Adapting to Adaptations
08 Jun, 2012 - Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
In 1909, the very first American full-length motion picture lit the screen. The film was part of that beloved and contested genre, the literary adaptation. It was the first of many film versions of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Did it follow the plot scene by scene? Did it capture the true essence of Hugo’s original? Reviewers didn’t seem to care. In fact, for one reviewer, it was the dog and monkey circus that came on first, rather than the French masterpiece, that was the true “treat of the season.” Reviewers with longer attention spans praised the film as “one of the greatest motion pictures ever exhibited.” In 1909, that wasn’t saying much, and reviewers were more taken with measuring the astonishing length of the film itself–2,600 feet– than measuring the quality of the content those 2,600 feet contained.
As the technical aspects began to lose their novelty, reviewers have demanded much more from adaptations. But just how recently have reviewers begun to care about faithfulness to a book’s plot and spirit? Does the recent trend of quick best-seller to blockbuster turn-around have anything to do with how films are critically received? Is this speed a new trend?
To investigate this, I turned to one of my favorite pursuits—besides reading novels and viewing adaptations—and dug through New York Times archives, selecting several adaptations that have appeared in the decades since Les Misérables.
It turns out faithfulness to the book emerged very quickly as a yardstick for how well a film succeeded. Just a decade after Vitagraph’s Les
Mis, Mary Pickford’s studio bought the rights to Jean Webster’s popular serial novel Daddy Long Legs. The book was so popular that even with the seven-year gap between its publication and adaptation, reviewers still expected that the novel’s fans would pack the house. Of those fans, “no one,” wrote one reviewer, “was disappointed with ‘Daddy Long Legs’ on the screen.” Faithful adaptation had clearly been added as an evaluative standard.
In the thirties, faithfulness remained a standard, and an additional underline was added: a quick bestseller to blockbuster turn-around demands even greater faithfulness. It’s possible that Daddy Long Legs’ audience was easy to please because the plot had become fuzzy in the seven-year gap, but in the thirties, the president of Universal Films attempted something much more daring. Carl Laemmle decided Universal would adapt, film and release a movie based on a novel that had appeared in print just one year earlier. All Quiet on the Western Front hit bookstores in 1929 and theaters in 1930.
Laemmle even threw out common sense in his quest for fidelity to the written page. By 1930, it was common sense that without a love story, you’d lack an audience, too. But no, Laemmle told Erich Maria Remarque he’d preserve the story: no love interest, and no softening of its depiction of war.
Critics and the academy rewarded this. Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times, “It seems as though the very impressions written in ink by Herr Remarque had become animated on the screen.”
But why would people who had read All Quiet on the Western Front page by page just a year or even a few months earlier want to see the book projected, scene by scene, onto the screen? And why do today’s readers who have just finished The Hunger Games or The Help or Twilight want to devote another several hours of their lives to watching it?
Maybe we flock to these adaptations for just the reason Hall had described in 1930: we want to see our impressions of the book animated on the screen. In viewing an adaptation, we join a more communal imagination. If a film animates the book in ways similar to how we’ve imagined it, we feel, somehow, rewarded by the community. We feel like our vision of the book has been validated.
This animation of the book can also thicken our grasp on the story. Reading the book and then racing to the theater is a way of doubling our memory and, perhaps, increasing our understanding.
Whatever the reasons, audiences flocked to other bestseller adaptations later in the decade. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 bestseller became a film just three years after its publication. The book was so famously popular that reviewer Frank S. Nugent wrote that “fidelity” to the book took great courage, yet “so great a hold has Miss Mitchell on her public, it might have taken more courage still to have changed a line or scene of it,” and thus Gone with the Wind achieved “a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.”
Does the fact that Shakespeare and Dickens were long in their graves by the time Hollywood got to their stories have to do with this? Had reviewers already seen so many productions of The Merchant of Venice and David Copperfield that they were glad when directors combined their own imaginations with the plots? Does a bestseller demand faithfulness, while a classic, well-known work demands reinvention?
This would seem counter-intuitive. Do American critics want bestsellers, which don’t always stand the test of time, to be faithfully reproduced as quickly as possible, but allow classic works to withstand drastic re-tellings? It depends how drastic, and how well the re-telling succeeds. A.O. Scott certainly didn’t let 2009′s superhero thug version of Sherlock Holmes off the hook.
And speedy adaptation in itself is not the key ingredient. When director Herbert Brenon tried his hand at The Great Gatsby just one year after its publication, reviews were flat. Though the film didn’t veer far from the plot, it needed “more imaginative direction” and neither Brenon “nor the players have succeeded in developing the characters.” Of course, Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller when Fitzgerald published it, nor was it critically acclaimed. Maybe this meant there wasn’t much incentive to capture Fitzgerald’s original intent.
The passage of twenty-four years increased Gatsby‘s popularity and accolades, but didn’t help its adaptations any. This rule didn’t hold true for adaptations in general, though: an adaptation based on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men won best picture in 1949. Yet Gatsby still flopped that year. Bosley Crowther wrote that “Most of the tragic implications and bitter ironies of Mr. Fitzgerald’s work have gone by the board.” Most crushing of all, it was “a dutiful plotting of the novel without the substance of life that made it stick.”
Perhaps Gatsby films are ill-fated. Even a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola didn’t satisfy critics of the 1974 film. Reviewer Vincent Canby slammed it as “lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.” Will the upcoming Gatsby, slated for December, fare better, or should directors leave the great American novel in peace?
Whether adaptations result in successes or flops, Hollywood’s zeal to change bestsellers into box office gold as quickly as possible– before our amnesiac society moves on–is decades old. For bestsellers, the working formula seems to have been: convert them to faithful screenplays as soon as possible, capturing both the scenes and the essence. That way, audiences join a community and see their imagination reinforced on screen, or have the chance to talk about the popular plot even if they haven’t seen the film.
For classics, critics and audiences grant a little more leeway, ready to see what hasn’t been done before. But if three film versions of a famous novel don’t work, maybe now is not the time to cast Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Well, unless Baz Luhrmann can work in a hilarious Jack Russell and chimp. Then, maybe.