JOHN DEAN·Adapting History and Literature into Movies (1)

This essay offers an overview of adaptation, an initiation for the educated reader who is not a communications or film specialist. It will reference “The Social and Cultural Construction of Abraham Lincoln in U.S. Movies and on U.S. TV”—but mainly with an eye to the larger issue of cinematographic adaptation itself.


Apples and Giraffes

Literature and film, movies and books, compare like apples and giraffes, said contemporary American writer Dennis Lehane.1 But they do compare. They do interbreed. As do history and film. But the question is: How and why do history, literature and movies fruitfully nourish one another? When apples, giraffes, and other exotica interbreed what results?

Many thousands of movies are adaptations from historical or literary sources. Hence the recent internet vernacular of “litflicks”—literature adapted into flicks, the flickering medium of the motion pictures.2 History is generically dealt with by cinema in the epic, period, or historical film. Film historians generally distinguish the epic group from the strict historical group by its sheer size, expense, and the sumptuousness of the movie’s costumes and sets. The period film is distinguished by the production fact that it can be set in the far distant past or the immediate present, as in the Jazz Age, 1926 version of The Great Gatsby or with the achingly Sixties, 1969 film Zabriskie Point.3


Although literature, history, and movies are distinct forms of communication thousands of solutions and accommodations have been found so they can get along and have fruitful relationships. The first key is the nature and tradition of adaptation itself. Tales evolve and one generation adjusts the stories of the past to the present time and to its modern needs and ways of story telling. “My dramas are but slices cut off from the great banquet of Homer’s poems,” wrote the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.).4 But Aeschylus’ dramas were leaner and meaner, in search of a higher truth which synthesized moral opposites, profoundly simpler than anything all-embracing Homer ever wrote. For it is the singer, not the song, that makes the splendor of communication successful. And a story retold, as Aeschylus retold Homer, continues. What is beneath the surface of the story that has been told before and will be told again—a story that has been alive among humans for centuries or millennia?

Literature, History, and Movies

Consider how information exists and knowledge is distilled. How a story is told is as important as its subject matter. Thus, three fundamental points about how the nature of literature and history effect their relation to movies:

First, legend precedes historical fact. Did Nestor and Ajax in the Iliad ever actually exist and do what Homer claims they did? Until factual, textual proof is found this remains, at the least, an open question. The Iliad remains legend rather than history, literature rather than history, superstition rather than science. Hence, human culture as we know it shows that literature precedes history as a practice of inquiry, as a creative record of human events.

Second, a fundamental distinction exists between history and memory. History is then, memory is now. A judicious, critical management of documentary evidence allows history to get as close as possible to the facts of the past; then as it was then. Memory is the past remembered and reconstructed through the lens of the present and its building blocks.5Movies flourish in a popular, contemporary market place. They must entertain the sensibilities of the present. Anachronism is their delight and pleasure. Memory is their very breath. So history inevitably gets short-changed in movies—with some notable exceptions.

Third, with regard to the history of ideas, one distinguishes between an older meaning of literature as literacy and the cultivation of reading (dominant through the eighteenth century) and a newer reality and reference to literature as a body of writing which contrasts with erudition and which emphasizes wit, talent, and taste (which begins to dominate the older meaning by the end of the eighteenth century).Story-telling movies that are not straight documentary or raw, live footage have a much stronger generic affinity to literature than to history. Thus the movie-history relation is more a connection rather than a similarity, an association rather than nearness. The difference is subtle but meaningful. The viewer can expect a movie to be like literature. But can you expect a movie to be history?

