29 October 2006

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

...and that's only the beginning of the question...

Christopher Yeatts as Hamlet in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival WillPower touring production of Hamlet.

Read: Lilith by George MacDonald.
Watched: A one-hour-and-twenty-minute version of Hamlet by members of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and a “traditional” performance of King Lear by the theatre department of Northampton Community College.
Listened to: lots of Beatles albums, Bach, Chopin, & contemporary Native American singer/songwriters.

I’ve been wondering about adaptations recently. Here’s the question I’d like readers to answer: Do you hold a sort of “sacrosanct” view of texts, that is, that they should never be adapted, or do you think that anything written is available for change & re-presentation? I’m thinking especially of plays, but this conversation could be relevant for music, books-to-movies, etc. So, do you think that an artist’s original work should stand as it is, or could & should it be adapted to suit the mood of the times? Do you think any “real” presentation of a work is possible when moving from one medium to another, such as page-to-stage, page-to-screen, and so forth?

So, that’s it. That’s my question. But that said, of course I have to go on and give my opinion. First of all, let’s just make it clear that we’re not talking about copyright violations. Let’s assume that the material we’ll discuss is either in the public domain or the adaptor has received permission to do whatever hacking, cutting, and pasting s/he may desire.

I used to believe that any text, or indeed any original work of art, was almost sacred, that it should not be touched or changed at all. I was horrified by The Lord of the Rings when it first came out, due to the drastic changes the director made. He ruined Faramir’s character, changed some crucial speeches, and left out the last sixth of the book! Good grief. Well, now I love those movies for their own sake, but still feel a bit of sinking sickness when I think of all the viewers who may never read the books and will always have the wrong impression. I had a similar reaction to “Narnia” an a first viewing. How dare he change nearly every word of the original book & turn it into a fairly lousy screenplay & throw in some retarded scene of cheesy drama on the ice and leave out the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea & the Deep Magic from before the Dawn of Time, and why were the children whining to go home all the time? You can see I’m rather passionate about this, still. Even though I appreciate those movies for their own sake, as great movies, I shudder when I think of them as visual representations of the books.
But recently I’ve been developing a new attitude towards adaptations. It began this summer in Oxford, when my prof. Emma Smith said many times that she thought the best directors of Shakespeare were those who were not afraid to cut, paste, change, hack, chop, and disfigure to their hearts’ content. Well, she didn’t exactly say it like that, but that was the idea. Her premise seemed to be that any new production of an old play is a work of art in its own right, and must change with the times/places to be relevant, fresh, and compelling. And I’m beginning to agree with her.

The production of Hamlet by the traveling troupe from the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival was extraordinary—very dynamic, very alive, very relevant, and totally exciting. Hamlet dressed in black, of course, but it was black jeans & worn dress shirt & ill-tied tie. The set was like Hot Topic or a Goth-style artist’s flat in Harlem: faded purple & black velvet draped across the back, with well-chosen graffiti scrawled across it: “Remember Me” and “Dust” were most predominant. Ophelia was hovering between a Goth look—black net tights, black tank top over ruffled white dress—and girly-cutsie—pink ballet shoes and a flower in her hair. Clearly, they were teenagers going through identity crises. Claudius and Gertrude, on the other hand, were stiff and business-like, with a roaring-Twenties touch, putting them very far out of touch with Hamlet’s uncertain and artistic world. The ghost’s appearance was accompanied by “Mission: Impossible” or James Bond theme-song kind of music, fast, intense, and supremely modern. One of the guards was a girl, dressed in grey spandex, and all those on watch squatted on the alert with flashlights poised. Think Charlie’s Angels. Very slick, very NOW.

When Hamlet went into his little madness game, he shuffled out wearing a T-shirt that hung to his knees, sneakers about two feet long with their white tongues sticking up, a huge white baseball cap on sideways, and a Sponge Bob necklace. He held his book with the spine perpendicular to his hands, and looked for all the world like a cartoon character.

Oh, and did I mention that the production was 80 minutes long? About maybe 1/3 of the text was presented.

My point in relating all these details is this. I’m coming to think that in the fluid medium of live theatre, adaptations should be just that: adaptations. OED says that “adapt” means “make suitable for a new use or purpose” or “become adjusted to new conditions.” [Thank you, OED.] Shakespeare’s plays have been performed innumerable times. And no one performance on stage can possibly claim to be THE ONE AND ONLY definitive performance that interprets every possible detail according to—what? Shakespeare’s intention? Original performance practice? Elizabethan or Jacobean conditions? The ideal hidden meaning expressed in the outward form? No sir-ee. Each production is a new, fresh perspective, yet another way to look at the play. So I’m starting to think, adapt as you will!

