Adapting to the Classics

Nearly a third of all films ever made have been adapted from novels and these tend to be the most common contenders that go on to win Oscars. Still, one would be hard pressed to consider this long-standing trend a testament to the evolution of literature. If anything, it is the dilution of literature. Like thoughts now mass migrating in cyberspace as tweets and memes on Tumblr, film – as vibrant an art form as it is – does not truly replace literature and yet in the consciousness of a generation it already seems to have done so. Fewer people around the world bother with books at all any more, especially the classics, considering the language is complicated and the plots often take time to unfold. In a world where ‘article-reading’ on the web is rapidly replacing book reading on a couch, films are fast becoming the only source to recapture any essence of antiquity and there’s something sad about this state of affairs, as though we are finally comfortable being ‘fed’ not only our news and information, but also our art. High school students no longer read the novel prescribed in class before handing in a book report, they usually just ‘catch the movie’ and embellish well enough to fake an entire reading experience.

It is the “reading experience” that may well be this generation’s greatest loss in the wake of a digital invasion. It is the loss of experiencing and interpreting sentences such as “I knew damn well I would never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you are intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually, it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and someday I’ll try and get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego, tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). It’s watching Ethan Hawke play Pip in the Alfonso Cuarón 1998 remake of Great Expectations without saying “That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day” or “I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.” It is watching both film versions of Jane Eyre, the old and the new, without hearing her say “So much has religion done for me; turning the original materials to the best account; pruning and training nature. But she could not eradicate nature: nor will it be eradicated ’till this mortal shall put on immortality. Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” And it is anticipating a new Gatsby without Di Caprio uttering the phrase “Civilization’s going to pieces. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things… The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things” or “I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool… You see, I think everything’s terrible anyhow… And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.”

It is the “reading experience” that may well be this generation’s greatest loss in the wake of a digital invasion. It is the loss of experiencing and interpreting sentences such as “I knew damn well I would never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you are intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. 

It sounds overtly puritanical, I know. The idea that just because a book happens to be called and considered ‘a classic’ somehow means it ought to be treated with additional reverence in an age that considers little in art to be sacrosanct but I cannot help but cling to the notion nevertheless. The flux of films based on classic novels isn’t new – nearly each year sees us with a few film versions based on contemporary or classic novels, comic books, or fantasy series but 2012 (and 2013 for that matter) seems to be ending on epics and the remakes of epics. There is obviously the advantage that a cinematic adaptation of Anna Karenina might prompt new readers to Tolstoy’s original work or that Di Caprio playing Gatsby might cause some of his teenage fans to find out who Fitzgerald actually was. Still, there is a sad demise for masters like Tolstoy, Tolkein, Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Austen…who now have to draw audiences to their work through a genre foreign to them and one that could never truly embody the pure power of their words. Here one might even come to question why adaptation has so often supported the institution of literature rather than fostering the practice of literacy.

Shakespeare, the greatest and most adapted writer on screen, might well be flattered by all the notice he still gets centuries later. Then again, he might just be horrified at how that notice is conceived and wish to remain forever Anonymous.

Maria Amir is Features Editor for the magazine.

Artist’s bio: Lena Winkel is a nineteen year old illustrator and artist from Germany with a particular interest in all kinds of animals and creatures (particularly dragons), character design, and immature word games. Though Ms. Winkel is familiar with digital art, she prefers working with traditional materials with her favorites being ink fineliner, watercolors, acrylic, gouache and oil. With a notable eye for detail, her complete portfolio is viewable here.