Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Trends in Adaptation: Will and Jane Go Celluloid

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Trends in Adaptation: Will and Jane Go Celluloid

Article excerpt

TRENDS IN ADAPTATION: WILL AND JANE GO CELLULOID Film Adaptation. Edited by James Naremore. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. Pp. 258. $21.95 paper.

Cinematic Shakespeare. By Michael Anderegg. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Pp. 227. $21.95 paper.

Jane Austen in Hollywood, 2nd edition. Edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. 221. $17.00 paper.

Cinematic adaptations of great literary works have traditionally, in the words of the late Rodney Dangerfield, gotten no respect. The earliest such adaptations, made during the silent era, were produced for their snob value-to attract a better-quality audience to movie theaters. Later adaptations, made during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, were designed to work in the opposite way: they popularized the classics, turning War and Peace and Wuthering Heights into lavish entertainment vehicles. In no case was the adaptation meant to usurp or even equal the literary work that inspired it. Hitchcock, in an interview with Truffaut, summarized the case by citing a New Yorker cartoon in which two goats are conversing while eating cans of film stock; the caption reads: "Personally, I liked the book better."

James Naremore cites this cartoon in the introduction to his edited collection, Film Adaptation. He explains that the assumption that "books are better" has its roots early in the twentieth century, when critics borrowed from the esthetic doctrine of Matthew Arnold to establish the preeminence of the literary canon and literary form. When the Cahiers de Cinema critics began to promote film as a valid esthetic medium in the 1950s, they simply adopted the terminology of literature. The director became an auteur, and the camera, a kind of pen in the service of an idealized cinematic vision.

The essays in Naremore's volume take issue with this kind of thinking and terminology. They look at film adaptation without measuring it against an elevated concept of literary or cinematic form. Instead, they consider the cultural, economic, and political forces that shape the films we see.

Two of the essays in the collection are reprints and reflect the prescience that some critics had on this subject decades ago. The first is by the brilliant French film theorist André Bazin. Written in 1948, it could have emerged today from a forward-thinking Media Studies department, were it not for its refreshing lack of theoretical jargon. "Faithfulness to form, literary or otherwise, is illusory," maintains Bazin. And he goes on to explain that literature can generate cultural myths-characters like Don Quixote and Gargantua-that exist apart from their source. "The style of a literary work is its body but not its soul," Bazin argues, "[a]nd it is not impossible for the artistic soul to manifest itself through another incarnation." He concludes: "we are moving toward a reign of the adaptation in which the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed. . . . The chronological precedence of one part over another would not be an aesthetic criterion any more than the chronological precedence of one twin over the other is a genealogical one."

The other reprinted essay in Naremore's collection is a 1984 piece by film theorist Dudley Andrew, who also argues against a hierarchical distinction between literary and cinematic representation. Both forms, notes Andrew, involve an engagement with a prior model. He invokes a "sociology of adaptation" in which films are studied not in terms of some antecedent original, but as "acts of discourse," in which many forces and texts coalesce.

If we look at cinematic adaptation sociologically, as Andrew suggests, then two recent trends in adaptation-of Shakespeare and of Jane Austen- seem to warrant special attention. Both authors have always been a favorite for filmmakers, but in the past decade and a half there has been a veritable deluge of cinematic adaptations of their work. …

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