Five All-Around, Handy, Good-to-Know, Movie-Adapting Tips

         One of the most basic questions anyone can ask you about a course is, "What have you learned?" Since I have been answering this my entire life, I feel adequately prepared to do it in this essay. Over the course of this semester, I have noticed a couple of "do's" and "don'ts" for adapting a film from a book. The first is that, if one is going to all the trouble of adapting a book, one should use the whole thing. The second and third things I have learned are that one should never change the ending, and one should be careful when changing scenes. The fourth thing I learned is that one should try to get the author's help, and the fifth is that always, when possible, choose to adapt a play, not a novel.

         I think that William Wyler (director), Ben Hecht, and Charles MacArthur (writers) proved that not using an entire book when you adapt a film can be costly. When they made the 1939 film Wuthering Heights (adapted from Emily Brontë's 1847 novel), they stopped their story well short of the end of the book. Instead of Brontë's happy ending where Catherine and Linton marry and join the two estates (Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange), they end with no hope for the future. Wuthering Heights is a novel that most people will not read in their lifetime. However, in 1939, many people saw the film version. Therefore, their perception of the novel was tainted by the misuse of the film. If Hecht, MacArthur, and Wyler had put forth a little more effort, then the film's audience would understand the consequences of Heathcliff''s actions. They also would have had a better story.

         When one changes the ending of a book, one really should make it a better one. One has already seen how the ending of Wuthering Heights ruined the book for thousands of viewers. Other films like The Heiress (1949), directed by William Wyler, and Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, fall into this same trap. In an effort to punish Morris (Montgomery Clift), Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) tricks him into believing that she will marry him, then does not. In Henry James's 1880 novel Washington Square, Catherine simply refuses. I believe that, by making Catherine play such a cruel joke on Morris, they rob her of her dignity. At the end of George Bernard Shaw's famed 1913 play Pygmalion, Eliza does not go back to Higgins. However, in the 1938 film, the character (portrayed by Wendy Hiller) does reunite with Higgins (Leslie Howard). I agree with Shaw's theory that there could not be a "less happy ending" to the film Pygmalion. By returning to Higgins, Eliza is doomed to be dominated and unloved for the rest of her life. Changing the ending of a story in a movie is rarely a good idea. One is almost always left with something that is untrue to the nature of the characters.

         Changing a scene in a film adaptation may seem like a small thing to do to a movie. One might wonder how one scene could really greatly affect the audience's feelings toward a film as opposed to a book. Well, in both the 1938 movie Pygmalion and The Heiress, filmed in 1949, scene changes affect the entire outcomes of the movies. We can also see this trend in the 1939 film Wuthering Heights. In a scene at the stables where Heathcliff (Rex Downing) and Hindley (Douglas Scott) fight over a horse, Hindley is seen as the aggressive, threatening one when in fact Heathcliff is the aggressor in the book. By switching their roles, Hecht and MacArthur step into the movie cliché of the "pure-as-snow good guy" and the "rotten-to-the-core bad guy." All sympathy acquired for Hindley in the book is shattered in this one movie scene. By changing the scene, the film makers completely change the outlook of the film. The final (and probably the most atrocious) instance of scene-changing comes in an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw (Henry James's 1898 novella, filmed in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents). In this film, the ghosts that haunt the children are shown. The entire point of James's The Turn of the Screw was that the ghosts may or may not exist and the persons reading the book must assess his or her own values to determine what they think is correct. When the ghosts appear in the movie, however, one is inclined to believe that they do exist after having seen them. This is the major example of what not to do when adapting a movie.

         To avoid utterly ruining a movie by doing one of these first three things, one should attempt to acquire the help of the author in one's adaptation. No one person knows a book better than its author. For the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay. Williams also wrote the 1947 play. The film and the play have the same flow to them. I think that this is the case because the driving force behind each is the same man-the late, great Tennessee Williams. Since he already knew all the characters inside and out, there was no question or speculation as to the writing in either version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

         Another "easy out" for adapting something into a film is to use a play. It has been my experience that books are made to be read, not acted. It is much harder to portray a character's thoughts in a play because people do not often stand around talking to themselves. In a book, however, it is much easier to just write down what the characters are thinking. When one attempts to adapt a book to a film (or a play, for that matter), most of these thoughts are lost because they have no way to easily come out onscreen. Look at the example of Wuthering Heights. The audience has no idea what Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) is thinking when he begins to woo Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) until Catherine (Merle Oberon) tells Isabella and thus the audience so. However, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the actions of the characters are what is important, so the thoughts do not really matter.

         All in all, I have learned five good tips to help someone who is adapting a novel or play into a film. By following these five easy steps, I think that one can make a really outstanding film.

Rachel Jones

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