Two exceptions of note which prove the rule with regard to movies and history are documentary cinema and raw footage. Documentary cinema has a closer relation to history. Documentary can function like journalism or on-the-spot news, though news is “only the rough draft of history”—as publisher Phil Graham of The Washington Post once said. Conventional wisdom defines documentary as “relating to or found in documents: aiming at presentation of reality,”7 “broadly: factual, objective.”8

But look deeper and one often finds that the non-fiction film or photo which is about “real life” was treated subjectively and sometimes doctored just as much as a piece of fiction. Though documentary is relied upon as objective fact, as proven support for something, it can easily be a constructed, subjective artifact and be synonymous with social persuasion or propaganda. This is not a problem, but an asset for documentary, and a point to which this essay shall return. Raw footage is also known as “stock shot” and is film footage of actual, ordinary or exceptional events which is stocked away and then used as movie filler, a means to intensify mimesis in a fiction film or documentary, a way to cut production costs, or kept for historical record. One outstanding case of stock shot would be theZapruder Film. This was the only live movie made of the John F. Kennedy assassination of November 22, 1963 by amateur cameraman and garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder of Dallas, Texas.9 This film has been used or referenced in about forty movies to date, including Oliver Stone’s 1991, bullying but engrossing movie JFK, a 1999, HBO Sopranos’ episode, and conspiracy theory documentaries of the last few years.10


The vitality of adaptation and influence evolved in Western culture through various epochs down to the European Age of the Enlightenment, when the proprietary concept of plagiarism came into common play. Prior to that, new versions of old tales, such as European medieval romances, were considered to refurbish and refit stories that had been told before and would be told again and again. There was once a much stronger sense of the common property of culture. The change that came about during the European Enlightenment had to do with owning painting and art criticism, literature, natural philosophy, history, and music.11

The originality, stylistic authority and proprietary rights of a composer and a composition became a major factor in the production, adaptation, and consumption of culture. This was capped by a new sense of individualism, a term and concept which did not come into common use in the English language until the early 1800s.12 One result was the “self-made” author who could make a living from his writings and was deservedly proud that he could do so by selling his work to the public and did not have to toady to patronage. The Augustan poet, satirist, and translator Alexander Pope (1688–1794) was the first outstanding Anglo-American example of this. From his Homeric translations he made a net profit of the then very large sum of £10,000 and he bragged he could “. . . live and thrive Indebted to / no Prince or Peer alive.”13

Precedents for plagiarism existed. Stealing from another person’s work among the literate elite in ancient Greece and Rome was taken as a cowardly sign that one lacked personal, creative integrity. Around the time Johann Gutenberg’s printing press was working (beginning in Strasbourg in the 1430s), the legal phenomenon of “letters patent” came into existence—a document from the monarch which conferred the privilege, or patent, to print, usually given to a Stationer’s Company or guild. It was the first Anglo-American law, the Occidental Copyright Law Statute of Queen Anne of England of 1710, which expressly guaranteed copyright. Which, in turn, was followed in the newly minted United States by the first U.S. Copyright Act of 1790.14

The concept and practice of adaptation as a break from the original creation, and not as a refitting flourished once copyright and plagiarism were written into the granite of the law. The term’s two-fold original meaning adapted to this cultural, social, and economic change. First by the Latin etymology of adaptation: ad—“near, adjacent to,” and aptus: “to fasten, to fit.” While the secondary, derived meaning of adaptation as something “broken up” and “remade totally anew” adapted to the newer social and commercial sense in a world where “capitalism” was also a new word.

Cultural History

Final introductory note: This essay about adapting history and literature into film is a cultural history approach to the question of cinematographic adaptation. It highlights concern for cultural translation, with how the culture and language of the past has been transformed into the present.

Culture is not handed on like a baton in a relay race from one generation to another or from one nation to another. As it evolves, culture has to be reproduced. “A culture does not have an independent inertia.”15 In classical terms, cultural history is a secular humanist, Aristotelian approach to culture. My a priori assumption is that all knowledge is gained and perpetuated by the close association between the human mind, spirit, and body conditioned by the environment of its time. No Greater Power—from archetypes, to Godhead, to Platonic “forms”—exists independently of our sensible world, of our human need to construct, guide, give and get what we require as human beings. Man is his own maker.

