I’d like to open up the conversation by talking about the supposed hierarchies of adaptation. I’m interested in both the typical orders of adaptation (book to film, play to film) and, more importantly, when and why viewers give preference or primacy to the original work.
I’m talking specifically about the common tendency to say “the book was better” after seeing a film adaptation of a novel. It seems that this tendency is particular to the book-to-film adaptation, and assumes a certain hierarchy of the novel. By contrast, did viewers say “the play was better” after “A Streetcar Named Desire” was turned into a film? Or in the less common adaptation of film-to-theater production (“Spamalot” and “The Producers” come to mind), do viewers complain that the movie was better? I’d think not.
I believe the common assumption is that something is lost in the transition from novel to film. The great exception to this rule in my mind is the work of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s films offer a unique interpretation of the works they adapt — in the case of Dr. Strangelove, to name only one example, he transforms a pulp thriller into a satirical comedy. And despite what Stephen King or Anthony Burgess may say, I’d insist that Kubrick’s adaptations (or re-interpretations) are improvements.
I think that looking to Kubrick can offer a more useful way of viewing book-to-film adaptations, one that eschews the tendency to look for faithfulness or completeness and instead appreciates adaptation as an opportunity for interpretation.