Image Credit: Warner Bros.
The film adaptation has been a staple of filmmaking since the early days of cinema. It has often privileged canonical works, well-known books you’d study in English classes, the quintessential examples of ‘real literature’. Filmmakers work in an expensive medium that must attract massive audiences to break even, so unsurprisingly they often remake these novels. Whether it is ‘faithful’ to the source material or makes drastic changes in setting, characters, or even narrative to provide a fresh take on a classic, adaptation is not a straightforward conversion from one medium to another because it is permeated by response and criticism. Yet while novels are often the product of a singular perspective, a film is affected by thousands of individual interpretations. Even if the director gives themselves a vanity credit, their interpretation is one of a multitude, as films are made by thousands of people in various fields of work, utilising different creative mediums (writing, costume design, editing etc.). Although the director’s role is to bring everyone together under one artistic vision, the studio can overpower them through demands for reshoots and re-edits, usually depending on audience reactions in test screenings.
This cacophony of interpretation affects all films, adaptation or original. An original film attracts an audience with few expectations, while an adaptation’s audience can come with strict standards and preconceptions. Reviewing *The Great Gatsby *(2013), A. O. Scott claims it is “enjoyable” if the viewer “[puts] aside whatever literary agenda [they] bring.” In his review, Richard Brody insists that Fitzgerald’s novel has “intrinsically romantic qualities” that the film lacks. He compares his interpretation of the novel to the film while acknowledging “it would be fun not to know that Baz Luhrmann’s new movie is an adaptation.” The film exists in the source material’s shadow; even if a critic admits that their own preconceptions affect their review, they cannot forget them.
If an adaptation is received positively, it can reflect back onto the source material. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), oft-regarded as one of the greatest American films, received critical acclaim and the author’s stamp of approval, cementing its place as the film adaptation of the novel, rather than just a film adaptation. Atticus Finch became Gregory Peck’s defining role, as Harper Lee herself said, “when he played Atticus Finch, he had played himself ... and touched the world”. A positive reaction for an adaptation may be more passionate than that for an original film; critical ardour for the former can involve feelings of affirmed nostalgia, that their love for the original novel has been validated. If a work is repeatedly adapted, then preceding adaptations can become part of the source material’s ‘canon’ in the public imagination. Beyond film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s titular character is often depicted wearing a cape with a highnecked collar, yet this has no precedent in the novel. It is instead a feature of the 1924 play adaptation as it allowed an actor to grab the cape while Dracula ‘disappeared’ through a trapdoor.
Adaptation is a dialogue with the source material, in which a director’s perception of a novel is taken to task by their audience. In terms of adaptations of beloved children’s books, there is the oft-repeated condemnation, “this has ruined my childhood”, which reflects how works are internalised to the point where a ‘wrong’ interpretation becomes personally insulting. There is the tension of whose interpretation is somehow objectively right, where a viewer may see a ‘wrong’ interpretation being given a large budget and an international platform to be depicted. This can even affect the public perception of the original. For those who loved A. A. Milne’s *Winnie-the-Pooh *series, it may be blasphemous to see how Disney’s adaptation has become the bear’s canonical incarnation for many, due to their global reach. It is impossible to treat a film adaptation with the openmindedness that comes with experiencing a new story. But viewers can be conscious of the temptation to confuse (relatively) objective criticism of a film with comparisons to their individual interpretations, with the latter being held up as an unshakeable, ‘seeing-the-text-how-it-is’ gospel.
The film can be rubbish anyway, but if studying English Literature has actually taught me anything, it’s that there’s always going to be something in the book you didn’t notice the first time - any film can shed new light on an old text.