The ancient art and craft of adaptive communication means recreation. Beneath the surface of a story refurbished over the ages and updated by different media lies a heritage of useful knowledge which adds to well-being in proportion as it is communicated. The genesis of the forms themselves can now help us to figure out the relationship of literature to film, the written word to the visual image.

Malleable Forms and Contents

Protean Forms and Authenticity

In his classic study Novels Into Film (1954), George Bluestone argued that the novel is “protean because it has assimilated essays, letters, memoirs, histories, religious tracts, and manifestoes”16—and one may add: the folk tale, the play, epic, and romance. Film itself is also specially “protean because it has assimilated photography, music, dialog, the dance”—and one may add: literature and history, painting, visible color, audible sound, and the art of inducing a sleeplike trance.

But movies do more. Movies are distinct from both literature and history because a movie has to move on multiple tracks, combine two or more types of media. As the German American film theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim (1904–2007) noted in 1938, a movie is a composite work of art which:

. . . is possible only if complete structures, produced by the media, are integrated in the form of parallelism. Naturally, such a ‘double track’ will make sense only if the components do not simply convey the same thing; they must complete each other in the sense of dealing differently with the same subject; each medium must treat the subject in its own way, and the resulting difference must be in accordance with those that exist between the media.17

History has also assimilated different genres. But, more importantly, it has traditionally been considered to be of two sorts: the biographies of great people or the story of ordinary folk. This began as the long-standing distinction in history between the work of Thucydides and that of Herodotus. Thucydides wrote heroic political history which emphasized the interrelations of the highly privileged. Thucydides reserved the moral drama of historical tragedy for an elite (as did literature until the modern, industrial age). Herodotus’ work was pluralistic, polyvalent, democratic. His tone was colloquial rather than terse, his narrative was far more about people than abstractions. In the Herodotean words of Henry Ford’s amanuensis William John Cameron (1878–1955): “The history of historians is usually bunk . . . but history that you can see is of great value. It is not the past of the books, . . . it is the past of living men and women; folks pretty much like ourselves.”18 The contemporary American cultural historian Karl Krober has updated these issues in his study Make-Believe in Film and Fiction (2006) and argued for a different set of contrasts regarding the fundamental differences between literature and movies. Literature, he claims, makes it easier to share subjective fantasies, it frees the mind from limits of time and space, and it dramatizes the ethical significance of ordinary behavior, while simultaneously intensifying readers’ awareness of how they themselves think or feel. Movies’ uniquely magnify movements to produce stories which are specially potent in exposing hypocrisy, problems of criminality in modern society, and the relation between nature and man, the private self and the natural environment.19 In other words, movies are more like journalism—the rough draft of history. The American playwright, movie director and screenwriter David Mamet (1947– ) has put the matter more succinctly in basic building terms. Literature, he said (and a play in particular) “is like an airplane. You don’t want to have any extra parts there.” While “a movie’s more like a car; it can probably sustain a couple extra parts to make it look pretty.”20

Epic Space

The protean blends of history and cinema match nicely in the epic spectacular. The movie set in an epic—the film’s stage arrangement, scenery, props, place and costumes—takes on such force of character that it has the strength of an actual subject. Like a documentary, an epic spectacular owes a great deal of its effectiveness to the coherence and apparent authenticity of all elements in the film. The set is a spine that must exist so the body of the movie can exist. The director must bring spine and body to life. And so history appears to be reborn in the epic movie.21

