Film adaptation is the transfer of a written work to film. It is recognized as a type of derivative work. Whether adhering strictly to the source material or interpreting concepts derived from the original work, adaptation are necessarily extensions or interpretations of the original story. These interpretations can augment or detract from the original work. This paper will explore common variations of adaptations found in contemporary cinema.
When referring to adaptations, this paper will use the broad definition – “a work in one medium that derives its impulse as well as varying number of its elements from a work in a different medium” (Konigsberg 6). This definition can extend to a multitude of interpreted work, but for the purposes of this paper we will be looking at adaptation in film: working with source material and producing and/or directing a film based on a work of literature. This paper will analyze adaptations within Hollywood films using examples by the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and David Lynch’s works The Elephant Man (1980), Wild at Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997). This paper will discuss the films Memento (2000) and Adaptation (2002) for their interpretation of source material through alternative cinema. Finally, this paper will assess the artistic liberties taken within these films including their use of specific film techniques.
This paper is divided into three complementary analyses: the first is an assessment of adaptation – how one writes an adaptation, interprets source material, and the way directors have adapted written works to create original films. The second analysis exists to determine how directors use adaptation to create new works that stand apart from the original written material but operate as an extension of the original works’ meaning. The third analysis includes a deconstruction of the classic Hollywood narrative system of filmmaking by utilizing stylistic devices that are found in alternative cinema. This third analysis assesses adapted works and how these alternative film styles work in conjunction with the extension of meaning.
Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan outline many ways of assessing and critiquing adapted works in their book “Screen Adaptation.” They give an outline of three specific ways of categorizing adaptation from Geoffrey Wagner:
1. Transposition – in which the screen version sticks closely to the literary sources, with a minimum of interference. 2. Commentary – where the original is purposely or unwittingly altered due to the intentions of the film-maker. 3. Analogy – a completely different work of art which is a substantial departure from the original (Cartmell and Whelehan 5).
Breaking down specific films by these details helps clean up preconceived notions of adaptation. According to the criteria listed above, a film that is classified as merely an “analogy” can hardly be compared to its original work as it shares so few key common features.
Many filmmakers who use original works in adaptation do so through transposition. Looking at the example of the Harry Potter franchise, we can assess the difference between transpositions and commentaries. Regardless of the films being made for commercial gain, Harry Potter fans would be upset if the original text is not followed to closely (as many fans of any franchise would be). Manipulating phrases of dialogue or leaving out specific details could greatly impact the way fans of the franchise view or consume the films - forcing directors to pay close attention and follow the original text down to the sentence. Having made the films closely after the release of the novels, the filmmakers wanted to stay true to the original story and create something that can be seen as having minimal interference to the original intent of the story.
There are some exceptions however, as the film release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) omitted a minor detail from the novel published in 2003. This omitted detail featured a two-way mirror that Sirius gives Harry before he dies. Since the mirror was never explained in the following novel - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, released in 2005 – David Yates left it out of his film. It was not until the release of the final novel in the series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows only a few days before the theatrical release of Order of the Phoenix in July 2007 that director David Yates realized the mistake by not including the mirror. In the final novel of the series the two-way mirror plays a major role in rescuing Harry and his friends by providing a means for communication and escape. Unfortunately without explaining the mirror previously, Yates was forced to include a scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011) explaining its use (Tunney 2010). For this reason alone, the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (2010) can only be seen as an unintentional “commentary” due to the intentions of the filmmaker. The terms transposition, commentary and analogy will be used throughout this paper to describe the various levels of film adaptation.
The economic benefits of adapting novels or other stories for films are clear. Crafting an original screenplay or script from an established set of characters or pre-existing story can save time and money and is an obvious choice for many filmmakers and screenwriters. Film series such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter come with a pre-established audience. The 44 million people who purchased the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows novel in the first year after its release (Forbes.com 2008) guaranteed ticket sales for its eventual theatrical release. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I hit theatres in November 2010, it made $24 million in just midnight opening sales alone (Gaines 2010), and $43.5 million for the second half which opened July 15th (Rich 2011). Filming an adaptation is also a bit of a gamble for studios. As Linda Seger remarks:
“Doing an adaptation means paying for the project twice – first to purchase the rights, second to pay for the screenplay. And the material needs to be evaluated twice: first the potential workability of the source material must be assessed; then it must be decided whether the screenplay is the best translation of the story” (xiii).
