewers will be video-tape or DVD renters or purchasers. The aesthetic value of these adaptations can be very different because of the length and the television-based viewing. television

In any case, when adapting any work of literature—most specifically a novel—into film, the filmmakers must make some changes in scale. When writing an analysis of the adaptation, therefore, the student should carefully consider the value of these changes: how do they affect the ultimate impact of the work of art?

What is Real?

Henry James wrote that literature’s aim is to present a version of real life. But each reader “sees” a different vision of the work of literature, so the idea of reality is interpreted by each of those readers. Similarly, when filmmakers interpret the “reality” found in a work of literature, the final vision reflects not only the ideas of the original author, but also the vision of the filmmakers.

emma poster

Adaptations can roughly be divided into two categories: straight or loose. For example, Jane Austen’s Emma was adapted to film in 1996 in a Miramax production starring Gwyneth Paltrow. This version retained the original period, setting, and most of the plot and characterization. This production credited Jane Austen and made the most of the Nineteenth Century connection. In 1994, however, Amy Heckerling wrote and produced Clueless, set in contemporary Beverly Hills. Most of the plot and themes of Austen’s original were retained, but many of the characters’ names and all of the original setting were updated. Both adaptations have value in understanding Austen’s work, and each should be considered as a valid, although different adaptations of the original.


Ideology is Relative

Sometimes, however, a filmmaker’s attempt to stay true to the original text is thwarted by contemporary sensibilities, and the screenwriter or director’s ideology will come through the film when it was not present in the original work. For example, in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a bold commentary about slavery is added to the film, where it is a mere reference in the novel. And in Emma Thompson’s 1995 screenplay of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, she allows one of the main characters, Elinor Dashwood, to make a pointed commentary about the predicament of women in her society that Austen would not have been able to make in her novel. In each of these cases, the film adaptation is changed to project messages deemed important by the filmmakers, not by the original author.

sense and sensibility

color purple

In a similar way, Steven Spielberg made many ideological changes in his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Many of these changes, it is assumed by Walker and various critics, were made in order to popularize the controversial novel. In this case the ideology of the novel was modified, and Walker found it necessary to write a book about her experience with the adaptation process. (The Same River Twice, Simon & Schuster, 1995). Thus, considering the themes as well as the ideological basis for the original work of literature is important in analyzing a film adaptation. Considering the contemporary context of both the original work and the film is important when writing about film adaptation.

(Source: http://www1.chapman.edu/~lhall/webpage/criticalhistory.html)

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