Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Playback Tuesday: Adaptation

I started working on this and realized that this post will need to be divided into two parts: 1) the screenplay and the movie, and 2) the production notes. The two parts will be posted on the following two Tuesdays. For now I'd like to talk a little bit about my own personal musings on the often brought up subject of the book versus the movie. I always feel a sort of trepidation when I find out that a movie is going to be made based on a book that I've read. It's okay if it is one that I haven't, but the audacity of someone taking my mental creations of settings and characters turning them into some concrete visual version makes me anxious. It's the attempt to transform words that resided within the boundaries of my mind into monopolizing visuals that create a shared, depersonalized version of "my" envisioned story. I worry that the movie will come short of my high expectations. Must I accept the house in the film as the one the characters live in? Those are the clothes? The actors, are they now the characters? Is Kate Winslet to dethrone my own made up Marianne Dashwood? Can Hugh Grant replace my Edward Ferrars? Selfishness I know. For the playwright there must be some sense of madness. To be expected to take works of literature that are word bound and to make them into a visual tapestry. Oh the horror, the horror. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the task itself is demanding, it took Emma Thompson five years to write the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. The following two Tuesdays will about analyzing the screenplay (and to a lesser extent the film itself), and exploring Emma Thompson's production journal. I feel very greatful when film writers, actors, producers, or director's write a running commentary of the actual making of a film. So, next Tuesday I will attempt to dig deeper into one film, one writer's journey and challenges.


  1. Am I the only person who doesn't have this problem? I really feel like the movie gives me a visual scene that I didn't have before, its not a horror its a gift. Which brings me to this question - is it common that fiction writers are emotionally tied to their own perceptions of how a character or scene looks? Is that really the problem with film or is it something else, possibly the difficulty of capturing the emotions, thoughts, and feelings without an omniscient narrator to help us out?

  2. You bring up good some good points. I think that, for me at least, there are some books that I feel more of a connection to. Jane Austin is an author that I've read since middle school, and possibly it is that personal connection to it that led me to create my own version of each story in my head. I doubt that you are the only person who doesn't have a problem getting hung up on differentiating between the book and the film. I do believe that a lot of fiction writers are emotionally tied to their own perceptions of how a character or scene looks...it is their story that they are recreating, and I find it hard to believe that they don't feel as if they understand each facial expression of a character, or the environment in which they live. They have to, don't you think? In fiction, they are the creator of a world...they are the god of what happens and what doesn't and how it all comes about. They are the ones who have labored months/years to create something, so yes I believe that they are intimate and a lot of times protective over their work.
    One of the reasons why I liked the Hours so much was because of the opportunity to hear the director commentary in which the author of the pulitzer winning book was also present. And he talked about how a lot of writers he talked to who had their book adapted to film were unhappy. He talked about how the challenges of film (the difficulty of capturing the emotions, thoughts, and feelings...as you say in you comment above) can, and often do conflict with the original written work. For instance, an example is time of location...for the film they had to shoot some scenes in the spring, despite the fact that in the book they were in the winter...and because some of the characters were "period specific" locations had to be changed (simply because the London in 1941 is completely different than London in 2001...which is when the film was shot). Even personalities were subject to change based on an actor's perceived notion of a character...for instance an actor decided to play his character as a cantankerous older man dying from aids, versus the authors portrayal of the man as more of class clown who approaches his predicament with humor.
    It's these little changes that do separate the film from the book and vise versa. It is also these changes from the book that made the film work. If that makes any sense. And luckily, the author understood this. He understood that his idea, his book, could stand alone from the film, and the film could stand alone from the book. That adaptations do just that...adapt, evolve. His book when put to film evolved into something different, though similar. And I feel as if that is an important thing to note, and admire. A lesson for me, to understand that the film version doesn't have to compete with the book version. They both can stand alone and be judged for they are and what they are not. That just because a film falls short of my love for the book, may mean not so much that the book was better than the film, but that the film just wasn't good.
    I appreciate your comment. I think I failed to make that last part clear.

  3. I think you've got some good thoughts, but I'm not sure that an author has to know exactly what a character or scene looks like. You fell that they have to because they "create the world" because they are "god". Our thoughts, memories, daydreams, etc rarely have perfect structures free of contradiction - and beyond that its impossible to completely imagine a scene, character, object, etc down to the finest detail. Some things have to be left out that's certain- so I think its a mistake to argue that an author must know what a house or landscape, or character looks like on the basis that they "are god" or "know the entire story". They don't know the entire story to the finest detail - an author can't be god, not even of their own creation.

    So the obvious conclusion is that an author can only have incomplete ideas about how a character, object, or landscape looks (or thinks/feels/etc in the case of a character) - and it seems likely that the degree of generality/specificity (and areas where increased specificity are located) would vary from author to author.

    That said its obviously possible that a character or scene can violate an author's (or reader's) general sense of that event. Which is why your point that the film needs to stand on its own rather than being some sort of platonic imitation is absolutely necessary.

  4. I think that there are authors that will argue that they can see many more details than make into the final manuscript. Perhaps it is impossible to see every "finest detail," but I disagree that authors don't need to know there characters in a god like way. In fact, a lot of exercises that writers undertake try to get them to see/create as many details as they can to get to their final product. In terms of film, you can best believe that even the smallest details, from the button on the character's jacket to the trim of the house are give long and thoughtful consideration. The difference between film details and book details is that in film those tasks are (usually) split up and given to multiple people. In novels it is up to one person. But I do think that those details are considered. I think that if "an author [has an] incomplete idea about a character, or object, or landscape looks" then so does the audience. I encourage you to read some novels and tell me if you are able to get those things from it, and are they incomplete? I think that usually they are not, because communicating characters and stories to an audience who can't visually see what you are talking about, but must imagine it--from out of their own life experiences--is no small or easy task. I will not deny that there are novels that attempt to do away with all of that, but even those efforts seem experimental. A departure from "the norm," from what a writer wants to communicate and can because of his own detailed knowledge of a character.