The idea of paying twice for a single film means adaptations can be seen as a gamble for studios. Stray too far from the original, established work and a studio could see this as risking the loss of potential fans, but more importantly money. Studios purchasing the rights for adaptations can see the risk involved, but the artistic integrity of the director has the benefit of flexibility in creating these works. Adaptations could see the inclusion or exclusion of particular characters, the re-working of specific scenes or plotlines within the story, or completely retooling the story itself.
In what ways are novels or written works adapted to the visual medium? Are there examples of works that do away with typical notions of adaptation? Directors can take a published work and do as they wish – adding their viewpoint to the narrative. The creative control of the director needs to be assessed in conjunction with the idea of what typical “narrative cinema” is. Narrative cinema refers to “any film that emphasizes story” (Konigsberg 261) and in the Hollywood system refers to a specific kind of film that focuses on the story or plot of the film over stylistic choices or advances in character development. For many directors, adapting a work allows for an expression of the director’s aesthetic, which when used consistently can be considered a specific “style” that a director often uses when creating a work. The director may be partial to using specific camera lenses or dragging out longer scenes to accomplish a specific sense of pacing. These techniques can be seen in any Coen brothers’ film, which tend to feature long shots with sparse dialogue, or through stylistic devices in a David Lynch film which give scenes an altered angle or sets that seem out of place. These directorial “touches” can impact the way the film is interpreted by an audience. Films that fall into alternative categories of filmmaking – such as art film, surrealism, experimental, and French New Wave focus heavily on visuals and editing techniques to drive the narrative. This can break from notions of continuity and temporal (referring to time) relations within the plot of the film, sometimes breaking up the narrative or making the film more jarring to watch.
A film analysis approach is necessary when assessing and analyzing films that are based on original written works. Jeffrey Geiger states in his book Film Analysis that “many moviegoers see the cinema as no more than an entertaining visual experience, requiring little explanation or thought” (2005), and for this reason many would find the analysis and deconstruction of the ideas presented within films tedious. If an audience wishes to see a film that does not require looking deeper into the meaning of the film, then assessing the film’s subtle context and issues presented within the narrative would not be interesting. Many others worry about the way these adaptations interpret the original written work (Bluestone, Leitch, Harrington, Cartmell and Whelehan). It is beneficial to study these adaptations by using a film analysis approach which:
“strives to examine the myriad narrative, thematic, and stylistic choices that are part of every film. [It] brings films and their narratives into the realm of the social, allowing us to put their effects into perspective, to compare them to other films and other kinds of cultural artifacts, and finally to begin relating the films we watch to the wider world around us.” (Geiger and Rutsky 18-19)
This approach will help determine how these adaptations interpret the original stories and allow a greater appreciation of the meanings within the original works.
ADAPTATION AND AUTEURSHIP
The differences between film and written stories are apparent at first: “the two media are marked by such essentially different traits that they belong to separate artistic genre” (Bluestone vi). As film is a visual medium, there are qualities and characteristics that work specifically well for the storytelling, whereas novels are a “linguistic medium” (Bluestone vi) that focus heavily on the use of words and imagination that the reader has to fill in themselves. George Bluestone describes that:
“film necessarily leaves behind those characteristic contents of thought which only language can approximate: tropes, dreams, memories, conceptual consciousness. In their stead, the film supplies endless spatial variations, photographic images of physical reality, and the principles of montage and editing” (vi-vii)
It could be argued that the qualities of language that Bluestone lists have been further touched upon since his initial written work in 1957. There are films that are created for the sole purpose of interpreting and conceptualizing consciousness and there are ways of detailing and describing tropes, dreams and memories within film that are done successfully in many Hollywood films. Directors like the Coen brothers, David Lynch and Guy Maddin use film as an opportunity to explore these concepts and ideologies in a visual way by adapting original works with their own thoughts and opinions.
