Making Pace with Film Adaptations

By Daniel Mendelsohn; Zoe Heller | International New York Times, December 27, 2013 | Go to article overview

Making Pace with Film Adaptations


Daniel Mendelsohn; Zoe Heller, International New York Times


The common expectation is that adaptations should be "faithful" to their source texts. But it's not at all clear why we should burden films with this obligation.

Zoe Heller

There are no sensible generalizations to be made about what we're "meant to get" from film adaptations -- other than, perhaps, good movies. (Adaptations are just as various in their commercial and artistic ambitions as films based on original screenplays.) The common expectation is that adaptations should be "faithful" to their source texts. But it's not at all clear why we should burden films with this obligation.

When my novel "Notes on a Scandal" was turned into a movie some years ago, I was repeatedly asked if I minded that the filmmakers had "taken liberties" with the book. I did not mind. The liberties had been bought and paid for. And I had made my peace with the idea that my book was being adapted, not imitated or illustrated. Novels create effects with words that may be gestured at in other mediums, but not reproduced. Why then demand that a movie be faithful to a book when the book is always going to do a superior job of being itself?

Better, surely, to accept adaptations as independent works of art that make use of -- but owe no particular loyalty to -- anterior texts. We don't blame Shakespeare for playing fast and loose with Holinshed's "Chronicles," or go after Zadie Smith for "betraying" E. M. Forster.

This is not, by and large, what people want to hear from writers who have had their work adapted. The fidelity principle demands that an author should either endorse a movie by saying it has "done justice" to her work, or angrily denounce it for having traduced her artistic intentions. As for the filmmaker, he is honor-bound to characterize even his most flagrant additions, subtractions and innovations as efforts to "capture the spirit" of the text. (See Baz Luhrmann's defense of the hip-hop soundtrack for his film of "The Great Gatsby.") But what if the filmmaker has decided, as is his right, to mess with that spirit, or to go after another spirit altogether? …

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