Adapt or Fail: On Movie Adaptations
Film adaptation of novels is an increasingly common practice. For her part, Virginia Woolf was vocally against the practice of adaptation. She referred to cinema as a “parasite” and literature as the “prey.” This sense of the biological could be seen in another light however. Adaptation is the key to survival, in the biological sense. Species which do not adapt, do not survive new environments, or new predators. If cinema is seen as tantamount to a predator of the purity of literature, than the prey must adapt to the new predator, and be able to survive alongside it. Film adaptation is a way literature, particularly old literature, remains relevant to modern audiences. Film adaptation allows literature a place to compete for attention in a world with increasingly more options. Rather than reducing literature, adaptation compliments it. While many adaptations can be used as fast attempts at money, made without intent to preserve the integrity or depth of the original, many adaptations are at the same time used to keep works of literature in the collective consciousness. Adaptation can drive readership of the source material. Many adaptations are very well made, and compliment their original sources rather than reducing them. Adaptation is a change, but change is not always change for the worse. And, unlike with biological adaptation, the original is not lost in the process of adaptation: the original source will still exist once the film adaptation is made. Adaptation allows for modernization and continued relevance to wider and later audiences at the expense of truncating, simplifying or otherwise removing nuance or original authorial intent from the story, to varying degrees.
There are many different types of movie adaptations. There are direct adaptations, which change or distill the story, such as Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There are adaptations in which the film becomes its own piece of art, with a message beyond that of what the book intended, such as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. There are adaptations which modernize a work, but keep its essence, such as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. And lastly, there are books which get adapted multiple times, with each adaptation emphasizing a different aspect of the book, such as Lyne and Kubrick’s respective versions of Lolita.
The first adaptation to be examined here is Philip Kaufman’s 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This adaptation does not change the original, but does distill it into a form able to be visually conveyed. One of the prominent parts of the novel is the narrator’s philosophical discussions on humanity, including Nieztsche’s concept of eternal return. With the absence of a narrator in film, the movie truncates the philosophical and political discussions of the novel, and relegates them to a backdrop of the main love story. The plot of the novel is retained, except Tomas’s son Simon is not present in the movie. While other specific differences are difficult to pinpoint, there is no doubt that while this adaptation is fairly faithful, it changes much of the novel. While the novel is primarily categorized as philosophical fiction, the movie is undoubtedly a love story.
Where the movie does use the political backdrop so prevalent in the novel, it uses it very well. In detailing the Prague Spring, the visual medium is put to great use. Shots of Tomas and Tereza are interspersed with footage from real riots and atrocities. This gives a much more vivid impact of the Prague Spring to the viewer than a reader gets from reading the novel. The use of visuals is useful in grounding a viewer in the emotional stakes, especially for a concept as intangible as the politics of a foreign nation.
Kaufman’s adaptation is a very classic form of film adaptation. The author of the novel disliked it, but the film was well received and even nominated for an Academy Award. The film is a very direct adaptation of the novel, without many major changes or additions, but changes were made to shorten the story. The plot of Tomas, Tereza, and Sabina’s love triangle was made the emphasis rather than the philosophical discussions that the book foregrounds. Philosophy does not translate very well to film, not in comparison to love and emotion. Many, if not most, adaptations seem to be made in a vain similar to this one. Where the source material is used faithfully enough that a casual fan or someone to whom the book is unknown will find the film enjoyable. However, this is a case that any minor change, and there are always changes, will aggravate an intense fan of the novel which is being adapted, as the original author’s intent in many ways shares the stage with the director’s vision for the film.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) is an example of the type of adaptation many fans tend to fear. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange entirely changes the ending, and with it the author’s intended message, of the novel. This is the type of adaptation which may go one of two ways: either the changes are well received, and are enjoyed by viewers. Or, viewers become angry with such extensive changes to a beloved novel’s adaptation. It is the type of adaptation in which the film becomes its own piece of art, almost separate from the original work. Adaptations hand creative control, in most cases, to a person or people other than the original author. Directors and screenwriters decide a different ending, or set-up, or location will benefit the story in adaptations all the time. Sometimes changes are negligible, and in some cases they are very significant. The adaptation does not make the work itself better or worse, but does open an avenue for arguing if the film’s choices are better or worse for the story than the book’s choices. This increases interest in original works for those seeking out the differences and choices made in an adaptation.