In response to the commentary of contemporary directors creating films that are original and against the typical Hollywood style, Jeffrey Geiger and R.L. Rutsky detail in their book “Film Analysis: A Norton Reader” that:
“the classical Hollywood style is itself a stylistic structure, a set of stylistic rules that governs the particular kinds of films that can be made within it. These rules are designed to make the stylistic structure of Hollywood films invisible, allowing all attention to be focused on the flow of the narrative” (Geiger and Rutsky 36).
This is not to say that alternative modes of cinema do not follow specific sets of rules (stylistic or formulaic), but were created as a response to this structured classical system.
Emerging in the 1950s with the introduction of French New Wave cinema, a series of anti-establishment rules and regulations were determined by filmmakers who wanted to create something different from Hollywood Cinema. A series of art-film magazines founded by André Bazin called Cahiers du Cinema established rules for how French filmmakers should create films that were different than those which already existed by introducing the concept of the “auteur”. Derived from the French word for author, an auteur is a director who “infuses the entire work with his or her personality and point of view and all of whose films can be related in terms of similar techniques, style, and themes” (Konigsberg 24). This was common for French New Wave filmmaking – to observe the figurative “stamp” that a particular director puts on their specific works. Recent examples of auteur directors working presently would be Quentin Tarantino, Guy Maddin, Kevin Smith, Lars von Trier, and more importantly in relationship to the argument of adaptation and alternative forms of cinema – David Lynch, who will be discussed later in this paper.
It was Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless (1960) that solidified French New Wave as a filmmaking means to counter Hollywood cinema (Moullet 40). Using techniques that were unheard of in Hollywood cinema, such as jump-cuts (cuts that break temporal continuity in a scene by leaving gaps in time) (Sklar 369), and long-takes which extended scenes well past their action, meant Breathless was something completely different that broke from conventions of storytelling within narrative film.
Both André Bazin and French New Wave director Francois Truffaut had differing opinions on how adaptations should work within the film world. Truffaut’s attack was upon the artistic precedence of the literature the adaptation was being derived from. He believed that the director should assume the role of the auteur and to “take cinema out of the hands of literary people, and give it to film directors” (Sklar 367). This would give the auteur filmmaker control over the work and allow complete creative control – even with adaptations. If scenes were too difficult to film, they were typically re-written instead of “finding a way to express its meaning visually” (Sklar 367). Bazin’s argument was that film can extend art, and believed that faithfulness to a source material is the only way to respect literature (Harrington 5). Bazin states that many filmmakers go to novelists for inspiration or character development (Bazin 13) because these established characters and ideas are easier to interpret once they are created by another individual. He also states that he finds many written sources (such as detective novels) are written with a dual purpose: not only to write a novel and to have it published, but also “with an eye on a Hollywood adaptation” (Bazin 14). This of course allows filmmakers to interpret the actions of not only the story, but that of the author. Many actions that are brought to screen are dependent on how the author has written a particular character that has already been established. Even through adaptation, a filmmaker will connect to the This ideology is one that many filmmakers follow – staying true to the source material is essential in creating an adaptation that is an accurate reproduction of the original source.
To further tie concepts of auteur filmmaking with that of adaptation, one needs look no further than one of the first established North American auteurs – Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock had secured the rights to some of his most popular films of the time – Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and Psycho (1960)for hardly any money at all. In this manner, he was able to rework the original stories, doing away with a straight forward literary adaptation and instead turning it into an auteur film that contained all the same dramatic suspense and “reliable generic thrills” (Leitch 239) that audiences had come to expect from Hitchcock’s work.
Directors who work primarily with alternative forms of filmmaking interpret original works with ideas and stories in a manner that is different than that of conventional Hollywood films. Directors like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Chris Columbus and Rob Reiner all work with notions of cinematic storytelling and narrative that appears similar. There is rarely a “signature” left on the film, camera angles are consistent and rarely jarring and the acting can be seen as formulaic. Alternative practices such as surrealism, art film, experimental, and French New Wave work with notions of storytelling that differ by using stylistic techniques that are not used in Hollywood genre films. These stylistic techniques can be seen as altering an audience’s perception of time and space within the world the director creates.
