Adaptation Or Translation?

Since the cinema’s invention, filmmakers have looked to literary sources for material.  This process has been called adaptation.  It’s a means of cinematic story telling that few filmmakers have not dabbled in.  In fact, it’s safe to say that some of the most highly regarded films ever made have been adaptations.  Few filmmakers rival John Huston’s skill and innovation in employing this tactic, though one can hardly claim that any of Huston’s film adaptations represent anything other than his own unique vision.  All of his films, from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Wise Blood (1979) exhibit a uniformity in technical style and social concern that negates any closer affiliation with the source material Huston draws upon.  Huston’s relationship with the novel represents the ideal form of film adaptation.  Quite literally, Huston changes and amends his source material, so that it no longer truly resembles a novel, in form or in content for the most part.  In Huston’s capable hands, a novel is adapted, taking on a new form and a new language with which to communicate to the masses in an entirely different medium of artistic expression, the film.

John Huston directing The Man Who Would Be King

Despite the artistry of the adaptation or its adaptor, critics and audiences still find it difficult to separate their evaluations of the film from the novel.  Almost everyone has complained at one time or another that the film did not follow the novel closely enough.  This kind of accusation and aesthetic ignorance provides the keystone to arguments against films such as David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1984) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1972).  These films, along with all others made following similar parameters, should not be considered in comparison with the novels on which they were based in regards to narrative content, but as the unique expressions of the filmmakers who have authored the adaptations.  The argument against the adaptation of novels into films ignores entirely the human tradition of classicism.  Of so many novels and films it can be said that there are only about a dozen stories, upon which there are a million or so variations.  This kind of classicism, and the perceptive critical thinking behind such criticism make evident the rudimentary argument against adaptation.

Those who stand in opposition of film adaptations of novels are not thinking in terms of adaptation, but in terms of translation.  By this I mean the exact replication of an author’s words into images on the screen.  To film a novel in this way, one would be forced to shoot in isolating close-ups and obscured wide shots, in effect, decontextualizing the characters who inhabit the narrative.  What the filmmaker cannot show is discarded, and what they can show is photographed so as to not add any extraneous data such as an object or background not described in the book.  A translation of this sort could not adhere to the conventions of narrative filmmaking, but would instead approximate the dissociative effects of Tony Conrad’s Flicker (1965) or Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959).  Such an approach to the novel would be no more effective than the adaptations of John Huston, but would however serve to reinvent the cinematographic langue so that it’s mechanisms begin to resemble those of the novel, or at the least, how the mind processes the information within a novel as one reads.


The proposed concept of translation from novel to film is an endeavor I plan to execute in the spring of this upcoming year.  The idea is to find a short story, then strip it down of all extraneous information that pertains to the psychological make up of its characters.  The film’s script will be written entirely with the nouns, dialogue, and verbs within the story after the initial purging.  In the editing, images will be aligned simply, utilizing numerous jump cuts from one image to the other, stopping only when there is a chapter break in the original story.  By testing my theory this way, I believe I will find a cinematic language that will allow both the sentimentally dramatic character arcs and the formalist approach to reflexivity in the film’s technical execution to coexist and better inform one another.

-Robert Curry


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Filed under Autumn 2012

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