Small Change: The Deity of Film Adaptation

     When a novel or play becomes a hit these days, the usual Hollywood reaction is simple: "Let’s make it into a movie." This sentiment may reflect low standards on the part of modern film makers. Nonetheless, modern texts make good, or rather, likeable cinema. They are usually written for the television/film audience, and so, they adapt very easily to the silver screen.

     Attempting to adapt a true literary classic to film requires more effort, however. Books such as Emily Brontė’s Wuthering Heights were written in an age before television and movies (even the telephone remained uninvented.)

     Early film audiences were like their modern counterparts in some ways. They liked action, guns, and tales of lust as much as we do today. Books, at that time, were not quite action-packed enough for supposed audiences. Making a successful film version of a literary classic, then, is harder than it looks. In fact, some directors/producers decided to change the books considerably in the translation to film.

     The changes made in film adaptations are the points picked up the most by critics of those films. Consider the case of Wuthering Heights. Director William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn made a film in 1939 that covered only half of Brontė’s 1847 book. Many angry hearts were stirred by the film’s omission of such a crucial part of the book. It was not Wyler’s decision though—it was Goldwyn’s. Why did Goldwyn do such a heinous thing? I suspect he thought he was giving the viewers what they wanted. All the bad people died, and Heathcliff and Cathy were happy in death.

     This ending might have flown with public if the public had not read the book. The public did read the book though, and the happy halfway-through ending was not what they wanted. I suspect truth in adaptation will usually win over a few changes and a cooler ending.

     One important exception to this rule is that of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 play My Fair Lady, directed as a film by George Cukor in 1964, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s classic 1913 Pygmalion. This adaptation was fairly accurate with one exception: the end. Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) returns to Higgins (Rex Harrison) instead of running off with Freddy (Jeremy Brett), as she does in the play.

     Lerner admitted to being responsible for this decision. Why did he do it?--to give himself the satisfaction of a happy ending. He then took it upon himself to serve as the public. Because he wanted Eliza to return to Higgins, the people must want it as well. They did. My Fair Lady remains one of the best-loved films of all time.

     Perhaps the format of the film justifies the change in ending. Musicals with sad endings are few and far between. I am operating under the assumption that Eliza’s choice to stay with Freddy was a bad one, and would thus make for a sad ending. At any rate, this defiance of Pygmalion’s resolution seems to have emerged unscathed from the sharp tongues of critics.

     The desire for a happy ending is but one of the reasons film makers alter classic literature when adapting it into film. Another reason for change is the film’s subtraction of imagination. When one reads a book, the imagination plays a key role in the book’s success or failure to impress the reader. A book that does not make one imagine is doomed to fail.

     Viewing a film is different from reading a book in this aspect. The eye has more to do than send words to the brain—or maybe it has less to do. It watches the film. In fact, thinking is unnecessary to the enjoyment of a film. The imagination is taken out of the equation. One does not have to imagine what the villain looks like. He is there on-screen for all to see. The film is one person’s mental picture of the book, and all other mental pictures are ignored.

     This subtraction of imagination, then, may require some changes in order for a book to be adapted to the screen successfully. ("Successfully" is the key word here. A direct adaptation of a novel could be done, but if the novel were not exciting, the film would most likely flop.)

     This is the case with Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of The Innocents, itself an adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw. The book succeeded because it made one imagine the frightful goings-on at Bly. Much of the inspired terror was psychological. It revolved around two points: 1) Are the ghosts real? And 2) Is the governess nutty? These questions drive the reader through the book, looking for answers.

     A direct adaptation of this book to film would be boring if it were that subjective. While there were good directors in Clayton’s time, I believe the financial supporters would go for a definite and a few changes over an avant-garde piece that (possibly) no one would see. So the changes were made. Martin transformed Miles and Flora from innocents into pretenders, as played by Martin Stephens and Pamela Frankllin.

     Their blond hair turned black, and their ignorance became a farce. As a result, the ghosts of Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) became very real, and the audience is satisfied. They know what they see. They get what they want.

     The case of The Turn of the Screw forms a middle ground of sorts between large changes (Wyler’s Wuthering Heights) and film adaptations with very few changes (such as Elia Kazan’s 1951 version of Tennessee William’s 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire.) successful direct hits like Kazan’s should be applaudable. Goldwyn-style gushes should be lamented. Minor changes such as those in The Innocents provide grounds for debate, and possibly a greater appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between film and literature.

     This is certainly a positive effect of small change. Of course, the changes could a diversely affect the viewer who assumes the book is the same. He will not read the book and miss out on a classic. The questions will always exist. How far is too far? - The people or the truth? There are forces of good and evil on both sides; the war will rage on.

Jared R. Nelson

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