The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

Some Thoughts On Adaptation


cloud_atlas_book_cover_01cloud atlas poster

Seeing the film Cloud Atlas was an extremely satisfying experience for me. I fear, though, it is an experience that someone who has not read and loved David Mitchell’s novel cannot have.  For me the pleasure of watching the film came from observing how the directors and screenwriters transformed this most literary of novels into an overwhelmingly cinematic film.

The novel Cloud Atlas is comprised of six stories told in chronological order, each story ending about midway through the narrative, followed by the beginning of the next story. The sixth story is told in its entirety, followed by the conclusion of each of the first five stories, told in backwards chronological order. This structure gives the book great forward motion and also helps underline the commonalities of character and plot throughout the six stories.

The filmmakers, apparently with David Mitchell’s blessing, did away with this keystone structure and instead continually intercut the six stories. A few minutes in the South Pacific of Adam Ewing would be followed by a scene in Timothy Cavendish’s ‘ghastly ordeal’ which in turn would be followed by a few minutes in the distant future Hawaii of Sloosha’s Crossing.  Most of the actors appear in all six stories, some in minor, some in major parts. Language is necessarily the tool that links the characters and stories in the book, but the very visual use of the same actors throughout achieves the same end cinematically.

One of the delights of the novel is Mitchell’s extraordinary ear for genre. The diction of the Adam Ewing story could have been cribbed from one of Melville’s South Sea novels, Sonmi-451’s  Nea So Copros will feel familiar to readers of dystopic science fiction, the Belgium of Robert Frobisher is evocative of the nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited. The Luisa Rey story is a very 70s detective story.

By substituting visuals for the written word, the filmmakers have hit upon a successful way to convey the various genres.  Adam Ewing’s story is filmed with the sweep of films like Mutiny on the Bounty. Robert Frobisher’s story is drenched with the Merchant-Ivory style of Edwardian drama that signals ‘classic’. The clothes, colors and pacing of Luisa Rey’s tale is reminiscent of 70s detective films and television shows such as Starsky and Hutch. Timothy Cavendish’s ‘ghastly ordeal’ is evoked in BBC comedy visuals. Sonmi-451’s nightmare Korea relies heavily on Blade Runner tropes to depict its world. Only Zachry’s  tale has its own visual style, but this echoes the fact that this part of the book was written in a first person narrative given in a hybrid English of Mitchell’s devising.

The curious thing about the film is that, though you can tell from the above description, we are dealing with filmmakers who adore the source material, we are also dealing with filmmakers who, in the service of bringing the source material to the screen have completely changed almost every plot in the novel.  The transformation to films was totally successful for me, even though, while remaining true to the spirit of the book, the filmmakers necessarily played fast and loose with the letter of the book:

Spoilers follow!

1-    Adam Ewing’s saga is fairly faithful to the novel, but necessarily more streamlined

2-    Robert Frobisher’s story becomes less about the creative genius of the characters than about the sordid interactions of the characters, while leaving out the women in the novel entirely.  There is almost no resemblance to the novel when this story reaches the screen

3-    Luisa Rey’s story is also a pretty straightforward filming of the story as is

4-    Timothy Cavendish’s wonderfully ghastly story

5-    Sonmi-451’s story of evolving consciousness and growing political awareness is lost in the Blade Runner trappings, replete with a romance with a hunky revolutionary and lots and lots of explosions and chases.

6-    Zachry is portrayed as a much older man and his relationship with Meronym is not one of mentor/student but one in which they begin as rivals and wind up as lovers on a distant planet.

I’m sure that there will be outcry from the book’s fans about these deviations, but I maintain that there could probably be no better way to bring this extraordinary novel to the screen. I can indulge the tinkering by recognizing the love with which it was done.  An interesting contrast would be the Harry Potter series, movies which are slavishly faithful to their source material, but are ultimately unmemorable.  The Lord of the Rings films are also failures in this respect as the changes they make to bring the book to the screen, such as the interminable battle scenes, do not express the true nature of the books in a cinematic way.  Cinematic devices are used despite the source material

This made me begin to consider the nature of cross-genre adaptation in general. Most ‘classic’ novels filmed during the 30s and 40s are woefully inadequate or seem to be produced by people who have just the barest notion of what the original was about.  The 1939 Wuthering Heights is a perfect example of a misreading of a classic. Half the plot is jettisoned and what remains is a high-flown romantic depiction of romantic figures running on the romantic moors. I am sorry, a Heathcliff as beautiful as Laurence Olivier completely misses the point of his character.  The MGM Madame Bovary is another good example of this. The all-star David Copperfield, though,  is near-perfect.  This could be because the Dickens original is so cinematic. This could also be that, as much as I adore David Copperfield, it does not have the complexity of Wuthering Heights or Bovary.

dido aeneiddido grahamThe adaptation of literature into opera is rife with some pretty amazing things. We find Hamlets who survive to marry Ophelia and become king, for example, Romeo and Juliets who get to see each other in the tomb long enough to sing beautiful death duets are common.

