Darwinian Blues

In which I defend the revision, bastardization and abridgement of books when adapted into films.


The greatest adaptation of a book into film is, aptly, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation., a film which bears in common with its source material nearly nothing. Struggling to adapt into a feature film Susan Orlean’s slight The Orchid Thief, clever Charlie took an unremarkable theme of the book—the adaptability of plants, of people, of passion—and turned it into a metaphor for the film itself: an adaptation of a book by way of adapting its theme of adaptation into a film about the foregoing adaptive process. (How’s that for metafiction?)

This is how art should be—transformative and radical. When artists stray from mere mimesis, borrowing liberally from what is to create freely what might be, they keep from breaking the biggest rule of art: never to be boring.

Which is why I am liable to cringe when I hear from the mouth of a fellow theatre patron, “The book was so much better!” Regretfully I might ask, “Why?” to which the vulgarian then would say, “The movie changed so much!”

Let us recall that some of the greatest adaptations are precisely those which changed so much: Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, too many Kubrick films to name. Whether or not their deviant directors did the novels justice is irrelevant when heterodoxy achieved a brilliance the sources only glimpsed.

Nor need they bother with fidelity; literature operates according to a logic and æsthetic fundamentally different from, if not opposed to that of film. (To any who suppose otherwise: see how well a novelization of Elephant would read, or how Finnegans Wake The Movie would even work.) It is not the director’s duty to transmute each sentence to a stage direction—but to create a preexisting work anew.

Famously and fittingly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is nothing but a faithless remake of a sacred canon; we of an Anglo persuasion first tasted his Medea’s vengeance, and first heard his Echo’s cry, from the heptametrical heresy of Arthur Golding, that beautiful bastardizer. And who can forget that lovely heap of revisionist genius, the King James Bible?

Granted, linguistic purists like your humble J himself would hardly read a translated novel without the nagging thought of being a phony. And when lingual competence avails us not, one would hope for as accurate a conversion as possible. Is this why the packs of Potters and Hungering hordes mourn yearly at the box office for their beloved books? Perhaps our culture has degraded so, that these tales must be through movies told to an audience for whom literature is itself a foreign tongue.

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