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Adaptation Vs. Interpretation – Why literature purists miss out on all the fun

March 29, 2010

I am an avid reader of blogs relating to all things film and literature, and I often run across literature “purists” who cry foul when a filmmaker adjusts the source material for a movie.  This is especially common among Jane Austen fans, whose “Janeites” cry and wail when one hemline isn’t period or an actress wears her hair down when no respectable lady would go out of the house without a bonnet.

What marks the difference between an adaptation and an “interpretation”?  Well, it all boils down to how a director or filmmaker alters the source material for his/her audience.

I say, let’s quit picking at the details and pay homage to many of these filmmakers’ overall visions.  True, they may not follow each book line by line and painstaking page by page, but many directors have taken “liberties” with novels to suit a more current audience, or to emphasize a latent theme in the work.    True, many take it too far and the interpretation can turn out to be complete rubbish (see: The Scarlet Letter (1995), The Black Cauldron (1985), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).   But, there are many interpretations of novels out there that have been unfairly ripped to shreds by “purists” who miss the point of the director’s vision.   Here are a few.

Vanity Fair (Mira Nair – director – 2002) – based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair

Becky Sharpe in decline

Indian director Nair reformed Thackeray’s wayward anti-heroine, making her a proto-feminist who just wanted to have it all.  In the book, Becky Sharpe was a morally corrupt murderess, but Nair’s interpretation works for modern audiences, who want a protagonist who deserves her fate.  Reese Witherspoon’s powerful portrayal made sense of the screenplay changes, and she was supported by quality performances from her co-stars (most of the other characters in the movie remained true to the original plot/caricatures of  the novel).   Nair was unfairly criticized for her use of bright, Indian-themed colors  in both costuming and set design.  The truth may surprise purists.  According to History professor Cathy Schultz, on her website History in the Movies, “Nair didn’t invent the Indian subplot, but instead played up a theme already present in the novel-and in Britain. India’s exotic culture had captured the British imagination by the early nineteenth century, as the region gradually fell under British imperialism. And like the characters Jos and Dobbin, thousands of British soldiers and administrators absorbed its culture during years of residence there”.

Nair’s vision remains true to the essential themes of Thackeray’s scathing commentary on social class divisions.  Becky still receives her comeuppance, discovering that the very world she tried so hard to fit into is in fact not worthy of her intelligence and determination.  Would Thackeray’s Becky have fared as well?  Probably not, but Nair’s film is a visual and emotional treat once you accept that interpretation can be as valuable as adaptation.

Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann – director – 1996) – based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Juliet and Romeo in Luhrmann's vision of the Capulet ball

Luhrmann kept Shakespeare’s original theme and exact dialogue intact and created a masterpiece for the senses.   While purists complain that the showy and frame-jarring movement (as well as the modern beach-side setting) distracted from the bard’s words, I disagree heartily.

Those who say Romeo and Juliet as characters exemplify all that is romantic would have dear old Willy rolling over in his grave.  The original play is a thinly veiled diatribe on why wayward teens should obey their parents.  It’s also a forceful lesson to those parents on how pride and competition can get in the way of what is truly important.  These themes are all powerfully presented in Luhrmann’s film.

The director transplants the action to 1990s L.A. (Verona Beach in particular, in a nod to the original play’s Verona, Italy setting) where the underlings of two rich and powerful families duke it out in the streets (articulately choreographed gunplay and all ).  It might at first seem bizarre to be watching two teens in Hawaiian shirts spouting Shakespeare while toting “Sabres” and “Longsword” brand guns, but it works.  Luhrmann’s film is no more violent or affecting than the original play.   It’s an engaging and unique interpretation that gains in power with each viewing.  As critic Ray Green comments, it is a “gleeful pictorial souffle comprised of contemporary movie violence and Elizabethan melodrama that succeeds quite nicely”.

Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema – director- 1999) – based on Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny and Edmund realize their love

Oh, woe the fool who messes with the Janeites!  Rozema was lambasted by Austen purists when this interpretation was released in 1999.  Their main bone of contention was the choice to make our heroine, Fanny Price, a mish-mash in personality of both the original character and the elusive authoress Jane herself.  The film sprinkled in bits of Austen’s juvenalia in the opening sequences showing Fanny’s childhood.    Rather than make this a negative, it brightened the scope for me.  Mansfield Park, for me, is Austen’s most slow-moving novel.  Its heroine, Fanny, is (in the original novel) a bit of a prissy annoyance.  She’s SO goody-two-shoes it is grating, and her lack of imagination is woeful.  She’s no Emma or Elizabeth Bennett.  Purists here cry “Exactly Jane’s point”!  To which I say, Boo for the poor movie audience who would have to watch a boring film about a boring character getting her happy ending.

Rozema also chose to bring  the book’s minor references to the slave trade to the forefront of the plot, making Fanny’s blowhard uncle the villain of the tale.  It’s a small quibble in an otherwise entertaining film.  True, Frances O’Connor’s Fanny is brighter and prettier than Austen’s original Fanny, and Jonny Lee Miller is more handsome and charming than Austen’s Edmund will ever be on the page.   Yet, Rozema’s film has a strong emotional power – a current which I find catching each time I view it.  The theme of being true to one’s own judgment and internal compass is intact in the film’s vision.

Is it a perfect film?  No – but it doesn’t deserve the tongue-lashing it has received by purists.

In the end, it will no doubt prove impossible to win purists over to the more open and welcoming side of those who enjoy film interpretations, despite their “flaws”.   I am an avid reader, and believe the enduring power of the original work can only be enhanced, not diminished by unique and varied interpretations.  I say, why be closed-minded if a film doesn’t fit your idea of the author’s original intent?  You may find something you enjoy despite yourself!

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