Chicken versus Egg

     In the adaptations of written literature to film, a number of different things happen. Film tends to put faces to a literature's character, making both the character and his actions come alive. Watching a film can also give the reader a new perspective. When these things are good, film adaptations do have a tendency to limit the reader's imagination. Films oftentimes change the story line as well, in essence burying the author's voice through the adaptation process. Film adaptation of written works has both positive and negative consequences. Personal taste tends to be the determining factor in what is either added to or removed from the original work.

     Director Elia Kazan's 1951 cinematic version of Tennessee Williams' 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire was by far the most successful and accurate adaptation in the class. The casting of Marlon Brando made Stanley, the main character, come alive on the screen. Williams intended Stanley to ooze with sexuality; hence, the title's reference to desire. Watching Brando take on the role of Stanley was amazing to me as a viewer. Every word Brando spoke as Stanley became real. His words became colorful and full of intensity, and his actions were real. He threw things and pushed Stella (Kim Hunter) around the house. In unity, these things simply did not have that element of realism, which was seen in the movie.

     Film adaptations also give readers a different perspective. As an avid reader for many years, I know what traps these who share a love of a literary film. In reading a work, a reader has a mental image of what is happening. Readers picture Stanley a certain way, possibly a Polish accent and beer belly. However, when readers see the work adapted to film, they see the characters as someone else saw them. They saw Stanley, played by Brando, as a very sexy individual with a great body. A reader of Streetcar expected a beer belly and overall attractiveness. That is the way, I, as a reader, had pictured this man. I could not understand how Stella, and eventually Blanche, could be attracted to Stanley. The film adaptation, however, put a new perspective on things. I, too, began to think, "Shhh, if only I were Stella--or Blanche for that matter. I could be in heaven. Now I get why Stella stayed." Yes, it is superficial, but I think Brando had that effect on many different women.

     While a fresh prospective can enhance a reader's perspective, it can also limit a reader's imagination. If a particular reader happens to see the movie before reading a book, a number of different things can happen. First, the reader pictures the written literature as its film counterpart. Part of the fun in reading a novel or play is putting the characters in a personal perspective, not one casting director's interpretation. The same holds true for the setting of a story. Without the constraints of one's perspective, a reader can picture a house according to the novel's or play's description. No two readers picture the same setting, even if reading a detailed account as to what is in the setting. Film adaptation change that by deleting what the setting will look like, therefore limiting the reader's imagination.

     Many times film adaptations cause the story line to change a role. In William Wyler's 1939 film adaptation of Emily Brontė's 1947 Wuthering Heights, the end shows Catherine and Heathcliff's spirits (played by substitutes for Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier) walking side-by-side. That which they could not have in life, they had in death. The original author, plus the scriptwriters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, did not even address what happens after death. The authors may have implied these spirits would be reunited. The film did not even show Heathcliff and Catherine having children. Yes, Catherine was pregnant in the book and gave birth to a baby girl just before her death, but the film makers never showed that. This is why, personally and for the most part, I am against film adaptation of literary works.

     I believe authors write their works certain ways. They have ideas in their heads they form, and then they express these ideas on paper or a typewriter, or a personal computer. The works are written the way the authors think best to take such a masterpiece and corrupt it with impurities as other writer's interpretation means utter lack of respect to what the author was trying to express in written form.

     Film adaptations of written literary works can be either good or bad, depending on a personal taste. George Cukor's 1964 film My Fair Lady was great. It kept the reader's attention while beautifully and musically telling the story. The film was pleasing to the eye and completely entertaining. Unfortunately, I saw the movie before reading the 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw, which was turned into a musical play by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe in 1956. This, in turn, caused me to see Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. She made a beautiful "refined" girl and that is the way I pictured her, even as a flower girl in the beginning of Shaw's original work. The movie My Fair Lady provided a different perspective, but limited me in my personal interpretation. The story line changed drastically as well. To think Eliza went back to Higgins (Rex Harrison) is preposterous. Shaw did not intend it to end that way. The story was therefore corrupted by those who changed it.

     To question if film adaptations either add to or take away from a written literary work is to ask if the chicken or the egg came first. Everyone can argue his or her points but can never quite persuade another person either way. The same holds true for film adaptations. My personal perspective is, and I am going to modify my tune, is to read the written work as well as watch film adaptations. Each adaptation is different because different people are involved every time. Some adaptations are better than others are. Enjoy both.

Denise Higgins

Table of Contents