Film Makers, Taking a Risk

     Whenever a novel is adapted into a film, the openness for added dramatics and other changes is as wide as the many ways someone can interpret something. Because the story is portrayed on screen, virtually everything becomes visual. There is no longer the overwhelming importance of dialogue, for almost everything is based on visual stimulation. Film makers also deal with the problems of finding the need to cater to the audience. The desire to sentimentalize the story suddenly appears; and, before one knows it, characters increase or decrease in their importance, endings change, and even settings do not matter any longer. The problem of censorship is also a major one. The important people in charge of making a film suddenly have to succumb to the power of censors, oftentimes deleting scenes that contain harmful or inappropriate language or actions or themes. Though a movie seen in a theater, or in the privacy of one's home may seem perfect, there is often a lot missing from the original version; however, some writers and directors pull adaptations off successfully.

     An example of a successful adaptation is George Cukor's 1964 film, My Fair Lady, adapted from a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion. This particular adaptation is successful, in my opinion, because it stays mainly true to the original version. In fact, if it were not for the change in actors and actresses, I doubt I could tell the two apart. This also holds true for the film version of Pygmalion, done by Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard in 1938. Though I believe the role of Eliza as played by Audrey Hepburn was the better of the two, and the chemistry between Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins is stronger in My Fair Lady, the story line is still the same. The only changes from the written versions to the screen is that the viewers get to sees the characters interact. As stated by Rebecca Henley in Montage '96, we are "able to hear all of the different accents of the people." This, in itself, is a great advantage of book-film adaptations. The film makers of My Fair Lady pulled their project off successfully. We get to hear the songs and feel the power of the music. And, even though they seemed to cater to the audience by bringing Eliza back to Higgins in the end, it works. Because the strength of the characters throughout the film was present, it is easy for us to accept that Eliza returns; and, furthermore, we can be satisfied with the ending.

     There are also flaws in adapting films. Story lines can often be distorted, and scenes can even be removed. The movie that comes to mind here is the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. I had the misfortune of seeing the film before I had read the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams. A scene that sticks out is the supposed rape scene. When I saw the film, I had no idea that a rape had taken place, nor did I receive any indications that there was a rape scene in the original script! This is precisely my argument about the negative effects of poor adaptations. However, I know it is important to recognize the need for censorship at that time. But, nonetheless, it was still a shock, and I still feel gypped over not witnessing what I believe to be a very important scene.

     Nor only was an important scene removed in the film version, but the characters changed when they were placed on screen. The character of Stanley, played by Marlon Brando in the 1951 version, seemed to change. Brian Gray even stated: "Brando brought a different life to Stanley than the ones [he] pictured as reading the play by Tennessee Williams done in 1947 (Montage '96). This change in characters was not a negative one; however, it does not make it any less of a change. And this is just one of the aspects of making a film adaptation; one runs the risk of changing a character's image. Though Streetcar had some faults in its adaptations, it is still a successful move and remains one of my favorites.

     These are only two examples of the effects of adapting books or plays into films. I would need all the paper in the world to discuss and analyze every film. However, I feel these were the best ones to exhibit out of the films we studied in class. As with doing anything risky, film makers must experiment and possibly fail. Then again it gives critics something fun to juggle around!

Barbara Kern

Table of Contents