The Art of Adaptation: From Book to Film
The definition of what is a ‘good’ adaptation or a ‘bad’ adaptation can be considered subjective. People read books for several reasons and one of them being to entertain and enjoy the creation of another imaginary world, but, at the same time disagree with each other over a single visual adaptation. This must be understood when defining adaptations.
The English writer, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) once wrote an essay titled The Cinema 1, in which she argued that the cinema has limitations of accurately displaying descriptive images that parallel the original words on the page of a book. The strength of words on paper is highly emphasised as making the most impact upon a reader, without the need or addition of a cinematic portrayal;
‘Even the simplest image such as “My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June” presents us with moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lilt of a rhythm which suggests the emotional tenderness of love. All this which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.’
This imagery of the ‘red rose’ is Woolf’s version of beauty. This rich imagery of a warm rose differs from person to person, yet, the only person in control of this portrayal in the cinematic world is the director of the film. Audiences are shown a portrayal of the director’s ideal depiction of this warm rose, leading to the directors version of ‘beauty’, hence, possibly slipping under what fans call a ‘bad adaptation’. Does this then suggest that there is a limitation to what cinema and film can do in relation to producing an ideal, parallel adaptation to what the fans imagine?
Aesthetics of film production include animation, speed, technology and other mechanical elements, which are used to enhance the words on a page. Therefore, credibility must be given to the director’s choice of generating scenes, whilst agreeing on cast members, style of music and other aesthetics used to produce an adaptation. Just as much as books are viewed in their own entirety, film adaptations are also a piece of art on their own. For instance, The Twilight saga had been a hit between 2008 and 2012. The teen drama focuses around a young, teenage romance, which of course, may be favoured by some and disliked by others. This can be seen in the general reviews the film received from the public. However, the key importance is noticing the parallelism between the books narrative and the way this has been illustrated in the film. The narrative in the book had been elevated by the editorial process; the physical portrayal of a vampires ability to move at lightning speed, the type, rhythm and melody in the music that is chosen to illuminate certain scenes, the use of animation and green screen to create wolves and magnificent landscapes, and the powerful use of creating interaction between wolves/vampires and humans.
Similarly, an even greater controversy rose from some of the major scenes in the Harry Potter series as the film adaptations have disappointed many fans. For example, the death of Voldemort had been beautifully crafted by J.K. Rowling, yet the directors choice to Voldemort’s death had been illustrated through visual effects of Voldemort disintegrating into ashes. Again, a spectrum of opinions rose about the directors choices made with this scene, with some fans disappointed with the apparent inaccurate display of the original storyline. On the other hand, many fans loved the Harry Potter films due to the artistic and cinematic qualities that were put into the making of these films.
Notably, various international adaptations of classical plays and novels have aroused an interesting dichotomy of opinions. For example, Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted multiple times, with differing directors and cast members over the years. The successful Indian director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, introduced a twist to the performance by enhancing the storyline through the addition of cultural influences, in his adaptation titled Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. However, his movie sparked controversy even before its release, indicating the subjective attitude of defining a ‘good’ adaptation. One review on IMDb 2, states:
“Brilliant performances by all, stunning and spectacular sets, fabulous music and a whole lot of colour.”
While on the other hand, the same review states:
“Poor story or should I say, no story whatsoever! The movie just keeps rolling and you end up thinking how is this scene different from the previous one? The story is so bad (and believe me I am not exaggerating even one bit) that nothing else works for the movie. All the viewers with me in the theatre were yawning and loudly calling out for the movie to finish. God knows why the critics are going gaga for this one. I had always believed in Rediff’s review and I just wish I had done the same this time as well. Rediff gave it just 1 star. Do yourself some favour, don’t watch it at all.”
The diverging opinions sprouting from this movie by many viewers indicates how two or more people can be jointly entertained by the same book and enjoy the creation of the author’s imaginary world, but disagree with one another over a single visual adaptation. Perhaps, the decisions made by the screen writers and directors of this film needed to embrace a more culture orientated atmosphere to illuminate the differences of perspectives culturally. The classical Romeo and Juliet had been adapted to fit the modern, Indian world which is full of vibrant colour, singing and dancing, yet, is still haunted by the original family feud. The vibrancy of the Indian adaptation had also been brought about by the directors decision in allowing Mrs Capulet to be the lead role rather than Mr Capulet in the Capulet household. This had changed the dynamics of the household making females the superior beings by embracing female superiority in the modern era. This had ultimately made a huge impact upon modern audiences who are familiar with the original play, but are now having to readjust to the addition of changing social and cultural influences in modern adaptations. In The Cinema, Woolf agrees that the film makers creation is indeed an art of its own as she argues that;
“the film maker must come by his convention, as painters and writers and musicians have done before him. He must make us believe that what he shows us, fantastic though it seems, has some relation with the great veins and arteries of our existence. He must connect it with what we are pleased to call our reality. He must make us believe that our loves and hates lie that way too. How slow a process this is bound to be, and attended with what pain and ridicule and indifference can easily be foretold when we remember how painful novelty is, how the smallest twig even upon the oldest tree offends our sense of propriety. And here it is not a question of a new twig, but of a new trunk and new roots from the earth upwards.” 3
Despite the subjective attitudes of audiences and their opinions about a film adaptation, the art of film adaptations lie in the collaborative cooperation of great screen writers, directors and film makers who condense, adjust, add and alter the original play or novel in order to create a “new trunk’. Therefore,
“It seems sometimes as if movements and colours, shapes and sounds had come together and waited for someone to seize them and convert their energy into art.” 4
Consequently, the subjective nature of deciding what makes a ‘good’ adaptation vs. what makes a ‘bad’ adaptation lies upon individuals and what they see as good cinematography or a good storyline. Ultimately, the decision lies in the directors’ hands, yet the audience subjectively decide their preferences for either the original play/book, or the films. It is impossible to impress every single fan as some fans appreciate the written qualities of the books while others enjoy the cinematic qualities in films. Whether the directors choose to parallel the books narrative in the film or diverge from it, the audience have little control over this decision. Yet, this interestingly creates discussion and debate amongst fans, critics and academics who become actively collaborative in producing theories, reviews, articles and other responsive materials in relation to such decisions. Thus, the directors of films are given credibility for their ability to insight discussion due to their creative and highly artistic qualities shown in their work. Much respect can be given to the production of films due to the substantial nature of using multitudinous cinematic techniques for the production of these sizeable films. Maybe, the purpose of producing and causing such differing views and conversations indicates who a ‘good’ director is?
- Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009), pp.172-6, p.175. ↩
- ‘User Reviews’ for ‘Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela’ in IMDb, [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2215477/]. ↩
- Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, p.175-6. ↩
- Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Cinema’ Selected Essays, p.176. ↩
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