Adapting to the Classics

In which the writer argues films, however refined a medium, cannot (and never will) hold a candle to the novels upon which they are based.

By Maria Amir

“Film is visual brevity…if the novel is a poem, the film is a telegram.” Michael Hastings

FictionbyLWinkelWe seem to be moving backwards, don’t we? And no, I’m not referring to a cultural dissonance often reiterated with regards to Pakistan and religious extremism but of our newfound global romance with antiquity. Over the years, it appears that the faster the world moves forward, the more people long for the romance and nostalgia of the past. And who’s to truly say, there was any ‘real’ romance to be had in the time of Austen and Dickens, of Tolstoy and Fitzgerald, except for the numinous that has persisted like a stubborn welt in our collective consciousness. The tireless devotion to the classics appears to have been rekindled with a new spate of screen adaptations of beloved works like Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the last few years alone. There are many byways of approaching this trend and naturally there are pros and cons aplenty involved with adapting a beloved classic novel on screen. All these points aside for the moment, what is interesting about a resurgence of classical literature being put on silicon is the timing. Could it possibly be that people are tiring of epic battle sequences featuring blue alien races that follow a shoddy plotline but deliver enough prudently placed pithy one-liners to satisfy a mass audience, or are these attempts on the part of the film industry to breed a more discerning audience? Then again it could be pure coincidence, considering that it is nearly impossible to decide whether it is good taste that prompts a good story or the other way around.

Truth be told, I tend to enjoy a great period drama better than most but the limitations of film versus literature are not lost on me. Especially when sets and costumes seem to take overwhelming precedence over scripts and casting. The problems with treating classic novels like Pride and Prejudice for the screen, remain with characterizations. If one happens not to like the casting lead for Mr. Darcy, for example, the entire story falls apart given that a reader’s love of the novel tends to center around a single character. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than pitting the BBC’s 1995 production of Austen’s classic against the 2005 travesty. Colin Firth, as Darcy had nearly a decade to infiltrate the conscience and many a wet dream of Austen fans before Matthew Macfadyen disastrously tried to fill the same shoes and fall terribly short. William Costanzo, in his book Reading the Movies observes the major difference between books and film as being one where “visual images stimulate our perceptions directly, while written words can do this indirectly”. Reading the word ‘boot’ requires a kind of mental “translation” that viewing a picture of a boot does not. Film is a much more sensory experience than reading and besides verbal language, there is also color, movement and sound. Still, film remains limited in terms of scope and imagination. It can only convey one perception of each character as translated by the actor; literature allows the reader to play actor, director, producer, set designer and most importantly, the casting director.

Another major problem with film adaptations that attempt to recapture a classic novel is the dilemma of ‘loyalty’. The expression ‘faithful to the book’ is often bandied about and I personally believe this to be a useless tradition. Oddly enough, I feel that most films that desperately attempt to cling to the slightest detail in a novel fall shortest off the mark because the task is both herculean and generally fruitless, with the possible exceptions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and most BBC adaptations of British classics. If anything, a film can only ever provide someone else’s interpretation of a great novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but this also means that it then has the freedom ‘not’ to try and live up to a reader’s expectations. George Bluestone, one of the first to study film adaptations of literature believes the filmmaker serves as an independent artist, “not a translator for an established author, but a new author in his own right.” This is perhaps the best approach when adapting a classic on screen because it avoids the obvious pitfalls of catering to the expectations of a long-established readership. That said, no filmmaker can ever truly deny the debt they owe the novel as it is the title that generally draws an audience to the theatre not the director or actors’ gifts, extraordinary as those may be.

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.