Now, that’s what I think about the fluid medium of theatre. Films, I believe, are in a different category. This is because films are static. Once it’s been filmed, that’s it. OK, sure, so they can release the special edition extended version DVD, and I’m glad when they do (waiting for the “Lion, Witch, & Wardrobe” extended to see what they left out—or in, depending on how you look at that). But even so, that’s fixed. So it does, then purport to be at least a definitive version, if not THE one and only. So, back to LOTR. I’m disturbed by how much was left out & changed of that book/epic/series/triliogy/quadrilogy. Wait, it’s not a quadrilogy yet. Has anyone heard if they are indeed making The Hobbit with what’s-his-name Elijah Wood as Bilbo? Because of the great technology, etc., this film is almost worthy of its literary prototype. Almost. And I’m afraid that it will stand in for the thing itself. So I think that when directors are re-making a masterpiece in a static medium such as film, it behooves them to be as true to the original as possible.

But who knows, maybe one day film too will be somehow a fluid medium, and there will as many LOTRs made as Romeo & Juliets. Who knows. And would that be good or bad?


Anonymous said...

There are still plans to make The Hobbit, but it won't star Elijah Wood. I'm hoping they get someone completely new, since Ian Holm is obviously too old to reprise the role.

Anonymous said...

Another anonymous:

I think Elijah Wood would be a good choice. Bilbo was Frodo's cousin, so a resemblance is a good thing, and by then Elijah will be nearly old enough for the role.

Ariel said...

Films, I believe, are in a different category. This is because films are static.

This is a good point. I haven't begun to decide what I think about all this, but the factor of permanency needs to be considered. Overall, I think I like your perspective.

Anonymous said...

Let's make one thing clear—Shakespeare's work is a play; LOTR is a book adapted to a screenplay. A better analogy is to take the LOTR screenplay and adapt that to the way you want it. Personally, I would not touch a word (remove nor add) of Shakespeare. It stands on its own. Tell me you could not relate to a father showing favortism to his children and then, after giving out their inheritance, being shunned by them (King Lear), a woman getting pregnant to get a guy (All's Well That Ends Well), or prejudice due to difference in race/color/creed (Merchant of Venice). Change the costume or location or staging, but don't change a word.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for these good comments! I'd love to know who you anonymouses are....

~ Admonit

Rosie Perera said...

Reading: The Artist's Way (and doing the exercises therein).
Listened to: Beethoven's Violin Concerto, sound tracks to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Chariots of Fire."
Watched: How Green Was My Valley and Stagecoach (both directed by John Ford) for my film class

I'll chime in on adaptation of another medium: opera. (Maybe Sesoztai will want to respond.) I saw a fascinating modern adaption of an opera about another ring, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) performed by the Seattle Opera several times from 1985-1995. A collaboration between director Francois Rochaix and designer Robert Israel, this production drew attention to parallels between Wagner and his work. The stage at times represented Wagner's attic or workshop. Wotan (the Wagner equivalent) uses theatrical symbols (props) throughout the production just as Wagner used musical symbols (leitmotifs) in his score. The costuming was European Wagnerian era dress (not an innovation, but particularly appropriate to this production). It was quite effective. Actually, it was the first Ring Cycle I'd ever seen, so it forever shaped my idea of what the Ring should be like. But I've since seen it done more traditionally and liked that too. I think there is room for many different interpretations in opera and stage plays.

I saw another cool adaptation in the form of a movie interpretation of a Greek myth. It was the rather obscure film "Shredder Orpheus." In it, a skateboarder named Orpheus and his friends go to Hell to stop television signals that are brainwashing America. It was not a very memorable movie, but still I liked the idea that something so ancient could be revived and made so relevant to contemporary life. Not that the timeless themes from Greek mythology aren't relevant in their own right. But sometimes they need to be jazzed up a bit for people of today to be able to relate to them. And wasn't there someone who said there are no new plots; they've all be invented before? So pretty much any new movie is going to be at some level an adaptation of something that preceded it.