Authentic setting both enhances the veracity of an epic movie and gives the popular audience a tantalizing insight into the people and places that helped to make history happen. MGM’s 1959 Ben Hur sent out second unit scouts to film locations in Italy, along with England, France, Mexico and Spain, to achieve this. Of course, this was a gross factual error. The creative point was not to achieve one hundred percent factual, historical accuracy, but to attain the emotional perspective of epic space. In character terms, the late Charlton Heston was beautifully cast with his stern, hawk-like features, intense, stoic expression, and sinewy, athletic frame. The point being that historical accuracy in the movie context should be judged by different rules than the dialectical, academic context of history. “There is no point in comparing the relative value of the various media. Personal preferences exist, but each medium reaches the heights in its own way.”22 In the movie business, as opposed to the history business, authentic does not mean factually erudite. It means coherence. It means history recast into fresh dramatic form. At its best, the epic spectacular combines heroic political history with pluralistic, polyvalent and democratic themes—as in David Lean’s superb Anglo-American production Lawrence of Arabia(1962). It is a movie business formula that has produced hokum and rubbish, but also cinematic masterpieces and cutting-edge advances in narrative form and multimedia technology. In American cinema, it is a formula that has worked from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) through the twentieth and twenty-first century Western, the Bible epic, war movie, sword and sandal Roman Empire film or British Empire movie, the disaster film, and the science fiction intergalactic adventure movie.

Word, Image, Technology

One last point about the material and conceptual nature of literature, history, and movies. Literature and history must have the word—logos. Their particular nature as media consists “precisely in the abstractness of language, which calls every object by the collective name of its species and therefore defines it in only a generic way, without reaching the object itself in its individual concreteness . . ., hence the spiritual quality of its vision, the acuteness and succinctness of its descriptions.”23 As literature and history advance beyond their oral stage, they demand the written word (or print) conveyed by reading. The medium of movies needs images in motion which are conveyed by a projection on to a screen. In all works of art there is a hierarchy of media. For movies the image, iconos, dominates.

A movie gets to places literature and history do not. And then it delivers that place to its audience in a way literature and history cannot. The audience, in turn, must use their eyes for a movie to work. After all, are not literature and history forms of communication which are more available to a blind person? With literature and history the audience sees with their inner eye, not as much with their outer, physical eye. “Film creates a fully defined and immediate physical reality that requires dramatization and exploration; it brings characters visually realized into direct relationship with their environment and in immediate proximity to the viewer.”24

Cinema also needs electricity. Movies could never have existed without the necessary technology. Print advanced literature beyond the spoken word and the written page and allowed mass media. But technology midwifed movies into their very existence. Technological determinism has played a much greater part in the creation of movies. From its modern inception, the technology also helps to distinguish the entertainment film from the documentary. In 1893 the American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison created the first film company to make and show movies to the public. The Edison Company filmed in a tar paper barn set on a swivel, in which the roof could be opened or closed so as to adjust to the sun. Edison’s unwieldy camera, the Kinetograph, was a large, fixed machine run by an electric motor to ensure smooth motion. The point here is that Edison’s “camera did not go out to examine the world; instead, items of the world were brought to it—to perform. Thus Edison began with a vaudeville parade: dancers, jugglers, contortionists, magicians, strong men, boxers, cowboy rope twirlers.”25

In contrast, documentary cinema was first developed by Louis Lumière in 1895 by using the cinématographe camera which was a hundredth of the weight of Edison’s Kinetograph. The cinématographe was about the size of a small suitcase, very portable, and could film, print, or project. Edison’s movies were entertaining indoor performances. Lumière’s movies documented the world outdoors. His camera “was an ideal instrument for catching life on the run”—sur le vif, as Lumière put it.26

The American film director, comedian and cartoonist Terry Gilliam has argued that the nineteenth century sense of cinema as a whole came from the flickering passages seen by riders in trains when they looked out at the passing landscape through the train window’s frame.27 One technology inspired another. And without electricity in the 1890s neither the Lumière brothers in France nor Thomas Edison and George Eastman working together in America could have established the craft of filming and projection. (However, vigorous, mobile entertainment existed prior to the new technology—the street theater, the carnival, and the enthusiastic links of circus rings. So it was not the technology alone that provided the creative genesis.)


