The fidelity principle

The fidelity principle

Why demand a movie be faithful to a book it is adapting into film?

Zoë Heller

Why demand a movie be faithful to a book it is adapting into film?

There are no sensible generalisations to be made about what we’re “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 it’s 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 don’t blame Shakespeare for playing fast and loose with Holinshed’s 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 Luhrmann’s 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 doesn’t just insult the author,P.L. Travers,who had already brought Mary Poppins to life very nicely,without Hollywood’s ministrations; it also does a disservice to Walt Disney’s boldness as an adapter. If there’s 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 Travers’s Poppins is a more interesting and beguiling character than the one Disney invented — just as we may judge F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to be a superior work of art to Luhrmann’s club remix. But this is only to say that Luhrmann’s and Disney’s 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 don’t achieve greatness (most films don’t,most art doesn’t),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 Jackson’s version of The Hobbit,a movie bogged down in CGI and its director’s desperate determination not to offend Tolkien fans.) Given the choice between Jackson’s reverence and Disney’s chutzpah,I think I’d 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’