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Friday, December 7, 2007

On Adaptation

posted by on December 7 at 10:42 AM

There is this idea out there, commonly espoused by precocious high school students and other irritating people, that a movie can ruin a book. Ruin it! Suck the joy out of it! Forevermore block the successful transmission of text from the page to your mind.


I’m newly annoyed because I just read Ella Taylor in the LA Weekly using her review of Atonement as an opportunity to bash Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice all over again. (Here’s her review of Pride & Prejudice, in which she disses Jane Austen, of all people. By the way, Ms. Taylor, Austen’s greatest achievement was in narrative technique—flexible focalization freeing characters’ thoughts from the inconvenience of direct report—not genre. Anyway. Here’s my review for comparison.) Look. Pride and Prejudice is invincible. Its place in the literary canon is assured; its place in cultural history is undisputed. It’s been adapted into plenty of fine and terrible films, and for the theater many times over. A new film version cannot touch it. What a new film version can do is interpret—offer a new reading that sends you scurrying to see if its assertions are justified. It’s fun to see films struggle against their source material, not horrifying.

No matter how bad Joe Wright’s Atonement might have been (and it isn’t bad at all—here’s my review), Ian McEwan’s novel can take it. The book may not be as famous—or as good—as Pride and Prejudice, but its words still stick to the printed page. Who cares if a bad film is made of a good book?

Is Gabriel García Márquez forever tarnished by the new Love in the Time of Cholera?

I just don’t believe it. People who complain about movies ruining books have only their own weak imaginations to blame.

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Based on the title I thought this was a post on Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Still a good post, though. I think the only adaptation that made me really physically sick was that horrendous Time Machine film in 2002. I wasn't even in high school and I knew it was terrible.

Posted by Marcel Duchump | December 7, 2007 10:49 AM

Kiera Knightley looks like a dude.

Posted by PA Native | December 7, 2007 11:01 AM

Kiera Knightley has no tits. Haven't you seen The Hole? She is a dude.

Pride and Prejudice is 360 degrees of boring. How one manages to sit through that from beginning to end...well, I have respect for them.

Posted by Mr. Poe | December 7, 2007 11:06 AM

Don't know whether you've seen it, but in an interview included with the Passage To India DVD, David Lean makes pretty much exactly the same argument.

And, oh yeah, Passage To India just happens to be totally one of the five best flicks of the last quarter-century. (The Kingdom I & II, My Life As A Dog, and Yi Yi would be three of the others...not sure about the fourth. Brazil, probably?)

Posted by shitbrain | December 7, 2007 11:11 AM

Hear, hear. Thanks, Annie!

Posted by jmoney | December 7, 2007 11:12 AM

And what's more: Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show is lots better than the Larry McMurtry novella it's based on.

Posted by Josh Feit | December 7, 2007 11:41 AM

@4: Haven't seen it, thanks for the pointer. I think your list is nuts (mine would be more along the lines of Close Up, Beau Travail, Fight Club, and Goodbye Dragon Inn), but I just wanted to make sure you knew the uncut Brazil is playing next Friday at Saturday at the Egyptian's midnights.

Posted by annie | December 7, 2007 11:42 AM

in "bend it like beckham" the indian chick was far hotter, on the shaggability scale, than kk. which leads me to the funnest recent adaptation of PaP: whatshername's Bride and Prejudice.

Posted by casual moviegoer | December 7, 2007 11:44 AM

@8: Which, despite its many faults, stars the hands-down hottest woman in the world: Aishwarya Rai.

I feel sorry for all you Keira haters. She's not the prettiest person ever, but she has an awesome face for the movies, and she's perfect for Cecelia in Atonement.

Posted by annie | December 7, 2007 12:00 PM

Film adaptations of novels seldom follow either the narrative structure, plot or even character breakdowns of the original. The fact that critics are touting "No Country For Old Men" as, "The most faithful film adaptation of a novel in decades" should indicate how infrequently such fidelity to the source material actually occurs.

For example: I'm about half-way through "The Children Of Men", and although I enjoyed the film version, clearly it's NOTHING like the book, and I probably would have been greatly disappointed had I read it before seeing the adaptation.

Granted, they're completely different mediums, but it seems the degree to which film adaptations diverge from, or in many cases, completely disregard, key elements from the literary version should be of some concern, since presumably many people go explicitly to see the story with which they're already familiar. However, the studios seem less interested in fidelity to the source, than they are (apparently) in capitalizing on the source to get readers' butts into the seats; how they respond after they've purchased the ticket would appear to be practically irrelevent.

