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

The fidelity problem: thoughts on writing about movies · 29 January 08

Dear Harriet,

I’ve been wanting to write you to work out an increasingly puzzled series of thoughts about what to do about the fidelity issue when I sit down and try to write two chapters on the apparently faithful Austen films.

I’m puzzled because of the Great Disconnect, to wit: Just about all new and not-so-recent intelligent film criticism of commercial one-time films (for theatres) and most of same kind of criticism of mini-series begin with casting away fidelity to the source text as a criteria for evaluating the film. Essays in respected journals which use fidelity as an evaluative tool are usually those published in the periodicals or books dedicated to the cult figure; these (& often the films) are dismissed or ignored by the really high-respected critics. At the same time it’s the rare popular review and criticism I come across here on the Net and in non-scholarly periodicals )as well as the sheer online talk by common readers of these high status books adapted into films) that does not adhere to fidelity as an evaluative standard. I am impressed by people whose judgements I respect who keep evaluating a film based on their sense of its fidelity to their experience of the book (although I can’t quite understand why they do).

Candour compels me to say my deep pleasure from many of these films is the result of their being a filmic version of a book, whether close or intermediately faithful, or free. Also that the films are parasitic; some of the script writers seem to move from chapter to chapter, dramatizing as they go, though the overall effect can be so strikingly different from the book. A film can convey as complicated and complex a meaning as a book (and may be said on “close readings” to have much more information to offer the viewer than mere words), and it’s comparing the book and the film (not evaluating one by the other) that’s essential to understanding the film, but surely this comparison implies an evaluation derived from the book as the inspiration.

I got into some good talk with Nick on this issue, and want to record & review it here. He had remarked on the Davies S&S:

“Davies inserts this line where Willoughby and Marianne dismiss Pope in favour of Byron. I looked this up and it is wholly different in the text – it is Elinor DESCRIBING how they have admired Cowper and Scott and slightly dismissed Pope. It struck me that she (both Elinor and Austen) was being at least semi-ironic as to their poetic taste.

So Davies misrepresents Austen, but he also insults Byron who absolutely revered Pope, and calumnates Pope who is not this caricatured dry figure in reality. So three writers misrepresented in one go.

Now of course I agree that textual faithfulness is not
important. But what does this change gain? It just reinforces
literary stereotypes which are false ones in any case. Sorry,
I know this is irrelevant to any real consideration of the film.
But it just struck me as misleading about all three writers for
no gain whatever. ”

My response was a tiny percentage of an audience for any film has read the book and a similar tiny one buys it. The intelligent reader will see the difference and the book not be a bit hurt for him or her. Less intelligent readers, readers who misread may be mislead by the movie, but they might and probably would misread the book anyway. They probably don’t take away from the movie any clear idea of interpretation themselves. The argument a film gives a distorted idea of the book depends on the critic’s own subjective memories of the book and assumes out there most readers are capable of understanding the book. They are not. Those who do understand will see the difference and use the film as suits them.

There is another reason for the demand for faithfulness or the persistence of this criteria. It bolsters the countless teachers who teach books as literal content and show movies to get the book “down” the student. By pretending a movie can be faithful and pronouncing some so, the teaching method which is not teaching thinking, interpretation, evaluatoin, but just books as so much information, trophies in the head to show you are cultured or went to college, is supported. I think that’s at the heart of the persistence of this criteria. Audience members want to flatter themselves they’ve gotten into contact with the high status book too.

The motive for the tiny percentage of adaptations that are faithful (some huge numbers of films are adaptations) to high status novels is financial. The film-makers want to preclude carping of reviewers and they too want everyone to assert they believe the film=book. That way you can come to their movie instead of reading this hard book no one in their right mind would open. Vanity Fair is very long.

I realize I could be accused of elitism but I am trying to say that worries about how a thing is presented in a film because you feel the audience is being led astray is imagining an audience made up of people like us.

He also quoted a passage from an email to the Milton list:

“It may help to remember that any adaptation of a film is an adaptation from literary conventions (and their modifications) from previous centuries to screenwriting conventions of today. I have a former student who is in the process of revising a script with a director who is trying to get funding for something in the small film range ($10 mil). The director’s instructions serve as very strong reminders of how formulaic screenwriting is. You need to have sixty scenes (not the ninety she wrote), every single scene needs to either pose the problem of the film or be part of the answer, on scene 45 the protagonist makes an irreversible decision, write characters that actors want to act, etc. The recent adaptation of Beowulf is very clearly influenced by storytelling conventions in comic books and video games which most scholars of English lit simply don’t pay attention to. That’s too much a cultural studies thing. These conventions are, however, a propos to the film’s medium and its target audience (adolescent boys— I wouldn’t be aware of this if it weren’t for my own adolescent boys).

