Why demand a movie be faithful to a book it is adapting into film?
There are no sensible generalisations to be made about what were meant to get from film adaptations other than,perhaps,good movies. (Adaptations are just as various in their commercial and artistic ambitions as films based on original screenplays.) The common expectation is that adaptations should be faithful to their source texts. But its not at all clear why we should burden films with this obligation.
When my novel Notes on a Scandal was turned into a movie some years ago,I was repeatedly asked if I minded that the filmmakers had taken liberties with the book. I did not mind. The liberties had been bought and paid for. And I had made my peace with the idea that my book was being adapted,not imitated or illustrated. Novels create effects with words that may be gestured at in other mediums,but not reproduced. Why then demand that a movie be faithful to a book when the book is always going to do a superior job of being itself?
Better,surely,to accept adaptations as independent works of art that make use of but owe no particular loyalty to anterior texts. We dont blame Shakespeare for playing fast and loose with Holinsheds Chronicles,or go after Zadie Smith for betraying E.M. Forster.
This is not,by and large,what people want to hear from writers who have had their work adapted. The fidelity principle demands that an author should either endorse a movie by saying it has done justice to her work,or angrily denounce it for having traduced her artistic intentions. As for the filmmaker,he is honour-bound to characterise even his most flagrant additions,subtractions and innovations as efforts to capture the spirit of the text. (See Baz Luhrmanns defence of the hip-hop soundtrack for his film of The Great Gatsby.) But what if the filmmaker has decided,as is his right,to mess with that spirit,or to go after another spirit altogether?
The new movie Saving Mr Banks advertises itself as the story of how Walt Disney worked his magic to bring Mary Poppins to life. This tag line doesnt just insult the author,P.L. Travers,who had already brought Mary Poppins to life very nicely,without Hollywoods ministrations; it also does a disservice to Walt Disneys boldness as an adapter. If theres one thing Disney clearly did not attempt in the movie,it was to capture or portray the snappish,volatile,lower-middle-class nanny of the books. His infinitely more audacious decision was to kill off that Mary Poppins and replace her with another character altogether,a plummy-voiced,uncomplicatedly benign personage played by Julie Andrews.
We may feel that Traverss Poppins is a more interesting and beguiling character than the one Disney invented just as we may judge F. Scott Fitzgeralds Gatsby to be a superior work of art to Luhrmanns club remix. But this is only to say that Luhrmanns and Disneys genius was not equal to that of the authors from whom they borrowed. It does not follow that they would have made better movies by being more respectful.
Most adaptations dont achieve greatness (most films dont,most art doesnt),but those that do are not distinguished by any unusual degree of loyalty to their original texts. Conversely,some of the dullest adaptations are the most slavishly faithful. (See Peter Jacksons version of The Hobbit,a movie bogged down in CGI and its directors desperate determination not to offend Tolkien fans.) Given the choice between Jacksons reverence and Disneys chutzpah,I think Id plump for the latter. At least Mary Poppins the movie gives us some good songs.
Heller is the author of three novels,including Notes on a Scandal
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