Making Novels and Plays into Movies

         Problems are always present when making film adaptations of novels and plays. Some problems are more difficult to solve when adapting plays, while some are more difficult to solve when adapting novels. Every film adaptation must in some way address the questions of which details and events to include or omit, whether to alter the original story to make it more acceptable for the average cinema audience, and which message from the source material to use as the film’s message.

         In 1939, William Wyler, along with scriptwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, faced the task of adapting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to the silver screen. The film makers had to decide which events to include and omit, and they omitted large parts of the story for the sake of time and focus. Much of Catherine and Heathcliff’s childhood is omitted, and Heathcliff, Hindley, and Catherine’s children are completely removed from the story.

         The story was changed to focus on the love story between Catherine (Merle Oberon) and Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) rather than the completely hopeless pain and suffering presented in Brontë’s novel. In the film, the message is one of love, redemption, and hope--by showing Catherine and Heathcliff reunited in death--and mostly excludes the terrible cruelty of the main characters in the novel. The film makes Wuthering Heights a Hollywood love story, ignoring the brilliant social commentary of the novel.

         Tennessee Williams also faced these three problems when he rewrote his 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, in preparation for the 1951 film adaptation, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, though not much change was needed due to the similarity of the play format with the screenplay. A play and a film can usually be about the same length--an hour and a half to two hours--so the events presented in the film remain basically the same as in the play. One noticeable change, however, occurs in Blanche’s rape scene. It is watered down and made merely suggestive to cater to conservative film audiences of the 1950s; and, as a result, one might not be aware that the mirror’s breaking signals Blanche’s rape if one is not familiar with the original play. The film, despite its minor alterations, stays true to the message of a troubled society that Williams had written the play about, making this film a close adaptation that overcomes most of the challenges of adapting a play or novel to film.

         The three problems of which details to include or omit, how to alter the story to better suit it to a film audience, and which message to gear the story toward are problems that must be addressed when making a novel or play into a film. Some adaptations require less work than others--usually plays require fewer alterations than novels--but these problems are always addressed in one form or another.

Eric Hovis

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