Posted by COMTE | December 7, 2007 12:04 PM

I think you'll find most people would recount the story of Moses based on what they remember from the Cecil B. Demille movie, not Exodus. If one film has the power can overwhelm the cultural impact of the Bible, then Pride and Prejudice is hardly invincible.

Posted by elenchos | December 7, 2007 12:05 PM

@9 I dont hate her but do think she could eat a few more bacon cheeseburgers.

Posted by mickey in AR | December 7, 2007 12:08 PM

How, precisely, does one strengthen their imagination?

Posted by Fyodor Zulinski | December 7, 2007 12:29 PM

T.S. Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent offers this on the notion of the bi-directional nature of artistic reference:

"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities."

Posted by English Major General | December 7, 2007 12:36 PM

Y'all are nuts. Kiera is gorgeous, and she has FANTASTIC tits.

Posted by Fnarf | December 7, 2007 12:43 PM
I just wanted to make sure you knew the uncut Brazil is playing next Friday at Saturday at the Egyptian's midnights.

Thanks! Saw that at the Neptune many years ago. How's the print, do you know?

Trivia: a shot of the marquee from the Neptune's weeklong run appears in the opening credits to Singles.

Apropos: in his Criterion commentary, Gilliam says that while it's his interpretation of 1984, he's never read the novel.

True story: I detest Fight Club like none other.

Posted by shitbrain | December 7, 2007 1:03 PM

@13: By reading, probably.

@14: Fair enough, but despite his rhetorical dedication to the individual artist, Eliot is really talking about the influence of new literary movements on the established canon. He's paying himself a not-so-subtle compliment, claiming that modernism has diminished the reputation of romanticism etc. In any case, clearly new versions of a work of literature (mostly good or at least compelling ones) can inflect the original; I just don't think a robust original can be completely destroyed by its descendants.

@11: That example is no good. Huge populations are obsessed with the actual text of the Bible, and this will persist long after people quit watching DeMille (a process that has already started).

Posted by annie | December 7, 2007 1:05 PM

@8 Agreed. Parminder Nagra is her name I believe.

Posted by PA Native | December 7, 2007 1:06 PM

Two different media. Two different experiences.

One is borne of words that swirl around the reader's brain conjuring up all sorts of imaginary images. The other is story-telling given to you visually through the eyes of a director and cinematographer where characters are personified by actors.

It's almost like eating butter pecan ice cream and bitching about it not tasting like a hot fudge sundae.

Posted by Bauhaus | December 7, 2007 1:13 PM

Keira IS too skinny, but those period clothes do hang nicely on her...she's a very talented clothes hangar.

Posted by michael strangeways | December 7, 2007 1:52 PM

#17: I read plenty, but I try and keep movie and book experiences separate; when someone says "Frodo", my brain skips to Elijah Wood. Got any other suggestions?

Posted by Fyodor Zulinski | December 7, 2007 2:11 PM

There was a short time a while back where Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were going to star in the movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife. Such a movie would not only have ruined the book, it would have forced me to kill everyone. EVERYONE. Thank God that fell through.

Posted by Greg | December 7, 2007 2:36 PM

I have seen Atonement three times. And, I have heard with my own ears from Joe Wright that he meticulously and scrupulously had the screenplay rewritten to reflect the book almost to a tee. I have also heard him say that Ian McEwan has given his wholehearted approval. I bet NONE of those adaptation snobs have any of THAT knowledge. You know the type, ready and able to criticize any adaptation at will. It's called pseudo-intellect.

That being said, there will always be those who will never believe a movie can or will ever do justice to a book. Don't believe their self serving prose, no matter how right they think they are because in the end it's fiction, get it???

Bravo to those who will always lend their artistic vision to a story and stick to their guns for bringing it to the fore. Pride was a fantastic and masterful piece of film making by Joe Wright and it was HIS vision that brought many to the world of Jane Austen...I bet not one critic or naysayer of that film has had the artistic vision to do something like that.

Joe Wright for your consideration!!!;-)

Posted by GiveMeABreak | December 7, 2007 4:30 PM

Well, I never expect any adapations of books to stay faithful to the books. I mean, there has NEVER been any movie adaptation of the Count of Monte Criso that kept the ending as is.

So pretty much you have to treat them as two separate stories.

Posted by Shini | December 9, 2007 12:41 AM

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