The Victorian Sage

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Tag: adaptation

The Haunting of Hill House (2018): The Easter Egg Adaptation

The 2018 Netflix series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) has garnered significant acclaim, with a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Jackson’s novel is a slim volume, coming in at only around 200 pages in an average edition. The series itself turns this into ten episodes, ranging in length from 42 to 70 minutes. It is clear, then, that there will be a great deal of extra material in the adaptation, a matter of expansion rather than condensation.

Indeed, the film is not a traditional adaptation, if we take Linda Costanzo Cahir’s definition of the traditional adaptation as one which

maintained the overall traits of the book (its plot, settings, and certain stylistic conventions), but revamped particular details as the filmmakers saw fit. (Literature into Film: Theory and Practical Approaches, McFarland, 2006, Kindle loc. 348)

The Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House has a basic plot of a psychic researcher inviting a small group of people to inhabit a notorious haunted house for a certain period, leading to apparent manifestations of supernatural activity centring around one of the inhabitants (Eleanor/Nell), whose mental health undergoes a rapid deterioration. Almost the entire novel, aside from flashback episodes, takes place in the space of less than a week. The serial, focalised on a family who move around because of their parents’ jobs as fixer-uppers and end up in a possibly haunted house, definitely doesn’t retain the novel’s plot in an overall sense, and the setting only partially.

The setting within which the plot takes place is widened. For Jackson, all the action after the first chapter takes place in Hill House or on the grounds thereof. That lends a claustrophic feel from which the novel derives much of its power. The famous opening paragraph of the novel immediately foregrounds Hill House itself, and adds some anthropomorphic elements which become a feature:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Hill House, then, is not sane, and as such, is human. The actual physical description of Hill House begins in the first paragraph of Chapter Two:

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Hill House evinces watchfulness, glee, arrogance, hatred, evil. Not only is it upsetting and frightening in its anthropomorphism, but it is terrifying geometrically:

Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.

In Chapter Four, Dr Montague confirms that the house is not quite right geometrically. It was built that way:

Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around? An ordinary house would not have had the four of us in such confusion for so long, and yet time after time we choose the wrong doors, the room we want eludes us. […]

Every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”

They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.

“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off centre—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held…”

It’s not just Eleanor’s possibly skewed perception. It all adds up to a seriously powerful setting. We can easily engage with the idea that Eleanor will find it difficult to escape Hill House. Even to the reader, Hill House provides a heady mix of dizzying geometry and emotional overload.

The serial uses the setting of Hill House, and some of Jackson’s words, but it also sets extensive action in other locales, ranging from a drug treatment centre to a funeral parlour. Some episodes steer almost entirely clear of Hill House.

Jackson’s novel follows the four characters gathered in Hill House: Dr Montague, Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. There are a few bit-part characters in the early sections, most notably in terms of dramatic relevance Eleanor’s sister; there is a little of Mrs Dudley and a single appearance by Mr Dudley; and in the latter part there is the introduction of Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Arthur. It is worth noting that in the highly regarded and generally faithful 1963 film adaptation of the book, entitled The Haunting, Arthur is omitted, and certainly his absence does not leave any hole in the plot, nor does it seem to have been much lamented by reviewers. In the book, he and Mrs Montague come in as essentially comic relief, and, while they do not detract from the power of the novel, they are perhaps its most forgettable and narratively inessential element.

Promotional poster for The Haunting (1960)

In the Netflix series there is a greatly expanded cast of characters. Almost all of the original characters are there, nominally at least. The main exception is Dr Montague, a character central to Jackson’s plot, as without him and his paranormal research, there is no gathering at Hill House. But he (as well as Mrs Montague and Arthur) is missing.

But rather than a faithful adaptation of Jackson’s characters, we have really only a nominal adaptation. We have a character called Nell, but it is not clear that she has anything to do with the supposed original. Jackson’s Eleanor/Nell is a woman in her 30s: her background is one of an adult life spent nursing her mother, who has died recently; her only other relative is her sister, who she dislike; she has no friends and no job. Her personality is deeply shy, crippingly self-conscious, achingly lonely. None of this can be mapped on to Netflix Nell, who is much younger, of a totally different family background and life experience, and not apparently afflicted by any of the painful self-consciousness that is the defining trait of Jackson’s Nell. Both Nells are indeed very sensitive, but their different makers had contrasting ideas of what it means to be sensitive.

Nell (Victoria Pedretti) in the Netflix series. https://the-haunting-of-hill-house.fandom.com/wiki/Eleanor_Crain

Almost all of the main characters have Jacksonian names. One of them is called Shirley. This is, clearly enough, a reference of sorts to the novel, but, also clearly, not to a character in he novel, but to its author. Similarly, there is a book called The Haunting of Hill House in the series, but it is not written by the character called Shirley. Instead Shirley is merely a character therein. This book is not a novel, either, but a factual account of events that occurred to the series’ characters, written by one of them – Steven Crain. Again, the name Crain is a reference to the family who built the house in the novel, but Steven Crain is not a character from the novel. The funeral parlour is called Harris, a reference not to the novel or to Jackson, exactly, but to the actress who played Nell in the first film, Julie Harris. Recognition of this reference demands knowledge not only of the novel, but of other related media content.

So, what we get in The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional adaptation taking plot, setting and character from its source. Rather it is a work which creates an original plot, and makes a point of sewing it with a plethora of intriguing but non-structural references to the work indicated by its title. Watching it, I was often struck by the idea that if the series simply changed the names, it would not have to acknowledge Jackson’s novel as a source at all, as it is barely more reminiscent of the novel as it is of various other works in the genre.