As for adaptations of movies, what do you think about remakes of old classic (or not-so-classic) films? This happens more and more these days, it seems. Sometimes it gives new life to a film that has been languishing in the dust. Other times it is stupid. Peter Jackson went on after LOTR to do a well-received remake of an old classic, King Kong. Here's an article about remakes of movies from the 1940's and 50's set in the suburbs, which makes the good case that family dynamics have changed since then so the old versions need to be revamped.

There can also be adaptations of movies into other media. Have you heard of the traveling stage show " Sing-Along Sound of Music?" It's hysterical. They play the movie and people come dressed as characters from the movie and sing along to all their favorite songs; they go up on stage at certain times and there is judging of the best costumes at the end. And then one of my favorite movies, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which I would have thought was sacrosanct as is (I have memorized much of the script and enjoy getting into hysterics quoting it with others who also know it well), has been adapted into a Broadway show -- "Spamalot." I went to see it in New York with my cousin shortly after it first opened. I was a bit disappointed at first, when I noticed they'd changed some of the lines of my favorite scenes from the movie and introduced a bunch of songs that had nothing to do with the original, but by the end I was rolling on the floor laughing. It was so funny, and very well done. So I came to see it as an entirely new piece of comedic art, with a great debt to the original, but free to be its own thing.

Finally, I would like to recommend the Spike Jonze movie "Adaptation" with Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep; Chris Cooper won an Oscar for best supporting actor with his hysterical character John Laroche. The movie is about a screenwriter who is trying to make a movie adaptation of a (real-life) non-fiction book called The Orchid Thief and finds himself embroiled in his own story. Very clever surprise ending! I found myself wanting to go back and watch it again to see if I'd pick up on hints of what was going to happen. Jonze took liberties with the book, of course, but the movie is a stroke of genius. If anyone else has seen it, I'd love to get into a discussion about interpretations of it (not to be read by anyone who hasn't seen it, as it would give things away).

Sasha said...

I am a student of Mrs. Higgins and wanted to weigh in my opinion although it will not sound as organized or thought-out as Mrs. Higgins.

Being a very visual person, I love when a piece of literature is brought to the stage or film. But I am often disappointed when things are changed or presented differently than I had pictured them.

It reminds me of a play I saw several years ago of "Anne of Green Gables". I was disappointed after seeing it because Diana, Anne's best friend, was different than she was in the movie. (At that time I had not read the book.) Yet, a couple years later when I did read the books I realized that the Diana in the book, the Diana in the movie, and the Diana in the play were all different, yet had some of the same qualities.

So what did this teach me? What is my opinion? No adaption can compare to the orgional piece of work, but each adaption is the screenwriters/directors/actors take on the character or story. Its their own point of view- their own way of telling the story. And for that I have come to love adaptions of pieces of literature.

A. Peter said...

I have thought about it and I agree with you.

As long as the original text itself is always available, let the adaptors fit it to the screen or stage any which way.Though it would be nice to know the MET or other venue offered a complete, definitive (or at least literal) showing from time to time, as
faithful as possible to the textus receptus.

Rosie Perera said...

A response to A. Peter:

I can there be a definitive or literal showing of a work of performance art? The "textus receptus" is the script or screenplay or musical score. But part of the art is created by the performers. The playwright (or screenwriter), director, and actors are a collaborative team, as are the composer, conductor, and musicians/singers. Each performance is unique. The original creator of the work may indicate how he or she imagines the piece should be played or acted, but there's a certain degree of vagueness in those instructions which is meant to be filled in by the interpretive creativity of the performers. Why else would we have dozens of different recordings of Beethoven's symphonies, more than one set of which are worth owning because they have different qualities? There's a big difference between Herbert von Karajan's ponderous take with the Berlin Philharmonic and Roger Norrington's bright clip with the London Classical Players on period instruments. There is no consensus, even among experts, on which is the "definitive" performance, or how Beethoven would surely have wanted it to be played, as he is no longer around to tell us, and wouldn't be able to hear the performance anyway if he were. Tastes change from generation to generation. We are still in a wave of re-appreciating the fine details of "period instrument" performances that had not yet hit full force in Karajan's day. But who's to say that audiences of the 22nd century won't prefer louder and slower once again? And how much are the directors, actors, conductors, and musicians shaped by the artistic tastes of their culture?