Kubrick’s main change to the film version is the ending. The American version of the novel omitted the final chapter, which was published as intended in England, and in subsequent editions. Kubrick used the American edition as the basis of his adaptation, and thus omitted Burgess’ intended ending. The ending of the film acquiesce to the idea that people can never change. Alex, our protagonist, is someone who is intrinsically evil, perhaps from birth or perhaps as a product of his system. They is no cure for Alex, who ends with the sarcastic and haunting line “I was cured alright,” as he regains his violent and sexual urges. In contrast, Burgess’ final chapter follows a more grown-up Alex as he decides for himself that violence in the providence of the young and the restless. In the novel, Alex wishes to change and wants a legacy in children and in writing music. The message of the novel, is that humanity is capable of change, but that change must come from the individual and cannot be forced upon someone.
Despite the change to a more violent and less hopeful end, the film also tempers some of the more violent passages of the book. In the book, Alex rapes two preteen girls, which is changed to consensual sex with two teenage girls his own age in the movie. In the film, the assualt and rape of a woman has Alex singing “Singin’ in the Rain” over the scene, adding an edge of lightness over an otherwise horrific visual. The horrific visuals in the book are tempered and somewhat obscured by the use of the made-up Nadsat language. While Nadsat is present in the film, it is less useful in obscuring the difficult parts of the story, as the visuals still show the gory details the book in many ways glosses over. These are changes made for the sake of adaptation itself, rather than a change in artistic direction of the film. This type of change tends to be considered more tolerable for film adaptations, though many adaptations successfully implement larger changes, such as Kubrick’s change of the ending.
A more dramatic change in an adaptation can be found in Francis Ford Coppala’s Apocalypse Now (1979), which is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902). While the plot of the novella is retained in the film, the entire setting is changed. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness follows Marlow during the colonial period in Africa, while Apocalypse Now follows Willard (Marlow’s film counterpart) during the Vietnam war. Despite this modernization of time period, the plot of Marlow/Willard seeking a man named Kurtz who has gone near-mad with power is the heart of the story.
The commentary on humanity’s capability for darkness and evil deeds, as well as the inhumane distinction between the civilized and uncivilized men remains a focal point to both. The movie is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the plot and story, despite the difference in time period, and a handful of others. For one, the novella is framed as a story Marlow is telling on his way home, after the events, which is not typically a device used in film. The film does set itself ambiguously, as one could argue the film is taking place in real-time or as Willard’s flashbacks. The other main difference is that Willard kills Kurtz directly in the film, while Marlow watches Kurtz succumb to illness in the novella. Apocalypse Now is an example of an adaptation which strikes a balance between being faithful to the source, but also allowing itself to be its own piece and able to stand alone.
The last adaptation we will look at is the two adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). There are two adaptations of Lolita: Stanley Kubrick’s from 1962 and Adrian Lyne’s from 1997. Each is a very different take on the book, emphasizing different aspects, and opinion is divided critically on which is the better adaptation. On one hand, Lyne’s is the much more faithful adaptation. Lyne’s version highlights the romantic relationship between Humbert and Lolita in a way Kubrick’s version could not do when bound by the restrictions of the Hays Code. Due to this, the inherent creepiness of the relationship is much more evident in Lyne’s version, which shows a lot more and emphasizes Lolita’s youth to a greater extent. Lyne’s version highlights Lolita’s retainer, showing her take it out before implying she has sex with Humbert. Humbert’s rape of Lolita is also shown through a series of fade-outs and transitions that ends on Lolita’s sobbing sometime later. This is in contrast to Kubrick’s version which shows very little of the physical relationship. The relationship between Humbert and Lolita is implied in more indirect ways in Kubrick;s version. He does not give the audience a clear image of exactly what Humbert is doing with her or when the conditioning of Lolita transitioned into physicality. Lyne’s version has been criticized for being too erotic, with soft lighting and colors imitating pornogrpahy videos at times in the film. However, Kubrick’s has been criticized for being too sanitized and not giving the viewer enough to know exactly how bad Humbert is for Lolita if they do not know the book. The issue here is the delicateness of the subject. The book is able to get away with much more, for one it is not visual and does not require a young actress and is thus easier to stomach. For another, the film versions both lose the lyricism of Nabokov’s writings which makes the book so appealing.
