Adapting to Adaptations: A Look at the Relationship between Book and Film

Adapting to Adaptations: A Look at the Relationship between Book and Film

When talking about adaptations, a common thing one might hear is “That’s not how it happened in the book!” But surely there is more to adaptations than simply loyalty between film and book. One must delve deeper to understand the relationship between books and films when an adaptation is made. There is bound to be discussion (when examining adaptations) of what novels can do that film can’t and vice versa. Novels are verbal and use words to tell a story, while films are visual and rely on images to do the telling. But there is more to the balance between a book and its film adaptation. Once one fully comprehends the relationship between book, film, and adaptation, one can see that adaptations should be treated as a literary art form of their own. Adaptations are a category of their own and should be treated accordingly.

In order to discuss the relationship between book and film in adaptations and the reasons behind the controversy of that relation, it is important to first look at the history of adaptations in order to understand the background surrounding that industry. By doing so, one can see the way adaptations have evolved throughout the years and the manners in which the opinions regarding adaptations have changed and varied and even adapted to the current era. We will examine the ways in which adapting literature to film is viewed in our society and the reasons behind both praise and critical reception of adaptations.

Although adaptations from page to stage had been done by Shakespeare in the 1600’s, film adaptations took quite a long time to come about. It wasn’t until Georges Méliés began to see film as a means for personal expression that film was even thought of as literary. Méliés was the first to adapt a work of literature for the screen. In 1902, he adapted Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into the black-and-white, silent, science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Named one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century by Village Voice, A Trip to the Moon was not only widely popular for its special effects and innovative animation, and for being the first known science-fiction film, but also because it did something else, too: it created a domino-effect. Méliés went on to produce many more adaptations over the next years such as Gulliver’s Travels (1902), Robinson Crusoe (1902), and “The Legend of Rip Van Winkle (1905). After him, many French and Italian filmmakers started making their own adaptations of classic books. Americans, of course, followed using novels, poems, plays and short stories.

Adaptations were greeted positively at first, with critics thinking them educational and innovative. Influential film artist D. W. Griffith: “Early movies were met with praise not only for their innovation, but for the promise they offered in educating their audiences.” Film critic Stephen Bush said in the 1911 The Moving Picture World, “An epic that has pleased and charmed many generations is most likely to stand the test of cinematographic reproduction… after all, the word “classic: has some meaning. The merits of a classic subject are nonetheless certain because known and appreciated by comparatively few men. It is the business of the moving picture to make them available to all. Jack London believed that motion pictures could break down the “barriers of poverty and environment” and provide “universal education”. Paramount magazine (1915) stated: “The greatest minds have delivered their messages through their book or play. The motion picture spreads it on the screen where all can read and understand- and enjoy”.

The popularity of adaptations continued to rise over the next years. So much so, that in 1939, nearly every film competing for an Academy Award was an adaptation; adaptations of such classics such as Of Mice and Men, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Between 1927 (when the awards were created) and 1977, three fourths of awards for “Best Picture” went to adaptations. Some of the most popularly adapted authors included Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, and Sienkiewicz. Film adaptations remained popular in the following decades.

Nowadays, film adaptations aren’t strictly literary classics but rather span across a broad range of genres such as mysteries, thrillers, horror, and romance novels. Some of these more modern adaptations include Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Carrie, The Godfather, and Pelican Brief. According to 1992 statistics, 85% of all Oscar-winning “Best Pictures” are adaptations. And it’s no wonder; there are countless film adaptations that virtually defined their ages and provided catch-phrases and concepts significant to the popular culture. Some of these include Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The World According to Garp, and Being There, among many others that addressed important and controversial contemporary issues.

Despite the growing popularity of adaptations, there are a lot of concerns and arguments against adaptations, and they’re not all for the same reasons. One such argument is that adaptations work against the uniqueness of film. Film is its own creative art form and using other works to adapt them to film stifles that creativity and prevents original work from being produced. This growing popularity of adaptations not only dissolves the barrier between literature and film, but it creates a stigma that film is there to serve as another medium for which to display literature, rather than existing as its own separate entity capable of narrative merit.