Interesting that you should use the term "textus receptus" actually, because that is so associated with the original texts of Scripture. I wonder if some of what we've been talking about can apply to Scripture as well? Do we "perform" Scripture in a way when we read it into our lives and re-enact it in worship? Are we the actors/musicians, and our pastors and biblical theologians the directors/conductors? Can there be multiple different valid "performances" Scripture? And the big question: who (or should I say Who) is the audience?

Iambic Admonit said...

Rosie: Well, sure, OK we can't know for sure what would be the more literal or definitive performance. But sometimes a production is so far away from the indications of the text/score/script that one wonders if it's a valid performance anymore, or so far removed from all the original conditions surrounding the creation of the work that it's originator would hardly recognize it. Take Peter Brooks' famous Midsummer Night's Dream, which was set in black box, with all actors dressed in poofy pajama-like clown suits in bright colors, and the only colored object on the stage was Titania's bed--an enormous, scarlet feather suspended from the ceiling. Actors swung from trapeezes, each "court" character stripped off his/her Athenean grab to metamorphos into fairies, and plastic flowers bloomed from the stage. Very exciting, fresh, and different, but not a "definitive" performance of Shakespeare. I guess for some of us non-experts, we'd like to know when we attend a performance sometimes of the less-accessible arts forms, like Renaissance Theatre or German Romantic Opera, that this is something like what you'd see in, say, 1596 or 1983. Because some of us wouldn't know! Or would be totally confused by Neibelung in Nazi uniforms or Tristan in a business suit.

I love the Scripture question; why don't you write up some of your thoughts into a larger post?

Iambic Admonit said...

Here is a site where you can see pictures of the MSND production:

And I suppose instead of "definitive" perhaps I should have said "traditional"?

Lizzy Bennet said...

I am writing this blog under force. Just so you all know. . . *smile*

My family owns a classical youth theater called Players of the Stage so I am familiar with adapting. My Director Sister often bemoans that she can’t leave everything in. However, it isn’t possible since American audiences would not be able to sit through an eight hour play.

I think adapting classic stories and Shakespeare into plays or movie can be done and can be very effective to the viewing audiences. The thing that really frustrates me about most play and movie adaptations is that they edit or change things unnecessarily. Being involved with theater I realize that you can’t keep everything in. A two and a half hour play is about as long as audiences will sit through! But you can still use most of the original conversations. . .

Mrs. Higgins mentioned the new The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her entry. I don’t know if I will ever be able to enjoy that movie. My main problem with that movie is that they could have left the original lines in. It’s been done before. I grew up on a version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that followed the book almost word for word. Granted, the graphics were horrible. The amazing animals were drawn in like cartoons. But it is one of my most beloved movies because it is so true to the book. When I was younger I kept saying “They should do a new version of the movie so that the graphics will be better.” Well, I got the better graphics but the sacrifice was too great.

Anyway, movies like the old The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe shows that books can be adapted into movies . . . if only Hollywood would write screenplays that were accurate!

Iambic Admonit said...

Wow, thanks, Lizzie. My thoughts exactly. Or almost. I, too, am heartbroken that the beautiful, stirring, lush new LWW movie changed almost every word. And I'm a bit disappointed in Douglas Gresham for not insisting that the director/screenplay writer be more faithful! Seriously, what is C. S. Lewis without his words? He is not, unlike George MacDonald, just a master of mythopoeia, whose stories are delightful & powerful but whose words do not matter.

I don't remember the old movies very well, but I just checked one out of the Bethlehem library this afternoon to show in class next week, so we'll see.

But all that said, I do think that directors often think of themselves as creators in their own right; that they're taking a given story and making it into a totally new work of art. When I adapted the Book of Esther into a script, I found it really hard to stick word-for-word to the original, and that was Scripture! In the end, I kept almost every word, taking out a few "adult" phrases for the use of children, and adding some repetitions for dramatic effect. But then we (I co-directed with my sister) did a lot of visual things that were not necessarily demanded by the text. So it's hard.

And tell your Director Sister to chime in! :)

Lizzy Bennet said...

Yeah, Directors often do see themselves making a story into something new. I guess the thing that is so sad is that they could have the best of both worlds. They could stick to the original storyline and wording while adding their own bent to the story. Every person has different interpretations of what a book is saying. I bet you could have two different directors working off the same script and each would have different qualities and would seem unique. The directors would have had different interpretations of emotion, subtext, facial expression and body language. They would use different lighting, music, special effects and camera angles. . . It would be their own work without changing the purpose and function of the original piece of art.