As such, The Haunting of Hill House reminds me of such recent adaptations as the series Sherlock, which presents itself clearly as an adaptation, but takes neither the setting nor the plots from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, it sews the episodes with references to the putative source, Easter eggs (I called them “canonical indicators” in my post on this element of Sherlock) for the discerning viewer who is familiar with the source. An Easter egg is defined by Urban Dictionary as “A hidden item placed in a movie, television show, or otherwise visual media for close watchers.” Thus the knowing viewer garners by recognition of the hidden item a surplus enjoyment unavailable to the unknowing viewer. Yet at a characterological level, Sherlock does definitely owe its central characters to Doyle, so it is still closer to a traditional adaptation than The Haunting of Hill House.

Michael Huisman as Steven Crain in The Haunting of Hill House. https://the-haunting-of-hill-house.fandom.com/wiki/Steven_Crain

For works of canonical literature, like Doyle’s, or semi-canonical, like Jackson’s, the traditional adaptation may be dying. What is replacing it is the Easter Egg Adaptation, which delights the reader-viewer with oblique references to the pseudo-source, and caters to the viewing-viewer by presenting a story where, at the structural level, the contemporary trumps the classical. Because Easter eggs are at the level of detail rather than structure, the makers are not bound by fidelity. Because adaptations have a specific (series of) reference point(s), they are more suited to the Easter egg approach than other films. Thus Jackson’s story of lonely and desperate individuality can rather easily become a triumphant story of the working through of troubled family relationships. The ultimate demonstration of this is in the closing voiceover from Steven Crain:

Hill House, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within. It has stood so for a hundred years, and might stand a hundred more. Within, walls continue upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, and doors are sensibly shut. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And those who walk there, walk together.

It is that final line which is most significant, substituting walk together for Jackson’s walked alone. A precise inversion of meaning at the final moment. Appropriating the solemn affect of Jackson’s prose in order to tell a human story which is revealed to be the exact opposite of the novel, which is nevertheless clearly referenced. From individuality to family connection, from tragedy to triumph, from horror to love. (“Love”, Steven piously notes just before this, “is the relinquishment of logic […]. Without it, we cannot continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Taken word-for-word, these are almost exactly Jackson’s words; nevertheless, the sentiment is entirely different.)

What this Easter Egg adaptation wants from its source are moments, and the recurrence of isolated references which provide a viewing pleasure in themselves. What it doesn’t need are the specifics of Jackson’s plot, and what it steers far away from is the Jackson worldview of individuals living their personal tragedies alone, barely noticed and unredeemed.

Sherlock Hound The Four Signatures: Dogs, Blondes and Lestrade as Saviour

The Italo-Japanese animated series Sherlock Hound produced 26 episodes in 1984-5 (production actually started in 1981 and was held up because of disputes with the Doyle estate). The series looks like a cousin of the better known Spanish-Japanese 80s cartoon series Dogtanian and the Muskehounds and Around the World with Willy Fog. The Great Detective is, in Hound, an anthropomorphic dog, but characterologically broadly similar to standard Holmeses. The series was aimed at children, so there are some differences in character and theme from other avatars. This is clear in the first episode, rendered in English as “The Four Signatures”, obviously based on Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1888). Several of the episodes in the series were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, but this is not one of them.

The title slide, reproduced here in the Spanish-language version (as this version, and not the English, is readily available online), pays obeisance to the fetishistic nature of Sherlock Holmes. More than an individual, the Holmes of screen adaptations is a clutter of objects that hang together to form the outline of a Great Detective: a deerstalker cap, a magnifying glass, a curved pipe.

The first episode opens with an idyllic rural scene, as Sherlock Hound drives contentedly along a quiet country road amidst rolling greenery and distant hills. Above are blues skies with wisps of cloud. The setting reflects the classical perception of the “green and pleasant land” of England.

Hound himself looks younger than other avatars. In so far as one can age an anthropomorphic cartoon dog, he looks to be in his twenties. This youth is especially evident in scenes where he take off the deerstalker to reveal a spiky hairstyle.

Deerstalker, check; curved pipe, check; Inverness cape, check; dog face, check

Hound meets with a slight adventure on the journey when he tries to pass a carriage which blocks him and within which is a young lady who hurriedly closes the shades when she sees Hound trying to glimpse inside. Here are the initiating mysteries of the episode, elements of the hermeneutic code described by Barthes: Who is driving the carriage? Why are they driving it so fast and erratically? Who is the nervous-seeming young lady? And what lies behind the air of secrecy that surrounds the carriage and its occupants?

The young lady in the carriage

Having finally made the overtaking maneuver, Hound soon finds himself at the port from which he is to embark by ship. At the dock, he sees the young lady from the carriage, and its driver, a bulky older gentleman. He is behaving in a suspicious manner: “That man is hiding something”, Hound announces to himself.

As Hound embarks, we are introduced to Watson, who is also boarding. Watson is an apparently older man/dog, thickset where Hound is slender, and heavily moustached. It is Watson, not Hound, who quickly finds out extensive information on the mysterious young lady and her older man, who is her father and whose name is Lord George. The young lady’s name is Barbara, and she is 20 years old. Watson’s infodump prompts the following exchange:

Hound: When it comes to blondes, your spirit of observation is truly exceptional.

Watson: Don’t you always say that the deductive capacities improve in the presence of beautiful blondes?

Hound: Elementary, my dear Watson.

Thus H&W are given a rather surprising and certainly non-canonical preoccupation with blonde females, a theme in the series which I will return to later on.

[Important note: this exchange is translated from the Spanish-language version of the episode, which I found here. On watching the English version, I found that no such exchange was present, and the scene had been dubbed entirely differently! Neither English nor Spanish was the original language of the series, so I’m not sure which version best reflects the original. For now, then, I’m leaving it as I first found it in the Spanish version.]