Beowulf the recent film, taking all this into account, isn’t horrible. It’s not good, but it’s not horrible. It’s not Beowulf the literary piece, of course, or Beowulf the narrative told in the literary piece adapted for film. It’s ideas from Beowulf the narrative told in the literary piece adapted for a high budget, non-interactive, extended video game segment designed to amuse adolescent boys and perhaps their dates.”

Here I just gently qualified this reality that the very form of the movie has nothing to do with the literary work by suggeting the TV mini-series which has 5 and more episodes can try to follow a short to medium-length sized novel; they are not controlled by the criteria for a mass genre in commercial theatres.

Nick replied:

“I agree that most people watching the film (a vast majority) will not pick up on a reference like this at all. In my view what really matters is…

1.) how the film or series (and I do so concur about the difference between the two) works as film or series, and what it says about current mores/cultural and social preoccupations (as you are analysing so brilliantly in the case of competitiveness).

2.) whether the film/series encourages people to go and read the books – I do think this is another important facet. And to a certain extent I think you can use this criteria to say that even if an adaptation fails on every possible measure, if it enriches one person’s life by leading them to an author whom they love and are enriched by (whether Austen or Trollope, Christie or Sayers) then it has to some extent worked (I tend to always overlook this second aspect – and it is to some extent problematic in that there is a limited amount of space for ‘drama’ on television – I think this argument specially applies to television – and another adaptation may push out new writing; I hate to even partially agree with Gill but can see the germ of a case here, although it is a complex argument).

3.) How the adaptation enriches our reading of the book. In my view this is a quite unintended and accidental outcome. An adaptation’s emphases, omissions, distortions can call attention to things we may have missed in the books. This it seems to me is something you are doing brilliantly with the Palliser films (to which I am still not giving the attention I should as I hope at some point to rewatch the series – and finish watching it! – myself).

Having said all of which – probably unnecessarily – my particular example here seems to fall rather outside these categories. It would not make a jot of difference to the adaptation or to the vast majority of those viewing which poets Davies had cited. But using Byron and Pope is to encourage a lazy stereotyping of those poets which is probably shared by many of those (yes a small minority) who did pick up the reference. My own suspicion is that this may in fact be Davies’ view. And I am therefore critical of the insertion on the grounds that it offends against my second criterion – far from encouraging people to read Pope or Byron it would probably put them off.

To which I rejoined:

I can see the point you’re making about Pope. Yes Davies is reinforcing stereotypes about Pope—ones even relatively well-read people will parrot. The 18th century is not a period that is popular with common readers (it’s said). I notice the screenplay writer will use quotations from works they know and which fit what they want to say regardless if the original writer or book used the work. So in the film Clarissa Nokes and Barron quote Cowley in a moral mood. Richardson would have thought of Cowley as anything but moralistic and never quoted him. In the film MP (1983), Taylor quotes passages from Cowper which fit Taylor’s theme, not Austen’s (she quotes very different passages), and I just love how he respects Cowper and makes him emerge as a thoughtful meditative poet who offers meaningful beautiful verse for one’s heart to sing by and to console us. Davies does enjoy trashing books; he said he likes to erase a previous film adaptation (he was defeated by Thompson because he couldn’t get hers out of his head); he’s strongly competitive with his original author too.

I want to think more. I finished Davies’ S&S and there were lots of moments in Part 3 that were very good; in general the conception of Elinor was moving and the actress superb. I liked when she dismissed Willoughby with contempt (very different from Austen there) and also her reasons for continuing to love Edward (again Davies has rewritten and to my mind beautifully), but much is jolty, overdone or two swiftly and at once caricature and melodramatic. What is original and new is the film’s use of sudden mesmerizing landscape sequences where the imagery is blurred, we have much minor-chord and poignant music, and the posture of the actors and their words are lyrical. This makes for a new level of poignant romance coming out of Austen’s S&S.

I did produce some comments on the film which I left on Alice’s Journal (Living in the Past), to which she has responded.

I have also to rethink my typology some more because I think Davies is not one of the apparently faithful films, but an analogous one and yet he fits my criteria for apparently faithful. I see the value of comparing the works, but feel one should not privilege one over the other necessarily. No writer is an omniscient god whose scripts cannot be improved.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Continuing our conversation :)
    (in which none of the following is in any way
    particularly ,or at all, original).

