Different Interpretations of the Text

by Stella

Adaptation is a subject I find fascinating. Whether it’s a book turned into a movie, a play turned into a movie, the nth production of Shakespeare, and so on, I’m always curious to learn about the process – how the words on the page were transformed into a live spectacle. Why do some faithful adaptations turn out boring? Why are some radical adaptations refreshing while others are travesties? Is it because we agree with the interpretation? Or perhaps we don’t agree with the general idea, but the execution wins us over? Or maybe we liked the initial idea, but found the execution disappointing?

From what I’ve seen, Shakespeare can be placed absolutely anywhere and I’m not at all sure why that is. Maybe because the language is so dated, it’s easier to accept an anachronistic setting. It even livens things up by creating interesting situational parallels. I’m waiting for a science-fiction version of Hamlet. The “to be or not to be” stuff would be great with a backdrop of the infinite universe – as overwhelming and unimaginable as life after death seems to the Prince of Denmark, Grand Procrastinator Extraordinaire. (Actually, Paul Atreides in Dune has always struck me as Hamlet-esque in character, but I’ve never read beyond the first book in the series, so that might be a false impression.)

Since I’ve already revealed myself in all my geeky glory, there’s no harm in mentioning that I’m quite a lunatic pedantic when it comes to Jane Austen. I regard with suspicion any changes to the source material, usually frowning upon them – although I’ve been told my frowning is a lot closer to foaming at the mouth and mad ranting. In my defense, I’m not totally intolerant: I thought Clueless was a successful update of Emma. It’s surprisingly faithful to the original, despite the transfer from Regency England to mid-90s Beverly Hills.

What’s more, I can accept changes that are for the sake of streamlining. You can’t expect a book that’s 300 pages long, numbering approximately 120,000 words to be adapted into a 100 page screenplay and then produced as a movie running about 2 hours, without assuming that a few things will be lost along the way. Otherwise you’d have to break a few laws of physics regarding time and space. But even a play, which is expressly written for the sake of performance rather than independent reading, can undergo significant changes from production to production.

Is it because we’re not satisfied with what we’ve seen? Partly, yes – you don’t need to reinterpret something you agree with. But this is more relevant to remakes and revivals, where we try to “correct” previous interpretations. Why are we so compelled to transform text into live action in the first place? Every now and then, an article pops up about “Books that Can’t Ever Be Made into Films” or “Why These Adaptations Never Should Have Been Made.” (Incidentally, Mike started a thread on Blog Catalog asking people to name their favorite adaptations and why.) If failure was supposedly a foregone conclusion, why did the productions proceed nonetheless?

Again, I can at least venture a partial guess: that the source material wasn’t properly understood to begin with. Although I shouldn’t say “properly” – it is rather elitist of me – so let’s just say the interpretation was “ill-conceived.” But I think the main reason is that a good idea is hard to resist, especially if it’s already proved itself as a bestseller. Why adapt a bestseller in the first place? Chances are most of the people have already read it and know all about it. Why do we even bother to see the movie if we’ve read the book? In a case like Lord of the Rings, obviously the draw is to see Middle-Earth and all its wonders recreated. “Oh my god, Dad!” breathed a young boy sitting behind me when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, “Here comes the balrog!”

Shortly after this, my mother, sweetheart that she is, got all choked up about Gandalf falling into the abyss. “It’s okay, Mom.” I said, “He didn’t die.” “Are you sure? I thought you hadn’t read the book.” I hadn’t, but trilogy logic dictated that Gandalf would be back in the other two books. I did read Fellowship a couple months later to see how hard the adaptation must have been for Peter Jackson & co. If I had read it beforehand, I would have considered the adaptation impossible. Too big, too long, and too complicated – A Book that Can’t Ever Be Made into a Film – but I would have been very wrong.

It’s nice to know there’s no precise explanation or formula to account for the state of things. I still don’t know why I can accept Jane Austen in Beverly Hills or Shakespeare in space, but I can’t accept Vanity Fair with a sympathetic Becky Sharp or an Ivanhoe with Rebecca and Sir Wilfred falling for each other. Meanwhile, I’m laying down guidelines for my own adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, and I’m wishing I could at least bend those pesky laws of physics, if not break them. Removing every fourth polysyllabic word is coming in handy and I almost, almost decided to get rid of Mary Bennet entirely. But I can’t do it. I have to squeeze her in somehow.


Unknown said...

Last month I saw "Hamlet" via Shakespeare in the Park. The media gave it "mixed reviews." I, however, found it fabulous. It moved fast but every word and fluctuation in feeling came through. It was funny, broad, and glorious. Laertes was the only weak link. The critics here griped about the set (ugly), the Ghost (not spooky at all) and changing the ending so that Fortinbras' men kill Claudius, thus ruining the Danish sovereignty.
That didn't bother me. I understood Ophelia as if she were a good friend and saw Hamlet as a genius. The language was everything and nothing about it sounded fusty.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the reason Shakespeare can be adapted so easily is because it was written for the stage.
Novelists, in contrast, have to create a world, and the better job they do of it, the harder it is to change.

Anonymous said...

This puts me in mind of a favourite film: Adaptation (screenplay by Charlie Kaufman). It explores so many relevant issues, not least of all the difficulties of adapting a novel for film and writer's block. Must get hold of a copy to watch it again---thanks, Stella

Stella said...

Kathleen - That is an odd change to have Fortinbras' men kill Claudius. It kind of skews the whole revenge motif. I wonder why they did it.

Rufus - I think it does help that it's written to be performed, but I've seen quite a few movie adaptations that fell flat. But I do agree with you that a novel is much more difficult to translate to the screen, especially I think because you lose a lot of the narration, which is fundamental to the novel's construction.

Paul - I didn't enjoy Adaptation much, though I thought it was very clever. But I think it's mostly because someone hyped it to me as the funniest movie they had seen all year, and I didn't think it was supposed to be funny at all. It was pretty gut-wrenching to watch Charlie self-destruct, and since I wasn't prepared for it, the movie gave me a bad feeling all around. I should probably try to watch it again.

Mike French said...

Paul: Adaptation was an interesting but for me flawed film. Kind of liked it.

Anyway Stella love this post: an interesting topic - I think adaptation works when you embrace the medium you are using. Each medium (Film, book, music, comic etc.) brings something unique with it and so there is always merit in an adaptation between and across any of those.

SO I don't think there has to be something missing from a book that means it adapts well, rather another medium can show us the same story or idea or feeling from another vantage point.

Stella said...

Exactly, Mike. And I think understanding that text is different from film, TV, etc. is the first step in creating a good adaptation. (There are about 99 steps after that, of course, but that first one still counts...)