Adaptations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

     Throughout the semester we have been given the opportunity to see the effects of film adaptations. Some were wonderfully done, while others were lackluster. There were several adaptations I enjoyed, such as Pygmalion, the 1938 adaptation of the 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw. On the contrary, there were others that I not much appreciate, for example, Joseph Losey's 1973 version of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House, starring the "ugly" Jane Fonda.

     I enjoyed the written version of Pygmalion very much, but it could not compare, in my opinion, with the film. I felt the play worked well as a film. Directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, the movie brought the characters to life. Generally, I find written works to be much more romantic and interesting, but this movie touched me in a way that the play did not. The actors and actresses, Leslie Howard, Scott Sunderland (as Colonel Pickering), and Wendy Hiller, seemed as though they were made for the part.

     While reading the play, I found Eliza Doolittle to be a person that evoked pity; but, in the movie, Wendy Hiller's Eliza was bold, strong, confident and spunky. I found myself rooting for her instead of becoming engulfed in pity.

     I also found the movie to be much more sentimental than the play. The emotions of the characters became something I was feeling. Every emotion, thought, feeling and word seemed to be intensified in the film. Higgins' snide remarks became colder, and Eliza's anger became hotter in the film. I believe the success of the adaptation has to do with two things; the incredible talent of the actors and actress and the incredible talent of Shaw to write a play so packed with real human feelings and emotion.

     Richard Wilson's "Appearances Are Everything" (Montage '96) states that Hiller "does a tremendous job" as Eliza and that Leslie Howard is "hilarious." I would have to agree completely. The actors and actresses played their roles as if they were living their lives. I found myself becoming lost in the movie and the lives of the characters when the film was over I realized how hard it would be to envision the actors and actress as anyone except for Higgins, Pickering and Eliza.

     Shaw's great talent is to be noted also. He was able to write a play that appealed to the people of 1913 and then stood the test of time to be adapted forty-five years later and, with a little updating, was still just as appealing as it had ever been. The characters made their forty-five year journey through time quite nicely. Even today, fifty-eight years after the adaptation, the movie still speaks of real emotion and common problems. It addresses the question of whether we will ever get past appearances or whether we will ever learn to accept, love and be content with the way we live.

     I am not well-versed in the ways of film adaptations or great works of literature. Although this class has given me a great deal of insight, I feel this is only the beginning of my education as far as film and literature are concerned. I hope that in a few years I will be able to critique a film adaptation from a book or play beyond simply saying what I liked; but for now that is really all I am able to judge with.

     I loved Shaw's play, but I loved the film even more. Higgins, Eliza and Pickering became real people with feelings and emotions and problems to be solved. I have a great deal of respect for all the people that must have been involved to make the adaptation a success and feel very thankful that they left this wonderful work behind to be enjoyed for years and generations to come.

     As I said, I enjoyed many of the film adaptations we watched this semester, in spite of an uncooperative projector. By the same token there were some adaptations that were not at all enjoyable for me. I hate to keep harping on Jane Fonda; but I feel it my duty to express how disappointed I was in the film adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House, directed in 1973 by Joseph Losey. I would like to begin by saying that had someone other than Jane Fonda played the role of Nora this would have probably been one of my favorite adaptations. As it stands, however, she ruined the whole thing for me.

     Nora in Ibsen's 1879 play was genuine and real. I did not always agree with the way Nora acted in the play but understood why she did. The work was intended to symbolize the mammoth differences in the treatment of men and women in society. I suppose Ibsen's Nora acted the only way she could if she was to keep her sanity. Fonda, on the other hand, well, I still have not figured out exactly what she was trying to say or convey to the audience.

     When we settled in to watch Losey's A Doll's House I was excited to think I would finally see Nora and Torvald as real people. How disappointing it was to find Fonda as a hopeless Nora. This adaptation, in no way, did the play justice. I shudder to think that people may watch the movie and, without ever reading the play, think that is what Ibsen intended. The screenwriter, David Mercer, who translated the play must have taken leave of his senses. As a matter of fact, it appears that he did not even read the play and if he did, he did not understand it.

     Ibsen's Nora loved her husband to the very end, while the Nora played by Fonda loved only what he could give her. Jane's bubbly attitude and constant flitting and then that ridiculous dancing made her a laughing stock instead of a heroine. I like Ibsen's Nora; she was strong and brave (even though she did not know it through most of the play). Fonda's Nora was shallow and sappy.

     The role of Torvald in the movie was played by David Warner. While I think Warner played the role effectively, I almost think he went overboard with his cold indifference to Nora. Ibsen's Torvald did treat his wife as though she were a toy, but he also showed some affection, and occasionally, love for her. In the 1973 movie Torvald was just there. I saw practically no thoughtful interaction taking place between Fonda and Warner as they played their roles. The play moved me; the movie made me laugh. I doubt very much that Ibsen would be proud of what Joseph Losey and David Mercer did to his play.

     In the Montage '96 essay "Jane Fonda: Credit Where It's Due," E. L. Gold states that Jane Fonda was believable in her role as Nora. Once again I have to ask if this person read the play. Granted, some changes must be made while adapting a play for the screen, but is it really necessary to so belittle a character as brilliantly created as Nora by letting Jane Fonda play the role?--surely not! Needless to say, I was unimpressed by Jane and her portrayal of a character that I grew to love while reading the play.

     The one thing that bothers me the most is, as I said, this movie would have been one of my favorites had someone else played Nora. Aside from all my rambling and complaining, I must say the other characters in the play were adapted nicely and quite believably. They were the anchors that carried the tone of the play into the movie.

     I must also comment on the one thing that I liked better about seeing the work than reading it--the scenery. The snow and the villages were breathtaking. I long to spend Christmas in a place like that since Kentucky has apparently been declared a tropical region by some higher power. That wonderful, thick blanket of snow covering everything was the one thing that Jane could not ruin.

     Although Jane was absurd and Warner was ugly and too unfeeling, I am glad I watched that movie. Along with the other films in class, including Pygmalion, Losey's version of A Doll's House taught me the valuable lesson that screen versions should never be taken to heart without the viewer having read the book or play first. I will never again skip the written work for the movie. Obviously that can be very dangerous.

Slone Hutchison

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