A good example of how time and temporal qualities within a feature film can be altered would be Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). The film centers on a character with short term memory loss, looking for the man who killed his wife. He tattoos things to remember on his body and every day he wakes up he forgets everything that happened the day before. This leads to manipulation, lying and a timeline that is hard to make out. The events within the film are hard to put into order upon a first viewing – the beginning of the film is really the ending, followed by short scenes that are edited out of sequence from the rest of the film. For the audience, the conclusion of the film finds the plot slowly tying together and wrapping up, but to the protagonist, the events are just as jumbled and mixed up. This reflection of temporal qualities in the editing of the film shows that film manipulation can be expressed through directorial decisions to obtain a much greater impact. This departure from classic editing is one of the ways alternative filmmakers are able to create original films.
It must be noted that although alternative forms of cinema such as surrealism were created outside of the Hollywood system, they have been carefully adopted and situated to appeal to mass audiences within the system as well. Canted camera angles, intense subject matter and surrealist film techniques like photomontage can now be found in big summer blockbuster films such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), a superhero film. With critical success of his film Memento, Nolan began making blockbuster films that incorporated his style of filmmaking, including alternative methods of filmmaking and temporal notions that are much more widely used in Hollywood films now. Even through adaptation, the re-interpretation of a singular film through editing and careful replacement of particular scenes can completely change the impact or way audiences perceive the film’s narrative, and one director consistently comes to mind whenever “alternative” is mentioned.
To discuss how alternative filmmaking was able to permeate Hollywood so successfully, it is necessary to discuss director David Lynch. Lynch has created some of the most original, surrealist films from within the Hollywood system. From the early 90’s to the early 2000’s, Lynch had crafted some of his most popular films. Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), and Mulholland Dr (2001) were all films where Lynch as a director was given free reign, and proved that paying audiences were interested in seeing that freedom. At the time of his first major release –Eraserhead (1977), North American audiences were consuming largely commercial films such as Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These films all had narrative storytelling elements that were straight-forward, featuring characters that were relatable and stories that could be easily consumed by audiences. When Lynch released Eraserhead, he received praise for bringing surrealism and alternative cinema to an audience that may have not even realize they were interested. Lynch creates films that bend the notions of what is acceptable in film as his films deal with much more intense subjects such as rape, personal identity and loss of control. These are subjects that were only beginning to be discussed and developed within film in the late 70’s. Eric Wilson notes that Lynch’s Eraserhead “aggressively attacks the conventions of the physical world; at the same time, he [questions] those very assaults” (31). This is a common theme in his films. Lynch is able to bring up uncomfortable topics while addressing and commenting on those topics at the same time.
Eraserhead was then followed up the equally disturbing film Elephant Man (1980) which told the story of Joseph Merrick – the real “Elephant Man”. Even in this story based on historical events, Lynch adapts and alters the story slightly. Much like the case of Harry Potter, new information by Peter Ford and Michael Howell in their book “The True History of the Elephant Man” (1980) was released just shortly after the film was finished, which gave much more information about the story of Joseph Merrick. Most importantly the novel gives the distinction of his name – Joseph, instead of John – which Lynch used throughout his screenplay and film. Other minor details were changed as well, which gives The Elephant Man the “commentary” division as the intention of the director changed details unwittingly.
Martha Nochimson describes Lynch as leading her “into an augmented understanding of reality, meaning, and order in cinema” (3). David Lynch often speaks on concepts of creativity and how our lives reflect our position on a film. Nochimson notes that “Lynch’s vision of making meaning is with the freedom to respond through the subconscious, by playfully losing control instead of stridently taking charge” (5). This reference to the subconscious is an important one. The majority of Lynch’s films have a subconscious twist to them – whether it’s through the “workings of memory and identity in relation to trauma” (Mactaggart 95) or the utilization of “dreamlike shots in slow motion” (Kaleta 92), Lynch uses the familiar yet unknown to his advantage. As an audience, we watch his films and are unsure as to whether or not the events taking place on the screen are actually happening within the diegetic world, or whether they are only happening within the mind of one of the characters. The worlds Lynch crafts are so similar to our own that these events could possibly happen, and are so bizarre that it requires us to take a deeper look at our own world.
