Sunday, September 9, 2007

Filming Classic Fiction: 1927 To the Present

While few people today would care whether The Green Hat was in any way betrayed by its transformation into the Garbo vehicle A Woman of Affairs, the situation is very different with an acknowledged literary classic, where readers tend to have fixed, and widely differing, views of the appearance of the characters or setting—not to mention the meaning or interpretation of the work as a whole—and naturally wish to see these perceptions respected on the screen.

There are many other problems too. Even a relatively short novel cannot be filmed word for word within the confines of the two- to three-hour limit of the average film (though Erich von Stroheim [1885–1957] claimed to have done so with his original cut of Greed [1924] from Frank Norris's [1870–1902] novel McTeague). Selection, omission, and condensation of some kind is inevitable. This normally involves suppression of minor characters and subplots, though these may be among the aspects of the book most cherished by readers. More seriously, although a ten-second shot in a film can often replace pages of description of character, landscape, or a house interior, it is rarely possible for a film to convey the detailed analysis of character psychology or motivation crucial to much of the finest fiction without resorting to lengthy stretches of dialogue. Dialogue itself is also a problem, for even the most apparently "naturalistic" speech on the printed page can appear stilted on the screen, and the complex sentence structure of a Henry James (1843–1916) or William Faulkner (1897–1962) is almost impossible to reproduce successfully. Point of view is another difficulty, especially with first-person narration in a novel; film, by its very nature, tends to employ shifting viewpoints throughout and seem to be objective and external rather than internal. Few of these obstacles are ultimately insuperable; they involve a thorough rethinking by the scriptwriter and director and a readiness to substitute techniques appropriate to film for those less suited to it—for example, Harold Pinter's (b. 1930) and Karel Reisz's (1926–2002) film The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) after John Fowles's (1926–2005) novel.

Adaptations of short stories, on the other hand, present almost exactly opposite problems, for even a long (twenty- to thirty-page) story has to be expanded to fit the minimum ninety minutes of screen time. As a result, incidents barely referred to in the story may be expanded or others invented, new characters may be introduced, plot elements concocted, and brief conversations may be lengthened or new ones created. Though few classic stories can survive this treatment without severe distortion of the original work, some authors have occasionally been better served by adaptations of shorter works than by the treatment of their novels. The Fallen Idol (1948), directed by Carol Reed (1906–1976) from Graham Greene's (1904–1991) story "The Basement Room"; The Rockinghorse Winner (1950), directed by Anthony Pelissier (1912–1988) from the D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930) story; Tomorrow (1972), directed by Joseph Anthony (1912–1993) from the William Faulkner story; and The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton (1921–1995) from Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," are all at least the equal of the often more pretentious feature-length films made from the novels of these authors.

The work of almost every classic English novelist from Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) onward has been filmed at least once, and the same is true in America from James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) The Last of the Mohicans and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) onward. In France, Stendhal (1783–1842), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), Victor Hugo (1802–1885), and Zola have been constant favorites. Possibly the finest adaptations of French literature have been from the novels of Georges Bernanos (1888–1948), where Robert Bresson (1901–1999),

in Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950) and Mouchette (1967), has provided the perfect equivalent in cinematic terms of the mood, theme, and characterization of the originals, while Maurice Pialat's Sous le soleil de Satan (Under Satan's Sun, 1987) delivers great emotional power. The inherently "cinematic" novels of Georges Simenon (1903–1989) have been frequently filmed, in France and elsewhere, with Les fiançailles de M. Hire directed strikingly well by both Julien Duvivier (1896–1967) in Panique (Panic, 1946) and Patrice Leconte (b. 1947) in Monsieur Hire (1989).

