Adept and Addled Adaptations

     The most memorable film/book combination in English 213, to me, is Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. This story, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw and transformed in 1956 into a musical play by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is a classic that has transcended time to be a favorite of many even today. The reverse of this successful adaptation would be the two movie versions of Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights. Neither version we watched captured the whole story, nor did either of them even stay true to the portions each bothered to show. The foil to this disaster would be Elia Kazan's 1951 film version of Tennessee William's 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire.

     Often we look at our lives and wish that they could be changed; yet we never really consider the whys and hows or what the change would really mean. The two films based on Pygmalion and Streetcar effectively presented these aspects of life-altering changes, while the two movies based on Wuthering Heights, more or less failed in their attempts to do the same.

     This story of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins helps us to grasp the extensiveness of such a task. It helps us to realize exactly how much would change that could never go back. The film adaptations of this book--Pygmalion, directed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and My Fair Lady, directed in 1964 by George Cukor--brought to light the dimensions of each character. We watched as Higgins (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison) walked over everyone, charging around like a bull with his opinions. We could fully understand the change in Eliza (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) from mild common girl to strong, gentle woman. We saw how Pickering (Scott Sunderland/Wilfred Hyde-White) held it all together with his gentle ways. They were more than characters running around; they were people who had an effect on each other as well as everyone else around them.

     On the other hand, the two movie versions of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights we watched failed to capture the whole story, nor did they even stay true to the portions they bothered to show. Granted one version, Los Abismos de Pasion, directed in 1954 in Mexico by Luis Buñuel, was produced by a different culture; but the first one we watched, William Wyler's 1939 Wuthering Heights, did not even have that as an excuse from wandering so far from the original story. The ending with Cathy and Heathcliff (played by extras instead of by Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier) walking off into the clouds, was a bad call on the part of Goldwyn, the producer, and was directed by a hack upon Wyler's refusal to direct the scene. As passionate and unusual as the story was, it did not need to have any supernatural elements added. This is a prime example of the way the decisions by a director can make or break a film.

     Actors and actresses also can determine whether or not a film will be a success. Leslie Howard, the actor who played Higgins in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's 1938 film version of Pygmalion we saw, is an example of having an actor who cannot convey all the aspects of a character. He seemed less ostentatious and less likely to bully than Rex Harrison's version of the same character. The foil to this disaster would be Elia Kazan's 1951 film version of Tennessee William's 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley was a dominant force to be reckoned with in the book, but on screen he was a powerhouse of emotion and energy. Marlon Brando portrayed Stanley in such a way that it was easy to imagine him breaking things and raping women. Everything did not need to be spelled out on film because you "knew" what he was capable of.

     Streetcar brings up the issue of censorship since it fought and compromised on necessary elements of the story. We knew what Stanley was, a violent domineering man; yet to simply leave the rape scene out would have forced the viewer to imagine too much. Because of the compromising so that Stella left "as a punishment" we, as viewers, are given the full story and are left, feeling vindicated as well.

     To discuss costumes and settings, we must return to My Fair Lady. This movie began with a story full of rich details and made it even more elaborate by adding unbelievable costumes and sets, as well as color. The difference between the two film version, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady is astronomical simply because of the color! All three of these elements combine to create a movie that is over the top that one comfortably sinks into it time and again.

     It is hard to ignore the music in a film such as My Fair Lady, yet in A Streetcar Named Desire, it is an element that is hardly noticed. My Fair Lady relied on the song and aspect to liven up an already interesting story. Streetcar, however, did not rely on it but merely used it to doubly emphasize curtain scenes and aspects. It was a key for the viewer, and aid, if you will, as opposed to the music in My Fair Lady, which translates to "brain candy."

     It is most interesting to determine the reasons some movie adaptations, such as the ones based on Pygmalion and Streetcar work so well, while others, such as the two film versions of Wuthering Heights do not succeed in depicting some of the major concerns of life and life-changing events.

Melissa Stacy

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