    First I think your analysis is spot on…

    >>I’m puzzled because of the Great Disconnect, to wit: Just about all new and not-so-recent intelligent film criticism of commercial one-time films (for theatres) and most of same kind of criticism of mini-series begin with casting away fidelity to the source text as a criteria for evaluating the film. Essays in respected journals which use fidelity as an evaluative tool are just about always those published in the periodicals or books dedicated to the cult figure, and these are dismissed or ignored by the really high-respected critics. But just about all the popular reviews and criticism I come across here on the Net and in non-scholarly periodicals, as well as the sheer online talk by common readers of these high status books adapted into films adhere to fidelity as an evaluative standard.

    I would add that this does not just apply to high-status books. The vitriol which is pored over certain Christie adaptations (the recent McEwan Marple series for instance) on mystery lists by some people is quite extraordinary, to take one example. This vitriol is solely connected to questions of fidelity. Interestingly older adaptations (though they may be equally unfaithful) seem to acquire a sort of patina of respectability.

    My own view is that to discuss an adaptation from the point of view of fidelity is not merely useless but, worse still, boring. After all in the end, all it can amount to is saying X is in the book but not in the film, Y in the film but not the book (I use film here for film and TV series). It is a sort of quantitive exercise. I just don't get involved in such discussions about fidelity any more because I find them tedious. I am here, of course, talking of the most literal interpretation of fidelity - the letter of the book :).

    Secondly one thing which does interest and puzzle me is how these questions of fidelity reach a new intensity in the area of film/TV. And I think this is instructive. Consider a couple of other areas. Opera. Does anyone ever object to Lucia di Lammermoor because Donizetti took liberties with Scott, or Peter Grimes because Britten took liberties with Crabbe (topical for ECW :)). Visual art. Does anyone ever criticise classical or Biblical pictures because they are unfaithful to the event depicted. Above all literature itself. For instance, there has been recently a series of books reworking classic myths. No-one has objected that they are unfaithful to the original - the whole point is that they are modern interpretations and this is accepted such.

    On the Milton list (which one would expect to be fairly high-minded about such matters) there has, as well as a discussion of Beowulf, been talk of Pullman's use of Paradise Lost in the Golden Compass trilogy. Generally few, if anyone, objected on grounds of fidelity.
    What all this suggests to me is that fidelity is considered as a crucial factor in film much more than in other arts; this in turn suggests to me that a part of this comes from a refusal to accept film (and probably TV series even more) as valid art forms in their own right (in the way that opera or visual art or literature are). It may not be acceptable to say this outright, so those who take this view can cloak it by using the fidelity criteria.

    Well it is a suggestion. Maybe it can be helpful when reading a condemnation of some film or TV adaptation on the grounds of non-fidelity to imagine in one's head the sentence 'La Traviata is a disgraceful distortion of Dumas'! :).

    Nick    Jan 30, 8:56am    #
  2. Dear Nick,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I think I may speak for many of us when I say how much we all enjoy and profit enormously from your meditative and insightful postings.

    When you write: “This vitriol is solely connected to questions of fidelity” I’d like to add to your comment that in fact film has NOT arrived (it’s still not a respected form, still a mass commodity) that fidelity is also a stalking horse for other objections. I recognize when this happens in Austen studies: someone even apparently sincerely objects to a book or film on the ground of fidelity, but they are objecting to the actual content or agenda of the book or film even more.

    Elinor    Jan 30, 11:24pm    #
  3. Another reply the following morning:

    What I said didn’t take us any further in understanding why film studies are often disappointing and why the fidelity to the original novel evaluative standard persists.

    It’s this: what else are you going to use? Yes movies are not respected, but we should ask, why? They’ve been around for 100 years and influence our culture enormously.

    I’ve not begun to write my two chapters. Why? Not because I’m lazy or avoiding it, but because I can’t think of a methodology I can actually use. In the first place, all serious studies of films begin with the idea that the original novel is just one source; other sources are the film-maker’s other work. But wait. Who is the film-maker? For the sake of argument let’s say it’s the screenplay writer. Well I’ve tried to get hold of films by the screenplay writers of the Austen films I’m interested in. First, they are hard to find. There is only one by Raven currently available; and 4 by Weldon, and one which may be said to be by Cannadine ((the 1981 S&S said to an alteration of Cannadine’s work by Baron).