Bluff and sturdy Watson

At this point, H&W’s reflections are cut short by a ship containing “Bengal Pirates”. H&W descend to Lord George and Barbara’s cabin, wherein Holmes effectively concludes the mystery element of the episode by explaining that the Bengal Pirates have come to kill Lord George, who was once part of their number, but betrayed them and stole their treasure. This plot line is very similar to The Sign of Four, including the presence of the beautiful daughter. In Doyle’s novel, Watson goes on to marry the daughter, named Mary Morstan.

Now mystery gives way to adventure, as the BPs attempt to board the passenger ship, leading to a chase between the BPs and H&W, who embark in a small boat (rigged up from Holmes’s car) with Lord George’s jewels. They lead the BPs into the treacherous waters around some pillars of rock.

But H&W are eventually cornered and it seems the game is up. Unusually, however, and certainly in marked contrast to the Ronald Howard Holmes I wrote on recently, Lestrade arrives to save the day. A naval battalion arrives, manned by a corpus of blue-suited policeman, their look clearly based on English policemen, fronted by Lestrade. For Lestrade to become the detective’s saviour is a very unusual development in a Holmes story, especially in an introductory episode to a series.

Finally, the episode ends with Watson declaring his intention to court Barbara [In Spanish. The English version includes no reference to any intended courtship. In its place is a line about H&W’s “future sports”.] Both Watson’s earlier admiring comments and comparisons with The Sign of Four made this a predictable outcome. It appears to provide a setup for the rest of the series.

The end of the adventure: Holmes and Watson shake hands, while Barbara and Lord George await them on the ship.

In fact, Barbara doesn’t appear or even get mentioned again, but her centrality here prefigures the most notable character change in this series: Mrs Hudson becomes Marie Hudson, a central figure rather than the peripheral figure she is in most adaptations. She is also much younger than most versions, and an object of romantic longing for most of the characters. Her lovableness forms the basis of one of the Miyazaki episodes, “Mrs Hudson is Taken Hostage” (Ep. 4), in which Moriarty kidnaps and then falls hopelessly in love with her, as do his two henchmen.

Mrs Hudson, angel in the house, and agent of justice in some episodes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Spicy Latinas, Class Exploitation and Excellent Steepling

Fresh from their success with Dracula, England’s Hammer studios re-engaged the acting talents of Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville) in their take on Doyle’s classic tale.

It had been 20 years since Basil Rathbone had initiated his Holmes career in Hound of the Baskervilles, so the story was due a revisit. Cushing’s Hound would be of another genre to Rathbone’s. Hammer was a horror studio so an accentuation of the gothic horror elements of Hound was on the cards: more hellhound, more ruined churches, more direct evocations of the horror of being immersed in Grimpen Mire itself.

For openers, though, Hammer went with a longish prologue (about 9 minutes) recounting the legend of Sir Hugo and the Hound. Doyle, as was his custom, opened with a long and not unamusing dialogue between Holmes and Watson in Holmes’s quarters. Most adaptations, however, stay away from Doyle’s talky openings. This film simply lifts the legend recounted by Dr Mortimer in Chapter 2 of Hound and presents it directly at the beginning.

Placement in the narrative aside, the legend is lifted almost intact from Doyle. There are a couple of changes: the young village girl who the “wild, profane and godless” Sir Hugo pursues flees to a ruined abbey on the moor and it is caught and murdered there by Sir Hugo; in Doyle, there is no church, and the girl dies “of fear and of fatigue” on the moor before Hugo can catch her.

Village girl hides out in a ruined abbey while being sought by Sir Hugo

This prologue works thematically as it sets up the ideas of class relations that plays a surprisingly large role in this adaptation. This opening shows Sir Hugo treating the local peasantry as objects for his exploitation and enjoyment, and milder forms of this upper-class arrogance echo through the film.

Hugo himself, of course, quickly gets his comeuppance, when, the legend says, the Hound appears and rips his throat out. And, thereafter, the Baskervilles are prone to sudden and mysterious death, still paying for the sins of their ancestor.

Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since. If I have set it down it is because that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed. Nor can it be denied that many of the family have been unhappy in their deaths, which have been sudden, bloody, and mysterious. Yet may we shelter ourselves in the infinite goodness of Providence, which would not forever punish the innocent beyond that third or fourth generation which is threatened in Holy Writ. To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted. – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter 2

In the context of Sir Hugo’s actions, our first introduction to Sir Henry Baskerville is notable. In a key early scene of the film, H&W enter Sir Henry’s hotel room and greet him. He is fixing his tie in the mirror and doesn’t bother to look around to acknowledge them. Instead, assuming he is speaking to the hotel manager, he begins to complain in an overbearing and arrogant manner about his (the manager’s) tardy arrival and the disappearance of a boot.

Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) fixes his tie.

The superciliousness of Sir Henry’s behavior is of course accentuated by the choice of actor to play him: Christopher Lee. Lee had just played the archetypal upper-class predator in Hammer’s Dracula, and another recent role was as the villainous Marquis St Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). In the latter, indeed, his character rapes a peasant girl in scenes very reminiscent of this film’s opening. Lee’s characteristic lordliness was used to effect in villainous roles, but in this adaptation the same lordliness is an element of a benevolent character.

When he finally realizes that he is not speaking to a member of the serving classes, Henry is appropriately apologetic, and he soon builds a friendly relationship with H&W. This close relationship is only threatened late on when Holmes makes a jeering remark about Henry’s “peasant friends”. Holmes is here being rude with a strategic purpose rather than making a straightforward expression of class prejudice, but the form his remark takes is also important. It annoys Henry greatly, getting at the root of his class consciousness, and that of the film.

Peter Cushing is seen by many as one of the best Holmeses and physically he fits the role very well: tall, slim, grave expression, keen eyes, ghostly pallor, sharp features. Intelligent and alert but slightly otherworldly. He may also have been reading up on Holmes’ physical mannerisms, for he makes copious use of the steepled fingers pose, a favorite of Holmes and one in which he engages in Hound among other of Doyle’s works.

Sydney Paget illustration from Hound showing Sherlock Holmes in finger-steepling mode.

Cushing with steepled fingers, index of intellectual engagement.

If Cushing is a classical Sherlock Holmes, the most radical character change in the film is that of the novel’s Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest in novel and film. Her first name is now Cecile, she is Stapleton’s daughter, and the central emphasis is on her having Spanish blood and being a variation on the spicy Latina/Latina spitfire stereotype. (Doyle mentions at the end of HOTB that she has Costa Rican blood.) As such, she is deeply sexualized but emotionally volatile, and ultimately as dangerous as the murderous Stapleton himself. It is his lust for her that brings Henry into danger, and it is implied by Cecile herself that lust has been the curse of all the Baskervilles, from Sir Hugo onwards.

Sir Hugo died here. His throat was torn out because of a girl. And Sir Charles, your dear uncle. He died here, didn’t he? Died because he wanted me, like you!

Cecile mocks Henry as she waits for the hound to tear his throat out. Her triumph, alas, is short lived.

Cecile is a product of the prurient, even perverse, attitude to sexuality in Hammer films: these films are predicated on the indulgence followed by the harsh punishment of sexual impulses. The viewer can watch with voyeuristic enjoyment, then join the gentlemanly protagonists in condemning with puritanical vigor.

Our first glimpse of Cecile Stapleton, a sullen yet passionate young lady of Spanish extraction.

Somewhat in line with this Puritanism, perhaps, is the portrayal of Bishop Frankland (Mr Frankland in the novel). The Bishop is an eccentric, treated with amused indulgence in the film, which thus answers to Žižek’s definition of cynical ideology, wherein the dominant ideology is reinforced not by strict enforcement of strict obedience, but by toleration of and encouragement of an attitude of cynical but resigned distance to it. In this context, the real political danger is the true believer, the one who takes it all too seriously. (I also discuss this here with regard to Joseph Conrad’s Chance.) Holmes is more straightforwardly ideologically aligned to Frankland when he asks him:

Will it help if I tell you I am fighting evil? Fighting it as surely as you do.

Holmes and Bishop Frankland have an important conversation.

Organized religion and its representatives, then, can’t always be taken seriously, but must be respected at moments of crisis. (The 1954 War of the Worlds also performs an interesting ideological repositioning of H.G. Wells’ text.) Hammer thus perform a delicate maneuver in tapping into a conservative strain of their audience while also being purveyors of horror and sex. They foreground sex in the story, but make it Spanish. They foreground class tension, too, and hint at a regret for the loss of the old days of aristocratic domination. But even here, perhaps rather than adding their own spin, they are picking up on a thread from Doyle. Recall Watson’s reflections as he gazed upon the visage of Sir Henry:

[A]s I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it. (HOTB, Ch. 6)

It would take Hammer to take this strain of the original and run with it, turning it into an intriguing addition to the extended Holmesian corpus.

On Žižek, Adaptation and Fragments of the Whole

[T]he goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original but to supplement it, to treat it as a fragment of the broken vessel and produce another fragment that, rather than imitating the original, will fit it as one fragment of a broken Whole may fit with another. A good translation will thus destroy the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness, rendering this Wholeness visible as a fake. One can even say that, far from being an attempt to restore the broken vessel, translation is the very act of breaking. (Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil, Verso, 2014, p. 143-144)

Žižek’s view of translation as a fragment to fit together with the equally fragmented original is one he owes to Walter Benjamin (as he acknowledges in the passage quoted above), and is also one he applies to adaptations. Indeed, the one substantial piece of analysis he give apropos this passage is of an adaptation, not a translation, focusing on different versions of the play Antigone. Žižek leaves aside the possibility that adaptation and translation may be theoretically distinct concepts, but certainly there is a school of thought that sees them as analogous. So, provisionally admitting this point, how productive is Zizek’s approach? Can we conceive of an adaptation which operates by destroying the myth of the original’s organic Wholeness? An adaptation which is a fragment and which exposes the fragmentary nature of the source?

These (imagined) variations should not be read as distortions  some lost primordial original, but as fragments of a totality which would have consisted of the matrix of all possible permutations (in the sense in which Levi-Strauss claimed that all interpretations of the Oedipus myth, inclusive of Freud’s, are part of the myth). Should we then endeavour to reconstruct the full matrix? What we should rather do is locate the traumatic point, the antagonism, that remains untold and around which all the variations and fragments circulate. (p. 146)

It is an idealistic view of adaptation, one that posits a unity behind each avatar, a unity that cannot be found in any individual work, but only uncovered by the scholar. It is the scholar who communicates the traumatic point untold in the fragments.

My own approach is in some ways the opposite to Žižek’s. When you track versions of the same story across time, what you find is not one single traumatic kernel underpinning the narrative, but a predominantly unchanging narrative line that is used as support for reflection on themes that do not predominantly come from the source, but from cultural influences. Adaptations prove that the ideology of a text is not dependent on the story being told. The source provides a narrative framework more than a philosophical or ideological framework.

It may perhaps seem counter-intuitive to think that the same storyline can be used for substantially different ideological purposes. One clear example can be seen in Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, and the 2007 BBC series Oliver Twist (adapted by Sarah Phelps, latterly better known for her Agatha Christie adaptations, And Then There Were None (2015), etc.). In my essay “Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)” (available in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, eds. Brigitte Le Juez, Nina Shiel, Mark Wallace, Common Ground, 2018), I discuss the ideological shift in the story between the two versions in question, even though at the level of narrative structure there are only minor differences.

By going through the main characters in the narrative (Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Rose, Monks – I don’t go into Oliver himself in detail, as there was only space to study the most relevant characters to my argument), I demonstrate (at least to my own satisfaction) that through changes in presentation of characters rather than in narrative functions, Phelps manages to invert much of Dickens’ embedded worldview in Oliver Twist.  To take a brief excerpt from my essay, I discuss the character of Fagin, who emerges in Phelps’ version as a victim in ways Dickens never envisaged:

This is most striking with regard to the character of Fagin. John notes in a brief overview of the series that Fagin is placed as a “victim of discriminatory social circumstances” throughout.* This climaxes in the trial scene, in which Fagin (played by Timothy Spall) is sentenced to death by Judge Fang, who further makes him the offer of a reprieve if he will convert to Christianity: “Fall to your knees before this assembly and take Christ as your saviour” (5; 22:15). Fagin refuses and becomes a martyr for the Jewish religion. The exchange is not found in Dickens, and Fagin’s principled refusal to forsake his religion contrasts with the greedy opportunism of Dickens’ villainous character. The offer made by Fang cannot be explained with reference to nineteenth-century legal practices, either.

Rather, Fagin’s trial scene constitutes an argument directed against the ideology of the source text from a presentist perspective, from which perspective ideologies of religious tolerance and idealization of the socially or politically marginalized or oppressed provides a basis from which the narrative is re-constructed, said re-construction incorporating a dialectic between source and adaptation.

* The quoted phrase is from Juliet John, Dickens and Mass Culture, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 223.

Tim Spall

Timothy Spall as Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007)

So there’s a whole different problematic about the character of Fagin. Fagin is the most obviously troublesome character in the novel, as the anti-semitic element of the depiction has long been noted (I go into the history of the character in the essay), but other characters like Sikes, Nancy and Monks are also altered in revealing ways. Sikes is still brutal, but tortured and sensitive; Nancy is much more kindly and maternal towards Oliver; Monks is fleshed out: he wants to marry Rose, but goes about securing this match in a particularly evil way.  They all still behave in ways that move the plot along the same lines as Dickens, but we feel very differently about them. Each character has inscribed into them not only the source material, but also other features which are often in tension with the source, and which in analysis often prove to be traceable to ideological issues of wider significance. It’s in the spaces between Dickens’ Nancy and Phelps’ Nancy that we can find out something significant about how we constructs narratives of human life. We don’t write stories or understand people as Dickens did: even if an adaptor tried to, there would be tension there. With Phelps, the tension is upfront: she wants to challenge Dickens, particularly with regard to Fagin:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye. [“Behind the Scenes” feature on Oliver Twist, BBCDVD2572, 2008]

Thus, I’m unconvinced by Žižek’s emphasis on a traumatic core common to source and adaptation. Trauma is evidently personal and contextual. The trauma in Phelps’ retelling is precisely the absence of trauma in Dickens. It is Dickens’ perceived callousness which provokes Phelps into attributing trauma to Fagin.  And if one was to follow Oliver Twist around the world and find other adaptations, you would find other sources of trauma. Many would engage in arguments with other elements of Dickens’ text, aside from the anti-Semitism. Or, if not engage in arguments, instead maintain silence over the elements which provide an ideological jolt. So in difference we can find those elements which demand analysis. It does not necessarily follow that these differences point to a commonality at a deeper level, a shared trauma. Analysis does not have to lead to a higher-level synthesis. The idea that it does is the Hegelian coming out in Žižek .

Adaptation, Intermediality and Narrative

Academic investigation into culture and the arts is characterized by a proliferation of terms which seem, to the untheoretical eye, to mean and do much the same thing. Yet each term has its strict adherents and schools, and often two more or less synonymous terms are studied independently. Such is generally the situation with “adaptation” and “intermediality”.

Adaptation deals for the most part with issues of intermediality. In theory, an adaptation can be of a work from the same medium, as is the position in Hutcheon’s influential book. One can see Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, for example. In practice, adaptations as studied are almost always  intermedial, moving from one medium to another, most commonly novel to film.

Intermediality itself is to a large extent a continuation of the longer-established Interart Studies, as Irina Rajewsky notes in “Intermediality, Interetextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”. For Rajwesky, intermediality is distinguished not by having new subjects of study (digital media, etc.) but by providing “new ways of solving problems”. These “new ways” are too heterogeneous and broad for Rajewsky’s taste, and she favours a narrow definition of the term:

In literary studies as well as in such fields as art history, music, theater, and film
studies, there is a repeated focus on an entire range of phenomena qualifying
as intermedial. Examples include those phenomena which for a long time have
been designated by terms such as transposition d’art, filmic writing, ekphrasis,
musicalization of literature, as well as such phenomena as film adaptations of literary works, “novelizations,” visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art,
opera, comics, multimedia shows, hyperfiction, multimedial computer “texts” or
installations, etc. Without a doubt, all of these phenomena have to do in some
way with a crossing of borders between media and are in so far characterized by a
quality of intermediality in the broad sense.

Rajewsky attempts to differentiate between different kinds of intermediality, rather than accept the diffuse concept employed by others.

1. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of medial transposition (as for example
film adaptations, novelizations, and so forth): here the intermedial quality has to
do with the way in which a media product comes into being, i.e., with the transformation of a given media product (a text, a film, etc.) or of its substratum into
another medium. This category is a production-oriented, “genetic” conception of
intermediality; the “original” text, film, etc., is the “source” of the newly formed
media product, whose formation is based on a media-specific and obligatory intermedial transformation process.

2. Intermediality in the more narrow sense of media combination, which includes
phenomena such as opera, film, theater, performances, illuminated manuscripts,
computer or Sound Art installations, comics, and so on, or, to use another terminology, so-called multimedia, mixed media, and intermedia. The intermedial quality of this category is determined by the medial constellation constituting a given media product, which is to say the result or the very process of combining at least two conventionally distinct media or medial forms of articulation.

3. Intermediality in the narrow sense of intermedial references, for example references in a literary text to a film through, for instance, the evocation or imitation of certain filmic techniques such as zoom shots, fades, dissolves, and montage editing. Other examples include the so-called musicalization of literature, transposition d’art, ekphrasis, references in film to painting, or in painting to photography, and so forth.

Category one equates roughly to adaptation, while category three could be considered to be a form of allusion. Thus adaptation is contained within intermediality (in theory). Rajewsky in this article is really only interested in drawing out the third category, wherein a work in one medium evokes at a certain point another medium. This category is more or less by definition, not relevant to adaptation study, as adaptation is, according to Hutcheon again, always an “extended, deliberate, announced revisitation of a particular work”. The extended is key here, as it excludes any form of brief allusion, transmedial or no.

Reading Rajewsky, one is struck by the though that the central difference between adaptation and intermediality as fields of study has been the centrality of narrative to the former. Adaptation has a long history of engaging deeply with narrative. The irony is that many of the more recent scholars of adaptation have decried this very engagement. The centrality of narrative to adaptations studies is at once its unique selling point and  a symptom of a field that has failed to move on. The question is how to move on without losing the identity of the field and falling into an already existing field. The other question is whether theoretical advancement is really a desideratum in any case. We could develop more complex theories, or we could use old-fashioned narrative theories to reach new insights and build an identity for adaptation.

Ideological Diversity, the University, and the Uses of Screen Adaptation

Interesting piece from Times Higher Education about the progressive political views held by almost all academics in the USA and embedded in the research they create: not just in the form, but in the actual content. The author, Musa al-Gharbi, avers that academics routinely “exaggerat[e] conclusions when convenient while finding ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research that threatens their identity or perceived interests.” Generally this is to support a progressive bias, says al-Gharbi. A knock-on effect of this is that conservative-leaning persons don’t feel comfortable in academia, and find it harder to build a career, leading to the proliferation of extremely well-funded and influential “think-tanks” comprising conservative thinkers and researchers. Another knock-on effect is that academia has very little credibility among large sectors of the population.

On a narrowly political scale, one has to note that academia’s commitment to progressivist-leftist ideals has not strengthened the left in the USA. The president is very right-wing, and the two houses of parliament are now both controlled by the Republican Party. Academia’s influence on society, then, is a depressingly negative one, pushing people towards the opposite extreme.

Academia needs to come to terms with and to engage in dialogue with its right-wing other. An argument I am kind of making in an upcoming publication is that one way to do this is through the use of transtemporal adaptations – that is film/tv (or other media, in theory, though not in my practice as yet) adaptations of novels from another period. Say, the Victorian period. The fact is, almost all writers from that period have various opinions far to the right of the people who tend to watch adaptations of the novels, and of people who write these adaptations. Dickens in Oliver Twist, for example (the example I am using in said upcoming publication), subscribes to fairly hardcore anti-semitism in Oliver Twist, in the character of Fagin; makes his heroine, Rose, a pure and sexless angel-in-the-house type; signifies Oliver’s moral superiority with an otherwise inexplicable upper-class diction, and so on. All of this causes problems for adapters, because to reproduce such ideological functions could make Dickens appear to modern sensibilities shallow, old-fashioned and even obnoxious. So, consciously or unconsciously, Dickens’ less progressive opinions are toned done, left out or turned round.

Image result for oliver twist 2007

Oliver Twist 2007 BBC series. An adaptation that consciously problematized Dickens’ text. Image from https://opionator.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/oliver-twist-2007/

These operations of toning down, etc., become important at the moment of comparative narrative analysis. Being acquainted with what appears in the novel in a different form to the adaptation, we become aware of the ideological otherness of Dickens. This provides a mild shock, as we are regularly assured that Dickens was a progressive writer, a great champion of the poor, a “seeker after gentle justice” etc. – which is, indeed, approximately half true. By being forced to juxtapose this genial image with the problematic reality of Dickensian ideology, we gain insight into the complexities of the formation of ideological consciousness. We also problematize the more presentist stance presented by the adaptation, in its toning down, etc. What seemed natural in the context of the adaptation alone, “how things really are”, is seen now as a deliberate choice, one informed if not dictated by the ideological presumptions of our time and place. And this problematization is absolutely a worthy goal in our climate. This was Žižek’s aim in In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2009),  ‘to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative’ (6), and it is something that is still a long way from being done with sufficient rigour in academia.

 

David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946): Casting and the Bildungsroman

Yesterday, I discussed Brian McFarlane on Great Expectations and its numerous adaptations. McFarlane gives most space to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), widely acknowledged as the best screening of the novel, if not the best of all Dickens adaptations. McFarlane saves this one for last:

I have deliberately left it until the end of this book to see whether any of the other versions, on screens large or small, might offer a serious challenge to its pre-eminence. They don’t. ( Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film [2008], 127)

McFarlane’s enthusiasm for Lean’s film prompted me to rewatch it. My own feeling about the film is the same as it was after the first time I watched it: I love the first 38 minutes, and can do without the remaining 75. There is a very simple reason for this. As McFarlane notes early in the book, Great Expectations is a bildungsroman: a novel that traces “the development of the protagonist’s mind and character, as he passes from childhood through varied experiences – and usually through a spiritual crisis – into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world” (M.H. Abrams, quoted in McFarlane, 3). There is a serious difficulty in filming a bildungsroman in that the protagonist passes from childhood to maturity, and it is generally physically unfeasible for the same actor to play the protagonist at all stages of the film. Generally, there will be two: in this case, “Young Pip” and “[Older] Pip”

Young Pip is Anthony Wager, aged 13/14 at the time, a totally untrained and inexperienced actor, who gives a compelling and naturalistic performance.

pip

Anthony Wager as Young Pip in the opening scene of the film

Older Pip is John Mills, a well-established actor who had started his training at a dancing school in the 1920s. He was aged 38 at the time of shooting.

The transition from Young Pip to Pip that takes place on 38 minutes is an extremely awkward one. The film allows six years to pass unrepresented as Pip follows his apprenticeship. This lacunae of six years is not present in the novel, and its function is obvious: to prepare the audience for a physically changed Pip. We fade out on Pip and Estella walking down the stairs of Satis House, the dialogue between them two and Mrs Havisham having established that they will not see each other again, and that Pip is about to embark on an apprenticeship, and we fade in on the blacksmith’s forge, with John Mill’s voiceover announcing:

It was in the sixth year of my apprenticeship, and it was a Friday night.

forge.PNG

The shot, with Pip in silhouette, that announces the passage of six years from the preceding scene.

Yet nothing can adequately prepare us for the Pip we see before us: in reality, Mills was 24 (!) years older than Wager, rather than 6, and he looks it. We are immediately jarred out of the suspension of disbelief the film has created. Age aside, their physical appearances and demeanours are nothing alike, and their acting styles, too, are diametrically opposed. Wager was naturalistic; Mills is mannered, obviously a schooled actor. Wager’s Pip was hesitant and timid; Mills is smiling and open-faced.

jmills

John Mills’ first appearance as Pip in the film

This single piece of careless casting mars the film – irretrievably, for me. Any sense of the character is lost. Probably Mills as a well-known actor was the most important presence to Lean. So perhaps a different young Pip would have worked, though I hesitate to say it, for I think that Wager is excellent and that Mills’ performance has not dated well.

We all probably know examples of this: it is a staple of the bildungsroman, as I have said, that at least two actors are often called upon, but I think this is the single most damaging example of it I have seen. (The Estella transition is also pretty jarring – perhaps this was a blind spot of Lean’s.) Much as there is to admire about this film, I prefer Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948): an easier book to film, if only because it is not a bildungsroman and we only know the protagonist as a child. Any thoughts? Am I exaggerating the importance of this element? Are there other bildungsroman films which suffer from a similar casting problem?

 

Brian McFarlane’s Great Expectations (2008)

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (first published in 1860-61) has been consistently adapted and re-adapted for the screen since the advent of cinema. It still ranks behind Oliver Twist and  A Christmas Carol in the most-adapted-Dickens tables, but Brian McFarlane’s Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film (2008) demonstrates the rich adaptation history of this text.

McFarlane is, perhaps first and foremost, a great admirer of Dickens’ novel. It deals, he announces at the outset, with the “universals of human experience” (1). He even believes that “everything in this novel does work towards its ultimate coherence” (12), which is a big statement, and one which makes it clear that McFarlane holds modernist rather than post-modernist views of the text, views in which coherence and unity of purpose lead to aesthetic greatness.

This can lead to a specific problem with regard to study of adaptations: the tendency to use comparison with the novel for evaluative purposes. Anything that is different is seen as a failure, anything that is similar to the novel or that seems to recall its “spirit” is lauded. This is an incredibly prevalent response to adaptations, both among laypersons and adaptation scholars. McFarlane is very aware of this, and denounces all those who concentrate on “the misguided notion of ‘fidelity'” (87), “the foolish and irrelevant question of ‘fidelity'” (143) to the source text. He makes several such denunciations throughout the book.

The problem is that such repeated and even excessive disclaimers don’t really serve to hide the fact that McFarlane frequently employs a covert fidelity methodology to judge the adaptations. This is particularly true of those he doesn’t like (he’s much more insightful on films and series he does like, of which more anon). On the 1934 film version, he opens with the complaint that “it never begins to feel like the original” (83). On the 1975 film:

For all that one adheres to the notion that a film, adaptation or not, must be primarily judged on how it stands as a film, it is hard to suppress the feeling that if Hardy et al had taken serious heed of what Dickens was up, they might have made a more engrossing film. (108)

The apologetic disclaimer followed by the resort to fidelity criticism is typical of the book. There is a basic tension in McFarlane’s stance. What this book demonstrates, really, is the need for a coming to terms with the widespread notion of fidelity, rather than the palpably anxious renunciations that here co-exist with a continued use of the source text as an aesthetic touchstone.

But this attitude relates mostly to the adaptations that McFarlane does not like, principally the 1934 and 1975 films. He is considerably better on those adaptations he does approve of. Among these is the 1999 tv series starring Ioan Gruffodd and Justine Waddell. Here, McFarlane makes some interesting points about how the series “offers a way of reading the novel that was not available to its first readers” (76), giving a close reading of certain scenes and shots wherein the politics of the novel are transformed into something more contemporary. Feminist elements are present in this series; there is an “increased interest in the damaged lives of women” (78), such as Mrs Joe, Mrs Havisham and Estella. McFarlane’s point, too, about the way that the positivity of the conclusion in Lean’s film gives way to a sense of atrophy in this series is interesting and thought-provoking. Such ideological shifts in the narrative are often the most interesting things about adaptations through different time-periods, so this was a welcome change in approach.

Methodologically speaking, McFarlane is a narratologist (as outlined in his earlier monograph Novel to Film). This looms large here, too, as he breaks up the plot of Great Expectations into its “cardinal functions” and then compares this plot to that of David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) (he does this in more detail in Novel to Film) the two plots are very similar, and it is an interesting exercise in adaptation practice to study how Lean has translated Dickens’ novel, changing only for concision, hardly ever for aesthetic purposes:

There may be several such omissions but the film “changes” very little in the matter of events and the perspectives from which they are viewed (150).

Equally important is the discussion of how Lean retained the emphasis on Pip’s subjectivity without using much in the way of voiceover. Here notions of subjective camera-work, composition of screen space and Pip’s near omnipresence constitute McFarlane’s main argument, and it is a convincing one (again, this is gone into in more detail in Novel to Film). This more technical filmic analysis provides another layer to the book, complementing the narrative analysis and the cultural analysis. Narrative analysis is McFarlane’s forte, but his ability to incorporate other approaches adds much to the readability of this book.

Good points about this book are the narratological analysis, which is the most systematic yet attempted in adaptation study; the cultural analysis, which is less methodologically developed – this may disturb the scholar but it makes it more accessible to the lay-reader; and the technical filmic analysis, which is, again, not as developed as the narratological, but which shows McFarlane’s ability to incorporate different approaches. His style is generally approachable and clear. Bad points are the contradictory attitude towards fidelity, the sometimes over-reliance on evaluative language, and the fact that some of the case studies are less substantial than others (especially with regard to the books, plays and radio series that are dealt with, apparently from memory based, in some cases, on a single encounter).

Tomorrow, I will post on the David Lean film Great Expectations (1946), McFarlane’s favorite version, but one which I find to be flawed for a simple reason that McFarlane doesn’t go into in his book. (here)

marshes

marsh2

Moody shots from the great opening scene of Lean’s Great Expectations

Sarah Phelps’ BBC Adaptations

The Guardian published a couple of days ago an interview with Sarah Phelps, who has over the last few years become effectively the BBC’s resident adapter of literary works. She’s tackled, among other things, a couple of Dickens novels (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations), J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy (Rowling’s work was effectively an attempt at a 21st-century Condition-of-England novel), and, for last year’s BBC Christmas schedule, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter’s reception was, on the whole, enthusiastic, so Phelps has been tasked with adapting Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution for this Christmas.

Like Britain’s first adaptation auteur, Andrew Davies (see Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies), Phelps likes to sex up her material, as noted in the headline to the Guardian‘s article. Nevertheless, her tone is a long way from the urbanity of a classic Davies work like Pride and Prejudice. Instead, Phelps often seems to be attempting an assault on the adapted authors, never more so than in Oliver Twist. In this 2007 series, Phelps writes in a stinging critique of Dickens: a critique written, it must be said, from a distinctly 21st-century point of view, concentrating on the identity politics of the novel. The novel certainly presents problems here: principally, Fagin is referred to throughout mostly as “the Jew”, and is a diabolic thief and willing accomplice to murder. Even on Dickens’ first introduction and physical description of Fagin, before we know anything of his character, we are made aware that he is somehow “repulsive” and that there is a moral element to this repulsiveness. Add to this to the identifiably stereotypical elements to Fagin’s appearance and clothes, and the spectre of anti-semitism rises before the contemporary reader.

The introduction of Fagin:

[S]tanding over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging. Several rough beds made of old sacks, were huddled side by side on the floor. Seated round the table were four or five boys, none older than the Dodger, smoking long clay pipes, and drinking spirits with the air of middle-aged men. These all crowded about their associate as he whispered a few words to the Jew; and then turned round and grinned at Oliver. So did the Jew himself, toasting-fork in hand. (Oliver Twist, Chapter 8)

Phelps is not the first adapter who has had to contend with this (see Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture and Christine Geraghty’s Now a Major Motion Picture on this). But seldom have adapters dealt with it as explicitly as she does. There is, in Phelps’ adaptation, a “calling out” of Dickens on his anti-semitism, rather than a sanitizing of it, as in, say, Oliver! Phelps talks about this in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the 2008 DVD release:

The anti-Semitism bothered me hugely, but rather than sweep it under the carpet, rather than make it comedy, I wanted to look at it in its squinty, nasty, horrible little eye.

This rather strong language is typical of Phelps, both in interview and in her scripts. In line with this attitude, Phelps foregrounds in Oliver Twist the anti-semitism that Fagin (Timothy Spall in this version) faces, and exposes the corruption and sadistic underbelly of the 19th-century justice system in the figure of Fang. Fang is the crazed judge who tries Oliver in Dickens. Phelps’ innovation is to reintroduce Fang to try Fagin as well (thus following through on Dickens’ satire on law in Oliver Twist, rather than reverting in the standard Dickens manner to bourgeois morality in the denouement). So, rather than <spoiler alert> Fagin’s death being justice for the villain, it is clearly coded in this adaptation as a deliberate persecution of a victimized and marginalized figure.

ot-image

Oliver Twist (2007): Timothy Spall as Fagin is on the left. Sophie Okonedo as Nancy is second right.

Similarly, she introduces a black Nancy, arguing in “Behind the Scenes” that this is a form of fidelity to history, as well as a correction to Dickens’ whitewashed casts of characters. Central to this adaptation then, I would argue, is the notion of arguing with the source text, and for this reason it is an interesting text for me. All of these canonical 19th-century texts have been done with fidelity, done with reverence. A new approach is needed. If we can’t ignore these canonical texts, we can argue with them, and Oliver Twist is emblematic of an adaptation that does this. That is not to say that it is by any means a great adaptation, but it is to say that it is a sign from the future (as Zizek would say) of classic adaptations.

Of course, none of this applies very much to Phelps’ recent And Then There Were None; nor will it apply, probably, to the upcoming Witness for the Prosecution. But it is an important element of my approach to adaptations, and will be further developed in an upcoming publication on Phelps’ adaptation of OT, of which more anon.

 

Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

[…]

A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her Academia.edu page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.

.

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