But the disdain against adaptations doesn’t seem to stem simply from the viewpoint that adaptations shouldn’t be made at all, but rather, that they shouldn’t be made into film. “It does seem to be more or less acceptable to adapt Romeo and Juliet into a respected high art form, like an opera or a ballet, but not to make it into a movie” (Hutcheon, 3). So the concern is not that adapting will reduce the quality of the original work, but that it is actually the form or medium it is being translated to that matter. In this case, a film is thought to lower the original, causing the general disdain for adapting works of literature-particularly classics-into film. Director Alain Resnais once claimed he would never shoot an adaptation because “the writer [had] completely expressed himself in the novel and wanting to make a film of it is a little like re-heating a meal.”

There are certain authors that actually enjoy adaptations of their work such as William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, who, although he liked aspects of the film, deliberately chose to stay uninvolved with the process. Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five, thought that Universal pictures created a “flawless translation” of his book, but said that ultimately, he doesn’t like the how “clankingly real” and “industrial” film is.

This is not always the case, however. Another argument against adaptations is that combining both mediums could only end up harming them both. Virginia Woolf (1926) in “The Movies and Reality” claimed that alliance between cinema and literature was “unnatural” and “disastrous” to both films; but the short end of the stick would ultimately be the original work since adaptations hurt the books that are being adapted. Hannah Arendt claimed that the problem with adaptations was that films used novels as material to appeal to the masses when it ran out of ideas of its own and that the real issue is that the “material…must be prepared and altered in order to become entertaining”. It is these alternations that are detrimental to the original work and the reasoning behind opposition to the practice of adapting classic literature to film.

Consider the case of J. D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” was made into a 1949 film called My Foolish Heart. Except for a framing story, there is little resemblance between the film and the book. The story was transformed from an exposé of the suburban society into a sentimental love story with a happy ending. He was so traumatized by the experience that he decided never to get involved with adaptations again. My Foolish Heart remains, to this date, the only authorized adaptation of Salinger’s writings to film. And now the world will never see a film adaptation of Catcher in the Rye because of it. Then there is the case of Willa Cather, whose novel A Lost Lady was adapted very loosely into a film in 1934. The film did not live up to the novel’s reputation and is now generally regarded as nothing more than mediocre. As a result, Cather stated in her will that she would not release any rights to any of her literary works.

With this overwhelming amount of negative reception for adaptations, one has to wonder how they’re still alive and kicking in this day and age, full of cynical and hyper-critical audiences and critics. Hutcheon theorizes that the explanation behind this is that even though adaptations are thought of as inferior and secondary creations, they are familiar, and people derive pleasure from the familiar. “Part of this pleasure” Hutcheon explains, “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon, 4).

People are innately attracted to the familiar, what they know won’t let them down is comforting. This is the reason directors and producers keep churning out adaptations, because they know they will sell. Adaptations inherently come with a pre-established fan base. If the original work has already gathered a following, then the possibilities of making money are greater than with an original script. There is, of course, a variety on the reasons behind this audience’s attendance. There are some that will attend an adaptation simply because they want to remember their original experience with the book fondly. There are also those who will want to uphold the standards of the original by scrutinizing every detail and comparing it by evaluating its faithfulness to its source. There will be the people that are so against adaptations that they just want to watch an adaptation crash and burn (which ironically, supports the adaptation with their presence regardless of their intent). And then there will always be those who have never even read the original work, but feel like they should have and will therefore use this adaptation as a means to stay “in the loop”. Whatever the case, there is no denying that adaptations sell. This gives some further insight into the phenomenon of the popularity of adaptations despite their reputation as lesser and inferior art.

Despite arguments such as Virginia Woolf’s, adaptations can actually end up being mutually beneficial for the original work and the film adapting it. Books helped by adaptations: reprinted books with a picture from the movie with the slogan “Now a major motion picture”. There are many instances of “forgotten” books or literature that has slipped through the cracks- whether it is old or new- that film adaptations actually bring back to life, so in a way, adaptations give those books an audience and got them noticed. By the same token, a film can benefit from not only the pre-established fan-base of a book, but also from using its name as a marketing strategy. Such is the case with films such as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Emma.

