Friday, June 15, 2007

The problems of adaptation

A six-part look at different prose-to-screen adaptations, focusing on The Godfather, Jackie Brown, Godard's Contempt, Minnelli's 1949 take on Madame Bovary, From Here to Eternity, and David Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations.
First, it may be necessary to question the received wisdom. One such premise is that it is easier to make a fine film out of a mediocre novel than out of a superior one, because the adapter will feel less reverent toward the source material. (In reality, a screenwriter who has had to adapt a weak novel can tell you that inheriting a lousy plot and thin characters does not make the job any easier.)

...Another received truth is that the way to make a vivid adaptation is to cut loose from the novel as soon as possible. Some screenwriters boast that they read the novel once, then never go back to it, and there are directors (such as John Ford with "The Grapes of Wrath" [1940]) who say they never read the novel at all. There may be some egoprotecting here: Jean-Luc Godard was being a bit disingenuous in dismissing his source for "Contempt," Alberto Moravia’s A Ghost at Noon, as a mediocre novel to read on a train, thereby downplaying the psychological dynamics he had borrowed from the author. But for every instance in which a rough, indifferent attitude (or the pretense of one) toward the source material resulted in a successful film, there are plenty of others in which the screenwriter and/or director took the original very seriously, such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who used the pages of Graciliano Ramos’s novel as the shooting script for his beautiful "Barren Lives" (1963).

No comments: