The Victorian Sage

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Tag: sarah cardwell

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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Generic Progress in TV Adaptations of Classic Novels

When one thinks of television adaptations, Sarah Cardwell noted in 2007 in an essay now available on Academia.edu, one tends to think of the classic serial: “relatively faithful adaptations of classic, mostly nineteenth-century, works of literature”. There is a certain pejorative edge to the use of the term, in many cases: classic serials are “conservative, staid and unimaginative”. Cardwell suggests that part of the reason the classic novel tends to find its home in the TV serial is that the serial form is a better fit than the standalone movie. TV has thus paid greater attention to the classics of English literature than film has.

Of course, when we think of a writer like Dickens, we know that he published in serial form, in itself a strong argument in favour of a “fit” between TV serial and classic novel. And Cardwell notes that TV serial adaptations have a particular aesthetic, one which brings out the expressionistic side of his work, rather than the elements of realism. Each new adaptation that appears in this mould demonstrates that adaptations adapt not only their putative source material, but also the generic conventions moulded by previous adaptations of the relevant work/ author/genre.

Characteristics of the classic serial, as opposed to film adaptations of classic novels, are, for Cardwell, that it places a “greater emphasis on dialogue, and on the slow development of characters and their interrelations” (184). She relates this to medium-specific technologies of the earlier days of TV, such as its studio-based character, involving the use of “cumbersome, heavy, and difficult to move” cameras, leading to the development of the characteristically ponderous to non-existent camera movement and high asl (average shot length) of the classic serial. Consequent upon this was a certain staginess to the actors’ movements, as they had to perform them all within a very constrained area so as not to go off-camera. It is such features that can render the classic serial particularly tedious and stilted to the contemporary viewer. The point Cardwell makes is that what began as medium-constraints that were soon discarded by other genres as the technological possibilities improved, were retained and exalted into genre characteristics by the classic serial. Cardwell’s example here is the 1971 serial adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, a work whose old-fashioned staginess and limited camera movements make it rather difficult to watch (or at least to enjoy) from this vantage point. At this point the classic serial had decided not to move with the times, and to retain a directorial and cinematographic style from an earlier epoch.

Cardwell also draws attention to institutional factors, specifically the BBC’s Reithian objectives: to inform, educate and entertain (perhaps in that order). Television is not, in this sense, comparable to the more purely commercial sphere of film, and the classic serial was seen as the embodiment of the Reithian ideal.

But Cardwell sees the 1980s as the era when the most recognizable tropes of the classic serial were perfected, noting especially the influence of Brideshead Revisited (1981). The tropes in question are helpfully listed: “high production values; “authentic”, detailed costumes and sets; “great British actors”; light classical music; slow pace, steady, often symmetrical framing, an interest in landscapes, buildings, and interiors as well as characters; strong , gradually developed protagonists accompanied by entertaining cameo roles; and intelligent, “faithful” dialogue. (189) There’s a slight lacuna here, in that Cardwell doesn’t say why these came to prominence at this moment. She does mention the opening out of the TV market with the advent of ITV and Channel 4, but why this should have led to the increased success of the classic serial she doesn’t say.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) was both the high-water mark and the death knell of the classic serial. It was, Cardmell notes, “saturated with the norms of the genre”. This is true, but it certainly added to its appeal by the most overt sexification of the classic serial yet attempted, as exemplified by the famous Colin-Firth-dripping-wet moment. The iconicity of this moment also illustrates that the the popularity of the classic serial at this point rested above all on its appeal to female (heterosexual) viewers. Cardwell notes that it was in the years after Pride and Prejudice that the classic serial began to adopt different tropes, different directorial, cinematographic and scripting approaches. Yet, writing in 2004, the more pronounced deviations from the age-old norm were yet to come. Bleak House (2005) took the classic serial to a new place; the 2007 BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist attempted to marry the genre with the contemporary soap (using an established soap scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps), finally taking the old conjecture that Dickens wrote the soaps of his day to its logical conclusion.

War & Peace - GenericsWar and Peace (2016), with its careful colour coding and emphasis on classical aesthetics, lavish costume and beautiful sets

Yet, from the vantage point of the present, the changes that appeared in  the classic serial genre may not have run as deep as it appeared. Look at the BBC’s biggest production in the genre of this year: War and Peace. It’s got the high production values, the attention to historical detail in sumptuous sets and costumes; the use of a classical music score; the slow development; the cast of respected and established British character actors (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson); the interest in landscapes, buildings and interiors as characters; the slow and stately direction (high asl); and it’s even written by Andrew Davies. One can easily see it as a sign of a regression in classic serials, and one may even postulate that the form of the classic serial is fixed ahistorically: it’s very point is that it does not “develop”, does not “move with the times”. Any efforts to move it in this direction are short-lived. The classic serial is what it is, and there is a significant market for that type of narrative. The 19th-century source and setting allow for types of stories that cannot be told otherwise. We don’t live as we believe they did; a 21st-century narrative involving such characters would strike us as implausible. But understanding the appeal of these narratives is a worthy goal, and would help us understand a little about ourselves.

 

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