WHAT IS FILM ADAPTATION?

 

When compared with the approximately five hundred year history of printing-press culture, and the thousand year histories of manuscript cultures, the hundred year history of film seems remarkably brief. And yet, despite the relative newness of the technology of the cinema, moving images have quickly become the central conveyors of narrative in our culture. John Harrington explains, "While other art forms have taken centuries to develop, the span of a single lifetime has witnessed the birth and maturity of film. It seems axiomatic that such rapid development has occurred because of, not in spite of, the contributions of other art forms" (ix). To understand film, then, it is necessary to understand the way literary expression in particular has informed, extended, shaped, and limited it. Likewise, twentieth century literary expression reveals the influence of the cinema in its structures and styles, themes and motifs, and philosophical preoccupations

 

By studying literary works of varying types and from various periods and comparing them with films based on them, one is able to recognize the similarities and differences between these two media and discover the literary qualities inherent in almost all cinema. Popular film as we know it is essentially the result of applying the conventions of cinematography to the conventions of fiction (short story, novella, novel) and/or drama. The differences between a novel or play and the movie based on it often arise from the demands placed on the material by the conventions imposed by the art form or by the expectations of an audience concerning that art form. By studying the art of film adaptation we are necessarily forced to make distinctions about the art forms being adapted and doing the adaptations. The course then will focus in nearly equal amounts on literature, film, and the nature of adaptation.

 

A development occurred in late C19th literature, which attempted to play down the role of the author by doing less 'telling', that is, playing down the use of the authorial voice in describing or explaining what is going on, and instead using scenes which allow characters and their actions to 'speak for themselves', that is, allowing the reader to experience the unfolding of the narrative as if they are witnessing the unfolding of unmediated events.

Some critics find this similarity between the narrative form of the novel and the narrative form of the film significant, and describe, for example, James Conrad and Henry James as 'cinematic'. Similarly, there are those who suggest that literary narrative is influenced by the C20th's newly emerging and developing narrative medium, the cinema.  Pioneer filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's comments on the 'cinematic' qualities of Charles Dickens---for example, his use of 'close up', is often cited.

Literary texts provide a vein of raw material which is already tested: stories which work and are popular, as well as offering the 'respectability' conferred by the notion of 'literature' in itself, as well as the cache of certain writers.

The enterprise has commercial aspects too: it is safer to buy the rights to a work than to develop original material.

Film makers are not known for offering such blunt commerical reasons for making particular adaptations, and, while the writing of the adaptation is itself is a creative undertaking, writers of adaptations rarely announce innovative or bold approaches to their subject matter, tending instead toward caution if not reverence for their 'literary source', and couch their intentions in careful words Films that are adaptations are generally popular and successful: the biggest box-office successes tend to be adaptations, Since the Oscars began in 1927-28, more than three quarters of the 'Best Picture' awards have gone to films which are adaptations of novels.

Novel and film have narrative in common: the recounting of a sequence of events. Film evolved as and from popular culture from interstices of of a number of technical developments and recreational/leisure pursuits: victiorian optical toys, the projector, the music hall and burlesque, photography and the sensitivity of photographic emulsions, sound technology, scriptwriting, editing, and the phenomenom of the persistance of vision.

 'If film did not grow out of the [C19th novel] it grew towards it'