Academic journal article Style

Orlando's Sister, or Sally Potter Does Virginia Woolf in a Voice of Her Own

Academic journal article Style

Orlando's Sister, or Sally Potter Does Virginia Woolf in a Voice of Her Own

Article excerpt

For decades, the study of film adaptation has been troubled by questions of fidelity. Too often, adaptation studies have merely compared films to their literary sources, a "tiresome" endeavor, as Dudley Andrew points Out, that inevitably privileges the literary work over what comes to be seen as its inferior film derivation (266). In reacting to a long history of uninsightful comparisons of film and literature, scholars have tended to regard the study of adaptation as a naive approach to the examination of film and to favor, instead, methods that (as the popular adage in cinema studies proclaims) treat film as film. At the same time, however, the realization that literary adaptations make up almost half of all commercial film releases has precipitated a search for ways to reconceptualize issues of adaptation. (1) One recent approach that has reinvigorated adaptation studies considers a filmmaker's relationship to his or her source within the context of film production. This new focus represents a much needed reorientation of the study of adaptations, for even if film scholars have not been eager to consider the question of fidelity, filmmakers have persistently regarded it as a major aspect of filmmaking and promotion.

Indeed, promotional materials often advertise film adaptations by lauding the degree to which they capture the essence, or voice, of their source narratives. Yet as many film scholars have demonstrated, a literary work never simply reappears on the screen, and a critical distinction must be made between "those narrative features that can be transferred from one medium to another and those that can't" (MacFarlane 9). Of the stock formal devices of narrative frequently called upon to present a text faithfully on film, perhaps a novel's most elemental, yet elusive feature is authorial voice. In an adaptation, a filmmaker necessarily mixes the verbal with the visual, perhaps hoping to capture the novel's crucial essence, the authorial timbre of the original. But because an author's voice is often understood only as a hovering presence throughout a text, it is the formal quality that challenges translation into the film medium most fully.

Perhaps this problem of capturing a disembodied authorial voice may shed light on the related issue of locating authorial identity at all. For embedded in the concept of capturing a novel's essence is the bugbear of delineating an authoritative textual meaning, a concept that seems to equate a novel's narrative voice with the author's intention. As post-structuralist theory demonstrates, however, defining authorial intention often reveals more about the interpretive predispositions of a reader than about the author's narrative designs. In film, the challenge of capturing an authorial voice is even further complicated because a filmmaker often adapts a source from an historically distant era, and the problem becomes one of transposing a presence removed by time and place. In light of these exegetical complexities, the concept of fidelity--naively understood as a one-to-one mapping on of a novel to film--must be reconceived to account for (what Bakhtin might term) a film's historical heteroglossia. (2) Measurin g a film's fidelity to the narrative voice of its source thus becomes a way to uncover a filmmaker's biases in regard to her or his source text, as well as the social contexts of both works.

Identifying the recent proliferation of film adaptations from historically distant novels as a "return of the classics" movement, Timothy Corrigan argues that fidelity to their sources is not the reason such adaptations are so popular. He suggests, instead, that this "return of the classics" reflects a conservative reaction against trends of postmodernist filmmaking that diminish traditional plot and character. This movement embodies, he claims, "a therapeutic turn from cultural complexity" and "an increasing concern with manner over matter" (72). Although the idyllic past envisioned in these films may never have existed, even when the source texts were written, its filmic embodiments present a fantasy of a time when life was simpler, offering escape and solace to world-weary contemporary viewers. …

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