Though “fidelity criticism” is somewhat frowned upon by academics in the field of adaptation theory, it is nonetheless irresistible to the general public. When one watches an adaptation of a book with which one is already acquainted, what is more natural than to compare the two and ponder the differences between them? Where this may become less than helpful is in the not uncommon case that any deviation from the source text is considered as a flaw or failure, without consideration to the possible reasons for making such a change. Of course, when one is seeing an adaptation of a work one does not particularly like, this danger is averted. Such was my situation yesterday when I attended a screening in Dublin’s Cineworld of Michael Winterbottom’s new film Trishna, as part of the Jameson Dublin Irish Film Festival.
Trishna, with Frieda Pinto in the title role, is based on Thomas Hardy’s oft-adapted Tess of the D’Urbervilles, updated to contemporary India. Winterbottom makes many substantial changes to the story, even apart from those contingent on the new setting. Most strikingly, the figures of Angel Clare and Alec D’Urberville are conflated into one character, Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed). Jay is both the ruthless predator and the gentle romantic. In this respect, I think Trishna marks a progression in terms of psychological complexity from Hardy’s work. Even Michael Irwin’s introduction to my copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Wordsworth, 2000) finds Alec to be “the merest stereotype” and Angel’s dialogue to be “pompous and unidiomatic […] if anything less credible and less appealing even than Alec’s”. Of course, Irwin goes on to claim that Tess’s merits transcend mere characterization, but one’s acceptance of this depends on how one ranks characterization v. symbology/ abstract themes as novelistic criteria. So Winterbottom adds interest by making these two one character, but even he avoids the full complexity of the issue by introducing a temporal separation: Jay begins as a gentle and kind figure, even when fulfilling Alec’s plot-functions like teaching Trishna to whistle and eventually seducing her; quite suddenly, a certain discovery about Trishna turns him into an irredeemably nasty individual – his nastiness is in itself, though irredeemable, believable, but in the context of his previous self, it’s questionable. Similarly undermotivated becomes Trishna’s original decision to flee Jay in the wake of her seduction, as her feelings for him do not appear to have the same equivocality as Tess for Alec.
This is always one of the dangers of adaptation: retaining plot while altering characters. A character function which made sense when the character was presented in a certain way can suddenly seem incongruous. Thus, I think Trishna is a flawed film, but an interesting and at least intermittently powerful one, and one that deserves appreciation for its attempt to explore gender relations in a way that Hardy never envisaged.