We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

More thoughts on film adaptations: typologies · 26 September 07

Dear Harriet,

Yesterday I used part of my three hour break to read a student text intended to teach the student how to write about film adaptations of novels. It’s excellent if not exactly to my purpose as it excludes mini-series: John H. Desmond & Peter Hawkes’s Adaptation: Studying film and Literature.

They propose another apparently simpler terminology for the types of film adaptation I’ve singled out: my group of 10 “faithful” Austen films become “close” adaptations.

1) 1971 BBC Persuasion;
2) 1972 BBC Emma;
3) 1979-80 BBC Pride and Prejudice;
4) 1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility;
5) 1983 BBC Mansfield Park;
6) 1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice;
7) 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility;
8) 1995 BBC Persuasion;
9) 1996 Meridian/A&E ITV Emma;
10) 2007 ITV (Granada in association with WBGH) Northanger Abbey.

My group of 7 “analogous” or “critical” Austen films would be called “intermediate” adaptations.

1) 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice;
2) 1987 BBC Northanger Abbey;
3) 1996 Miramax Emma;
4) 1999 Miramax Mansfield Park;
5) 2005 Universal Pride and Prejudice;
6) 2007 ITV (Company in association with WBGH) Mansfield Park;
7) 2007 ITV (Clerkenwell in association with WBGH) Persuasion.

My group of 10 free Austen films would be called “loose” adaptations:

1) 1980 James Ivory and Ismail Merchant Jane Austen in Manhattan (Sir Charles Grandison, a brief parodic play sometimes attributed to Jane Austen [Brian Southam’s attribution is disputed by Margaret Anne Doody], combined with lines from Samuel Richardon’s Sir Charles Grandison)
2) 1990 Westerly Metropolitan (Mansfield Park, with borrowing from Emma & allusions to Persuasion)
3) 1993 Republic Ruby in Paradise (Northanger Abbey)
4) 1995 Paramount Clueless (Emma)
5) 1998 Warner You’ve Got Mail (Pride and Prejudice)
6) 1998 Westerly Last Days of Disco (Emma & Sense and Sensibility)
7) 2000 Sri Surya Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it (Sense and Sensibility)
8) 2001 Miramax Columbia Tristar Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice)
9) 2004 Miramax Columbia Tristar Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Pride and Prejudice, with borrowing from Emma, & allusions to Persuasion)
10) 2004 Pathe Bride and Prejudice (Pride and Prejudice).

The problem is Desmond & Hawkes drop from their terminology language which makes visible the criteria of fidelity I use to distinguish the three types. By faithful I mean literal transposition of plot hinge-points, keeping most major characters, important crises, dialogue, themes. By analogous I mean the film-makers drop hinge-points or characters, change enunciations1 and alter the book’s themes, even radically. By free I mean a transposition into modern or other era terms which keeps only enough idiosyncratic elements of the major story and characters to be recognizably partly derived from the book.

Yet I know how hard even keeping to these criteria it is to decide whether a film is faithful or analogous using the criteria of fidelity. I’ve written drafts of a paper showing how often the 1979 BBC P&P (script written by Fay Weldon) and also the 2007 Granda/WBGH NA (script written by Andrew Davies) depart from Austen’s texts, and how thematically and also as to hinge-points, situations, and characters the 1986 BBC NA (script written by Maggie Wadey) is a radical departure. Yet the literal language from Austen’s books dominates the 1979 P&P far more than it does any of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations. Surely continual use of the literal language in the original book throughout a film constitutes fidelity? A comparison of the 1986 NA and the 2007 NA showed far more of the original book’s language was used in the 1986 earlier adaptation (whose literal plot and character departures made it much decried as not faithful) than the recent 2007 one (praised as faithful). So what kind of fidelity counts?

One has also to re-see these films again and again and take notes too before even beginning to decide, for films leave false impressions on us the first and even subsequent times unless we make ourselves alert and study them somehow. We are so mesmerized by the experience itself.

So I now think the 1996 Miramax Emma (script written by Douglas McGrath, starring Gweneth Paltrow as Emma) is an analogous not faithful film adaptation. I originally placed this Emma in the faithful group. I have now rewatched it, took notes and looked out for hinge points, & noted changes in characters that are major, and different enunciations. The 1996 Miramax Emma changes many of the incidents in the middle of the story, reverses hinge-point sequences of events (so Harriet is told Emma is engaged to Mr Knightley before she reunites with Mr Martin) and has different enunciations so is not the faithful type. Yet I watched it twice before (though taking no notes, so giving no close attention) and didn’t get the real differences between it and the Merdian/A&E 1996 Emma (script written by Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma). The reason: in the 1996 Mirmax Emma important climactic events are closely adhered to: it has the opening part of the Harriet Smith story, the insult of Miss Bates, Mr Knightley’s anger at Emma’s separating Harriet from Mr Martin and his later anguished scolding over Emma’s treatment of Miss Bates, and very importantly the long moving proposal scene between Mr Knightley and Emma (and Jeremy Northam is very moving). Perhaps then “intermediate” is a better term than “analogous and critical” as it implies no thematic agenda and drops deciding over which kinds of fidelity should count more.

