Friday, 9 August 2013

Reflection: Natural Selection

As an English Literature graduate it would be a wild claim if I were to deny any form of literary snobbery towards film adaptations. You'd have a certain amount of disdain too, if you'd had to sit through word-perfect, oaken performances of Emma that went on for five and a half hours. As it is, even though I'd call myself a cinephile, I'm recovering from a dark past as an adaptation fundamentalist.

In years gone by, upon the announcement of an upcoming adaptation of a treasured novel, I would become inexplicably yet unbearably excited. Unlimited card in hand, I would be waiting edgily in line for the first showing, no matter what Empire magazine had warned me was in store for me. And yet, despite my sunny optimism, I would consistently leave the cinema foaming at the mouth over character emissions, plot edits and  - God forbid - a changed ending. The quality of the film itself rarely (if ever) informed my opinion.

I will now begrudgingly admit to having a closed-minded attitude, something I so deplore in others, when it came to being so vehemently anti-adaptation. I failed to see film as an art form in its own right, at least not when it was using a literary influence as a crutch. I was convinced that, by being unfaithful to the book it was based on, a film must be inherently bad - and I'm sure I was not alone in that conviction. It's only recently that I've realised (and I am well aware that every rule is defined by its exceptions) that films that remain closest to the books they are based on are often the worst adaptations. Let's be honest, the experience of reading a novel is intrinsically different to that of watching a film. My reliance on screenwriters and directors to follow the book... well, by the book, and to be dismissive of those that did not was a misplaced categoriastion. A director who rejects infidelity will have a hard time creating anything more impressive than a 'fairly good' film.

The origin of the word 'adaptation' stems from Darwinian theory, and of course means change - change in order to survive in a new environment. Simply lifting the contents of the page and placing them on the screen guarantees extinction - a faithful adaptation is almost paradoxical. Reading a book is an imaginative act: a film adaptation is one person's reading of the book, creating from the words a multi-sensory experience of image, music and dialogue. It is impossible to represent in this all possible readings of the book. If our outrage is based on an inaccurate line, or a protagonist who is 'not how I imagined him' we have to accept that he was never going to be. If we had made the film ourselves, no doubt it would be almost entirely different, and we should accept the director's creation as a new work of their imagination rather than a mere translation of book to film. Consider how often we come across a painting inspired by a play (Ophelia springs to mind most readily), a poem inspired by a painting, a piece of music inspired by a fairy tale. Are we to dismiss these on the grounds they are not a direct replica of the original, because they are not how our own interpretation may have turned out?

Let me use a famous adaptation to illustrate my point. Of course, as a closet geek, this example will be Lord of the Rings. I cross my heart, I've read it (more than once!), and not very long ago, and I loved them. But the idea of a faithful adaptation makes my stomach churn. I've spent enough of my life on the brink of insanity, following twelve hours holed up in a student living room, stinking of smoke and Doritos and clutching a misplaced sense of pride that I finally made it to Mount Doom, thank you very much. I would not appreciate a 72 hour saga, which is no doubt what we would be left with without Peter Jackson's tactful trimmings and embellishments. Let this remind us that the success of a good adaptation does not rely on the act of simply changing things, but on allowing the right elements of the raw novel to evolve on screen.

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