  5. Let's approach it from this angle- you as an actor are in some ways an author in that you create certain levels of character history, motivation, emotion, feeling, etc. Have you ever had an omnicient understanding of a character you played? Do you really imagine that its even remotely possible? The depths of both the human mind and the physical world are infinite - and you are stuck with only the potential for finite understanding. I don't think we can even understand our own bodies or minds in a god-like way.

    Now I would agree that many writers try to understands a character as much as possible -- but will a writer know what theire fingerpring looks like or how strong their knee cartilidge is? I'd guess that the answer is only if those details are necessary to the "events" of the narrative. Further, any character is to some extent a product of, reflection of, and response to a very detailed and particular histories - and to claim to fully understand any history would clearly be a ridiculous statement.

    In a way this might be an area where criticism is important. It can reminds us that we don't know and can't know everything. That we are faced with a complexity we can't understand and couldn't communicate even if we did.

    To your challenge: I don't think I've ever read or heard a complete description of anything - but I will read something soon and show how its incomplete if you will.

    In the end a god-like understanding seems absurdly impossible to me. When we aren't even sure what makes a human a human - I can't imagine trying to say what makes Captin Ahab himself.

  6. I don't think authors have a "god" like understanding of their characters, But I’d say they have a much better image of them than what you would give them credit for, John. You don't have any reservations about book characters turned into movie characters because, more than likely you haven't developed an image in your mind of what that character looks like. Because your mind doesn't process visual images as you read. Mine doesn't really do that either.
    Your argument about daydreams not necessarily having structure and detail isn't entirely relevant. If you spent months or years developing your daydream as an author develops a novel, I’m sure you'd have quite a few ideas as to the details of your daydream.

  7. When trying to decide whether authors have a better understandin then I give them credit for I came to a couple thoughts. First was this: how can we judge the relative amount of understanding in regards to an infinite character - you can't - nothing can be divided by infinity. But more importantly that led to these questions and this is what everything really might hinge on: Do characters actually posess infinite depths? Can a character have a "natural inclination, peronality, movtivation, etc" strong enough to make the person as theoretically real as you or I?

    Some CIA agents have the task of taking various individuals and creating personality profiles (super-specific stereotypes) of them and later using those assesments to guess how they might react in various situations. Sometiems they mess up, because they can't know the "whole person" (assuming there is such a thing as a whole person- and thats an important issu in this line of thought as well). Can there be a definitive and complete "nature" to a human? A literary invention? How does the answer to this question change the way we judge the aesthetics of literature/film/theatre? I think everything that's been discussed so far might be necessarily dependent on our answers to those questions.

  8. It's not about dividing by infinity. It's adding to a parallel unit in hopes of getting closer to infinity. I'll never get there but if I add 3 units of understanding to my concept of an object that is infinite I have an advanced understanding of that object of 3 units.

    I think a character can have all the likeness of a real person in the mind of a reader or author. I can tell you a story about a character and I can tell you a story about a real person, you wouldn't know the difference. You could have the same thoughts about both. We make up our own personality and motivation for real people. For instance, we assume Brian Kelly would take the job at Notre Dame because he could make more money, and it is a more prestigious position. We are assuming he is motivated by money and fame. We can make the same assumptions about characters.

  9. Right, we fill in the gaps for real people, people we know, even intimately (maybe even with ourselves) with educated guesses of generalizatioins that to simple even if semi-accurate. We can do the same with characters. But real people (presumably) have a "true" or "real" character that is beyond our understanding - can a character have this? I don't know? Even if a character could, an author couldn't control it because it would be essentially unknowable (so there's something god-like in that sense, but its about the invention not the inventor- though the inventor could have the trait as well). This question can turn legal. Can Jewish or Islamic law have a "true character" of its own? What about American law? What about paintings and sculptures? Computer Chess players? Me and you? God? I really have no idea - but the more I think about this the more the idea of having a "real, true, and complete character" seems to be under assault.

  10. And while your parallel unit works its not really a perfect answer. Your closer if you look at it that way, but no matter how many units closer (or further away) you go, you remain infinitely far away - no closer. There is a legitimate paradox here both in the "math" and our perception of our lived experience. If we denied the possibility of an infinite "nature" we could resolve the paradaox . . . it doesn't feel right, but maybe its the way to go.

  11. I am glad to see that a vigorous debate has reached philosophical levels, although I shouldn't be surprised. Anytime we enter into discussion about the "god-like" qualities of humans, especially assuming that human beings are being compared to a god that is infallible and omniscient then debate is sure to arise. I usually have no problem comparing humans to god--as equals--but that just reflects my blasphemous mind. I don't necessarily believe that even god himself can predict the actions of the humans that he created (which again reflects my own beliefs about god). Therefore, I need to reflect more upon whether or not is fair to assume that authors can do so. I do believe however that even if a creator can't fully predict or know their creation, they must be better at it than someone who did not. Now do I believe that god created humans? Well in this argument for the sake of convenience I hinted that he did...which points to my own laziness when it comes to picking apart the philosophical/religious underpinnings of the world. I am finding myself much more content to make statements...however flawed...and to allow others to critique them. So, again, I am excited about how this discussion is shaping up. I am sure that I will have many more statements/comments that will need thorough critiques.