Sunday, June 03, 2007

Literary Adaptations

The latest Bookforum has a cover story dedicated to literary adaptations into films. Three is an essay by Philip Lopate, reflections and observations by prominent directors and screenwriters and a list of favourite adaptations by a bunch of film critics.

As a lover of lists myself it set me thinking about my own favourite film adaptations. The problem was that I haven't read a lot of original books on which some of my really beloved films are based on, like The Third Man and The Night of the Hunter both of which will feature prominently in my all time favourites. I have also not read anything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler (or The Godfather) so that will exclude many films which I like as well. Also I have excluded Shakespeare, he needs a list of his own.

So after a lot of confusion and deliberation I came up with following:

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, USA): If only Hollywood had a few more copies of Charlie Kaufmann! This is not just a fantastic adaptation of the New Yorker profile by Susan Orlean it is also the most entertaining, illuminating and hilarious film about screenwriting as well.

Great Expectations (David Lean, Britain): Great opening scene, both in the book and in the film. It is the kind of adaptation which works best as an illustration and dramatization.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, Hungary): It leaves out a lot of politics and philosophy of the original book and concentrates more on formalistic elements and visual design, it is still a mesmerising and startling piece of work. Also I think they should have kept the original title for the film...The Melancholy of Resistance

The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, Britain): This is another of those illustration and dramatization kind of adaptation. Straightforward and not too clever. I love the book and the movie both.

The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff, Germany): If you thought the Eel scene in the book was upsetting, wait till you see the movie. And if you thought it was pretty bad in the movie, wait till you read the book. If you have done both, well, you know why it is here on this list. Schlondorff's adaptation of Musil's novel The Confusions of Young Torless is amazing too. I haven't yet read the book but will do soon.

Btw, the entire Bookforum issue seems to be available online. Worth Browsing.


Hari S. said...

My personal list of literary adaptations...

[In no order]
Sabotage by Alfred Hitchcock
from Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Ford
from the Steinbeck novel.

The Heiress by William Wyler
from Henry James' 'Washington Square'.

The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese from the Edith Wharton novel.

Tess by Roman Polanski from Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'.

Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick from the Thackeray novel.

Of course the two David Lean Dickens' films.

The Trial by Orson Welles from Kafka's novel(though the ending is debatable).

Faust by F. W. Murnau from the first part of Goethe's play.

and others I'll add later on.

Alok said...

Nice. The problem for me was that I haven't really read Conrad, James or Wharton. (Haven't seen the movies in question too...Oops!)

About Welles, yeah the ending pretty much spoils everything. One can admire it for its visual design but the ending makes one suspicious about whether Welles even understood the book.

hari s. said...

One can admire it for its visual design but the ending makes one suspicious about whether Welles even understood the book.

Well the novel was unfinished when Kafka died so no one knows how it should be understood or whether it should be understood at all!

Welles said that he couldn't kill a Jewish character like the end of that novel after the Holocaust and so changed that.

But leaving aside the ending, the rest of the film captures the tone of the novel brilliantly especially the black comedy.

At the same time Welles wasn't completely okay with the novel's message. Which is why he places the famous 'Before the Law' parable in the beginning and when we arrive at the scene in the cathedral where the novel places the parable, he instead as Josef K. criticizing that parable as pointless and rants about people who complain that the world is meaningless and pointless and drown in despair which I don't get.

But it's clear that he was going for something else there. But I think it's a great film not without flaws but then how many films even among masterpieces aren't flawed?

Haven't seen the movies in question too...

Well then see them, they're all great films. And you don't need to read the books before seeing them either.

Alok said...

From whatever impression one has of Welles, I mean the person...the self-boasting, the megalomania, the super-heightened feelings of self-worth, one would think he should be the last person to adapt Kafka.... It is easy to understand why he should have trouble with the Kafka protagonist, someone crushed and so powerless against the authorities. Incidentally Welles also played a fugitive Nazi in The Stranger which was made sometime in the mid 40s... now that I can understand. Not making any moral judgment, just an impression of personality type and worldview. In fact Citizen Kane and Third Man are also perfect Orson Welles vehicles in that sense.

that comment about holocaust is also intriguing and very strange. I didn't know that.

hari s. said...