    Second when you find them, how do you relate say Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown_and Ken Taylor’s _Jewel in the Crown to Austen’s MP and Taylor’s MP. The literal content is so different. You are left with vague analogies. Critical and close reading has since I.A Richards in the 1920s and Empson in the 30s depended on close reading of literal details. I would love to write a chapter comparing say the 1979 P&P by Weldon to her Life and Loves of a She-Devil and 3 Upstairs Downstairs films, but how? On what literal basis? Not only that, people would think I’m mad if I ignored Austen’s books, or so displace them, and the real critical analysis would begin when I begant to compare Austen’s books with these films.

    Second, who is to say the screenplay writer is the creator? Sarah Caldwell was able to write a decent book on Andrew Davies’ work because he has done just so many films, and many of them are available commercially. She also has connections and time and could go to the BBC library for research. But she had necessarily to argue the screenplay writer is all in TV. But is he? I’ve read a thorough study of the 72 Emma (very rare because it goes into detail) and it’s clear John Glenister was as central as Cannadine. Caldwell argues that Davies has such prestige he does control the production. But I note that the films he makes with women producers and directors are different from those he makes with men; and those with different teams resemble one another much less.

    You can only write about directors when the material about their other work is available, and for TV people that’s hardly ever. They are not respected nor even paid attention to individually.

    As to producers, the kind of information you want (what was spent and why and on whom) is not available. This kind of thing never gets into public space until most of the people are dead or without power to stop this. It gets into personalities and real agendas of competition, money, power and product selling.

    There’s a deeper problem too: in the 20th century the author is not dead. It’s not simply that we don’t respect a work not coming from a single or dual authorship, we don’t know how to critique it. If we say well I’ll do a cultural study, what you are doing is subjectively taking your idea of the culture and finding a reflection or critique of it in the film. How then do a close study of the film’s aesthetics. Many books on film consist of the critic criticizes the culture she sees mirrored in the film, not the film. Who made the film adaptation? So people turn back to the respected author to find values they then can find in the film and then finding literal analogous details between film and book they have something to say.

    The reason fidelity studies persist is there is not enough information and no critical perspective to take into account how to deal with movies. An analogous situation happens in translation. The translator remains invisible not only to flatter the readers they are reading the original, and due to the worship of “originality” (begun to be firmly rooted at the time of copyright) but that there is no methodology for analysing translation except to look at differences and then it’s easy to say the original is better.

    Why? Why not admit a second look at the same stuff can improve it? common sense would tell us that, but we have this worship of single authors as numinous (at the same time they are also continually cut down—as in the biopics where they are presented as inspired by a single erotic love and socializing).

    Here are the barriers, Nick and all, and I don’t know how to get beyond them yet. How compare a movie to another movie by the same film-maker. You do get genres studies. The movie is shown to be part of a conventional genre, but that lends itself to denigration (movies are folk art we are told at the outset) and does not get us to close reading, but rather asserting the audience in general responds this or that way to some archetypes.

    Elinor    Jan 31, 9:32am    #
  4. From Clare:

    “Nick is ‘is absolutely spot on. Agatha Christie lived here in Torquay. This very point is always a point of discussion, even among those who remember her. The heat generated every time a series is beyond my understanding. I am bored by her books. They were fine when I was 13, but even intelligent people here worship at her altar. Me? I’m an atheist. Strangely the Poirot BBC seems to come in for nothing but praise.

    Elinor    Jan 31, 7:41pm    #
  5. From Nick

    “Clare quoted Ellen…

    >>There is another reason for the demand for faithfulness or the persistence of this criteria. It bolsters the countless teachers who teach books as literal content and show movies to get the book “down” the student. By pretending a movie can be faithful and pronouncing some so, the teaching method which is not teaching thinking, interpretation, evaluation, but just books as so much information, trophies in the head to show you are cultured or went to college, is supported. I think that’s at the heart of the persistence of this criteria. Audience members want to flatter themselves they’ve gotten into contact with the high status book too.>I’ve actually heard teachers give this explanation of watching this type of film, especially Shakespeare. To me it seems a way out of a teacher really coming to grips with the material in a sufficiently deep manner to be able to teach it in an enthusiastic and meaningful manner. Discussion of the film substitutes for discussion of the book. Familiarity with the film gives one a superficial gloss of having read the requisite cultural “tick box”. Or am I being overly cynical.
    Elinor    Feb 2, 2:01am    #
  6. Nick wrote,

    “We can at least say that a filmed production of a Shakespeare play, including every line and adding nothing, is wholly ‘faithful’. A sort of gold standard of fidelity. I suppose this isn’t really an adaptation at all? I am probably getting too metaphysical so will shut up.”