A recent viewing of Berlioz’ magnificent Les Troyens underscored how source material can be altered and enhanced by adaptation to a musical form. Berlioz was obsessed with both Virgil and Shakespeare and his reworking of the Aeneid uses the latter to bring the
former to life on stage.  The classical purity of the Virgil poem is brought to life through the use of Shakespearean genre-bending. For example, scenes of high drama, such as Aeneas’ agonizing over how his inevitable departure to found Rome will destroy Dido is offset by a low-comic dialogue of two Trojan sailors expressing annoyance at how their new-found domesticity in Carthage is being threatened by the affairs of the great ones.  Both scenes compliment and enrich each other.

A fascinating change can be seen in the character of Dido. In the Aeneid,  her love for Aeneas is a result of the meddling of the goddesses Juno and Venus. In the Berlioz, the character is seen through a Romantic era lens.  All supernatural elements are gone and we watch a woman trying to be true to the memory of her beloved dead husband and trying to be a good queen to her young nation become completely undone by her own internal passions which she is not able to subdue.  This is a Dido for Berlioz’s time. Like the creators of the film Cloud Atlas, he has found a way to present her in a different genre.

I hope to continue this meditation on genre-crossing soon









2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Adaptation

  1. Hey Mitchell, great post! As you know, K and I have both read Cloud Atlas, and we thought it was amazing; we have not, as of yet, seen the movie, although we haven’t been avoiding it. Everybody I know who’s seen it liked it — but then all of them had also read the book. Hmm.

    Clearly I can’t (or shouldn’t) speak on the success of the Wachowski/Wachowski/Twyker adaptation, but I’ll venture a more general comment, something that occurred to me while reading Alexander Hemon’s piece about the making in the film in the New Yorker: a good literary adaptation is probably foremost an act of interpretation. This point doesn’t exactly qualify as original or insightful, but I think it’s worth taking a close look at. I mean interpretation both in the super-literal, boneheadedly-obvious sense that any translation from one form to another HAS to involve interpretation — as a figure-skater performing to Carmen might reference or rework the source narrative, or as Disney might make dinosaurs accompany the Rite of Spring — but I also mean interpretation in the critical sense: whoever’s doing the adaptation has to really imaginatively inhabit the thing being adapted, figuring out not only what it contains but how it works, what its values are, what rules govern the world that it depicts, what omissions and/or additions would fundamentally depart from its character, and whether such departures can be justified. A good adaptation of a literary work therefore pretty much amounts to an extremely involved and elaborate READING of that work . . . at least if you’re doing it right.

    You’re absolutely correct that faithful adaptations are almost unfailingly lame; I think that’s because the filmmakers are almost invariably treating the source material like instructions for assembling an IKEA bookcase rather than as a box of Legos. And when an adaptation DOES depart from its source material, more often than not it seems like the departure is prompted not by an interpretation of the source but by an assessment of the marketplace; I’m thinking now of Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses (Matt Damon being at least a decade too old for his part) or the 1974 Great Gatsby film (i.e. Redford as Gatsby = wha?). And have you ever seen Martin Ritt’s adaptation of The Sound & the Fury? Holy cow! Whose idea WAS this . . . ?

    As an adaptation, Huston’s Maltese Falcon is vastly better that Hawks’ Big Sleep; the world of Huston’s film accepts, understands, and enriches that of Hammett’s novel, while the world of Hawks’ film is simply far less interesting than Chandler’s.

    I think Apocalypse Now is both a great film and a great work of literary criticism, maybe the former because of the latter: it inflates Conrad’s source text like a balloon, creating a vast space inside it to contain fiction, history, myth, other works of literature, etc. Mary Harron’s American Psycho adaptation was a really smart reading of a rather forbidding novel. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’m blanking on them at the moment.

    In any event, nice work! Looking forward to the continued meditation!

    • Thanks, Martin. I really agree with the idea that an adaptation is really a very close reading of the original. Isabella Allende said that she thought that the English translations of her Spanish-language novels were superior because the translator had given so much care and consideration to finding the exact word needed to convey her original. The IKEA/Lego contrast is brilliant, as well.

      I have to think some more on what you said about APOCALYPSE NOW. I despised it on first viewing so, since I am a much calmer person now, I should probably watch it again, preferably in the restored version. When I think about it, rather than the expanded balloon I would think of it as ‘Variations on themes by Joseph Conrad’.

      You’ll have to see the film of CLOUD ATLAS and let me know if you agree with my assessment of how a complete reworking of an original stays true to the source while making it into something else. From what you wrote here, I think you would agree!

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