The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

     Numerous novels, short stories, and plays have been reproduced on screen. I feel that, if I were to direct an adaptation of a literary work, I would stick closely to the original story. Doing this, however, is not entirely necessary. To express their own creativity, directors might change a little or a lot. I think they should have the freedom to do so, but they must do this with great artistic discretion and strive to retain the essence of the original no matter what changes are made. Throughout this film course, there were examples of both unfortunate and excellent adaptations.

     On the whole, I believe that the script, in my opinion, should try and stay near the original work. When movies closely follow closely their literary parents, it is often a good end result. This was not part of the class, but is noteworthy of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This 1971 film, directed by Mel Stuart, was a rare hit, and is now called "Classic." Follow the book, and many times it will lead to a path of riches and success. It is risky for directors and writers to venture out away from the original. There is no guarantee that what they change will work with the audience, although there are some surprising exceptions.

     In the Film and Literature course, the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire and its 1951 motion-picture counterpart stayed relatively close to one another and are excellent examples of their respective genres. However, we saw a strong variation from written work to film in William Wyler's terrible and unconvincing 1939 cinematic adaptation of Emily Brontė's 1847 Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier. On the other hand, in Luis Buńuel's Los Abismos de Pasion, the Spanish adaptation of Emily Brontė's, the changes were dramatic, yet he maintained the integrity of the original story much more effectively than did William Wyler.

     "Give the public what it wants," has certainly been the battle cry of most movie companies. Keeping with the times is always important, especially today. We move so fast; we want so much; our attention spans are short. I will confess some of the films we watched made me sleep like Rip Van Winkle. It is not my fault I am a child of the Techno-Movie age. Give me Terminator; give me Rambo, and a little Hunt for Red October. Movies reflect the times they were made in, save one. Kubrick leads the pack, with his incredible 2001 (1968), which is still one of the best made films in story and special effects. What made the much more recent Titanic such a hit? Was it the stupendous special effects? Or was it Leo? Or was it the surprise ending? Who could have guessed that this kid could draw such a crowd; did not everyone know already what had happened to the Titanic?

     One, and maybe the best, example of one adaptation that we saw with special effects and a surprise endings was the 1954 Spanish Wuthering Heights, directed by Luis Buńuel, called Los Abismos de Pasion, which kept me wide awake. It was the end of this film that really grabbed me. After "seeing" Catalina's (Cathy's) (Irasema Dilian) ghost calling to him from the tomb, Alejandro (Heathcliff) (Jorge Mistral) is murdered at the end by a surprising shotgun blast from Ricardo (Hindley) (Lucis Aceves Castenada), whom the ghost of Catalina had morphed into on the screen. Today it would be casual to die from a startling gunshot in a movie, but then it was groundbreaking. This ending strayed from Brontė's script in large fashion, but it was done very well and in its way was in keeping with the spirit of Brontė's work.

     Setting is another key element of film making. For example, the setting in which the farce of Wyler's movie took place was in poor taste. In Brontė's Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaws live on a farm, surrounded by green hills and marshland. Wyler shot this movie, which was also supposed to have taken place on the moors of Yorkshire, on a dusty plot of California land. To give Wyler another shot to the ribs, he put a western saddle on an English pony. However, in Buńuel's adaptation, a complete change of story line, complete with Mexican names and a desert setting, filled with sagebrush and haciendas, worked quite well.

     Often when plays fall short on film, they are nailed to the floor of the stage. Sure the film makers can drop soap flakes to look like snow, but one does not really believe the players are cold, as was the case when we watched Patrick Garland's 1973 more stage-bound adaptation of A Doll's House of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play. In Joseph Losey's 1973 A Doll's House, we see Jane Fonda (Nora) playing with her children on a sledding hill. She is bundled up like her children, and we can see her exhale into the cold weather and feel the chill when sledding more acutely than when we would be watching the play performed on a stage. Getting the story off the stage and out of the studio helps free the plot.

     Costumes, as well as settings, can also ruin or make a film. Costumes can break or make characters in a film. The clothes actors wear are supposed to be representatives of the characters they play. However, sometimes they most certainly are not. For example, in Wyler's Wuthering Heights, Olivier's attire in particular was a tragedy. His costume, as Heathcliff, was fine except for the way it looked, how clean it was, and the neat pressing job it had received just before going on him. There was not one speck of dirt on the actor; and he was playing the role of what it really boiled down to was that of a slave; yet he was cleaner than anyone in the movie. Not one hair was out of place, even after he was slaving away in the stables.

     However, in George Cukor's My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion and Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 play, Cecil Beaton and the other costumers did an incredible job with the colors and the complexity and simplistic designing of the fabrics, especially with making Audrey Hepburn convincing as Shaw's poor flower girl turned into a duchess. For another example, in the 1949 film (partly based on the 1948 play, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, The Heiress, and partly based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square), costumes play a large role. With Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) her fashion speaks about her personality--specifically her earrings. In the majority of the film, playing James's plain, mousy heroine, she wears some simple, plain, not too flashy ear decorations. When she returns from Europe, as a mature woman, the earrings she wears are detailed and brilliant with sparkle.

     Censorship is nearly a thing of the past, nearly, as we were made aware of in our film course. Censorship has long had a stronghold in the production and editing of film. When the script writers, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, along with the director, William Wyler, cut out (pardon the pun) Catherine's pregnancy in the movie Wuthering Heights, a major piece of the story went missing. In Brontė's work it was pivotal that she die after giving birth. Censorship then, however, was much greater than it is today. I do, however, agree that at that time censorship was a necessary evil. The country was ultra-conservative; and, the tighter censors squeezed, the more the pressure built up. Then came the 1960s, and the country began to loosen as the censors did. However, a more recent movie, Stanley Kubrick's final work, Eyes Wide Shut, was censored to death. Our culture today is very sexually oriented, and female nudity is quite common in film today. It is male nudity that seems to scare the men in power, and Kubrick's work suffered for it.

     The man, or woman, who has the final say, usually, in what is going to be shot is the director. This person must know every detail of the script, every teacup and where it goes. In taking a book to film he/she has total discretion on what to keep and what to kill. Although there were many good director-inspired aspects of print-to-film adaptations in this course, without a doubt the best director of a movie that we have seen was Luis Buńuel. He strayed from Brontė's book but kept true to the story. His interpretation was the most creative and original I have ever seen in a book-to-movie work.

Paul M. Helwagen

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