Literature as it Translates to Film

As I prepare for my literature classes for next year, searching out just the right novels, plays, and poems to present to each class, I find myself feeling more and more strongly that I should not limit myself to teaching the written word.  For the last one hundred years or so, the visual media have become more and more prominent in our society.  There are a great many people in America today who will never crack open a book, but will watch hours of television every day and see several movies each month.  While occasionally an original story is well-told on film, for the most part movies are remakes of popular or classical works of literature.  Many people in today’s society are exposed to the great stories of our culture exclusively through film rather than the written work. But sometimes,  the film intrigues its fans into actually reading the original work.

I will not say whether I feel this is a good or a bad thing.  It simply is.  Rather than wish the world were otherwise, it is time to face reality and deal with the visual media as an entity that is not only not going away but is taking over as our main source of cultural storytelling. As such, it demands scrutiny:  how well do movies and television translate the written word?

I believe that discerning the difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made one is a skill that must be taught.  It is, in fact, lamentable that it has not been made a priority in schools before now.  Americans are unfortunately content with the substandard fare offered to them and will even enthuse about the most banal and contemptible drivel, not knowing that there are truly sublime films available for them to enjoy if they would only look.  Many Americans, jaded by the constant bombardment of adreneline-producing violence and overly-excited sex, strobing through scene after scene at breakneck speed, can’t appreciate a truly well-made movie when they see one.  They simply don’t know how to process film intellectually, expecting a purely emotional experience.  Often, their attention-spans have been so severely compromised, people simply cannot sit through an entire film without explosions or other emotionally exploitive events to keep their minds from wandering.  I feel that this shows a serious lack in our educational system.

I believe that a natural start to teaching children how to appreciate visual media is to have them read books that have been made into film and help them compare the two media.  Showing them the same elements of story through both methods of storytelling can help them learn to be discerning in their viewing habits.  And fortunately, there have actually been some quite well-done films of many literary classics.

A part of this learning process, however, must include a basic understanding of how these two media necessarily differ.  I am not one of those “purists” who feel a film must be an exact copy of the book from which it is taken.  I am not even one of those people who insist that the book is always better than the movie.  Most of the time, the book IS better than the movie:  but in the interest of truth, it must be admitted that there are exceptions to this rule.  “The Princess Bride” is the one that springs immediately to mind.  While I enjoyed the book, with its facetious but interminably long introduction explaining “the  good parts” version, the movie incorporates the same sort of facetiousness without the initial tedium.

But, I digress!  The fact is, books can do things that film cannot; and film can do things that books cannot.  Taking advantage of the strengths of each medium is the job of the author and the filmmaker.  Understanding that some of the coolest parts of a book simply cannot translate well to the screen is part of the process of learning to appreciate film for its own strengths.  To give the most obvious example:  a film cannot get inside a character’s mind as intimately as a book can.  Other means must be found to allow the viewer access to the thought processes of the characters.  Another translation challenge is a lack of information.  At times in a written work, the author can state a complicated process quite simply and leave the details to the imagination.  “He quickly explained to his friends all that had happened to him in the previous few days.”  “A short scuffle ensued, ending with Mr. Smith head-down in the well.”  The film maker must make a decision as to how to convey these simple sentences visually.  Obviously the conversation must be shown to take place–but what do the characters say?  Or should the conversation simply be alluded to in a later scene so that the viewer knows that all the characters are now up to speed on the happenings of the story?  How should this “short scuffle” be choreographed?  How do we send Mr. Smith head-down into a well without killing the actor portraying him?  What can be a throw-off sentence to the author can become a major head-ache to a filmmaker.

Another problem is length.  A novel can be as long as the author wishes it to be.  A film usually cannot be longer than two or three hours at most.  A novel does not cost the author more the longer it gets.  A film’s costs multiply with each day it takes to shoot.  Therefore, it becomes necessary sometimes to condense a novel into a more manageable size.  Some scenes must be combined; some must be cut out altogether or perhaps only alluded to.  Some characters may even be combined to make the cast a more manageable size.

Here is a more complex example of changes in translation:  The Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” is a highly symbolic creation, depicted masterfully by Charles Dickens as being perceived as “receding into the distance” and as made up of parts of all the people Ebenezer Scrooge had ever known.  As many times as this book has been made into a movie, no one has ever attempted to depict this character as it is described in the book.  Until recently, it would have been simply impossible to do; but even now, with CGI making so many wonderful things possible, I think it would be a mistake to translate this Ghost literally onto the screen.  Its appearance would simply be too distracting for meaningful dialogue to take place.  In the book, the reader is allowed to forget during conversation that the Ghost is strobing in and out of many different bodies.  On film, the viewer would be overwhelmed by the constant changes.

On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers make decisions in translation that are not defendable and are even deplorable.  Giving a character more lines because one is paying the actor an exorbitant  salary is using poor reasoning skills.  Changing the very meaning of the work by altering the ending (as in, for example, “Beowulf”–don’t get me started!)  is just plain evil.  Being able to tell the difference between good and bad choices would be an important part of the educative process.  Simply accepting any changes a filmmaker makes without questions would be as bad as automatically condemning the changes out-of-hand.  Teaching a student to think about the film and how it was made and giving the student tools to help him discern good filmmaking from poor filmmaking would be the goal.

Next year, I plan to incorporate some films into my literature curriculum and hold class discussions in hopes of helping my students gain viewing skills that will help them navigate through our cultural morass of visual media.  Wish me luck!


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