Academic journal article Literature/Film Quarterly

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen from a Different Perspective

Academic journal article Literature/Film Quarterly

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen from a Different Perspective

Article excerpt


Until now, criticism on the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being has limited itself mostly to journalistic reactions in daily and weekly magazines. Most of these reactions adhere to the traditional source text-oriented and normative approach to the film adaptation. Especially when they deal with the adaptation of highly reputed writers, critics do not manage to relativize the importance of the literary source text, next to other possible "sources of inspiration." Only the prestigious literary source text is considered as the model, and one concentrates on the literary values and characteristics that are present or, as is mostly the case, absent in the film adaptation. Eventually, the film is evaluated as a film on the basis of this comparison. In this discussion, one does not even imagine what this adaptation would look like if it did contain all the literary ingredients.1

In the case of Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, most critics regret the "loss" of the narrator who is explicitly present in the novel, who talks directly to the reader, installs a specific relation with him, and tackles various philosophical, moral, political, and social questions.

The presence or absence of these literary characteristics in the film adaptation is connected to another classic topic which pops up repeatedly in journalistic discussions, namely the "un-adaptability" of Kundera's novel. The concept of the "(un)adaptability" is closely linked to the normative idea that a film adaptation should render its source text as faithfully as possible. Underlying this concept is the idea that there can be and, according to some people, there should be identicalness between literary and filmic narration. If not, again according to these people, one should not adapt a previously existing text, but rather start from an original story or screenplay.

The question of whether Kundera's novel could be adapted to the screen has definitely been answered since the release of the American movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1988. The question of whether this movie adapts the quintessence of Kundera's novel, however, remains unanswered. The reason for this is quite simple: most critics disagree with each other about what this "quintessence" would be.

Traditional Versus New Approach

In this article, I would like to argue that this type of questioning is questionable in itself, and that it stands in the way of a larger and far more interesting type of inquiry. Previous research has demonstrated that, instead of focusing only on the faithfulness of the film adaptation toward the one literary source text, it can be more informative to examine why one particular film adaptation, or a particular group of film adaptations, has been produced and perceived the way it has. I would like to oppose a "traditional" approach to a different, larger approach of film adaptation. The method and the theoretical instruments have been explained in detail elsewhere.2 Here, I limit my discussion to a brief illustration of how a change in attitude toward film adaptation opens up new perspectives. To illustrate the different line of questioning and the new perspectives, I present a brief application of the approach to the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The point I want to make is that a so-called film adaptation of a literary text generally adapts many other semiotic devices next to the one literary source text, that a traditional Text1-Text2 comparison is unable to discover and describe all the semiotic devices that have functioned as models during the production and perception process, and that, therefore, it is unable to explain why a film adaptation has been produced/perceived the way it has been produced/perceived.

Adaptation: Process and Result

In English (as in other languages), the word "adaptation" refers to a process as well as to a final text, resulting from that process. …

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