Movies Jump-Start the Mind

     Some people are lucky; when they read a book an actual movie plays transpires in their minds, while the words filter through. Others are not so lucky. Screen adaptation of literary works help to illustrate an author's work to those people who just cannot see it.

     When a book or play is read for class, students often cannot see what the characters are doing. Actors reciting lines and adding the body language to the words help to make a work make sense. In George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play, Pygmalion, it is very possible that the readers could not see the chemistry between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins; but, in the film version, their attraction was undeniable. In the 1938 film, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, the actors (Wendy Hiller as Eliza and Leslie Howard as Higgins) created a bond between two people that only the most careful reader with a decent imagination could picture.

     The movie Pygmalion was one of the most successful adaptations of a play because of the characters' ability to see inside Shaw's work and find the most human element. Shaw had not intended for the two characters to be together at the end. His intention was not for a love story, but with this production it worked.

     Changing the author's meaning is not always such a great idea as director William Wyler noted when his producer, Samuel Goldwyn, forced him to adjust the ending of the 1939 film Wuthering Heights. Although author Emily Brontė might have been upset at her 1847 novel turned Harlequin romance, Wyler redeemed himself in 1949 with his direction of The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, as well as Ruth and Augutus Goetz's 1948 play.

     Lucky for Shaw, his characters stayed true to form despite their exaggerated relationship. Howard seemed born to play Higgins. He was rough, but subtle. He was attractive, but he would not quite have a woman giving up her mansion. Most importantly if a reader would have just put down the play, he would have no trouble spotting Higgins in a line-up of all the actors. So many times audiences are disappointed when a film actor does not portray the character as well as the one they had imagined. As Eliza, Wendy Hiller also did an excellent job, although her transformation from gutter trash to princess was not quite as dramatic as Audrey Hepburn's portrayal in George Cukor's 1964 cinematic version of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 musical play, My Fair Lady

     It could have been the music and not the acting that added the special dimension to the play, but the actors/singers/dancers made the production come to life. Alan J. Lerner, who adapted the play to the 1964 filmed musical, was blessed with an all-star cast. Rex Harrison became Higgins, and it is still impossible to find anyone more lovely than Hepburn to become a start. He "exuberated" power, and she could not hide her class. The most amazing part about the musical was that the music seemed to fit perfectly for the most part. Sometimes the music seems to be forced, but in this production the script flowed so well with the jingles that audience members could not help but go along.

     The adaptations of Shaw's work in both Pygmalion and My Fair Lady were done purposefully and successfully. Many readers could not see the subtle humor within Higgins, and others may have pictured Eliza as a dope, but the directors of both productions (with a little help from the cast) saw through that. By presenting these works in such a light-hearted way, the directors may have even encouraged some views to go back and reread Shaw's play to find those subtleties that make it wonderful.

Jennifer Sacharnoski

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