Lynch creates these “alternative worlds” (Clark 67) that sometimes force characters within the world they are living in out of their complacency. In Twin Peaks (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lynch overtly creates this “alternative world” through the establishment of the Black Lodge and Red Room duality. Within the forest of Twin Peaks lies a supernatural pathway to another world where logical events do not occur. In true dream-like fashion, Lynch creates characters who speak in code – such as The Man from Another Place (a dwarf whose backwards speaking language is reversed for viewers and who often breaks into dance) as well as The Giant are both established as characters who live within this alternative world that are not necessarily restricted to stay within their respective world. The Giant inhabits the body of an elderly waiter at a hotel Agent Cooper is staying in, but also appears to him as The Giant within Cooper’s world to provide him with additional clues for solving a case. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Lynch has a character who is stuck in the Black Lodge (Phillip Jeffries – played by David Bowie) appear in the real world to deliver an ominous message, as scenes showing characters from within the Black Lodge are superimposed over his monologue. Showing that these boundaries can be crossed and interlinked with one another is helpful for understanding how Lynch’s worlds work in conjunction with one another – but also as opposites that can breach their respective worlds.
We are unsure of our dreams and whether what is happening in them is true or false, and Lynch is able to capitalize on that notion in his films. Scenes in Wild at Heart (1990) make you wonder if what you are watching is actually happening diegetically or outside of the diegesis of the film. The diegetic world refers to the events happening within the film whereas non-diegetic refers to anything outside the world of the film – soundtracks or inner-monologues/narrations, but distancing oneself from the events that are taking place on screen is necessary in Lynch’s work. In one such scene in Wild at Heart, Lula and Sailor – the two main characters in the film find themselves at a trailer park filled with obese naked women, and a cast of bizarre characters that provide a monologue in complete absurdity through the ranting and ravings of the character of 00 Spool (played by the late Jack Nance, who was featured in every film Lynch directed).
There is also an important reflection that Nochimson details in that quotation – and it is in reference to how individuals make their own meaning in film. Knowing that an audience brings in their own understanding and meaning into a film screening allows for extrapolation on the original works that are created, giving deeper meaning to the adapted work. Previous works that have come before the adapted work – such as the original novel or written work lend preconceived notions of meaning. Character personalities that the reader is familiar with are transposed on the big screen, bringing with them everything that has come before and after that moment in time in the film. Adaptations often come with descriptive details about specific characters, and if a director has chosen something different it often comes under the scrutiny of the audience of the original work. Lynch himself completely changed the character of Lula in Wild at Heart, casting Laura Dern in the place of a more voluptuously described brunette in Gifford’s original novel.
Lynch’s use of “dream-like logic” (Mactaggart 27) is a necessary concept to discuss as it is something that surrealistic artists often touch upon in their work. Lynch creates worlds in which impossible things happen. These instances within his films are sometimes fleeting but characters rarely question them, as if they happen within what is possible in the story. These subtle logical changes happen in every single one of his films, some more prominent than others. Bluestone’s argument against the originality of cinema goes against what Lynch is able to accomplish. By saying film captures “photographic images of physical reality” (Bluestone vii), there is a blatant disregard for the ability to capture an “unreality” or a surrealistic reality where physical spaces interact with ideas that cannot take place within the real world. In “Twin Peaks” (1991), Lynch is successful in his depiction of a small town setting but gives every character a certain quirk that allows for numerous interpretations. Whether that is a spontaneous howling, or “The Man from Another Place” speaking backwards in the Black Lodge, Lynch is able to alter perceptions of what is acceptable and twist them slightly to his advantage, renegotiating concepts of normality.