I mean the person...the self-boasting, the megalomania, the super-heightened feelings of self-worth,

Honestly what does that have to do with it? The director's personal qualities are unimportant as far as the film is concerned and that kind of pseudo-psychoanalyizing is the death of sophisticated film criticism.

In any case most of the myths that Welles was megalomanical and self indulgent is simply not true at all, true he had his flaws and had a self-destructive impulse in him but he never let his ego get in the way or become a part of his films. And modern day film critics like Pauline Kael and David Thomson continued to spread those harmful myths.

Alok said...

I am not a fan of biographical criticism either. I was just thinking about a consistent preoccupation with power and authoritarian figures in his films. That's why I felt he would have problems seeing through the perspective of Kafka protagonist...

hari s. said...

Well I am not fond of fitting an oeuvre in three or four sentences either which despite what people think is not auteurism but writing the obvious.

Welles in any case made movies like 'Othello' and 'Chimes at Midnight' as well as 'The Magnificent Ambersons' which did not feature any such tropes or themes. As many Welles experts rightly point out, his adaptations were more personal films then original stories.

That's why I felt he would have problems seeing through the perspective of Kafka protagonist...

He made 'The Lady from Shanghai' didn't he? The character he plays is kind of like Josef K. and the trial scene in that film is likea dress rehearsal for the film. And obviously bizarre even surreal abstract moments are there in that film.

And honestly what's wrong with the film besides the ending which works for the film but isn't true to the book?

Cheshire Cat said...

I agree completely with Alok. "The Trial" is not a bad movie (in comparison with Soderbergh's horrendous "Kafka", for instance), but it's false to the spirit of Kafka. There are different kinds of failure - the dissipation and gluttony of Welles stand in contrast to the ideal (?) represented by The Hunger Artist.

The best adaptation of Kafka's work I've seen is Haneke's "The Castle", though that's more a literal rendition than an "adaptation".

"Barry Lyndon" is a great movie, but I haven't read the book. Ditto with "The Age of Innocence". There are several excellent Greene adaptations, including "The Fallen Idol" and "Brighton Rock".

I'm particularly intrigued by adaptations of books one would consider "unadaptable". Michael Winterbottom did quite a good job with "A Cock and Bull Story", and Albert Serra's "The Honor of Knights" is worth a look (and forty winks). Adaptations I want to see: "Lolita" (Kubrick's, not Lyme's tacky version) and "The French Lieutenant's Woman".

Alok said...

Yeah, I am now trying to imagine what Welles would have done with the hunger artist! :)

I have actually not seen either of the Lolita's too, just thinking about the whole pointlessness of it.

hari s. said...

I have actually not seen either of the Lolita's too, just thinking about the whole pointlessness of it.

It's actually one of Kubrick's most underrated films. It isn't great but it's much better than his pretentious films like 'A Clockwork Orange' or his last three films combined.

Incidentally, it's the only film of Kubrick's which Jean-Luc Godard liked.

Alok said...

It is one of David Lynch's favourite films too! He is not much of a film buff but even then...

Will check it sometime. Thanks for all the suggestions.

Madhuri said...

This is a theme I have often written about. I hate to see bad adaptations of my favorite books, and there seem to be many in the market. I agree with you completely on 'Remains of the day' - a really simple and unadulterated adaptation of the book. Some other favorites are 'To kill a Mocking Bird', LOTR and of course the Godfather. Perhaps all of them were rather cinematic books.

Alok said...

Hi Madhuri,

I was actually more interested in cinematic adaptations of "literary" books. Adaptation which capture the essence of book while inventing a style of its own and without simiplifying. I find straightforward and bland dramatisations rather pointless...

Madhuri said...

'Literary' is a largely subjective term and not easily definable. I consider 'To kill a Mocking bird' a literary work, but you may differ.
Also, simplification is different from simple adaptation which is what I was refering to in case of'Remains of the Day'. Sometimes, it is disconcerting to see too much perspective added to the book, specially if the perspective differs from your own. And a straightforward adaptation does have its merit.

Alok said...

yes, that's why i put that word in quotes :)

I was thinking about the books which don't lend themselves easily to a cinematic narrative. And the changes that a screenwriter makes to the original subject can in that case make one think more closely about original book that one would have missed while reading it. Illustration I am sure has its purposes but we shouldn't confuse it with adaptation.