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Examining The Adaptations Of Film Novels

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2470 words Published: 1st May 2017

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When approaching a film adaptation of a novel, it is important to consider the various differences between the two mediums. Adaptations are mostly criticised on the basis of the film’s fidelity to the original events of the novel “references are constantly made to what is ‘left out’ or ‘changed, instead of what is there.”, because more than often a “three hundred page novel is made into a two-three hour movie, and a great deal of content is sacrificed” [2] . Whilst screenwriters and filmmakers may attempt to remain faithful to the source novel, they must meet the requirements of the mass film public and a profit-driven industry to justify multi-million dollar production funding; thus a new work of art is often created to attract the largest possible viewing audience. “The fidelity issue overlooks the possibility of viewing cinematic adaptations as intertextual works and as critical interpretations of the literary text, which then enhance and expand our reading of the literary works. The film represents the filmmaker’s subjective understanding of the literary source.” [3] 

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Jane Austin’s novel, Pride and Prejudice and the 1995 tele-film of the same title is an example of an adaptation upon which is considered the most accurate and faithful to the novel, whereas Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor adapted into the film of the same title directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, has been modified in such a way that the movie is ultimately just a caricature of the writers semi-ordinary life. Each novel is written with a distinctive structure, lead by particular points of view, following characters with particular personalities, which the filmmaker must decide whether to directly recreate or alter to meet the demands of the medium.

“A well made film requires interpretation while a well made novel may only need understanding. The cinematic world invites-even requires conceptualisation. The images presented to us are narrational blueprints for a fiction that must be constructed by the viewer’s narrativity.” [4] 

In the case of American Splendor, the adapted product is different to the original product in that the film is a biopic depicting author Harvey Pekar’s life story, whereas in the original comic book series, although semi-autobiographical each comic is a separate story. The film focused on medial issues such as money-worries, car troubles and general anxieties which were adapted from the comic book series. The comics provide the audience with a caricature of their own everyday lives and insignificant concerns, rather than an imaginary world full of adventure and danger. The comics can also be seen to parody the American dream, mocking the usual acclaim for high social success. Because the original comic book series were semi-autobiographical it can be said that the adapted film stays faithful to the original product.

The film stayed faithful to the comic series by casting Paul Giamatti to play the despairing overweight, balding, scratchy voiced Harvey Pekar. This deliberate technique by the film makers allowed the film to create a surreal tone by introducing Pekar and his real friends and companions on the screen quite frequently next to the actors who are portraying them. Giamatti’s take on Harvey is so intense that when the real Harvey Pekar and Giamatti are juxtaposed in the same scene, separating them is almost impossible. His performance on screen is almost what we would expect the real Harvey to be doing in his own life. This technique brings an uncomplicated, personal touch to the film while still being faithful to the original series.

The use of the comic book aesthetic during the film is the most obvious feature adapted from the comic book series, the entire film could have been carried out within the confines of a comic panel like the original series, but this only happens when Pekar breaks the fourth wall, either by addressing the audience directly or when Pekar is being interviewed which is how it separates itself from the comic book series. This reinforces the idea that, through writing realistically about the world he lives in, he cannot escape his own comic book ideal.

The comic book series is written from the perspective of Harvey Pekar, demonstrating his ideals and his take of life. Although this is the same for the adaptation the narration can be seen to shift during the interview scenes and footage where the real Harvey Pekar enters. This type of storytelling can be considered ‘Commentary’ where “an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect. It could also be called a re-emphasis or re-structure…film can make an authentic reconstruction in the spirit of so many cinematic footnotes to the original.” [5] 

As an analytic tool, fidelity is the most influential key in analysing the adaptation American Splendor. Without the original comic book series, it would be quite hard to understand and comprehend the artistic value of the adapted film and its surrealistic tone. The original series gave the film a base point to work from. Morris Beja states that “Of course what a film takes from a book matters, but so does what it brings to a book…The resulting film is then not a betrayal and not a copy, not an illustration and not a departure. It is a work of art that relates to the book from which it derives, yet it is also independent, an artistic achievement that is in some mysterious way the ‘same’ as the book but also something other: perhaps something less but perhaps something more as well.” [6] The film adaptation of American Splendor stays faithful to its original series while also bringing something new which is ultimately what the adaptation process requires.

Whereas American Splendor is adapted in a different way to that of its original series, Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted many times into films and tele-movies although none capture the original work best then the 1995 telemovie of the same name.

To analyse any adaptation of Jane Austin’s work there will be strong criticism to staying faithful to the original work, in the case of the 1995 adaptation, it was highly benefitted by using the medium of television. By using the medium of television and creating a tele-movie less was sacrificed in adapting the novel which is a major key in its success, Morris Beja points out:

The original novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen is narrated by the omniscient voice of the author who narrates the life of the Bennet family through their fortunes and mishaps, the 1995 tele-movie adaptation stays faithful to this style of narration. Comparing this technique used by both mediums is a common example of how analysing an adaptation is often based on the fidelity to the original text.

