Film Adaptation of Novels and Fidelity

“Adaptation is, however, frequently a specific process involving the transition from one genre to another: novel into film; drama into musical; the dramatization of prose narrative and prose fiction; or the inverse process of making drama into prose narrative” (Sanders 19). Since film is a fairly recent phenomenon, it has borrowed a great deal from other forms of expression. When one refers to the films, one is referring to narrative films alone, not documentaries or experimental films.

Although films are one of the youngest of the arts, they have absorbed the structure and forms of many older arts. Literary works are one of the most popular sources among film makers. Novel is mainly the one that provides fresh air for the film makers. Many film makers get inspired by reading novels. From the earlier days film adaptation has been nearly as common as the development of original screen plays. Novels are very frequently adapted for films.

Film has greater resources for expression than the novel and the film maker is free to use these resources but it is very interesting to see how he or she has actually used the resources. “While the novel is capable of the most supple forms of ironic double-voiced discourse, film’s multitrack nature makes it possible to stage ironic contradictions between music and image. Thus the cinema offers synergistic of disunity and disjunction not immediately available to the novel. The possible contradictions and tensions between tracks become an aesthetic resource, opening the way to a multi-temporal, polyrhythmic art form” (Stam 20).

After watching any film adaptation of a novel, one question arises in any mind i.e. ‘does it capture the spirit of the novel?’ fidelity to the original is a major criterion for judging any film adaptation. The vocabulary of adaptation is highly liable: Adrian Pool has offered an extensive list of terms to represent the Victorian era’s interest in reworking the artist’s past: “…borrowing, stealing, appropriating, inheriting, being influenced, inspired, dependent, haunted, possessed, homage, mimicry, travesty, echo, allusion and intertextuality.” One could continue the linguistic riff as-‘Interpretation, imitation, proximation, supplement, increment, improvisation, prequel, sequel, continuation, addition, paratext, hypertext, rewriting, reworking, refashioning, re-vision, re-evaluation.’ One rates how faithful has been the rendering of the novel into a film. What is absent and what additions are made by the director or the script writer or whether the actors are worthy or appropriate to deliver the lines that were originally written on papers. One rates the film inferior or superior according to the faithfulness or of the director to the writer. The most successful or big budget films also face the criticism like this- ‘It has lost much of the novel’s drive and originality’, ‘Its characters have been reduces to movie stereotype’ or ‘The film is not emotionally gripped as it should be’ one feel compelled to compare and contrast the film with the book which it shares the name. “Fidelity criticism depends on a notion of the text as having and rendering up to the (intelligent) reader a single, correct ‘meaning’ which the film-maker has either adhered to or in some sense violated or tampered with,” (McFarlane 8)

Few writers on adaptation have questioned the possibility of fidelity. The fidelity to the source novel is a viable choice for the film makers and a criterion for the critics. In asking whether there are guiding principles for the film makers adapting literature, Beja asked: “What relationship should a film have to the original source? Should it be faithful? Can it be? To what?” (Beja 80) Modern critical notions represent a more liberal and sophisticated approach for the adaptation. The novel is considered as a ‘resource’ for the film adaptation. As Christopher Orr remarks-“Within this critical context [i.e. of intertextuality], the issue is not whether the adapted film is faithful to its source, but rather how the choice of a specific source and how the approach to that source serve the film’s ideology” (Orr 74)

The issue of fidelity is a complex one and it encourages film makers to see it as a desirable goal in the adaptation of literary work. Some writers have proposed strategies which seek to categorise adaptations so that fidelity to the original lose some of its privileged position. Geoffrey Wagner suggests three possible categories:

    (1) “Transposition, ‘in which novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference’” (Wagner 222).

    (2) “Commentary, ‘where the original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect…when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation’” (Wagner 224)

    (3) “Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art’” (Wagner 226) .

Geoffrey Wagner has divided adaptations into three categories: transformation, commentary and analogy. A ‘transformation’ follows the novel closely; a ‘commentary’ alters the novel slightly, with a new emphasis or new structure; an ‘analogy’ uses the novel as a point of departure. Most of the adaptations of Austen’s novels have been transpositions. They include all or most of the characters in the novels, keep the main incidents of the novel, and use as much of the language as the screenwriter can manage, either as dialogue or voice-over narrative. The BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice is the prime example of this approach. Although Andrew Davies added some incidents and some dialogues, he did not deviate from the main course of action. Mansfield Park is an example of a ‘commentary’. It reinterprets the novel, using the historical time and the characters of the novel but altering in significant ways their nature and their motivation. The third category, the analogy, is well illustrated by Clueless. This film moves the characters from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, changes their names, and has them talk in ‘mall-speak.’ The film was marked for a youthful audience, most of whom did not connect the film to Jane Austen at all. It was appealing to this audience, but had an especial resonance for the viewer familiar with Emma (Parrill 9) .

Dudley Andrew also reduces the modes of relation between the film and its source novel to three categories. ‘Borrowing, intersection, and fidelity of transformation’ (Andrew 10) There is a third comparable classification system put forward by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker: “First, ‘fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative’; second, the approach which ‘retains the core of the structure of the narrative while significantly reinterpreting or, in some cases, deconstructing the source text’; and third, regarding ‘the source merely as raw material, as simply the occasion for an original work” (Klein 10). There are many kinds of relations which may exist between film and literature, and fidelity is one of them and it is most exciting also.

The demand for the fidelity ignores the process of film production and novel writing. “While a novelist’s choices are relatively unconstrained by considerations of budget - all the writer needs is time, talent, paper, and pen - films are from the outset immersed in technology and commerce. While novels are relatively unaffected by questions of budget, films are deeply immersed in material and financial contingencies…. While a novel can be written on napkins in prison, a film assumes a complex material infrastructure (camera, film stock, laboratories) simply in order to exist. While it costs almost nothing for a novelist to write…” (Stam 16) For the film, apart from budget, there are issues of talent of the actors, censorship, performance, screen writers and editors. Film making and particularly adaptation involves thousands of choices concerning budget and format. It is unimaginable that the five adaptations, even by directors with similar aesthetic inclinations, would even closely resemble one another. “For all these reasons, fidelity in adaptation is literally impossible. A filmic adaptation is automatically different and original due to the change of medium” (Stam 17).

Works Cited

1. Andrew, Dudley. "The Well-Worn Muse: Adaptation in Film History and Theory." Welsch, Syndy Conger and Janice R. Narrative Strategies . Macomb,Ill: West Illinois University Press, 1980. 10. Print.
2. Beja. Film and Literature . New York: Longman, 1979. Print.
3. Klein, Michael and Parker Gillian. The English Novel and Movie. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981. Print.
4. McFarlane, Brian. Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. New York: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.
5. Orr, Christopher. "The Discourse on Adaptation." Wide Angle (1984): 74. Print.
6. Parrill, Sue. "Why Jane Austen?" Parrill, Sue. Jane Austen on Film and Television: A critical Study of the Adaptations. London: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2002. 9. Print.
7. Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London and New York: Routledge Taylot & Francis Group, 2006. Print.
8. Stam, Robert and Alessandra Raengo ed. Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
9. Wagner, Geoffrey. The Novel and the Cinema . Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975. Print.

Dr. Jagdish S. Joshi, Associate Professor, UGC-ASC, Gujarat University, Ahmedabad
Prof. Narendra K. Patel, Assistant Professor of English, Shri P. K. Chaudhari Mahila Arts College, Gandhinagar