...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?