    I like it. Good witticism. Hamlet might say that were sometime a paradox.

    Elinor    Feb 2, 2:03am    #
  7. This discussion is very interesting – thank you to both Ellen and Nick. I’ve been thinking over this whole question of fidelity a lot and don’t really come to any conclusions. I can see that I don’t even begin to be consistent when watching adaptations – sometimes I’m outraged by a departure from a book, and sometimes I’m enthusiastic about it. Trying to think why this is, I can really only come up with nebulous generalisations such as that I’m happy if the change brings out something interesting either about the book or about the world then or now, but not if it seems as if the adapter is ignoring the point the writer was trying to make or going against the spirit of their work.

    I suspect, though, this may simply boil down to that, as a viewer, I’m prepared to give much more leeway to an adapter if I like and am excited by their work!

    As an example, I liked Andrew Davies changing the ending of ‘Bleak House’ so that Esther herself made the decision not to marry Jarndyce but to marry Allan, because it is so jarring to a modern viewer or reader to see a woman handed over like a present, as in the novel – the ending in the book does have a sort of dream quality to it which slightly gets away from this, but I don’t see how that could come across in a film. However, I was dismayed by Davies changing the ending of EM Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’ because I couldn’t see any point to the changed ending (though I may be wrong, of course) and it seemed to jar against the rest of the story.

    On Shakespeare, I get the impression from the “play within the play” in ‘Hamlet’ that he did feel people were getting away from his text even in the earliest productions that he himself supervised – and I suspect even a literal line-by-line performance might still have some aspect of adaptation in the way it is staged, or the way the actors choose to stress the lines.

    By some kind of coincidence or serendipity, tomorrow night on TCM in the UK they are showing an adaptation I’ve been anxious to see for a while, Erich von Stroheim’s silent film ‘Greed’, made in 1924, which is based on Frank Norris’ novel ‘McTeague’. I’ve read that von Stroheim originally tried to dramatise every line of the book and made ten hours of film, but the studio then cut this back, originally to four hours and eventually to two. Apparently he sat and cried when he saw the butchered version – but it is hard to imagine that anyone would have sat through all ten hours. In any case, I’ve heard that the film is greater than the novel – and await it with bated breath.

    As I said in reply to your blog on ‘Persuasion’, Ellen, I do feel that people sometimes fix on a particular adaptation as perfect and then are outraged if someone else adapts the same work and puts a different slant on it. I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone else – for instance, I was dismayed when I heard that ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was being adapted again, because I found it hard to imagine that anyone could come up to the standard of John Osborne’s version. I still suspect the movie won’t come up to the series, but I’ll try to see it with an open mind.

    Just a few rambling thoughts!
    Judy    Feb 2, 5:33pm    #
  8. Oops, I meant John Mortimer, of course, not John Osborne! Sorry about that.
    Judy    Feb 2, 5:35pm    #
  9. Clare quoted Nick and then replied:

    “Nick wrote:

    ‘I had entirely missed this comment I’m afraid (I was thinking on different lines). This is a whole different kettle of fish and I do not think you are being ‘overly cynical’ at all Clare :). To use an adaptation as a substitute for the original is just lazy stupidity which does justice to neither book nor film. Of course I suppose it could be argued that watching a film of a Shakespeare production (’ a filmed play’) is justifiable, as it is in fact truer to the original than reading it. But this argument does not apply to Austen or any novel.

    Some Shakespeare films are adaptations, surely? I’m sure I saw some at school that were , or at the least heavily cut. However, my granddaughter says they were shown lots of film of set novels at school and that many of her class-mates wrote essays without reading the books. What was even worst was that some got good marks for the essay.


    To which I reply:

    A friend who works in the movies sees it from an inside very non-idealistic or non-art point of view and she confirms my idea that one reason people stick to the fidelity standard as a basis for evaluation is this justifies teachers showing films and in effect allowing the film to replace the book and it also flatters people who want to know “what’s in the novel” (as if this were literal content, sheer story and characters without any thought or meaning beyond that). She offered the idea (cynical but I can see it) that to the movie business these last 3 Austen films (2007) were Readers’ Digest versions film adaptations of the books. Readers’ Digest produces abridgements of books: these are not only shorter, but if you look at the texts, they are usually simplified with much of the complicated thought and information just eliminated. So now an increasingly non-reading generation can kid themselves they know Jane Austen’s books by spending 84 minutes in the US watching a TV show and being told what to think about it before and afterwards. I noticed in the 2007 Mansfield Park one no one read any book; in the book itself and the faithful adaptation the characters are reading people; that too is eliminated lest you threaten the ego of the non-reading person watching the movie.