Where does this leave originality in adaptation? If someone has been chosen to adapt a particular work, then there must be some intention to give up some creative control. Greg Jenkins notes that some individuals “insist that an adapted film should adhere as closely as feasible to its source” (7), this is an expectation in adaptation that is used loosely as most adapters “treat original materials with [...] unconscionable laxity” (Jenkins 13). Filmmakers are able to change the focus of the material at hand, and can alter our perceptions of the original storyline.
Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) drew inspiration from a novel by Barry Gifford entitled Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, which was also published in 1990. Upon securing screenplay rights to the film adaptation, Lynch was able to take the events published by Gifford and create a surrealist visual interpretation of the film. In undertaking an adaptation, Lynch is “translating a book into a Lynch film” (Kaleta 159), which is specific only to the director himself. With this description come necessary pre-determined notions of filmmaking. He is making “his film vision of a book; [not] the novel to the screen” (Kaleta 159). For this reason, Lynch is able to create a film that does not have to adhere closely to the original work, but it ended up coming close. David Hughes notes that “although Lynch’s adaptation was mostly – sometimes slavishly – faithful to Gifford’s novel, he made several departures and inventions, both in the plotting and in the characterization” (141). In order to adapt this story to a visual medium, Lynch had made “everything that was bright a little brighter and everything black a little blacker” (Chion 124) but more importantly made careful considerations to tie characters in for an audience to understand – including a character conceived for film that was not in the novel by Gifford. The character of “Mr. Reindeer” was constructed as a plot device in the film to link various plots together (Hughes 141) (Chion 126). Occasionally the addition of dialogue, or entire characters are necessary to create in order to translate to film what is easier to read on the page.
In adapting to a visual medium, Lynch is able to visualize the internal struggles of the characters created by Gifford. In the novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula, there is a scene where Sailor and Lula drive at night, where Sailor reveals to Lula that he witnessed her father’s murder. In the film adaptation, David Lynch builds with the tension of the scene, laying over an intense soundtrack, but also an added visualization that was not available within the context of the novel. After Sailor informs Lula of this important plot point, she looks over her shoulder and imagines her destructive mother as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, complete with broomstick and costume. This is a nod to underlying thematic devices within the film that Lynch has added as context in relation to the wonderment and surrealist nature of the relationship and character development established by Gifford’s characters (Wilson 98). The scene then expands on a notion from Gifford’s original novel –Lula and Sailor pass by a car accident. In the novel, the car accident was implied, but never expanded upon (Chion 127). Lynch takes this opportunity to showcase the accident in full detail, even to the extent of showing the dead bodies and allowing an injured young woman to collapse and die in Sailor’s arms. Lynch creates this scene in true surrealist fashion; the non-sequitur lines written give a sense of hallucination and dream-like qualities that were not present in Gifford’s novel (Wilson 99). One of the most important distinctions in making this film was that Gifford had the original intent to write the book as a series without a definitive conclusion at the time Lynch secured the rights. Lynch wanted to make a standalone film and had to use an extension of meaning making in his adaptation to create a “happy ending.” By allowing Sailor and Lula the chance to come together at the end of the film, he does what the novel does not and ends with this extension of the concepts presented within the novel, turning the film into an independent work that adds to the original novel, but also as something that can be seen outside of Gifford’s original story. Lynch’s Wild at Heart comes with many changes to the original story as well as additional scenes and characters, which makes this adaptation a “commentary” that makes many changes while maintaining the same storyline and character development that Gifford originally intended.
Another of Lynch’s films, Lost Highway (1997), was a collaboration with Wild at Heart’s novelist Barry Gifford. Loosely based on Gifford’s novel Night People, Lynch drew inspiration from the symbolism of Gifford’s description of a “lost highway” (Hughes 206) among a few choice lines of dialogue within the novel and demanded that Gifford work with him on a screenplay. This work of adaptation can be seen as an extremely loose analogy as seen by Geoffrey Wagner. It is hard to even classify this film as an adaptation as all. Despite using the original novel of Night People to his advantage for inspiration, Lost Highway can be seen as a completed work independent from the context of the original novel. There is an abundance of creativity that went into this adaptation, as Lynch and Gifford also drew on some inspirations from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) about a man who wakes up as an insect (Hughes ix). In the case of Lost Highway, this idea has been transformed into waking up as a completely different person. The mind and spirit of the individual who inhabits the body is completely the same, but the outer appearance has changed entirely. This basic level of adaptation shows that inspiration from even the most basic of concepts can lead to an original work. If it were not for the adaptation that Lynch worked on of Wild at Heart, he would not have heard of Gifford’s latest novel and thus drew inspirations from some concepts that were not his own.
