Exciting Adaptations: For Better or for Worse

     Many times a film maker will have to alter a work of literature, and this can occur for several reasons. In order to reach a broader variety of an audience, the director or producer may have to simplify the plot or add extra action-packed footage. This can be seen in most of John Grisham-adapted movies such as The Firm (Sydney Pollock) (1993) and The Client (John Schumacher) (1994), which both underwent major overhauls from paper to the big screen. This is not a new practice, though. Several of the movies viewed in English 213 were noticeably different than the literature origin. Two such films, The Heiress and The Innocents, are early examples of film makers changing aspects of a piece of literature in order to give the world what it wants.

     William Wyler’s 1949 The Heiress is an adaptation of the 1880 novel Washington Square. The heart-trampled-upon Catherine, who is courted by the charming gigolo, Morris. Morris leaves Catherine out to dry when it comes time for their planned marriage, an elopement, and Catherine is crushed in both film versions. This is where the creative mind of Wyler comes in. While James has Catherine reluctant to decline Morris’s offer to take him back, Wyler transforms Catherine into a bittersweet devil who seems to be eagerly awaiting the day she could crush Morris’s heart. Wyler more than likely was trying to impress audiences with this dramatic effect rather than portray Catherine as a sap.

     The Innocents (1961), by Jack Clayton, alters characters found in Henry James’s 1889 The Turn of the Screw. In the James novella, the reader must make intelligent assumptions as to whether there were ghosts present or not. This is due to the subtleties and masterful hints he presents throughout the story. The two children of the story, Miles and Flora, are part of the hints throughout the story. James portrays them as innocent children. However, Jack Clayton must have thought audiences would not take the time out to make their own conclusions. Clayton proceeded to turn Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), into weird, adult-like characters that seemed to be possessed by ghosts. Miles’s sudden outbursts and odd behavior scream to the audience that these ghosts are real.

     Perhaps film makers realize that more people go to movies rather than read books, therefore expressing a lack of imagination. This could be the reasoning for making works of literature more exciting and dramatic. Jack Clayton and William Wyler both think so. In their perspective, they think the audience will respond better to an evil or overdramatic character rather than the everyday Joe. Sometimes it is for the better, and sometimes it is for the worse. Whichever way, they still make money, and that ensures the practice of film makers giving what they want at the expense of literature will continue on.

Adam Thompson

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