Written for the screen

The art of adaptation isn’t easily definable. Carsten Knox takes a look at films that began as books and how they stack up against the source.

With the ubiquity of movies in popular culture, any novel that reaches a certain visibility gets in line to be adapted for film. It’s close to impossible to find a group of published authors whose numbers don’t include someone with some experience in screenwriting or whose books have not been adapted. Have a look at the lineup for this week’s Halifax International Writers’ Festival and you’ll note Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with director Deepa Mehta in adapting her own book, Cracking India, to the screen. It became Mehta’s 1998 drama Earth. Sidhwa will talk about the experience at a workshop on Saturday called “Script to Screen/Screen to Script.”

Michael Freeman is a Toronto-based poet and playwright and a former editor of the national culture magazine Venue, who did his master’s thesis on Samuel Beckett at Trinity College in Dublin. He’s a student of film as well, in the midst of writing a feature screenplay with TV director Alex Chapple, and tackles the idea of adaptation as translation, the attempt to find artistic equivalence in a new medium.

“One of the things I was looking at recently was Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca,” he says, citing it as an example of a film that works for staying close to the original text, which, ironically, was not what the director wanted. “ Selznick and Hitchcock had two opposing attitudes in terms of adapting this book. Selznick’s feeling was you should try to be as faithful to the book as possible and Hitchcock was of the attitude that you take the kernel of the idea and whatever comes, comes.” Selznick won that battle, and Hitchcock was never very happy with the final film, despite the fact it won the Best Picture Oscar the year it was released, 1940.

A second school of adaptation, where the screenplay takes into account the unique qualities of film, the true adaptor’s philosophy, is especially evident in Michael Winterbottom’s upcoming Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, from the Laurence Sterne book. “It’s an adaptation of an unadaptable novel: it’s a book about writing books, so they thought the film should be a film about making films,” says Freeman, who has seen the picture in Toronto. “Stern would probably be appalled by it, but you have to ask yourself if it’s a more faithful way to do it rather than trying to keep all these literary asides in where the audience would just be snoozing. It’s the most sophisticated approach, though it may rankle authors who’ve had their work adapted by other people.”

A third group of adaptations, where fidelity to the original text is utterly ignored, can be seen in films such as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s twisted Adaptation—originally to have been a straight take on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief—until he added himself and a fictional twin brother to the script. Freeman tells of Robert McKee, the author of Story and a screenwriting instructor, who asks his classes the question, “What do we owe the author of an original work we’re adapting?” He has trained his students to answer in unison: “NOTHING!”

Finally, there is a long-standing presumption that great works of art don’t adapt well to the screen and it’s the mediocre stuff that makes the best movies. Ernest Hemingway’s lesser novel To Have and Have Not made for a cracking Humphrey Bogart thriller, and Lauren Bacall’s first film. “There are examples where the film is better than the original book, but there are certainly going to be some novelists who would probably resent the implication that if their work makes a good movie then the original piece must have been crap,” says Freeman.

He admits most of the stuff he enjoys reading wouldn’t lend itself to film, like Beckett’s Malloy, about a man going though an internal monologue while wandering the countryside on a bicycle.

“You do see the impact of film on 20th century literature. If you compare it to 19th-century literature, you feel the stronger connection to the editing of cinema, the notion of you show, don’t tell. The windiness in the narration of 19th century novels, it’s arguable that people lost their taste for it from their exposure to cinema.” But, he adds, “I do think that if literature is going to survive, it’s going to have to do something different than film.”

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