The novel dates back at least to Heliodorus (third century A.D.). In the long run the novel is a far more formal genre and has been a more creative medium than film. Both novel and literature are preindustrial arts, but movies are an industrial art. The novel also has a lengthy record as a class-oriented medium. For centuries the novel relied on the upper and middle-class elitism of literacy. Cinema was born as mass and popular cultures bloomed in urban civilizations in modern times. As critics have noted about cinema since its pre-World War One days of Nickelodeon entertainment, it is the most popular and democratic of art forms (although admission did not always cost only a nickel). The 1913 admission price to the spectacular movie Quo Vadis was the current equivalent of about $31.00.28

Movies fed on the placenta of the popular, the common coin, and not on the support of a superior class.29 Movies were ushered into existence by the common, human hunger for story. This is part of the special process which, together with other characteristics, helps to define American culture. “American man,” wrote Eric Hoffer, “is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story—a story that is basically without meaning or pattern.”30 Every American group creates stories about its own heroes and villains which help to reinforce and provide identity for the group. In its relatively short run compared to literature and history, the movie business has democratically catered to wider audience needs and market demands.

The Visual Book

At the risk of arguing by list, note that the illustrated book has been around for a very long time. The written text has a huge history of visual relationships. Indeed, has the written text ever not been illustrated?31 For our American cultural history purposes a fascinating detail in this long chronicle is that the very first best seller in America was an illustrated book. Indeed, it was a very illustrated book: Francis Quarles’ Emblemes (1635) andHieroglyphikes (1638). These were each an emblem book—a work of moral and religious verse based on Bible quotations in which the word text was matched by allegorical illustrations. Quarles’ Emblemes and Hieroglyphikes were the best emblem books produced in England in English, and undoubtedly in America as well.32

Which is to say that America was ever a nation with a strong preference for visual communication, long before the cinema. The entertainment industry, with movies and TV in particular, are to the United States what wine is to France or oil is to Saudi Arabia. One reason why movies made such great headway in the United States was because of the nation’s pronounced national taste for and tradition of visual communication and storytelling. Once twentieth-century U.S. mass media was established in 1930—with electric sound recordings, radio and movies—non-fiction book titles outnumbered fiction titles. The greater part of storytelling moved to the new media.

Types of Adaptation

When adapting from literature to film, one begins with the raw stuff, the subject matter of a short story, novella, or novel, of a play, history, biography, or with a poem, song, or folk tale. It is all good because it is ready-made and market-tested. The characters and stories are already popular. Now they have to be mass-produced. Three types of adaptation follow: loose, faithful, or literal.33 Adaptation is by nature a translation into a different medium which expresses itself by using a different group of techniques, essential materials, and rules of creative harmony.


The loose adaptation takes the raw stuff and reweaves it into a movie as the director, producer, or studio wishes and as the movie needs. Contemporary cultural norms are often a determining factor. The various adaptations of James Cain’s all-American novelThe Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) became more overtly sexual as the times—and countries of adaptation—changed. One could easily imagine an effective and even momentarily pornographic adaptation of this steamy, laconic crime thriller at some point in the future.34 In The Postman Always Rings Twice libidinal action is the narrative’s existential pumping force. Its eros and thanatos are deliciously extreme and invite loose play.35