It is also important to discuss sound when discussing Lynch’s work. Using music and sound in film is important to complete the film – inserting overdubbed dialogue, sound effects and a score is essential to tonally assessing the film. If one was to play happy music over a scene of a man dying, the context of the scene would be completely different than if sad music had played. There is also an important distinction of using diegetic and non-diegetic sound to a world. If music is playing non-diegetically, then it is playing within the world of the film (usually a radio or jukebox), whereas if music is playing diegetically, it is assumed that the characters within the film cannot hear it. This can lead to greater suspense and allow for a build up of anticipation in many scenes. Having worked closely with Angelo Badalamenti since Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch and Badalamenti have created a synthesized score that adds to the atmosphere of the films. In Blue Velvet, Lynch is able to utilize music and sound effects, but commits to silence for the many scenes within the films. This “adds to the narrative reality of the film” (Kaleta 93) by not over complicating the diegesis of the film. If a scene in the world within the film should be silent, Lynch is able to allow that silence to speak for itself without overcomplicating the work. This “narrative reality” is also exemplified when used in context with the film. Using the song “Blue Velvet” within the film on numerous occasions gives the song additional context in relation to the actions going on. The first time it is presented is in a nostalgic manner, and each additional time the context changes due to events that are currently transpiring (Kaleta 93-95).
David Lynch connects his audience to the work he is creating through what Allister Mactaggart describes as the viewer being “sutured between the diegetic world of the film and the spectatorial position of distance and desire” (31). In these films, Lynch creates such disturbingly realistic portrayals of human corruption (Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990)) and surrealistic moments of cinematic behaviours (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Inland Empire (2006)) that an audience has no choice but forcefully distance themselves from the desires of the characters on the screen, or risk losing everything in moments of surrealistic dream-logic.
ADAPTATION THROUGH TRANSPOSITION
Looking at the original story that an adaptation is based on helps make the assessment of the adapted work easier. Many comparative essays have been written on Kubrick, Coppola, Spielberg and Hitchcock, but there has been relatively little analysis given to modern works such as Memento (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), or Adaptation (2002). Of recent authors, Cormac McCarthy has been receiving a lot of attention within the last few years for his novel No Country for Old Men. After being adapted by the Coen Brothers, nominated for eight Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, the Palme d’Or and countless other awards from across the globe, it was clear that works of adaptation can stand on their own. This also led to popularity for McCarthy as his book The Road was also adapted into a feature film by John Hillcoat in 2009, with additional adapted works currently in production. The way McCarthy writes No Country for Old Men can be considered “choppy” (Robinson 2007) and lacks the polished presentation of the finished film directed by the Coen brothers. Both are bracing thrillers capable of creating suspense and tension throughout the story, but the novel is able to achieve something that the film cannot – and that is the concept of speaking directly to the reader.
In the novel No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy speaks directly to the reader – the characters in the novel do not hear this dialogue and it is created for the purpose of delivering information to whomever is reading the story. This can lead to insight as to how a particular character feels, or important back story. McCarthy’s novel begins with Sheriff Bell discussing the effects of law enforcement on his life (Robinson 2007). This is done as a direct note to the reader, but speaking to an audience directly breaks the fourth wall in film. This separation of action from the audience (Wisegeek.com) is what makes it difficult in adapting so many novels to film. Characters often think to themselves or have hidden motivations that they discuss with the reader as a character. These interactions are kept from other characters in the novel, and without voice over in the novel to support the thoughts of the characters in the film; ways of adapting these thoughts and emotions is much more difficult in film. In the film version of No Country for Old Men, these opinions and thoughts are delivered instead by interactions with other characters. Instead of interludes throughout the novel, disrupting the plot and focus of the task at hand, the Coen brothers wrote his thoughts in as dialogue to be delivered so the audiences will understand what he is going through at the time. With only a minor change to the presentation of the storyline originally written by McCarthy, this adaptation can be seen as a transposition which adheres very closely to the novel. This adds to the authenticity and credibility to the Coen brothers for being able to write something that can successfully be seen as one of the more straight forward adaptations to be brought to film in a long time.
