The Accidental Tourist on Page and on Screen: Interrogating Normative Theories about Film Adaptation

Article excerpt

The issue of adaptation has long been a salient one among film critics for quite practical reasons, as Dudley Andrew has observed:

The making of a film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself. Well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals, though by no means all of these originals are revered or respected. (10)

While a diverse range of literary genres has spawned film adaptations, the novel has been by far the most popular written source throughout the history of the cinema. Morris Beja estimates that in the typical year, about 30 percent of American movies are based on novels. And among the films that have won either the Academy Award or the New York Film Critics Award for "Best Picture" since 1935, the largest proportion have been film adaptations of novels (Beja 78).

In light of the important role novels have played in service to filmmaking, then, it is not surprising that, when faced with the prospect of evaluating a film based on a novel, critics often ground their judgments in assessments of the effectiveness of the adaptation. Yet, it is not uncommon to find contradictory evaluations of the same film, with one critic judging the adaptation successful while another deems it a failure. Some might argue that such disagreement simply illustrates the utter subjectivity of criticism; however, I contend that these differences in judgment stem from the critics' adoption of differing paradigms for evaluating the film adaptation.

In this essay, I examine four prominent paradigms concerning film adaptation that are at work in contemporary academic criticism, and I explore the limits and possibilities of discourse that each paradigm permits, using the film adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel The Accidental Tourist to illustrate. It is not my purpose to conclude that one particular paradigm is necessarily best, for such a judgment would ignore a complexity of factors that mitigate in the individual case, including the linguistic qualities of the specific novel and the socio-historical circumstances of the film's creation. Rather, this essay is an attempt to re-configure the critical discourse about film adaptation, by pointing to the assumptions behind the critic's adoption of a particular paradigm and the constraints upon critical commentary that result from that decision.

Four Critical Paradigms of Film Adaptation .

The first and perhaps oldest paradigm applied by critics in their evaluations of film adaptations might be called the "translation" paradigm. A critic adopting this perspective judges the film's effectiveness primarily in terms of its "fidelity" to the novel, particularly with regard to narrative elements, such as character, setting, and theme. Dudley Andrew refers to this as the film remaining faithful to the "letter" of the text (12). Michael Klein and Gillian Parker have argued that this criterion is a viable basis for evaluation, even though, as countless theorists have noted, omissions from the novel are inevitable in the film adaptation:

There has to be a good deal of selection and condensation when a novel... is transposed into a film of roughly two hours: scenes have to be cut, minor characters simplified or eliminated, subplots dispensed with. But this need not exclude fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative, to the author's central concerns, to the natures of the major characters, to the ambiance of the novel, and, what is perhaps most important, to the genre of the source. (9)

The criterion of fidelity is often articulated explicitly in critics' evaluations of film adaptations. For example, Constance Spiedel judged the film Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks, a poor adaptation because the film significantly changes one of the novel's primary characters:

James L. Brooks has proved once again that a successful film does not need to be a faithful adaptation, but Terms of Endearment raises the question, why bother to adapt? …