    Elinor    Feb 3, 12:17am    #
  10. Dear Judy,

    I did see your comment about how people will fall in love with a particicular film version. This love seems to happen especially when it’s the first adaptation of the book they’ve seen. And I do think it’s an important point: not only does it explain the dismay someone may feel at a later version (so the 95 S&S & Persuasion would be hard to “replace” or present a new equally satisfying version of), but it also suggests how films seduce us & how their vividness and power then affects our feelings for the book and changes that. Since watching Alan Rickman I just don’t regard Brandon in the same light at all: I understood he was a man of sensibility, but the actor made the idea physically concrete beautifully so while I know when I reread the book Rickman is not there, when I think about it later, his performance affects my thinking.

    It’s a generational thing too. Why do film-makers remake films. The feeling is each generation wants a new set of images peculiar to the aesthetics and looks of its time. The Lord of the Rings was made into a boy’s adventure story, with monsters and an archetypal brutal and Dantean quest; for a reader of the 1960s, the imagery appropriate would be far more like that of an Arthurian romance. Readers of Austen in their eighties still love the 1940 P&P; the woman who gave that awful lecture gave her age away in her adherence to the 90s films. She is not attracted to these young men; they are teenagers to her.

    When I was younger I used to feel this way. I didn’t want to watch the newer Tale of Two Cities because I so loved Ronald Colman’s performance. I don’t feel that way now. I enjoy the new interpretation and I return the book seeing the differences between it and all the films. I’m enriched in a new way each time.

    Another issue I’d like to take up, and wish you would answer (if you can of course): When you say you feel outraged because the film goes against the spirit of the book, though, you are assuming that film adaptations must be secondary and are obligated in some way to convey the original work’s center and major realities. Against this let me instance, the real history of adaptation. Most films are adaptations of book; only a tiny minority are at all faithful. Now speaking of those (usually from high status books), in the case of novelists, where there’s copyright, the novelist is paid a good deal of money and then in effect has no rights over the product. There were several cases in the 1930s where a novelist sued and took the case not as quite as far as the supreme court, but nearly. In every one the judge decided on the side of the film-makers. The judges’ decision was partly based on the contract, but since the contract said that the film-makers would be faithful, they had to go into that. They denied the need to be faithful on the grounds the movie is an entertainment product intended for a large and different audience; they denied the author control over his or her “message” (what bothered two of the novelists was not changes in the characters or the way the events were literally presented, but that their themes and outlooks were swept away or reversed). The judges said if the audience enjoys the film, that’s enough.

    In other words, your demand is unrealistic. So how can you make it?

    What I notice is the first time I watch a movie I often get a false impression of it. It takes slow study (a DVD using a vlc viewer) for me really to grasp what is done in front of me. I ask myself are my second impressions evidence, and have to say yes. It's like reading literature; those who read more slowly and carefully and reread understand better. And movies far from offering less information, offer far more and “close readings” are far more difficult.

    I bring this up because a much beloved book, a book indeed as interwoven into my life as any of Austen’s Clarissa has had a movie made of it which is not faithful closely, but analogously. It’s a commentary if you will. At times it departs from the spirit of the original book. Rewatching it I discovered my original complaint against it for dropping the deep subjectivity was wrong: it does use epistolarity; on the other hand, I discovered some places it departs and is meant to speak to modern viewers. Perhaps I’m not bothered because (as you say) I like the departure. Far from offended, I even think it improves on Richardson (as do other film adaptations of sancrosanct works, as Thompson’s on S&S).

    Yet to conclude with conceding how natural it seems to want the film to be faithful to the book, I know I love these film adaptations much more when I loved the book. So the book is central to my experience of the film.

    All this suggests to me how hard it is to write about film adaptations adequately.

    Elinor    Feb 3, 4:34pm    #
  11. From Jan,

    “Dear all,
    I find this discussion supremely interesting. One of the problems at stake here as I see it, is the (economical or political) interest some may have in promoting a particular version /adaptation of a work.

