Capturing the Spirit

     Trying to convey a character of a literary work in a cinematic adaptation is challenging. In acting one not only has to memorize lines but also must become the role one is trying to portray. Actors need to capture the essence of the character and memorize audiences by their performances. In a film adaptation of a literary work the whole spirit of the book needs to be reflected, or else it will lose its entire meaning.

     For years actors, actresses, and directors have tried to take up the challenge of conveying literary works into film adaptations. With this type of conveying, audiences are deprived of the brilliancy behind the masterpiece. Hollywood film makers create movies to entertain their audience. They know what people want; and they try to meet their needs, no matter how far they detour from the meaning of one's work.

     It is the actors the audience comes to see. Actors and actresses will determine whether or not the movie is a success. Two actresses that come to my mind helped bring about the success of their respective movies. These are Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper in William Wyler's 1949 The Heiress, a film adaptation of Washington Square, written in 1880 by Henry James, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan's 1951 A Streetcar Named Desire, based on Tennessee Williams' 1947 play.

     Olivia de Havilland perfectly fits the description of Catherine Sloper. Her plain, but extraordinary features reflected James's Catherine. Her brilliant and extemporary performance won the hearts of critics and herself an Academy Award. De Havilland's transformation throughout the movie captured the essence of James's book, and the strength reflected at the end of a movie proved her to be a legend.

     Another actress I believe was successful in portraying a character of a literary work and making the film a success is Vivien Leigh in her role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh's acting history before this film was very successful. Her skills as an actress, I believe, were reflected in all of her movies. In Streetcar, Leigh underwent one of her most challenging roles. She was not the vibrant beauty audiences were used to viewing, but she played a dynamic role. Her performance as Blanche won her an Oscar for best actress.

     As was the case with de Havilland as Catherine in The Heiress, no other actress could have portrayed Blanche as well as Leigh could have. Thus, in both movies, The Heiress and A Streetcar Named Desire, both actresses became part of the respective character they were portraying. Their acting was so convincing or successful, one would think the authors of their respective literary works had pictured them while writing their masterpieces.

     I believe Rex Harrison did an excellent job of performing Professor Higgins in George Cukor's 1964 My Fair Lady. Although the movie itself drifted away from its 1913 literary counterpart, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, the fact that Harrison's comical performance of Professor Higgins fit the description I had in my mind while reading Shaw's play maybe is due to the fact I had watched this movie numerous times before reading the book. But when I saw Leslie Howard performing Higgins in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's 1938 Pygmalion, I knew no one could perform the role as exceptionally as Harrison. Critics had the same opinion as I, since Harrison did win an Oscar for best actor in a musical.

     Two actors I believe that were the least successful in conveying the intent of the original work were Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Laurence Oliver in William Wyler's 1939 Wuthering Heights. based on Emily Brontë's 1847 novel. Yes, both men did have the looks to capture the attention of audiences, but looks can be deceiving. Brando, to me, did not capture the spirit of Stanley. He did not seem to fit the role effectively. I know he spent years on Broadway performing this particular character, but on film he did not play the role convincingly. Fortunately Brando's co-star was able to perform the role of Blanche very well. Laurence Oliver had the looks and the persona of the character Heathcliff; but as was the case with Brando and Stanley, Olivier did not play his role convincingly. Perhaps these men were more stage actors than Hollywood actors.

     Acting is a complex profession: either one is successful or is a failure. In other words, acting can make or break a person. Hollywood film making tends to include actors and actresses whose beauty will attract audiences. Film makers found out later that looks are surface. In the present, entertaining audiences, particularly with cinematic adaptations, a certain meaning is lost in the film. It is the work of the actors and actresses to capture the essence of both the film and the literary work. But have we lost the true meaning and significance of acting? Oh time does tell.

Whitney Hickman

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