Adaptation – Rexamining Fidelity Criticism

Most film criticism dealing with adaptations of books focuses on how closely the film sticks to the book. In other words, an adaptation is often judged based on whether or not the film accurately recreates its source. And of course, many films do try to be faithful to their sources, and fidelity criticism can certainly be helpful in those cases to judge whether or not the filmmaker has succeeded in that goal. But if we make fidelity discourse the main approach to adaptation studies, we must figure out how to deal with, say, The Wizard of Oz. Or any of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, almost all of which take great liberties with their literary sources.

Robert Stam, in his article “The Dialogic of Adaptation,” suggests that we should perhaps consider a film adaptation not as a direct translation of it source into a new medium, but as a new work of art that has a dialogic relationship with its source–that is, the film becomes one of many possible readings of the film, not an attempt to convey the “one true meaning” of a book. After all, no matter how faithful a film tries to be, it never satisfies everyone in its audience, because the filmmaker’s vision cannot possibly match the picture each audience member has imagined while reading the book–there are too many possible nuanced readings. Take the Harry Potter films. I personally felt that Alfonso Cuaron captured a lot more of the wonder and surprisingness of the books in his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, not to mention got much better performances out of his actors and overall created a better film, than did Chris Columbus out of the first two books–Columbus’s versions were certainly more faithful to the letter of the book, but they were relatively mundune. Many Potter fans disagree with me vehemently.

I really believe that Stam’s approach is better, but I do struggle with nuances. It seems that every time I come up with what I think is going to my unified underlying theory of adaptation, a little voice pops into my head saying “but what about THIS film?” Brian McFarlane’s introduction to his book Novel to Film was somewhat helpful, suggesting that critics must first try to figure out what type of adaptation the filmmaker is attempting before we can begin to judge whether or not it has been successful. Different theorists break down the types in different ways, but they generally group adaptations into three groups: one group that tries to be faithful to the source, one group that is generally faithful but modifies the source somewhat according the filmmaker’s personal goals, and one group that uses the source largely as an inspiration to create something else. The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth is a good example of the first type, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park is of the second type, and something like O Brother Where Art Thou (The Odyssey in Depression-era South) would be of the third type.

When I first started thinking about this, I think I was coming from the wrong direction. That is, I was trying to figure out what sort of adaptation the filmmakers should be trying to do. But, as a critic, I can’t control that…at least, not directly. What I can do is try to discern what the filmmaker is doing, and how well he or she is able to do it. One of the things that has stuck with me from a Film Criticism course I took in college is a set of three questions that a critic can use to start evaluating a film. The first question is: “What is the filmmaker trying to accomplish?” The second follows it: “How well does he or she succeed?” Only in the third question do we get: “Was it worth doing?” Now, I find the third question to be more subjective than the first two, and veer into the range of “did I like it” a little more than “was it good.” I know that’s a little simplistic, because there are films that I don’t think were worthwhile, but as I think of it, generally I think that because it’s been done before. Starting from these questions, strict fidelity criticism is dead in the water, because it assumes the answer to the first question before it has even been asked: The filmmaker is, or should be, trying to accomplish a faithful rendition of the source. The fidelity critic only gets to answer the second question, and only in light of the assumption of the first–an assumption that may or may not be an accurate representation of that the filmmaker was actually trying to do. The third question doesn’t even need to be asked, because the entire program of fidelity criticism is based aroud the idea that making a faithful redition is the only possible goal in adaptation.

Okay. I’ve established, to my own mind at least (and writing is partially a means of establishing things to myself), that concerns of fidelity are only part of what should be a much larger, more comprehensive theory of adaptation. I’m still not sure exactly what part that should be–I’m still struggling myself with questions of whether I prefer faithful adaptations or not. I’m leaning toward not, at the moment; if I’ve read a book, and I go to see the movie, I want to see what the filmmaker saw differently than I did. If the film gives me exactly what I saw, there’s nothing new added to my understanding or experience of the book, and what’s the point in that? I praised the film version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe last Christmas, but even right after I saw it, I had internal reservations. Unfortunately, I can’t prove that, because I didn’t write any of them down. But my major reaction after seeing it was “well, at least they didn’t screw it up.” Which is true, they didn’t–because the movie stuck so closely to the book (outside of changing the pacing a bit for cinematic excitement) that I didn’t see any of the filmmaker’s personality shining through, and it felt like a rote exercise in translation. There’s no way in which it was bad, but I have no desire to watch it again, because it neither recreated my individual experience of reading the book nor gave me an insight into someone else’s.

Yet, at the same time, when Peter Jackson changed Faramir’s character in Return of the King, making him try to take the Ring from Frodo, I was vastly upset–the whole point of Faramir’s character in the novel is to show that there are good men left in Gondor, men who aren’t greedy and who don’t try to take power themselves. Jackson made him Boromir II, and I hated that. But, Jackson needed to add some conflict into that part of the film, from a cinematic point of view, and he chose to do so by compromising Faramir. And it does work in the film, and if I hadn’t read the books, it would’ve felt right–so the only reason it bothered me is because it conflicted with my reading of the book, and of the purpose of Faramir’s character. Perhaps Jackson always felt it would be better to have only Aragorn be truly good, and he incorporates that in–as auteur of his films, is that not his prerogative?