One of the most intriguing adaptations comes from the brain of screenwriter-turned-director Charlie Kaufman. Having written some of the most surrealistic works in the past decade: Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Synecdoche, New York (2008), Charlie Kaufman’s greatest work of adaptation was a film called Adaptation (2002). Based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Adaptation is a film that does what No Country for Old Men does not, alter the presentation of the original work. This categorizes the film as an analogy, which works with the original novel by Orlean but breaks off from the original intent of the story. In Adaptation, Kaufman establishes the main protagonist of the story as being himself – Charlie Kaufman, who has to write an adapted screenplay of Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. In doing so, the character of Kaufman ends up meeting the central characters he is writing about in the screenplay and even determines there is an illicit love affair going on between Susan Orlean and the criminal main character of her own novel. This complicates the matters of the storyline though, as toward the end of the story, the character of Kaufman begins to write his screenplay as the character of Charlie Kaufman – thus created a closed loop of events, portraying himself within the fictional world as a known fictional character. This means the adapted work that the viewer has been watching up until this point is a known work of fiction that the author Kaufman is able to address and point out. He is knowingly writing about untrue events and altering the original work while addressing it on screen. All of this confusion is addressed in an article by Lars Söderlund, clarifies that parts of the fictional screenplay were written by two characters specializing in two specific genres of storytelling (111).
Kaufman is able to create a film that is both aware of the world within the confines of the screenplay (through the interactions of specific characters and character motivation throughout the film) and aware of the world outside of the film. This dual awareness is able to address that audiences are watching the film about real people, but also the fact that the film is not a true story, but merely based on real people. This is one of the most complicated examples of how little a film adaptation needs to draw on the original work to create something new and original in and of itself. By using the idea of writing an adaptation of a singular novel as just a basis for this screenplay, Charlie Kaufman is able to create something absolutely bizarre that can stand apart from the original novel by Orlean, but also add additional interpretations and meaning to it.
It can be seen from the examples above that working closely with a script or an original work is not necessary to create a film that is considered an adaptation. Drawing inspiration from written works and creating an original film such as Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation allow adaptations to stand on their own, apart from the original. The characters and the situations from within the original story can benefit or add to the new plot, but creating a new story out of something that has already been established can be challenging for directors. Extending the meaning of original works by creating a filmic interpretation of the source material, directors can manipulate the way audiences view the work.
There is also a clear distinction between the auteur approach that David Lynch takes in his work – creating surreal films that exist on the level of subconscious dreams and imagination and the more structured approach that the Coen brothers take in No Country for Old Men. These are seemingly opposite levels of adaptation. Lynch’s use of alternative cinema lends itself to varied levels of interpretation in adaptation, while the Coen brothers implement techniques that are derived from traditional Hollywood narratives. Some of these works are merely inspired by literature; becoming “analogies” (such as David Lynch’s Lost Highway) and others are “transpositions” which exist as a visual counterpart to the original written work – straying away from crucial changes to the original plot (such as the Coen brother’s No Country for Old Men). James Naremore’s book on film adaptation says it the best: “movies do not debase their literary sources; instead, they “metamorphose” novels into another medium that has its own formal or narratological possibilities” (6). Being able to distinguish the differences between these two mediums and their ability to tell a story marks the separation of adaptation and the original work. Recognizing film’s innate formal qualities and by extention the means by which film determines narrative is at the core of what directors do: negotiate adaptation. Through film, the different levels of adaptation and the respective styles of the director come together to allow audiences to view a world that previous could only be imagined by the reader.
Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Columbia Pictures, 2002. Film.
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