Worthy and Worthless Cinematic Adaptations

     After watching the films in this class, I found that certain ones stand out in my mind as personal favorites. Of these favorites, two truly helped me understand the original piece of literature better: Elia Kazan's 1951 A Streetcar Named Desire and Patrick Garland's 1973 A Doll's House (the Anthony Hopkins version). In contrast, the Jane Fonda version of A Doll's House, directed by Joseph Losey, and William Wyler's 1939 Wuthering Heights, did the least to heighten my knowledge of their literary counterparts. It is apparent to me that the films I liked best are the one that gave me a better insight into the works they are based on.

     Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was a little hard for me to follow. It took me a long time to read through Blanche's flowery speech and figure out what was going on. I also did not quite get the scope of Stanley's cruelty, nor his motivations. After watching the movie, however, I was able to pick up any subtleties I had missed through reading. I began to understand Blanche's mental instability, as well as her denial, after watching Vivien Leigh perform her. And suddenly Stanley, as portrayed by Marlon Brando, was this brutish monster in flesh and blood, whom I loathed because of his cruelty. But more than simply understanding the plot better, I was able to grasp what Williams was writing about from watching the film. I suddenly understood he was commenting on co-dependent relationships and the make-believe worlds we create to make ourselves comfortable in while the world tries to hurt us. I realized that the three main characters--Stanley, Blanche, and Stella (Kim Hunter)--are pitiable but accurate examples of the way many people act.

     While Streetcar was somewhat of an awakening for me, the biggest epiphany of the literature came after watching the second version of Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House, starring Anthony Hopkins. The first version we watched, which I will refer to later, left me completely without a clue, as did the original play. I simply did not understand the tension between Torvald and Nora, and why she left him in the end. I could not keep track of the characters (perhaps because of the Norwegian names), and the setting bored me to no end. But after watching the second version, I had a new perspective on this story. Perhaps because in my opinion, the acting calibre was much higher in this film than in the previous one, the story came to life better and the characters became real. Hopkins' portrayal of Torvald left me thinking what a misguided man Torvald was. He was not a bad man, but was simply ignorant of Nora's real needs. Nora, as depicted by Claire Bloom, I finally understood, was simply a "doll" being played with and displayed in her own home. Her emotional needs had never been met, and she was living a life she did not really want. After seeing this film, I was struck by Ibsen's dynamic characterization of Nora and how the "her" we see through most of the play is not the real "her." It was a sad film and a tad boring, but it was emotionally intense, and I at last understood Ibsen's point.

     On the flip side, the earlier version of A Doll's House did nothing for me but confuse and confound me. Jane Fonda's performance was a little over the top and far more than the role required. But there was some underlying factor, perhaps the setting, which was drab and monotonous, or the cinematography, which was mostly static and certainly not dynamic, or just the performances by the actors. I think all these add up to a frustrating atmosphere, and made the film hard for me to watch.

     And finally there was William Wyler's version of Emily Brontė's 1847 Wuthering Heights. I did not get the book at all, and this film did not help. The acting was more like overacting, especially in Merle Oberon, in the role of Catherine. Olivier was not much better. He was too "noble" to fit Heathcliff's character. The lighting, music, ambiance, setting, and cinematography were all bad, which added to my frustration. The film was so difficult for me to watch that I could not glean anything useful about the novel from it. I got the basic plot summary, but, other than that, the deeper nuances of the book remain a mystery to me.

     It is obvious that not all films based on literary works succeed in relaying the original work's main ideas and atmosphere. Who can say what causes this? Perhaps it is the director's fault, or the scriptwriter who made the literature-to-novel translation. Still, Wuthering Heights and the Jane Fonda A Doll's House did nothing to help my understanding of their literary counterparts. Thankfully this was not a trend among all the films we watched.

     The two that taught me the most--A Streetcar Named Desire and the Claire Bloom A Doll's House--were the biggest surprises of the semester. I had never surmised that a film could teach me so much about a literary work. These two films prove, to me at least, that movies can directly prove their authors' points without further confusion. I salute these films as genuine efforts to edify their views and can walk away from this class understanding a few plays and novels that going in, I did not have the foggiest clue about. I am glad I saw them and can now truly say that I have experienced "classic" cinema.

Dan Bush

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