Literary Work to Film Adaptation: Triumphant At Last!

        As an avid lover of books, I enter the movie theater before seeing an adaptation of a beloved book with a twinge of fear and a good deal of suspicion. Perhaps it is because I have been burned before–I know the disappointment that follows when, after seeing a long-anticipated film, I find that the lead is not quite right, or the special effects were unrealistic, or the music gave off the wrong mood–any hundreds of things could have spoiled the adaptation in my mind. While I can usually get past minor departures, there are some offenses that cannot be forgiven.

        That is why I entered the classroom with a wary mind on the night we were to watch Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams has been a favorite playwright of mine for years, and I knew the damage that 1950s censorship was capable of doing, even if nothing else was wrong with the film.

        From the beginning of the opening credits, I was absolutely enthralled. The sultry, smoky jazz melody that begins the movie set the perfect atmosphere, an atmosphere that was quite in tune with that of the play. As the movie progressed, a few things were changed–the first scene between Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stella (Kim Hunter), for example, took place in a diner in a bowling alley instead of Stella and Stanley's (Marlon Brando) apartment. This departure from the source material seems to be purely for cinematic effect, expanding from the limitations of the stage. While a few such changes were made, much if not most of the original dialogue was kept intact, which rarely occurs in film adaptations.

        Throughout the film, there was only one large change to the storyline, and even it was subtle: the scene in which Blanche tells Mitch (Karl Malden) about her husband and the circumstances leading up to his suicide. In the play, she tells him that she came into the room and saw her husband in bed with an older man with whom he had been friends for years, and not long after she saw this, he shot himself. In Hollywood in 1951, however, one did not even hint to homosexuality on film, so the scene was changed so that Blanche merely talked about how weak he was. To me, this was the only major departure from the original play, and as the film most likely would not be allowed to be shown with the original scene in it, I do not see this as a direct offense to the play–rather, a tribute to a more conservative era.

        Just as very few elements of this play were discarded by the film, no superfluous scenes were added. Movie adaptations typically add at least a few scenes here and there either to make the movie as a whole more coherent or to help the flow. Williams' play, however, did not need help in these areas, and no major scenes were added. The location of a few scenes were changed to add some variety that the stage does not always allow, but no true additions were made, just minor adjustments.

        A close adaptation of any work of literature is hard to find. Whether due to the constraints of the time (as in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights, 1939) or because the film makers wish to assert some of their own ideas (and ideals) into it (as in Joseph Losey's A Doll's House, 1973), it is next to impossible to find an adaptation that stays as true to both the spirit of the work and the literary text itself as A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams' original play was so incredibly crafted to begin with, and Oscar Saul, who wrote the adaptation, had the good sense to leave it as complete as he could. No wonder this movie is considered a classic!

Samantha Doran