Other major differences in the adaptations is what they chose to foreground from the novel. While Lyne’s highlights the romantic relationship, and nearly nothing else, Kubrick gives more attention to other aspects. For one, Kubrick’s version in undoubtedly the wittier of the two versions, giving much more humor to the story. Kubrick’s version is almost lighter, less dark and more funny, which makes sense as it is meant to be a story told from Humbert’s perspective. Humbert does not seem to regret his actions or think we was in the wrong, even at the end of the book and each film. Kubrick’s version also gives more attention to the character of Clare Quilty, the second pedophile who seeks out Lolita. Kubrick’s version begins with Quilty’s murder, and highlights the way Quilty follows them, and disguises himself as, among others: a policeman and Dr. Zempf, a psychologist. Despite being funnier, Kubrick’s version is the less faithful of the two adaptations, and is sometimes considered to not be a true adaptation of Lolita, being so censored. The tagline of the movie was “how did they make a movie out of Lolita?” The answer by many is “they didn’t.”
In contrast, Lyne’s version is very faithful to the book. Lyne’s version includes the story of Anabel, Humbert’s love as a child, with him he had an unfulfilled relationship after her death at the age of fourteen. The inclusion of Anabel gives Humbert an edge of sympathy which he has in the book but lacks in Kubrick’s version. In the end, it is difficult to make a determination of which adaptation is definitely better, as individuals have different preferences. As is how adaptations function, they make choices which both enhance and reduce the original story. Some choices are faithful in spirit or to the text itself. Some are faithful to neither, but no option is definitely the better option.
It is nearly impossible to definitively say rather a film adaptation or the book it is adapting is better, because so much subjective opinion can have an individual prefer one to the other. While colloquially it tends to be said that the book is always better, you cannot rule out the effectiveness nor the entertainment of film adaptations. Look at the examples given above. Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was considered an unfaithful adaptation by the book’s author Milan Kundera. However, the movie may be more appealing to many audiences, as it emphasizes the love story, than philosophical discussion. Similarly, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now may be easier to watch as a more modern, accessible version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adaptations are not always better than the books they adapt, even when they are good movies on their own. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for instance, is much more graphic and difficult to watch on screen than it is to read in the book, especially with the distance the Nadsat language creates in the book, which loses much of its impact in the film. Both film versions of Lolita are similar. By virtue of the subject matter, Lolita because less vivid on screen, as little can be shown and the lyricism of the book is lost in the translation to film. Lyne’s 1997 version of the film gets away with showing much more than Kubrick’s 1962, but is still harder to stomach watching than reading for many viewers. Kubrick’s version of the film asks the question “how did they make a movie out of Lolita?” The answer? They pretty much didn’t. Almost everyone seems to prefer the book to either movie, even if discussion of which adaptation is better widely varies.
Adaptation cannot be distilled to either an impoverishment nor an enrichment of written texts. Adaptations are as widely varied, in both good ways and bad, as their source materials. Adaptations however do tend to breathe new life into the works they adapt, driving new readership as well as film audience. The interaction between the original and adapted material is nearly as old as film itself, and is a prevalent practice. The good and bad of adaptations however, is best suited to be evaluated on an individual basis, rather than on the practice as a whole. Original and adapted material can interact in interesting ways, for both the better than the worse, but on the whole the practice of adaptation can be a benefit for audiences, authors, and filmmakers, especially when done well.
Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. W. W. Norton & Company, 1962.
Coppola, Francis Ford, director. Apocalypse Now. United Artists, 1979.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Blackwood’s Magazine , 1902.
Kaufman, Philip, director. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Orion Pictures, 1988.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. A Clockwork Orange. Warner Bros., 1971.
Kubrick, Stanley, director. Lolita. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Harper Perennial, 1984.
Lyne, Adrian, director. Lolita. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1997.Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955.