    Far from me to enjoy polemics. And I don’t like to make very long developments on the question, because I fear there is no end to it. I will concentrate on one issue of this very complex problem. To start I must confess my belonging to the most radical school in this matter. I believe that ANY reading is an interpretation, and therefore in a certain sense (especially when it is “acted out”) an adaptation. The way “Hamlet” or any other Shakespeare play was performed in the Globe theater may not have been the same at different moments according to evolving insights of the playwright and the actors. Thus I think Shakespeare was “adapting” his own plays.A reader is doing essentially the same thing each time (s)he is taking up a work (NB I donot use the word ‘text’ because for a painting etc. it’s true also, mutatis mutandis).To me the interesting question is not so much which version/adaptation-interpretation is more or less ‘faithful’, but which underlying (and often implicit) ideas are at work. An interpretation (and as I believe there cannot be another approach to a work) says at least as much about the interpreting reader (public, etc.) as about the work itself. This invites us to be conscious about our own presuppositions too, even as we try to analyse someone else’s approach of a work.

    I think Ellen’s preoccupations (and I can say I sympathize with them!) about representations of women in the picture version of some of jane Austen’s novels are an important example of this problem.

    What I have said is probably so evident to most of you that you may not feel the need to react. It will at least have made clear some of my positions. And also why I think using a film as a substitute of reading is a most stupid thing… (One interpretation can never be a substitute of another) But I may be a very interesting topic of a course to analyze a film after having read the book…

    Greetings from Paris,
    Elinor    Feb 4, 12:15am    #
  12. Yours is a helpful comment to me, Jan, as it brings in another whole outlook so makes me question my categories from another angle.

    How useful are they anyway? Would I do better organizing my book from another angle or trying for a different line of argument after setting up categories? Really I’m beginning to find my categories are inadequate so that makes me question myself as I can’t come up with other ones I would feel sure enough other people might perceive as useful too.

    And to me too this is what one “close reads” a movie (or play) for:

    “To me the interesting question is not so much which version/adaptation-interpretation is more or less ‘faithful’, but which underlying (and often implicit) ideas are at work. An interpretation (and as I believe there cannot be another approach to a work) says at least as much about the interpreting reader (public, etc.) as about the work itself. This invites us to be conscious about our own presuppositions too, even as we try to analyse someone else’s approach of a work.”

    Elinor    Feb 4, 12:20am    #
  13. From a member of WW and ECW:

    I had wondered why Maggie Wadey who clearly dislikes the pop perception of Austen’s agenda and may herself believe it's accurate, why she was chosen to write the script for the latest MP. She turned Austen’s NA into a version Radcliffe’s Udolpho which Austen was seeking to displace but which she praised strongly. Wadey turned Radcliffe into lurid sado-masochism. In the feature on the 2007 MP the film-makers blipped out what she said about Fanny Price so nasty was it, and she disliked the book.

    So I got this intelligent well-informed response:

    “I suppose the reason why the movie stuff is going slowly for you is that you are having to train yourself to learn an entire new field. You know Jane Austen, but people who write about film and who work in film have been doing that their whole lives, just as much as you’ve been doing women’s literature. You can’t easily change fields and catch up in a few months. It’s almost impossible for an outsider to know about what goes on behind the scenes on a production, and what business decisions are made and why. These new Jane Austen TV pieces are Readers Digest versions, and that is no doubt what was intended. Maggie Wadey or whatever her name is, probably came very cheap. She hasn’t made a movie in a decade, and she’s made a few vaguely “classy” BBC type things. So she’s on a long vaguely classy writers list, but probably quite far down among the cheapos, which is what they could afford. They got what they paid for. It’s a business. With so little that’s academic about it, that it must be hard to grasp from that angle.

    When you say it’s hard to find and compare a filmmaker’s work with other work by that person, you are right first of all because a film isn’t one person’s work – Herman Wouk once compared it to more like a team building an aircraft carrier – and secondly because screenwriters mostly don’t CHOOSE what they’re going to write. Most of the time they’re assigned. So it isn’t about what they think and feel about a project.

    What they are doing is carrying out instructions, a set concrete task. And there are notes meetings and story conferences every step of the way: it is a committee job, and the writer does what he is told to do, which is decided by a variety of people. Some unknown executive at the BBC who thought it was a smart idea to do Precious Bane. Once that was decided, the executives then hired this writer to do the assignment. She was a writer they’d used a few times before to do vaguely classy assignments. A known commodity. That’s how writers are chosen. “We want somebody who can write sexy but not too sexy for teenagers. Like Joe X did for that movie about Hispanic gang bangers that grossed so and so many dollars. Is he available?” Or, “This script has great jet fighter pilot action but flat dialogue and no emotion. Let’s hire somebody to take a pass at it who’s good at dialogue with emotion, what about Sue X who did that thing where the mother ate her child during the Holocaust.” “Great idea, adapting this non fiction book about Western desperadoes hiding out, but it’s got no individual story line. Why don’t we hire John P. who wrote that script about the old grandfather who adopted the little black boy, it was an uncommercial idea, but Joe can do a touching story which is what the Western material needs.”