“When a three hundred page novel is made into a two or three hour movie, a great deal will be sacrificed. Less will be lost in a television serial, to be sure, which may last from ten or even twelve hours… in one respect the quality of the experience in watching a serial television version of a novel will undeniably be closer to reading most novels than a feature film can be for it will be something we come back to periodically rather than a single sitting.” [7] The extended viewing time of the tele-movie allowed the characters relationships to develop and storyline to be revealed in a similar way to someone reading the novel.

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“The most critically acclaimed and popular of the recent Pride & Prejudice offerings, this 6-hour mini-series remains most true to the dialogue and characters of the novel. (Jennifer) Ehle portrays Lizzie Bennet as full of life and spirit, while still conforming to the standards of behaviour of the time. Colin Firth is a silent or briefly spoken presence. There are far fewer combinations of several characters into one, as is the case with many of the big screen offerings.The miniseries format allowed the scriptwriter (Andrew Davies) to make excellent use of the 327 minutes he had available, and to tell the story as we hope Jane Austen would have wanted it to be told.” [8] 

This review is one of many that state that the 1995 adaptation was a successful counterpart of the Jane Austin classic. Like this review The Times from 1995 says that “the fidelity to the original text is striking and where changes or additions have been made it is with a view to exposing a character, or adding humour or irony to a situation.” [9] Both these reviews and many others show that the main basis of the review is to compare the tele-movie to its original novel instead of judging the adaptation on its own merit, these comparisons will always be made to analyse an adaptation.

Austen’s novel has many social issues that continue into modern society such as social class and how is has continued to underline many issues throughout time such as male dominance. Austen shows the authority of men through Mr Bennet, Mr Darcy and Mr Collins and how they would use their dominance and power to create conforming and distinctive lives, Austen’s use of dialogue and the description reactions of women in the novel to show this. Whilst the tele-film positions the camera to accentuate their authority, i.e. looking up at the men.

Although this adaptation is said to be the most faithful, there are ways in which the tele-movie differs from the novel with additional scenes added too visually explain different emotions such as Darcy’s emotions towards Elizabeth. The novel leaves the reader and Elizabeth uncertain of these emotions whereas the adaptation uses additional visual hints to show how the character expresses his emotions. Although the dialogue is kept relatively the same, the telefilm uses its visual advantage to cast the characters to look the part for further emotional connection. These comparisons again show that most analysis’s focus on the fidelity between book and film and are the basis for their analysis.

It can be said that most modern audiences appeal to wit and sophistication, although in Austen’s time laughter and wit were seen as disrespectful and rude. The adaptation exaggerates the characters of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins and Miss Bingley in a comical fashion with the intent of exposing a character and to add some humour and irony to a situation to suit the modern audience, Mrs. Bennet is almost verging on hysteria in some of the early scenes.

To be able to analyze an adaptation without comparing it to its original text and whether or not it was faithful “we must abandon this preoccupation with the aspects of fidelity in adaptation and move onto the inspection of the cultural and social environment that influenced the production of the source text, and the circumstances in which the filmmaker worked, which all contribute to shape the film that ‘originates’ from the literary source. It is essential, therefore, to clarify the many sources and influences that are embedded in the film text.” [10] 

Christopher Orr stated that “the act of adapting a text from another medium is, in effect, the privileging or underlining of certain quotations within the film’s intertextual space…Thus the danger of fidelity criticism, even when it is dealing with the most ‘faithful’ of film adaptations, is that it impoverishes the film’s intertextuality either by ignoring the other codes that make the filmic text intelligible or by making those codes subservient to the code of a single precursor text. The ultimate effect of this critical process is the disavowal of the text as ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” [11] The adapted tele-film, although faithful still came across some fidelity criticism stated above, which highlight that the most common form of analysis is too compare.

When adapting a novel into a film, it is important to consider the differences of both the mediums and the mass audience of the new medium. Despite the fidelity of an adaptation potentially being questioned due to changes to characters, story structure and main themes, modifications and sacrifices are crucial in ensuring that the new work of art appeals to the mass audience of the new medium. In the case of the film, American Splendor, the dramatization of the authors life was the best possible way to adapt the comic series, whilst the television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was the most faithful adaptation to the novel which resulted in the adaptation being quite successful as it stayed true to the themes and content of the original novel. All adaptations will be compared to their original counterpart and analysed accordingly, although as Robert Stam states “the literary text is not a closed, but an open structure…to be reworked by a boundless context. The text feeds on and is fed into an infinitely permutating intertext, which is seen through the ever-shifting grids of interpretation.” [12] Ultimately it will depend on the original story and structure as to how the adaptation should be analysed.


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