To Keep or Not to Keep the Essential Essence

         When looking at adaptations of literature or theater into film, one must take several factors into account. Most of the time, especially with novels, provisions must be made due to the limitations of film, such as time restraints or the difficulty of portraying the same character at many different ages. A good adaptation should not simply try to stick to the story as closely as possible; it should capture the essence of the story while adapting it to best suit a particular medium. Sometimes there are excellent adaptations that have only loose connections to the original storyline but still capture the essence of the plot and the author's intent. However, some adaptations try to achieve this, then fail miserably.

         I think this is the case with the Mexican-made Los Abismos de Pasión, Luis Buñuel's 1954 film version of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The 1847 novel is quite long, spanning the better part of a century. It would be quite difficult to compress the story into a two-hour film, which is why the film makers decided to cut a chunk from the middle of the story and write a new ending. This might have been a good idea if the plot was more self-contained, but the film makers seem to have made Abismos under the assumption that most people were already familiar with the story. Little time is spent discussing the past of Alejandro/Heathcliff (Jorge Mistral), why he wants revenge on the family, and why he is so obsessed with Catalina/Catherine (Irasema Dilián), but the film seems to portray him as just a hateful, vengeful man. In the novel we understand that he is good in the beginning but is twisted by the cruelty lavished upon him. Therefore, we come to pity him when we see him become that which he hates. The film gives an incomplete view of Alejandro and who he is supposed to be, turning him into a "bad guy."

         I think the ending of Abismos is also a poor change from the novel. After Catalina dies, Alejandro goes to her crypt, where he is shot by her brother (LuisAceves Castañeda) and dies lying across her grave. This seems like a rather cheap way to end the story. In the novel, he lives to an old age, always alone in his hatred. He tries to manipulate the three children to fit into his idea of revenge and justice, but after he dies, young Catherine is able to be happy, ending the downward spiral of hatred and vengeance which had lasted so long.

         The film, in making these major changes to the story, loses the true essence and meaning of the novel. The focus becomes the Alejandro's obsession, with little room in the story for anything else.

         Perhaps the best film adaptation this semester is The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square. The 1880 novel is easily adaptable to film. Only minor cuts in the story are required, and the final product seems to capture the essence of the novel quite well.

         The acting helps to sell this adaptation as much as any other factor. Olivia de Havilland, as Catherine Sloper, is excellent, portraying the ignorance and naiveté of Catherine perfectly. One comes to believe she lives in a kind of bubble, oblivious to the outside world. When her eyes are later opened, we can see her pain and disillusionment. The other acting is good as well, with her father (Ralph Richardson) doing a fair job of portraying concern as well as selfishness.

         When an adaptation can stick closely to the original story while keeping its integrity given the limitations of film, it should. Film makers must be careful when substantially changing a plot, even when it may be necessary, as this can change the very meaning behind the work. Film makers must also remember that not every book or play will make a good film. In some cases, a bad film can ruin the public's interpretation of what was a good literary or theatrical work. Every art form must be treated with care when it comes to interpretation or adaptation. Perhaps more works should just be left alone entirely.

Nathan Beard

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