    Rich people’s children sit around in story conferences and say things like this, and that is how movies are “developed.” Later on, they are “packaged.” “Another Jane Austen movie, well, let’s use a hot young star to give it some appeal to a younger audience. How about that Billie Piper, she’ll look good in those Victorian costumes.” That’s how it all works. And it’s why I’ve always been skeptical about it as a thing to analyze. How can it be analyzed by ordinary academic means? Iindividual art is a very tiny component of any of these business deals, and how do you analyze that?

    Also, you mostly NEVER find out how these things came together after everybody’s dead. They’re not writing it down. There’s nothing but casual discussions on phones, in meetings, and vanishing emails. It’s not an individual artist’s work, it’s conversations among a lot of ignorant people who hire “talent” that may or may not be talented. Occasionally it comes together. More often, it doesn’t. But an “under the line worker” like me keeps working steadily, which screenwriters do not.”
    Elinor    Feb 5, 12:26pm    #
  14. I replied:

    Thank you for the Wouk comments. This is just what I’ve been facing: I wrote about this on the list about fidelity problems and again on my blog. The reason people persist in comparing the film to the book is the book is one one extant thing everyone can access and it’s written by one person. Yes the literal details are somewhat comparable; but even when it’s often a stretch, it’s better than nothing. The idea the author is dead is nonsense when it comes to literary or filmic criticism; the whole idea of close reading is to bring out the “vision” of a single person.

    I did like your last paragraph on movies. Yes while one can take them seriously art, like and far more than novels, they are commodities, meant really for a mass audience. I wrote about the difficulty of analyzing movies on the 3 lists and then put what I wrote on my blog and said the reason people persist in comparing the movie to the original book is it’s 1) very hard to find or compare a film-makers work to other movies by him or her; 2) it’s a team product; and 3) essential information about money and agendas is not known or put into the public until everyone is dead. This latter information about producers, and who gets to do what is enormously important as part of the source of the money. Thus it makes sense to me that Wadey was hired because she came cheap. Wadey would like Precious Bane; it's gothic and emotionally just the opposite from Austen.

    Elinor    Feb 5, 12:27pm    #
  15. I’ve been trying to think of a reply to your question, Ellen, about how I can demand that a film should be true to the spirit of a book.

    Of course, I can’t make any demands – I can only hope that, if I loved the book, then the film or mini-series will live up to it and maybe show a theme or character or key moment in the plot from another angle, so that I’m left with the feeling yes, that’s it.:)

    I do also agree that films are works of art in themselves and not necessarily secondary to a book, and that in some cases the film can be just as good, or even better, than the novel. But the very fact of film-makers taking the novel’s title and story surely asks for comparisons to be made, even if it doesn’t amount to a pledge of fidelity.
    Judy    Feb 5, 4:58pm    #
  16. From Nick:

    “Diana’s comments are amusing and no doubt contain much truth but I think you can press them too far. They probably relate more to certain Hollywood projects which do have vast numbers of writers as opposed to UK TV projects where there are restricted numbers. And anyway the writer is more important in TV than in film where the director is paramount. And all of these projects are intended to appeal, so what the producers are looking for is to identify what will ‘sell’ and also gain critical kudos (because in the area of adaptations the latter are important).But their judgements about this in turn reveal much about how they perceive the current zeitgeist.

    So I don’t for instance believe that the argument went >>How about that Billie Piper, she’ll look good in those Victorian costumes.” (I don't think she does particularly but that is irrelevant). The argument would be that Billie Piper is the hottest commodity on British TV at the moment (because of her role in Dr Who - it is not even a hot as in sexual judgement, it is a hot as in popular judgement) with a big appeal among our key demographic (16-30 year olds who advertisers want) and if we cast her we will bring in a non-traditional audience. Now you can object to this on the grounds that it contains no element of calculation as to who would be appropriate for the role. But it is not a stupid or ill-thought out approach. Actually I would bet that in the UK it worked very well and did bring in a non-traditional audience. This does not translate to the US because Dr Who does not have the meaning and audience there. It was a UK specific decision based on very a very specific time. I think you can analyse this is an academic fashion. And you can go further and try to analyse why Billie Piper was so popular in Dr Who? - and I would strongly reject the notion that this was simply as an object of sexual attraction. The role she played there was a strong, independent young woman quite different from previous Dr Who assistants. So one thing leads to another ..."
    Elinor    Feb 7, 10:30am    #

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