I’ve just finished watching the 3rd part of the 1974 BBC Pallisers (scripts by Simon Raven, directed by Hugh David & Ronald Wilson, producer throughout Martin Lisemore). This 26 part mini-series (mini seems a wrong term) is a vast cycle of individual plays, and I’m beginning to see here my terminlogy’s inadequate. Raven ranges across the novels, reweaving parts of the 6 novels into other of the novels, redramatizing or dramatizing in the first place (Anthony Trollope so often tells rather than shows), changing characters too in what they do, altering themes too, adding an important character from another book, and yet seeming faithful to all the books but The Eustace Diamonds and The Duke’s Children. Probably on the whole Ravens’ series would come in somewhere between faithful or analogous/critical, and the best term would be intermediate.

It does seem to me that Davies is ever doing the faithful type and in a way it’s angering if one cares about not only Austen’s text but what Austen praises because he then gets away with changes that are irritating—like the condemning of Radcliffe and substitution of The Monk in the 2007 NA. I begin to wonder what he did with the 2001 BBC The Way We Live Now (directed by David Yates) and the 2004 BBC Wales/WBGH He Knew He Was Right (directed by Tom Vaughn). As far as I know there has been no proper study of these.

So should I change my terminology? Well, I’ve been intrigued by John LeCarre’s description of what he thinks “the job of the movie” adaptation of one of his books (The Constant Gardener)is “as far as I am concerned, the novelist:”

“the job of the movie … is to take the minimum intention of the novel and illustrate it with the maximum of freedom in movie language in movie grammar.”

LeCarre says of Francois Mereilles, Simon Channing-Williams and Jeffrey Caine’s film, The Constant Gardener: “there’s hardly a line left, there is hardly a scene intact in the movie that comes from my novel, yet I don’t know of a better translation from novel to film.”

Having read the book four times (and skimmed many more), read the screenplay at least two (and also skimmed), and listened to an abridged text of the book read by LeCarre himself, I realize there speaks the novelist who remembers his book very well. In fact, I’d use Desmond and Hawkes’s term, “intermediate” to characterize the movie.

It seems to me “intermediate” does work better for modern books, and should perhaps be used for those mini-series film adaptations where the film-makers are translating a cycle of novels or one shortish one into many one hour episodes. By listening to a beautifully read audiocasette reading of the first of the Raj Quartet (The Jewell in the Crown, read by Sam Dastor), I’ve found how startling different is the arrangement and enunciation of the 1984 Granada Jewell in the Crown (deviser Irene Shubrik, script written by Ken Taylor, directors Jim O’Brien, Christopher Morahan, producer Martin Lisemore) from Scott’s 4 books. Taylor had to do the same sort of free rearrangement and reweaving and different dramatizing as Raven.

By skimming H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia and watching 5 (thus far) of the 13 episodes of 1977 Love for Lydia (script Julian Bond, directors Tony Wharmby and John Glenister), I’ve discovered that they indeed did just what LeCarre said: “minimum intention of the novel illustrated with a maximum of freedom in movie language in movie grammar.” I’ve a hunch I’ll find the same when I finally begin to watch the much acclaimed Granada 1981 film Brideshead Revisited (scripted by John Mortimer, directors Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Charles Sturridge, producer Derek Granger). Mortimer will have done what Bond did: filled it out filmically.

So perhaps I should expand or change my terminology: faithful, intermediate, and free. Intermediate adaptations would have different variants as do free adaptations (some transpositions, others intersections, some independent films, some commercial products for a mass audience) and faithful (some mini-series, and some singletons). I still don’t like “loose.” It’s too vague. They are not simply loose: they are very free.


1 By “enunciation” (the term is Brian MacFarlane’s) I mean the way an incident is dramatized, as when at the close of the Clerkenwell/WBGH 2007 Persuasion (script written by Simon Burke, the director Adrian Shergold, starring Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot), the ending was dramatized differently.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I’ve been trying to think over these fascinating ideas, but don’t come to any conclusions – I suppose my feeling is to use whichever terminology you feel is most accurate and find works best. It sounds as if there are advantages to both.

    I’m intrigued by your question about what kind of fidelity counts.

    I do agree that the language is essential in keeping to a faithful adaptation – when you see a version of a classic where the language is largely ditched, then the spirit of the original is largely gone too. This has been the case with the recent free versions of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘North and South’ by Sandy Welch – I did enjoy both of these very much, feeling a little guilty as I did so, yet I missed the authors’ language.

    Having said that, I have seen adaptations which seem to stay close to the literal details of a book and yet somehow lose the spirit of it (some of the stodgier and fussier old BBC Dickens adaptations fell into this category), and others which are freer but do somehow capture a feeling – again with Dickens, who is running in my mind at the moment, the recent TV ‘Oliver Twist’ with Robert Lindsay featured wild, raucous scenes in a pub with Nancy and other prostitutes, which aren’t in the book – and which yet somehow felt right to me, possibly raising this version above the more obviously faithful (and even more recent) Roman Polanski movie.