One should wonder about action. Overall, are Americans and American cinema prone to loose adaptations because of an emphasis on action as an end in itself within the civilization? “I need a little less talk and a lot more action,” is a common State-side saying. And as Anglo-American actor Michael Caine claimed in his autobiography: “The British make ‘talking pictures;’ Americans make ‘moving pictures.’”36 This is not universally true, but good enough to be a rule of thumb. In American national tradition, a movie is a mover and a shaker, it tries to provide emotional satisfaction for it audience. Example: The 1935 film version of Jack London’s excellent Call of the Wild—starring Clark Gable, Jack Oakie and Loretta Young, was a fine film in its own way (billed with the tagline: “An Epic Novel . . . An Epic Picture!”)—but it typically lacked the level of thoughtful backstory present in the novel.37 Plus, the very popular buddy character in the movie, Short Hoolihan, was played by Jack Oakie (1903–1978). Oakie was the inveterate scene stealer with the charm of a big, friendly, flappy, hairy dog. He was the nation’s loveable, pudgy, all-American, good time “Okie” character of the era. “No matter how hard I worked all day, I could always find a party to go to,” he wrote in his autobiography Jack Oakie’s Double Takes.38Just as the actors Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971) and Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) provided audience interest because they integrated a new kind of American into the mainstream—a back-talking, thoroughly male, self-confident, Black protagonist—so did Jack Oakie in his time and place blend in a hearty contemporary figure: a working-class, funny and eventually successful White guy from Oklahoma or the Red River Valley country.39

Jack Oakie’s popularity was more important than the integrity of Jack London’s original text. After Hoolihan-Oakie was shown to die in Call of the Wild’s world premiere held at the Cathay Circle Theater in Los Angeles (an action true to the novel), the audience was so upset that a new ending was provided for the movie in which Oakie lived, so the public (and MGM’s box office) would not be disappointed. And would Jack London, champion of the rough and tumble working class (who wrote: “affluence means influence”), have been upset? Why not let Hoolihan-Oakie live? A traditional condition of action rather than reflection in American cinema was specially true through the 1950s and 1960s. Then something changed. By that time over five hundred art house or art theater halls flourished in the U.S.A. showing foreign films: in the Boston, Massachusetts area, for example, the well-known Brattle Street Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, or the Paris Cinema on Boylston Street in Boston. There was both an artistic and a market message here.

The new generation of Baby Boomer U.S. audience and film makers were subsequently receptive to and incorporated into U.S. films the serious aesthetic and social intentions of non-U.S. movies. At one level, this distinction gradually dissolved between the reflective-artistic qualities of U.S. and non-U.S. films, and consequently the number of art theaters rapidly dwindled. At another level, the American need for action, star power, and contemporaneity which could justify loose adaptation remained. Examples of loose adaptation in American cinema would be: The Best Years of Our Lives (1945, directed by William Wyler—adapted from the prose poem Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor40), King Creole (1958, directed by Michael Curtiz, loosely adapted from A Stone for Danny Fisherby Harold Robbins41), or Disney’s Pinocchio (1940, loosely based on the original Italian version). The loose adaptation may add additional subplots and characters, change situation or setting. Some of the original, in spirit or in fact, still remains. Loose adaptation can also mean expanding only a few lines from an original text. The original Biblical story of David and Bathsheba—the approximately one thousand words of II Samuel 11: 2–27, 12: 1–24—is part of one of the oldest pieces of historiography in the Western world, II Samuel 9–20 and I Kings 11–22. It became the movie David and Bathsheba (1951, taglined: “For this woman . . . he broke God’s own commandment!”).42This loose adaptation of a Biblical text was earnest, austere and languid.

As often happens with folklore or Biblical texts, star power and storyline changes heightened the interest and drama of the plot. In the original Biblical version King David spies Bathsheba by chance: “And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.” (II Samuel 11.2) But in the adaptation directed by Henry King and written by Philip Dunne (which received the Academy Award nomination for Best Writing: Story and Screenplay), Bathsheba exposed herself on purpose in order to seduce David. Their subsequent betrayal was an expression of mutual complicity. The vicarious interest of the 1950s American women in the movie audience was heightened. Bathsheba was an agent, not just a victim. Like popular music and folk song, texts from the Bible, legends, or folklore have the nature of common property. Like popular song, the original text is anonymous or invented by an individual or group who yields it to the community. The story or song is then modified or taken apart in performance.