Adaptations of classic Russian literature during the Soviet period tended to be hampered by excessive respect for the originals, though Sergei Bondarchuk's (1920–1994) version of Tolstoy's Vonya i mir (War and Peace, 1968)—like King Vidor's (1894–1982) American production in 1956—provided a certain degree of visual interest. Anna Karenina has also been frequently filmed, usually in simplified form, and used as a Garbo vehicle in 1935. Iosif Kheifit's film of Anton Chekhov's (1860–1904) story "The Lady with the Little Dog" (Dama s sobachkoy, 1960) was well received abroad. Most films of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's (1821–1881) fiction—including even Akira Kurosawa's (1910–1998) Hakuchi (The Idiot, 1951)— have been unmemorable, with the striking exception of Bresson's Quatre nuits d'un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1971), from the story "White Nights" (also filmed by Luchino Visconti [1906–1976] as Le notti bianche in 1957; restored version 1997) and, especially, Une femme douce (1968) from the story "A Gentle Creature," both of which, despite updating the settings, are typically near-perfect re-creations of mood, character, and theme, while being thoroughly "Bressonian" throughout.

From German literature, R. W. Fassbinder's (1946–1982) 1974 film of Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest surprised many with the director's unusually sober and restrained visual style and sympathetic treatment of the heroine's fate, both aspects re-creating the book with considerable effectiveness. And Eric Rohmer's (b. 1920) version of Heinrich von Kleist's novella "Die Marquise von O …" (The Marquise of O, 1970) transferred successfully to film the author's ironic and tongue-in-cheek presentation of the heroine's bizarre predicament in finding herself pregnant with no memory of any sexual encounter. Thomas Mann's (1875–1955) novella "Death in Venice" however, was controversially filmed by Visconti in 1971 (Morte a Venezia). Some critics gushed over the visual lushness of the setting and Dirk Bogarde's (1921–1999) fine performance, while others
objected to the liberties taken with the central character and the awkward attempts at conveying the aesthetic and philosophical themes of the story. By contrast, Visconti's earlier film of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's (1896–1957) Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), especially in its recent fully restored version in 1996, is a masterpiece both of filmmaking and adaptation, brilliantly re-creating both the period setting and the moral and political dilemmas faced by the main character. Other major Italian successes are Bernardo Bertolucci's (b. 1941) Strategia del rango (The Spider's Stratagem, 1970), from a story by Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), and Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970) from Alberto Moravia's (1907–1990) novel, with both films expressing their director's personal vision.

The first Japanese film to achieve international success, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), was based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927). The classic novels of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) and Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972) have provided source material for several films by Kon Ichikawa (b. 1915) and Mikio Naruse (1905–1969) respectively, while Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927–2001) has specialized in adapting the idiosyncratic fiction of Ko®ô Abe (1924–1993), with Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1964) becoming an international art house favorite.

Charles Dickens has been the most frequently filmed of classical English novelists, followed, especially in the 1990s, by Jane Austen, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and E. M. Forster (1879–1970). Each of Austen's six novels has been filmed, either for the cinema or for television, with the most acclaimed versions being Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995), Persuasion (Roger Michell, 1995), and the television Pride and Prejudice (also 1995), which compares favorably with the still popular 1940 version starring Greer Garson (1908–1996) and Laurence Olivier (1907–1989). The updating of Emma as Clueless (1995) retains many of Austen's themes but sets them in the context of a contemporary American high school.

The adaptations of E. M. Forster and Henry James by the team of Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and James Ivory (b. 1928) have often been dismissed as "Masterpiece Theatre" material for their emphasis on accuracy of costume and setting and their close adherence to the details of characterization and plot at the expense of deeper thematic concerns, thus providing merely an agreeable illustration of the text rather than an interpretation of it. Perhaps in reaction to the Merchant-Ivory approach, several recent versions of James's works have attempted to modernize and make explicit what is left unsaid, and to the reader's imagination, in the originals, most obviously in The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996) and The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997); Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999) has been accused of imposing an overtly political meaning on a nonpolitical text, and Vanity Fair (Mira Nair, 2004) turns William Makepeace Thackeray's (1811–1863) manipulative and possibly murderous Becky Sharp into a feminist heroine.

