Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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Theory of Adaptation


It has been estimated that over half of all commercial films have been based on original literary texts. Such a fruitful relationship has earned attention of the theorists who have traced the literature-film relation and formulated several theories that are based on literary studies. The following two subchapters deal with history of adaptation and with some of the theories. The historic part is base on Timothy’s Corrigan Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader.1
    1. A History of Interaction between Literature and Film


Film and literature have been closely connected since the beginnings of the cinema. Dudley Andrew claims that “the making of film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself” (29).

Although the Lumiére brothers2 introduced film to document realism of everyday life, George Méliès3 employed film to create illusions in theatrically staged dramas. Early cinema rather drew from theatre perspective; nevertheless, it searched for its subject in literature as well. Some of the first filmed literary classics were staged versions of Robinson Crusoe (1902), Gulliver’s Travels (1902) or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903). For the early cinema, literature was a source of ready-made material that was interesting for the audience who wanted to see a text being transferred into live pictures. By adapting classics, the cinema enticed high-class audience and secured a respectable position among other forms of art. The effort to widen audience resulted in France in film d’art movement that presented a kind of production that combined adaptations of famous classics with celebrated performers.4 A critical response to the productions was inconsistent, as some celebrated them and others thought that renowned writers and artists had compromised themselves. The movement spread to the United Sates5 and gave origin to the star system in the film industry.

The shift from the pre-classical cinema to the classical cinema in the first two decades of the twentieth century was marked by the work of David Wark Griffith. His career was influenced by demand for the story films that were screened in the popular nickelodeons.6 He began the tradition of longer narrative fiction drawing on works of Charles Dickens, Thomas E. Dixon and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The psychological characters of the nineteenth-century novels fortified the star system of movie industry and helped to develop deeper film characters and to motivate the action of a film.

The 1920s and 1930s represents a change in the critical interaction between literature and film. The literary world started to accept film as a narrative art with its own specific media of expression, and began to derive from its themes. This period also marked aesthetic experiments of avant-garde cinema and other modernistic movements that freely moved between various artistic and literary fields.7 As Corrigan writes in his study, “the direction of the exchange between film and literature often shifts during this period from the adaptation of literature by the movies to the adaptation of film and its techniques by literature” (29).

The 1930s cinema in France combined poetry and realism, which developed from Emil Zola’s naturalism, and avant-garde and lyrical films of poet filmmakers. Poetic realism represented a combination of two central literary and filmic terms of that period.8 At that time, Hollywood professed formal experimentation and social realism in films like Lewis Milesone’s adaptation of Remarques’ All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Josef von Sterberg’s version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1931). It was also the golden era of traditional literary adaptations such as James’s Whale’s Frankenstein (1935), William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). A story editor Samuel Marx writes that “the system was to make a lot movies—not one at a time” (21). A story department at MGM would cover 20,000 stories a year. In the end of the 1930s, Hollywood presented three of the most classical adaptations: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). As Corrigan notes, “these films mark, for many, the culmination of the classical film as the most modern of classical literature” (38).

The next two decades of film deviated from adaptations of literary canon and turned towards popular literature and original scripts of writers as William Faulkner and Graham Greene. A production was affected by German Expressionism imported by immigrant artists and resulted in the film noirs movement. It was represented by dark and detective movies based on the detective fiction of that time – The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1940), The Big Sleep (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958); and reflected the pessimistic post-war ambience. Another important change was a growth of independent film productions.

At that time, Italian neorealism stripped itself of the literary narrative and was left with realistic dramas depicting post-war life in Italy.9 Corrigan notices difference in a concept of realism of the 1950s and preceding years:

Whereas realism since the nineteenth century functions as a way of measuring the distance between film and literature, realism of the 1950s now appears—in the United States and other societies around the world—as a way of binding new filmmakers and new writers in a common effort to rethink and recreate, in terms of the present historical reality, the authorities and authors of both the literary and the cinematic past. (Corrigan 47)