    With Dickens, I’m aware that an extra question for me is whether the adaptations are at all like the illustrations, as these are such a strong part of the reading experience (or were for me, anyway.) The old black-and-white David Lean ‘Oliver Twist’ is dismaying in many ways, in particular because it sticks to the anti-Semitic caricature of Fagin, but it does seem to bring Cruikshank’s illustrations to life and the cinematographers could call on those old, dark London streets which have now vanished forever.
    I don’t think there are any illustrations which are so important for Austen, but it may be more of a question for Trollope – with all the illustrations you discuss in your book.

    Apologies for going off at tangents here. But that’s often the way I think.:)
    Judy    Sep 28, 4:28pm    #
  2. Dear Judy,

    I devised my categories also keeping in mind how it seems most or many other people react to film adaptations. So my first criteria for faithfulness (hinge-points or central plot-design events, the same characters, important cruxes or scenes thematically) are those I think many people use without examining what they are using. Davies is called faithful because he adheres to the remembered central events of the stories, the character types, famous scenes. The recent Persuasion was mocked because it deviated in a literal way from the conclusion of Austen's book.

    I also have to admit that this literalness counts for intelligent approaches too. It may be said that Davies’s (1995) P&P is more faithful than Weldon’s (1979) P&P from this perspective. So since both adhere a lot to the literal events and characters, though she transposes dialogue to other characters and changes personalities and themes, even if she keeps more of the original language, you don’t have a paradox.

    But there can be a contradiction or tension between linguistic and event faithfulness. For example, the NA pair present a paradox. On the grounds of the attitudes of the makers toward gothic, both depart from Austen: Davies disses Radcliffe ferociously and favors The Monk; the 1986 film dramatizes precisely those things in Radcliffe and the gothic Austen appears to mock and distrust (sadomasochism). Further, the 1986 gothic NA really does depart from literal events, change characters and so on, as Davies does not. However, it keeps far more of Austen’s original language than Davies (who stays with the original events and characters). Davies simplifies Austen’s language more than he ever did before (an aspect of all 4 recent Austen films) so much that the 1986 film could be called more faithful. Yet it feels perverse to say the 1986 film is more faithful than Davies who keeps the wit of the original, and the film itself has a charming pair of actors for Henry and Catherine, a wonderful Eleanor and effective General Tilney (all somewhat faithful to Austen).

    I agree too the idea of capturing the spirit of the book is important if intangible. I liked how the 2005 P&P’s Mr Bennet seemed bitter and strained, and Judy Dench’s Lady Catherine added something to my understanding of Austen’s character, even if the language (like the 1940 P&P) departed from Austen’s a lot. The people who make the Austen films have to deal with intransigent cult fans so they often don't go for the spirit of a book, but you can find other film-makers of high status novels who do. Interestingly, it's often for lesser-known novels, like say The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

    On illustration: in the Raven’s Palliser films, I think Alice Vavasour’s (Caroline Mortimer) outfits are modelled on Millais’ illustrations or Millais-like illustrations. John Grey's outfits (Bernard Brown) remind me of romantic paintings of wandering poet-types; so too Frank Tregear's (a young Jeremy Irons). Looking at outfits (clothes are symbolic in films) can help us understand how we are to understand the filmic character. The recent The Way We Live Now showed that the designer of the costumes and the person who made up Marie Melmotte had studied Fawkes’s illustrations (though this was denied at a conference). I did like this as I like the original illustrations to Trollope’s novels most of the time. The 1972 Emma is influenced by the famous 1890s illustrations of Austen by Hugh Thompson. Maybe this was not a fortunate choice: to modern eyes they look fussy and too sexless.

    Another angle which has nothing to do with nomenclature: sometimes I like when the film adaptation changes the original story, gives another aspect or reading of the original matter. That’s why I like Weldon’s P&P, the 2005 P&P (I appreciated the compassionate view of Collins), and many of the free adaptations.

    Elinor    Sep 29, 12:50am    #
  3. Jim has suggested to me that I keep my original terminology: Type 1) faithful to hinge-points, crucial scenes, character types; Type 2) analogous or critical, changing hinge-points, adding characters or changing themes, changing enunciations; and Type 3) free, dropping costumes and content to keep idiosyncratic details of general plot-designs and specific major character types.

    He says the terms “close” and “intermediate” and “loose” imply that it is the amount of change that counts, when it’s the kind of change that matters.

    Elinor    Sep 30, 10:29am    #
  4. Memo to self, further terminology:

    Scene: each time we are in a new setting (indoors or outdoors); can be one or two characters or more
    Establishing shot: sometimes camera looks at space to show us what it is and suggest relationships among people. Can include soliloquy or overvoice.

    Conversation: each time we have a new character come in and talk or leave and the ensemble is changed

    Dumb show: within a scene the camera capture an important dumb show, sometimes angled through a specific character’s eyes, but the show reveals things the character’s eye cannot control. The camera is omniscient. These are pantomimes.

    Soliloquizing: character speaks when they are in solitude or voice-over meditating

    Wordless shot, sometimes for whole of scene: either of character or object

    Wordless scene, includes tracking shots where nothing is said or those where a tiny dialogue occurs and then wordless.

    Elinor    Sep 30, 11:07am    #

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