Arguably the most adapted source works are legends. Some film historians count the vampire legend as the single most adapted tale of all time. Could a legend be that tantalizing end point for history and beginning place for myth where all is possible?43


The faithful adaptation takes the literary or historical experience and tries to translate it as close as possible into the filmic experience. Sometimes there are equivalents in film to the original way of saying or doing what happens in literature and history, and sometimes not. And “faithful” depends on the movie makers’ knack to be true to the original spirit of the raw stuff, the primary source. Faithful works from the inside out; loose works from the outside in. Loose has no problem with dismantling and reassembling, breaking up and remaking totally anew. Faithful wants to stay loyal to the intention of the original, to convey the heart and soul. So in a faithful adaptation, even if the movie went so far as to change the original story’s ending, the movie makers would want to make sure that they did not betray the core meaning.

Some outstanding twentieth century examples of faithful cinematic renditions of an original literary or historical text are: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943, directed by William Wellman; novel: 1940), The Grapes of Wrath (1940, directed by John Ford; novel: 1939),The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola; novel:1969), The Man Who Would Be King (1975, directed by John Huston, from Rudyard Kipling’s short story of the same name 1888), The Dead (1987, directed by John Huston, from the story in Joyce’sDubliners, 1914), Dances With Wolves (1990, directed by Kevin Costner, adapted from Michael Blake’s novel of the same name, 1986–1988.)

The faithful adaptation has the thorny problem of the narrator and the general commentary. The narrator is the good shepherd who guides the flock of meanings in the original, word-based text. How do you replace such an important figure without loosing direction? In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for example, seventeen percent of the novel were general commentary. In the movie’s faithful adaptation by John Ford and Twentieth Century Fox there was no voice-over narrator in the filmic space.44 But each medium worked perfectly well on its own terms. The movie Grapes of Wrath maintained a serious narrative tone. It had mature quality of cinematic sound, coloring, photography and casting which helped to replace and even enhance the historical novel’s original voice. Dorothea Lange’s 1930s pitch-perfect photographic style was incorporated by the film’s Director of Photography Gregg Toland. Alfred Newman’s musical score achieved superb shading. The casting of the Joad family was done with vigor and depth: Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, solid as oak, yet vulnerable in her strength; Henry Fonda,—as Steinbeck himself said: “A lean, stringy, dark-faced piece of electricity walked out on the screen and he had me. I believed my own story again.”45 The public relations department at Twentieth Century Fox possibly pushed this maturity too far. They emphasized the serious nature of the movie’s subject when it was released by stressing that Grapes of Wrath was only for an adult audience. It was taglined: “The thousands who have read the book will know why WE WILL NOT SELL ANY CHILDREN TICKETS to see this picture!”46

The social conventions of 1940 also did not allow John Ford to end Grapes of Wrath with the novel’s last scene of young Rose of Sharon baring her breast and suckling the starving man who “was about fifty, his whiskery face gaunt, and his open eyes . . . vague and staring” and who hadn’t eaten for about six days. But Ford did manage to end his version with the book’s characteristic note of spreading the milk of human kindness. The movie draws to a conclusion with a concise version of the novel’s chapter twenty-eight farewell scene between Tom Joad and his mother.


A strong expression of a literal adaptation is often a play performed as a movie. This includes movies filmed on stage and in performance (as in the Broadway Theater Archive series47). Or it could be a play such as Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman (1949) which has been faithfully transmuted at least three times into cinema: in 1951 (directed by László Benedek, starring Frederic March as Willy Loman), in 1966 (directed by Alex Segal, starring Lee J. Cobb, who had already appeared in Miller’s original 1949 production), and then in 1985 (directed by Volker Schlöndorff, starring Dustin Hoffman). A good example of an outstanding historical play literally adapted to film is Sunrise at Campobello, 1960, adapted from the 1958 stage drama about Franklin Delano Roosevelt written by the politically engaged Dore Schary.48

What happens to the play transferred to film? Well, a film has incredibly more space than a stage. A movie can literally take the scenic arrangement outside and the medium offers the director all sorts of tempting forms of physical and psychological expansion. Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic walk without crutches on his crippled legs to the podium, with one hand on a cane and the other hand clutching his son’s arm, to deliver the 1924 Presidential nominating speech for Al Smith before thousands of spectators at the Democratic Party Convention within the huge dome of Madison Square Garden is suitably heightened in the movie version.