Then there’s, of course, the relation of book to film in terms of how faithful the adaptation is to its original source. Many critics’ views are that faithfulness is not a matter for textual analysis but rather for work on the way adaptations are received; faithfulness matters if it matters to the viewer. Strictly following the original source to the letter only becomes an issue when the intended audience is expecting it or demanding it. This is especially important when dealing with iconic works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserablés or with works that already have a very large and faithful following like Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Lord of the Rings. There are also many critics and reviewers that put themselves in the role of the viewer who has not only read the book, but is expecting the film to be faithful to it. This is a mistake. Critics should not pretend to be the fan-base of the original work and in turn analyze (and criticize) an adaptation on the basis of its faithfulness to the original book. They should instead view the adaptation as an art form in and of itself and judge it accordingly, focusing instead on its literary and cinematographic merit apart from its “source”.

One thing adaptations should never do is pretend that they’re not adaptations. This is to say, that there are instances in which a film is not recognized as an adaptation because this is never acknowledged or perhaps the book is not well-known. Although this may be the case, adaptations should strive to be recognizable to anyone who is familiar with the original work, regardless of whether the adaptation is faithful to the source or not. As Catherine Grant stated: “The most important act that films and their discourses need to perform in order to communicate unequivocally their status as adaptations is to [make their audiences] recall the adapted work, or the cultural memory of it…there is no such thing as a ‘secret’ adaptation” (Grant, 57).

Recall; this is an interesting notion that often goes unmentioned when discussing adaptations. But it’s actually what, ultimately, the audience, as both readers of the original work and film enthusiasts long for when watching a film adaptation. Author Christine Geraghty focuses less on the way books are adapted and the process involved, and more on the ways in which the film adaptations cause us as viewers to recall things by watching them. Her book Now a Major Motion Picture, delves into the mental and emotional aspects that adaptations have on the audience, specifically for those who have read the original work before watching the film adaptation. She claims that adaptations often carry emotional weight, and that “familiar stories and generic references fold into one another, one setting can be seen through another” (Geraghty, 11). However, this is not to say that film adaptations shouldn’t be treated as autonomous works in their own right.

Barbara Tepa Lupack, author of Take Two: Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film has a similar train of though. She claims that the reason adaptations have so much controversy and criticism surrounding them is because “when we assess an adaptation we are not really comparing book to film but rather interpretation to interpretation- the novels that we ourselves have recreated in our imaginations out of which we have constructed or own “movie” and the novel on which a filmmaker has worked on a parallel transformation” (Lupack, 10). So we’re really comparing our own experience of the book to the director’s experience of the book. The reason it is imperial to keep this in mind, is that once we put into perspective our own personal reasons for judging a film adaptation roughly it becomes more clear that there are some unreasonable expectations set for adaptations that are almost impossible to fulfill without leaving at least one malcontent critic. One is far better off enjoying the memories that adaptations stir-up from the original source, or letting oneself be transported to a new unknown word (if one is not familiar with the original work). And if an adaptation is regarded as an art form of its own, then this process becomes simpler and more enjoyable for all.

Whether one is for or against adaptations, disregarding them as lesser art is a mistake because we will ultimately be closing off on the opportunity to experience both cinema and literature in a different light, one that only adaptations can provide. “An adaptation is always, whatever else it may be, an interpretation. And if this is one way of understanding the nature of adaptation and the relationship of any given film to the book that inspired it, it’s also a way of understanding what may bring such a film into being in the first place: the chance to offer an analysis and appreciation of one work of art through another.” (Lupack, 61-62). It is important to give credit to both the adaptation as well as the original work; although it is true that an adaptation wouldn’t exist without the original work, an adaptation should be respected as its own work as well.

Cited Works

Hutcheon, Linda. A theory of adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Geraghty, Christine. Now a major motion picture: film adaptations of literature and drama. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. Print.

Lupack, Barbara Tepa, ed.. Take two: adapting the contemporary American novel to film. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. Print.

Grant, Catherine. “Recognizing Billy Budd in Beau Travail: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Auterist ‘Free’ Adaptation” Screen 34, no.1 (Spring 2002):57.

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