Hierarchies of adaptation

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.


8 thoughts on “Hierarchies of adaptation

  1. I think the concept of hierarchy will be one of our major themes, and is alluded to several times in the Hutcheons. The Kubrick/Burgess case is particularly problematic, since both “authors” were involved in the very different results. Burgess claimed that he had written a novel/fiction and that Kubrick had tuned it into a fable.

  2. I find this idea of hierarchy quite intriguing. I used to be one of those who proclaimed that the book is always better than the film. However, two recent examples have caused me to rethink this notion.

    The first was the Hunger Games. It was remarkably faithful to the book…and also boring. I felt like the adaptors were trying so hard not to upset fans that they didn’t take advantage of their storytelling medium. Books can create images and moments in the imagination that film cannot, but film can also do things that books cannot. For people to expect things not to change when a text is adapted to a new medium is unreasonable (word choice questionable) , but it is a commonly held notion.

    The second was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I first saw the movie and then read the book. Technically, this should have been a perfect adaptation since the author of the book was in charge of the film production. Yet, again, there was something odd about it being SO faithful. (Has anyone else experienced a similar discontent?) I also felt that Emma Watson was miscast as Sam.

    A follow-up question: Can anyone think of an example where an adaptation was “better” (or perhaps, more favorably received) than its original text?

    • I think this is an important challenge. Can anyone rise to it? Hutcheon makes much of it throughout the book. Is it cultural snobbery? A desire for origins? Look at the Brideshead on the Dropbox, where the Waugh novel is described as a “companion” to the TV series.

  3. My first thought, in response to the challenge, is The Godfather (with the caveat that I’ve not read the book). Puzo himself said that the book was badly written. I do have experience with Kubrick and King, though, so my second thought is The Shining. If you know anyone who likes the book better, please let me know – I’d like a word with him or her.

    • Yes, “The Shining” might be a contender, though I’ll admit that when I first saw the movie (with high expectations) I found it arch and too “acted out.” Then, on re-viewing, I began to recognize that Nicholson’s sly winks to the camera were a part of Kubrick’s enactment of the character’s “madness” (and dislocation from the rules of “performance.” Witness his J Carson “Heeeere’s…”

      • That’s a great point about the initial presentation of arch acting (and, in the case of Shelley Duvall, it really carries through the film. The contrast between what Nicholson is doing and what she is doing is really interesting. I guess little Danny is somewhere in the middle, though that brings up the question of kid acting that came up recently w/r/t “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”) That phrase makes me wonder if overacting might actually work on a deeper level in a faithful adaptation scenario – is it a way to put a creative stamp on a visual or performed text when the main goal is to stay close to the parameters of the original? (And if so, than how do we justify it in a work that stretches the source content more, in a more transparently “creative” way?) Or is overacting just bad?

  4. But Kubrick dropped the topiary animal monsters! “The Book is Better” camp may fall into some kind of categorical cultural snobbery, but I’m wondering about smaller facets or details about source works that fans particularly appreciate, and how the handling (or lack thereof) affects general perception about the adaptation. I would argue that moviemakers are especially in-tune to fan reaction (via the interwebs) and are trying – more so than ever – to appease hardcore fan groups. What do we think about this then?

  5. I had a post about this and my iPad destroyed it, so I’ll attempt to adapt my original thinking (groan). I think your point ties in to Jeff’s point about faithful adaptations (about which I’ve been thinking a lot), and also intersects in an interesting way with Hutcheon’s focus on adaptations as creative revisitations. It makes me think of the common complaint (which I’ve certainly made) about how few original screenplays sometimes seem to be produced. There are certain works (or kinds of works) that I can understand making and remaking (especially when zombies and sea monsters and R2D2 are added).

    What I understand less, from a creative standpoint, is the “remake with little new added when the original was already just remade” (cough – Spiderman – cough). Why make two movies of the same comic book in less than a decade? One reason, I think, is money. To your point about audience, fandom, and details, when you add in the economic angle of audience as ticket buyers, the whole thing becomes a little more sinister. (I think. I’m still trying to untangle the threads.) What does this role of the audience (especially as economic force) do to authorship (in the Barthesian sense)?

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