And that brings up the whole question of author vs. auteur, author being of course the author of the original source work, and auteur being the main creative force behind the film, usually the director. (The auteur theory was first propounded by the critics of the journal Cahiers du Cinema in Paris in the 1950s; it was primarily influential in the 1960s, but is still one of the five or six most accepted critical theories, along with genre theory, Marxist theory, feminist theory, and psychoanalytic approaches–most critics now will use combinations of all of the above. I tend toward a combination of auteur theory and genre theory myself.) Both the author and auteur are the creators of works of art. If we are to maintain the idea that film is not a lesser art than literature, and I do maintain that, then we also cannot elevate the author of a novel over the auteur of a film. As one screenwriter has put it, “Every adaptation is a new original.” But even if a filmmaker is an equal artist to an author, does not the author have primacy, at least in the sense of having come first? Part of me says, yes, of course…but another part doesn’t want to be held to that in a qualitative sense (i.e., I don’t want to have to say that the filmmaker’s work is somehow lessened because it’s derivative, and I don’t want to automatically give the novel higher value than the film just because it came first).

One of the questions that came up when discussing adaptation in class was “how does the film affect the book.” The idea behind it is, if people see a film version of a book before they read the book (or, indeed, without reading the book at all), how does that affect them in terms of their preconceptions and understanding of the book, and if the film is a hit and perhaps takes on a life of its own outside of the book, how does that affect the cultural understanding of the book in the future. This is actually a huge question that I probably won’t take on in papers anytime soon, because there are so many ramifications that I hardly know where to begin thinking about it myself, much less trying to express what I think about it. Really, if you think about the reasons that a film should be faithful to its source, the two main ones are audience-based–one based on an audience familiar with the book, the other based on an audience not familiar with the book. The first audience wants faithful adaptations because they want to re-experience the book they love. The second audience perhaps needs faithful adaptations because otherwise, they’ll get an incorrect view of the book, and thus either assume the book is something it isn’t, or dislike the book if they do read it. Now, in both cases, we’re coming from a point of view that wants audiences to like both the book and film, which I do.

Take as an example the Mansfield Park adaptation mentioned above. This film caused a furor among Jane Austen fans when it was released in 1999 for two reasons. It graphically emphasizes the slavery that undergirds the ecomonics of Mansfield Park, and element that is barely implicit in the original novel. Director Rozema didn’t just make this up, though–the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park has been a hotly debated subject in academic literary journals for a while now. Rozema just take the readings of certain literary theorists and incorporates them into her film. Secondly, she combines the main character Fanny Price with the young Jane Austen revealed in Austen’s letters and journals. The Fanny of the film is really quite different from the Fanny of the novel. Now. Many Austen fans simply hate this version of Mansfield Park because it gives a false impression of the book. I must admit that I haven’t read the book, and thus probably shouldn’t comment, but I thought it was one of the most interesting Austen adaptations of the past ten years, simply because it is so daring and unconventional. But what happens to Austen’s book, if the film becomes more widely seen than the book is read? (The film wasn’t a hit, so this is sort of a moot point in this particular case, but it wasn’t in, say, the case of The Wizard of Oz.) I don’t know. Is it dishonest of Rozema to call her film Mansfield Park, when really, it should be A Post-Theory Reading of Mansfield Park With the Added Bonus of Jane Austen’s Youthful Persona? Again, I don’t know. I don’t find it dishonest because I know what she’s doing. But what about all the audience members who don’t, and now think that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is anti-slavery and has a super-spunky heroine (the book’s Fanny Price is actually meeker than any of Austen’s other heroines)? In terms of them, has Rozema betrayed Austen?

To bring another perspective on the question, how does our perception change when the author of a book modifies his sources for his own purposes. Great example here is Sir Thomas Malory, the author of one of the definitive King Arthur books, Le Morte Darthur. Malory explicitly claims to be drawing from “the French book,” yet all scholars agree that he uses five or six different sources both French and English, combining them together, cutting out what he doesn’t want to use, adding in some things of his own, etc. In fact, many times when he specifically says he is getting something from the French book, it’s actually something he made up himself. Yet hardly anyone would argue that Malory has betrayed his sources or believe that Malory has misled his audience, who will expect something different from the French Queste du Saint-graal based on Malory’s verson of the Holy Grail story. Why should Rozema’s reworking of Mansfield Park be treated differently? And I’m sorry, I don’t believe that answers like “because Malory’s book is 600 years old” work–I understand the logic that separates classic from non-classic, but primacy based on age and media is precisely what I’m trying to move away from, as I attempt to mentally pare down the question to its most essential elements: both Malory and Rozema modified their sources to serve their own ends, hence they should not be seen differently. Yet they are.

Anyone who’s made it to the end of this, please feel free to share your thoughts on the last couple of paragraphs, especially–that’s where I’m really confusing myself. Should a filmmaker be totally guided by how the audience is going to react to his film because of their love of the book, or by how the audience is going to react to his source because they see his film first? I think not, but I’m not sure how far to take that. Basically, I think I’m uncomfortable limiting artists because their audience might no understand what they’re doing.


Grad Student Nuggets


October recap


  1. There is something about this post that makes me want to laugh. Nothing in itself. Just that, when you wrote it and still now, “Bride and Prejudice” is being promoted on the side column.

  2. There is something about this post that makes me want to laugh. Nothing in itself. Just that, when you wrote it and still now, “Bride and Prejudice” is being promoted on the side column.

  3. Heh…it’s being promoted in the side column because I put it there. It would be have been terribly perceptive of Amazon to have chosen it, though, wouldn’t it? I’m not quite willing to give Amazon the reins yet on choosing what products get promoted in my sidebar.

  4. Heh…it’s being promoted in the side column because I put it there. It would be have been terribly perceptive of Amazon to have chosen it, though, wouldn’t it? I’m not quite willing to give Amazon the reins yet on choosing what products get promoted in my sidebar.

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