Screening the Novel: The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization by Michael Green
Screening the Novel: The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization
By Robert Giddings, Keith Selby and Chris Wensly
After books that cast a wider net over theory, I chose to get a little more specific with “Screening the Novel.” My MA thesis at this point might be something about adapting literature to film. As a creative part of that thesis, I might even adapt some of my own fiction. “Screening the Novel” was helpful, as its title suggests, into giving insight into both the theory and the practice of adaptation. It is a lucid, well-researched and well-written text.
The book is divided into these parts: “The Literature/Screen Debate: an Overview,” “The Re-creation of the Past,” and “The Classic Serial Tradition.” Then there are two sections that analyze the novel and the screening of “Great Expectations,” and two sections that look at the Dramatization and Production of “Vanity Fair.”
As the sections suggest, the authors generally only discuss classic novels and their film and television adaptations in the book, including the works of Charles Dickens and “Vanity Fair,” among others.
In “The Literature/Screen Debate: an Overview,” the authors detail some of the issues regarding the transfer of novels to film and television. First, the section examines the essential differences between literature and film that make the consumption of each such a specific experience. For example, both a novel and its filmed adaptation may have essentially the same story, but many other elements besides the basic story cohere to make the work complete. Just because a film features the plot of a novel it does not mean that the theme, meaning, or ironies of the novel—which arise from the particular application of language and literary craft--will immediately transfer to film.
In an explication reminiscent of Foucault, the authors break down the way we understand things in terms of three types of signs: icon, index and symbol. An icon is a sign that represents an object mainly by its similarity to it, for example, a photograph of a man will resemble the man himself. An index is a sign which points to another object, that suggests an existential bond between itself and the object, for example, a “torch of knowledge” sign that used to indicate a school. A symbol has no immediate relationship to an object, other than the agreed upon one among the users of the sign, for example, words.
In film and television, the main language is iconic and indexical, while in prose the sign is used exclusively. The authors show how this difference in the way we understand our stories is one of the fundamental differences between film and literature and one of the great difficulties for adaptation. The differences are also at the heart of the debates about realism and expressionism in the cinema.
The authors admit that because of these and other differences between the media, there is no universal adaptation formula. Still, they identify three types of adaptation. 1.) The film that attempts to be “faithful” to the novel, by giving the most literal translation possible, such as “The Hours,” or “The Lord of the Rings” (my examples) 2.) The film that maintains the basic source material of the novel while significantly reinterpreting or even deconstructing the next to generate some alternate meaning (“Barry Lyndon”), and 3.) The film that regards the source text only as raw material for an original work (Apocalypse Now). The authors then give a long section in which they debate the flaws and merits of each of these adaptation strategies.
Next, the authors discuss literary methods that are almost impossible to transfer literally from novel to film, including point of view (how do you represent a first person P.O.V on screen, for example), metaphor and interior thought. On the other hand, film is good at some things that are difficult to convey in literature. For example, a landscape that might take pages for an author to render in a reader’s imagination comes across immediately in one shot of a film.
In the section, “The Re-creation of the Past” the authors explore the audience’s historical relationship to texts. A main point they make is that our perspective of the past is too skewed too ever accurately reproduce a text set in the past, though ironically, authenticity is one of the things that filmmakers strive to capture when they film period novels.
The authors see the attempt to adapt classic novels as part of a larger obsession by the media in general to reconstruct the past. They assert that we are far better equipped than any other age to recreate the past because of our storehouses of historical artifacts and documents and our amazing technology. Yet, ironically, they say, the past constructed by the media is a forgery. There is no way we can really reconstruct the past; our reconstructions are rife with misconceptions and inaccuracies and by the narrative of history that we create for ourselves may or may not have anything to do with how things really were. In other words, we can’t escape from our modern story of things to get the distance that we need to see from outside of our own perspective (the authors specifically discuss this in terms of our Enlightenment thinking.) All this ties in neatly with all the texts on modernism and postmodernism that I’ve read this semester.
The authors give some nice examples of this throughout the section (indeed the entire book is very good about providing concrete examples). One example is a 1983 BBC drama in which Donald Pleasance appeared as Samuel Johnson. In the program Pleasance spoke with an upper class (proper) accent, though it was known that Johnson has a Cockney-like accent. But because Johnson was one of England’s great scholars, the authors assert that British TV audiences never would have accepted him speaking in a Cockney accent. In other words, they imposed their own ideas about things should have been, based on current culture mores, rather than how things really were.
The authors finish up this chapter with a discussion of the post-modern nature of our culture. The very fact that everything is now in the stew pot makes it very difficult to separate out specific ingredients. One of the reasons that the adaptation of classic novels is so difficult is because it’s hard to extract some of idea of “classic” from the postmodern goulash.
In the next section, “The Classic Serial Tradition,” the authors compare the serialized novels of the nineteenth century, particularly those of Charles Dickens with 20th century radio and television serials. They make the interesting point that Dickens and other novelists from the era who amassed a large readership were assisted by technology, not unlike the way in which the technology of film and television have provided authors with large audiences. Except in this case the technology was the mass media of an earlier generation: modern print technology and the steam press which allowed much cheaper publishing and helped open up literacy to all strata of society.
In the next section the authors provide a thorough analysis of “Great Expectations.” They look at how it works as a novel, how Dickens constructed the narrative, what his themes were and how he incorporated them, and other aspects. They give a very thorough and insightful (and long) analysis. Ultimately they show how Dickens constructs his fictional world and renders profound themes with words, with language. They do this so they can underscore, in the next section, how difficult a film adaptation of a novel is.
Again, in this next section, “The Screening of Great Expectations,” the authors give a thorough analysis on the transfer of the novel to the film. Since—as the authors have already thoroughly documented—hundreds of adaptations of Dickens’ novels exist (and scores alone of “Great Expectations”) the authors choose one version, the 1946 David Lean version with Alec Guinness. But even though this version is widely considered among film critics and scholars to be a great film, the authors illustrate in great detail the many ways in which the film fails to communicate the themes, relationships and meaning of the novel. They do this to show the difficulty of adaptation, and the traps that the adapter can fall into, without even realizing it, simply by not being completely aware of the differences between the two media. They also point out what the film adaptation does well. Overall the comparison of book to film is very illuminating. This is a great text for potential adapters out there like myself.