Other English classic authors frequently filmed include Emily (1818–1848) and Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), with William Wyler's (1902–1981) 1939 version of Wuthering Heights, despite dealing with only half of the book, being still the most powerful and atmospheric treatment, and the 1944 Jane Eyre maintaining its superiority to most recent versions. Thomas Hardy has been well served by Far from the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, 1967), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), and Jude (Michael Winterbottom, 1996). The exquisitely beautiful Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) catches perfectly the sense of waste and decay beneath the glittering surface of the worlds of high society and war central to Thackeray's novel. From the eighteenth century, Henry Fielding's (1707–1754) Tom Jones was filmed as a high-spirited romp by Tony Richardson (1928–1991) in 1963, an approach that captures one aspect of the novel but far from all of it, and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe has been filmed often, most surprisingly—and effectively—by Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) (Las adventuas de Robinson Crusoe, 1954).

Among the "moderns" Graham Greene heads the list, though his novels have rarely been filmed with much success apart from the 1947 Brighton Rock, and it is strange that so inherently cinematic a novelist should have been so poorly served on film. Of the two versions of The Quiet American (1958 and 2002) and The End of the Affair (1955 and 2004), the more recent of each title has been the more successful, but Greene still awaits his ideal adaptor. Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) and D. H. Lawrence, whose works have frequently been adapted to film, have rarely been re-created successfully. Alfred Hitchcock's (1899–1980) film of Secret Agent, titled Sabotage (1936), is more Hitchcock than Conrad, and Christopher Hampton's 1996 version is more respectful than inspired. Much the same is true of probably the best of the Lawrence adaptations, the 1960 Sons and Lovers, while Ken Russell's (b. 1927) Women in Love (1969) is better suited to fans of the director than of the author. The fiction of a supposedly lesser author, W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), has fared better.

Classic American fiction has been less fortunate, on the whole. Victor Sjöström's 1926 film of Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–1864) The Scarlet Letter, starring a luminous Lillian Gish, is still by far the best version of that book. Clarence Brown's (1890–1987) silent version of Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1920) is much superior to any later version, while films based on Mark Twain's (1835–1910) work, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938, 1968 [TV]) or The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn (1939, 1960, 1985 [TV]) have generally been intended for children. John Huston (1906–1987) made a brave but doomed attempt at Herman Melville's (1819–1891) Moby Dick in 1956; Billy Budd (1962), based on a much shorter work, directed by Peter Ustinov (1921–2004) and starring an appropriately angelic Terence Stamp (b. 1938), was more successful. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe have provided the basis for a whole series of films, notably for American International Pictures in the 1960s and 1970s, with few having much connection with the stories beyond the title, yet often, as with The Masque of the Red Death (1964) providing stylish and sophisticated entertainment. Edith Wharton's (1862–1937) The Age of Innocence was, somewhat unexpectedly, turned into a film in 1993 that was both very close to its source and yet paralleled Martin Scorsese's (b. 1942) more typical world of low-life gangsters with their own hierarchies, rituals, and penalties for refusing to conform.

The major figures of twentieth-century American fiction have also been unevenly treated. Faulkner's novels have generally proved remarkably resistant to adaptation, while Clarence Brown's Intruder in the Dust (1949), from one of the author's less complex works, was an effectively straightforward treatment. Films based on Ernest Hemingway's (1899–1961) fiction have fared best when they depart drastically from the original, as with Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) To Have and Have Not (1944) or Robert Siodmak's (1900–1973) expansion of the story The Killers (1946). John Steinbeck's (1902–1968) The Grapes of Wrath provided the basis for John Ford's classic but not particularly faithful film in 1940, and East of Eden (1955) is memorable mostly for the performance of James Dean (1931–1955) under the somewhat over-heated direction of Elia Kazan (1909–2003), who also directed (more sedately) F. Scott Fitzgerald's (1896–1940) unfinished The Last Tycoon (1976). Neither the 1949 nor the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is considered to be truly successful, despite the meticulous attention to period detail in the latter. The best films adapted from American literature, in fact, have come from works originally considered marginal or beneath serious literary attention.

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