Film offers a variety of focused and sustained camera angles. It expands or contracts our experience by virtue of the absence of the space-time continuum. Shots in separate spaces are edited together. Different times can be spliced, joined, or blended. The everyday sequential chain of experience is removed, intensified, or rearranged. The environment—the viewing filter of a dark theater or a quiet room—enhances the experience. This can make the literal adaptation of a visually contained text, like the rooms in Death of a Salesman, claustrophobic. Yet, by doing so, it heightens the play’s inherent tone of psychological oppression and impending doom. Each version of Death of a Salesman is enhanced by cinematic techniques of expressionism.

A movie can accordion a play up or down, enlarge it or reduce it. Although the phenomenon of live performance—the smell of grease paint, the timber of the actors’ and actresses’ uneven voices, the emotions of the crowd, and even the creak of the theater’s seats, all of which are at the heart and soul of theater—are rarely there in a movie. The 1981 film Zoot Suit, the faithful adaptation of a play based on the historical incident of L.A.’s World War II 1940s “Zoot Suit Riots,” is an exception.49 A Hollywood feature film needs a celebrity actor to pull in a big box office. And the star of the day may be a Brad Pitt or an Angelina Jolie or a Tom Cruise who may or may not be appropriate for the play itself. But they have the pull to secure the part. A case in point was the original film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Williams said it was “the most awful travesty of the play I’ve ever seen . . . horribly mangled by the people who did the film script.” Williams particularly disliked the choice of casting, with actress Gertrude Lawrence playing the mother Amanda Wingfield and Jane Wyman playing Laura Wingfield. But he thought the opposite way about Elia Kazan’s darkly brilliant adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire with fleshy, brutal Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and a tremulous Vivien Leigh as pale Blanche DuBois.50

A play as a play on stage, in contrast, concentrates and frames audience focus. On stage characters adapt to the same words and action at the same time and on the same plain. The stage space is a limited horizontal plain as opposed to the immense vertical plain of the movie screen. The stage has three dimensions and a movie two. But the absence of the space-time continuum in a movie provides oneiric depth. This is partly created by the sensation of inevitable flow. With a theatrical stage, each member of the audience individually chooses where to look, who to listen to, or who or what to hold on to most attentively. In a movie, the camera keeps making that choice and providing the small, medium, and big picture. The camera decides what you see and where you look and even who your ears perk up to the most. The camera is your eyes, it is inevitable flow. As the exuberant Russian director Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) declared, for a film perception of the world the most fundamental point is the “use of the camera as a cinema eye more perfect than the human eye for exploring the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe . . . . We cannot improve our eyes, but we can always improve the camera.”51 Yet faithful types of adaptation tend to impose self-destructive limitations, to sacrifice power for loyalty, risk for reassurance. When Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, Robert Benton directed, and Dustin Hoffman starred in the faithful 1991 movie adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s brilliant novel Billy Bathgate, the film was a flop. “We have seen this world before, in every gangster movie set in the 1920s or 1930s,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, “but never has it had less juice, been more dry and exhausted.”52

Art is risk. Art is: “always pushing . . . always wanting to explore . . . you want to get yourself into trouble and see how well you can fight your way out of it.”53 Whether it be a loose, faithful, or literal adaptation, at the end of the day, the final result of success or failure is not a matter of formula but finesse. How well you fight your way out of it. “It is not enough to show bits of truth on the screen, separate frames of truth” wrote Vertov. “These frames must be thematically organized so that the whole is also a truth.”54

(To be continued, Source:

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