To Watch or Not to Watch: Thoughts on Adaptations of Literary Works

I’ve toyed with the idea of doing film reviews on this blog—particularly film adaptations of books. But it seems right that I should, first, sketch out briefly my own views regarding adaptations of literary works in order to give context for any future posts.

At the outset, the keyword for me in exercising my judgment is adaptation. As is probably obvious, transference from one media form to another is naturally going to include some changes. Certain elements in a book just aren’t possible to achieve in film—and there are possibilities open to film that are closed to a book. This is crucial to keep in mind for evaluation.

There are also different levels on which an adaptation can be judged. One level is judging it just for its quality as a film. For example, Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller isn’t an awful movie, but is a terribly unfaithful adaptation of the book, as it completely misrepresents the main character, Fanny. (There’s an intriguing chapter on this adaptation, and several others of Jane Austen books, in the book Jane Austen in Hollywood.) In this case, as in others, the film might be better judged separately in its entirety from the book, so completely did it miss the mark. Then my quarrel, if any, is with the film as a film, and not as an adaptation. In that instance, I would set aside the question of adaptation altogether and instead might say something like, “Although the fusion of the characters of Fanny and a young Jane Austen was interesting, the film’s slavery motif lacked the subtlety and complexity it desperately needed in order to be compelling. It was a little like being slapped in the face with a more-than-usually-large whale. Over. And over. And over again.”

Another level, and the most usual one, is to judge the film for both its quality and its faithfulness to the literary work—although the concept of faithfulness can be expressed in multiple ways. There are adaptations set in modern day that do the original work more justice than ones set in the correct time period.

Sometimes—very, very rarely, more rare than a blue moon—an adaptation may do something better than the original or different but equally artistically valuable. At the risk of sparking a massive debate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is a good example. The book leaves you at the end, like most modernist fiction, wondering rather dismally whether anything has any meaning at all. I’m sure some will object to my analysis—I imagine, mostly modernist fiction fans—and that’s fair enough. Let’s talk! It’s a fascinating topic, and I’ll be the first to admit I have my biases. Anyway, the film version stars Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Maybe if Holly Golightly had been played by Marilyn Monroe, as Capote wanted, I wouldn’t say the same thing. I’m almost sure I wouldn’t, as Monroe’s acting chops had nothing on Hepburn’s and likely would have rendered Holly two-dimensional in a way that mirrored the novel’s own portrait. In that sense, I’d argue that it is actually the misinterpretations of the novel that are some of the film’s finest points.

It also has to be understood that preference, to some extent, plays a part in how we perceive film adaptations. The issue can be made even more difficult because preference can blend with more legitimate ways of judging. Most of the time, though, preferences—in particular, preferences of film adaptations over books—are just that and not relevant to this discussion outside of that realm. As an example, I prefer the Disney ending of The Little Mermaid to the ending of Andersen’s original fairy tale of the same name, but that is probably just my preference for happy endings and has, unfortunately, little to do with its merit.

Further complicating the discussion is the new media form of vlogs. In the past few years, YouTube has fairly exploded with a number of vlog-style literary adaptations—The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved, Frankenstein, MD, and my most recent discovery, In Earnest, come to mind. They’re of varying degrees of sophistication—although Emma Approved’s Emma and Mr. Knightley, played by Joanna Sotomura and Brent Bailey, are exquisitely and sensitively rendered despite the challenges of, in the novel, having character flaws and virtues firmly planted in the early nineteenth century.

The main attraction of vlogs is seeing how the different productions can make the book themes work in modern-day—how some concepts in the book are timeless, and how some can be transformed interestingly. A good book will survive these changes, and we shouldn’t be afraid by protecting our favorites too much. That being said, many vlogs—and film adaptations—lack the depth that the books have, partly hindered by the constraints of the format itself.

In other words, I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations of literary works, although I do believe that the best films are always the ones that draw richly from the original.

And it’s all right to acknowledge that there are people who writhe in agony when their favorite books are mutilated on screen or elsewhere. To these people, I say: I do and can feel your pain. I’ve been there. When I first watched Rozema’s Mansfield Park, I was so angry that I could have shouted. I’m fairly sure I did, actually. Something similar to, “What did you do to Fanny, you cretins! And that scene! And that one! And—and—that wasn’t the point, imbeciles! Did you read the book?” (Frankly, I think it was partly because Alessandro Nivola broke my heart.) My other advice to these people is this: Maybe you just shouldn’t watch literary adaptations. If it’s going to be that difficult for you, don’t do it. Just go re-read the book and forget that anything ever happened.

But for those of you who, like me, don’t mind having multiple criteria to judge an adaptation—while acknowledging that the book is almost always still better—watch to your heart’s content. (With discretion, of course, and allowing for the fact that time must be made for normal human activities, like eating.)

And we could all do with a reminder—heated opinions being what they are—that this is an ongoing and dynamic conversation. For the present, however, this more than suffices as an introduction to any future reviews I might write.

One thought on “To Watch or Not to Watch: Thoughts on Adaptations of Literary Works

  1. When I went to see the midnight showing of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, there was a guy nearby loudly proclaiming how much it was going to suck, and how they were going to butcher the book and such. When the movie ended, he then loudly proclaimed how right he was and how horrible it had been.

    I was like, why are you even here??? Of course you hated it, you went into it expecting to hate it. And by the way, the books are AN ADAPTATION OF THE ORIGINAL RADIO SHOW.

    *deep breath*

    Anyway, I agree.

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