Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation

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Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation

Brian McFarlane; Clarendon Press, 1996, Oxford

Part I Backgrounds, Issues, and a New Agenda


Conrad, Griffith, and 'Seeing'

Commentators in the field are fond of quoting Joseph Conrad's famous statement of his novelistic intention: 'My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the powers of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make to see'.1 This remark of 1897 is echoed, consciously


1 Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus ( J. M. Dent and Sons: London, 1945), 5.

or otherwise, sixteen years later by D. W. Griffith, whose cinematic intention is recorded as: 'The task I am trying to achieve is above all to make you see'.2 George Bluestone's all-but-pioneering work in the film-literature field, Novels into Film, draws attention to the similarity of the remarks at the start of his study of 'The Two Ways of Seeing' , claiming that 'between the percept of the visual image and the concept of the mental image lies the root difference between the two media?'.3 In this way he acknowledges the connecting link of 'seeing' in his use of the word 'image'. At the same time, he points to the fundamental difference between the way images are produced in the two media and how they are received. Finally, though, he claims that 'conceptual images evoked by verbal stimuli can scarcely be distinguished in the end from those evoked by non-verbal stimuli',4 and, in this respect, he shares common ground with several other writers concerned to establish links between the two media.
By this, I mean those commentaries which address themselves to crucial changes in the (mainly English) novel towards the end of the nineteenth century; changes which led to a stress on showing rather than on telling and which, as a result, reduced the element of authorial intervention in its more overt manifestations. Two of the most impressive of such accounts, both of them concerned with ongoing processes of transmutation among the arts, notably between literature and film, are Alan Spiegel Fiction and the Camera Eye5 and Keith Cohen Film and Fiction.6 Spiegel's avowed purpose is to investigate 'the common body of thought and feeling that unites film form with the modern novel',7 taking as his starting-point Flaubert, whom he sees as the first great nineteenth-century exemplar of 'concretized form', a form dependent on supplying a great deal of visual information. His line of enquiry leads him to James Joyce who, like Flaubert, respects 'the integrity of the seen object and . . . gives it palpable presence apart from the presence of the observer'.8 This line is pursued by way of Henry James who attempts 'a balanced distribution of emphasis in the rendering of what is looked at, who is looking, and what the looker makes of what she [i.e. Maisie in What Maisie Knew] sees',9 and by way of the Conrad--Griffith comparison. Spiegel presses this comparison harder than Bluestone, stressing that though both may have aimed at the same point--a congruence of image and concept--they did so from opposite directions. Whereas Griffith used his images to tell a story, as means to understanding, Conrad (Spiegel claims) wanted the reader to


2 Quoted in Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film (Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1939), 119.

3 George Bluestone. Novels into Film (University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1957), 1.

4 Ibid. 47.

5 Alan Spiegel, Fiction and the Camera Eye: Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel (University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, 1976).

6 Keith Cohen, Film and Fiction: The Dynamics of Exchange (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1979).

7 Spiegel, Fiction and the Camera Eye, p. xiii.

8 Ibid. 63.

9 Ibid. 55.

'''see" in and through and finally past his language and his narrative concept to the hard, clear bedrock of images'.10
One effect of this stress on the physical surfaces and behaviours of objects and figures is to de-emphasize the author's personal narrating voice so that we learn to read the ostensibly unmediated visual language of the later nineteenth-century novel in a way that anticipates the viewer's experience of film which necessarily presents those physical surfaces. Conrad and James further anticipate the cinema in their capacity for 'decomposing' a scene, for altering point of view so as to focus more sharply on various aspects of an object, for exploring a visual field by fragmenting it rather than by presenting it scenographically (i.e. as if it were a scene from a stage presentation).
Cohen, concerned with the 'process of convergence' between art-forms, also sees Conrad and James as significant in a comparison of novels and film. These authors he sees as breaking with the representational novels of the earlier nineteenth century and ushering in a new emphasis on 'showing how the events unfold dramatically rather than recounting them'.11 The analogy with film's narrative procedures will be clear and there seems no doubt that film, in turn, has been highly influential on the modern novel. Cohen uses passages from Proust and Virginia Woolf to suggest how the modern novel, influenced by techniques of Eisensteinian montage cinema, draws attention to its encoding processes in ways that the Victorian novel tends not to.

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