In France of the 1950s, a new cinematic movement opposing the ‘quality’ cinema of the preceding years appeared. In 1954 Truffaut10 “denounced the servility of the classical cinema – the cinema of ‘quality’ – toward the novel and the inadequacy of a system intent on reproducing, on approaching the original” (Géloin 139). The theory of the Auteur cinema stressed the emphasis of the personal vision of a director and rejected literary quality films. The filmmakers used the camera as a pen; the screenwriters wrote directly for the cinema (Géloin 140). Auterism officially dissociated itself from the film adaptation nevertheless some of their films originated in literature. “The sources they chose, however, were often lowbrow, and when they adapted ‘serious’ works or wrote essays about film adaptations, they made sure that the auteur would seem more important that the author” (Naremore 6). Auterism was avowed by leading filmmakers of that time – Françoise Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. All these were film theorists as well as directors. They published their critical views in magazines, the most famous of which was Cahiers du Cinema, and applied their theories in their films. The French New Wave – Auterism being a part of it –­­ came in the period of decline of the Hollywood studious and their well-made literary adaptations of Great Books.

The editor of Cahiers du Cinema was André Bazin who did not always share the same opinion with the Auterists. He often wrote about well-made literary adaptations, and praised the genius of the system in classic Hollywood. However, he also noticed the paradox of Italian neorealism that indirectly made use of American novels:

While Hollywood adapts bestseller after bestseller at the time moving further away from the spirit of this literature, it is in Italy, naturally with an ease that excludes any notion of wilful and deliberate imitation, that the cinema of American literature has become a reality.

(qtd. in Corrigan 49)

As we have seen, during the 1950s, many different productions appeared. In general, film gained its independent status and worked with literature in a reciprocal relation. For example, novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet employed the visual rhetoric of film.

At this period, movie industry was affected by the beginning of free television broadcast. The first nationwide television network was NBC, which broadcast popular programs as Tonight Show. Hollywood studious experienced decline in viewers’ attendance and started to cooperate with television. They produced television films and sold rights to their earlier films. The Wizard of Oz was the first feature film to be broadcast on US television.

American movies of the 1960s moved from classical literary adaptations towards contemporary literature, and dealt with topics of sexuality, politics and family. Adaptation of theatre drama was parallel to the work of the British “angry young men” and featured Tony Richardson’s Look back in Anger (1958), and Joseph Strick’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The most celebrated adaptation of this period is Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) based on John Osborne’s screenplay. The development of film studies underlined a critical approach towards film as an aesthetic discipline.

The following years were marked by a more commercial approach towards film and, as a result, towards literature. Literature became for filmmakers a commodity that did not require authenticity. The film industry created one film after another and produced some of the greatest blockbusters – Francis Coppola’s version of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1972), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1972) based upon Peter Benchley’s novel. Corrigan notices that the commercialization of film and literature arose from the system of media conglomerates staying behind the movies (69). As they dominate both, film and print media market, they orient towards works that can compete commercially. Corrigan describes the “high concept” that condensates “the marketability of movie projects and one of the most effective high concepts is to simply match a best seller or classic novel with a well-known star or director” (70). The development of technologies turned film into a more private matter, as VCR and DVD technologies brings movies to the viewer’s home. Watching a film thus resembles the intimation of reading a book (Corrigan 71).

The last three decades have presented a great expansion of literature classics adapted into film. Corrigan presents three possible reasons for the return of literary classics: “(1) a reaction against contemporary filmmaking trends to diminish traditional plot and character; (2) a conservative or at least therapeutic turn from cultural complexity; and (3) a reflection of contemporary film audiences and their increasing concern with manner over matter” (Corrigan 72). Let us name some of the adaptations from the 1980s and 1990s. James Ivory’s A Room with a View (1982) and Howards End (1992) – both novels by E.M. Foster; The Remains of the Day (1993) by the same director; Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988); Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995); Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996); and Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005).

The works of William Shakespeare were adapted into period or modern movies – Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet (1996), Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) inspired by The Taming the Shrew.

Another union of literature and film has been presented in the last ten years. The blockbuster fantasy books were turned into films – series of Harry Potter stories, Eragon (2006), Stardust (2007), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005, 2008), The Golden Compass (2007). The accompanying phenomenon of this fusion was a production of tie-ins in a form of a new edition of the adapted novel, a soundtrack, or other marketing products.




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