The 56th London Film Festival: Dispatch #4
As the London Film Festival breaks stride, Jerry Whyte looks back at the Scala Beyond festival, considers a few flaws in mainstream cinema, and compares several adaptations.

Part 1

 

"Peter Kubelka's motives for making films lie in his belief that commercial
films do not fully exploit cinematic possibilities. He declares that the place
of the plot and its ostensibly disparate scenes is the screen, and the time
shall be any time at which the film is shown."
Alfred Schmeller, from the notes to the Festival screening of Kubelka's films

 

The 56th BFI London Film Festival opened to Tim Burton's left-field crowd-pleaser Frankenweenie, and to the announcement that both Burton and Helen Bonham Carter had been awarded BFI Fellowships. Those who donned 3-D plastic specs to watch Sparky the dog wag his way into our hearts in Burton's Disney romp last Wednesday might have feared they were suffering from belated blurred vision when they read that news. This is the highest honour in the BFI's gift and is sparingly bestowed upon extraordinary individuals, in "recognition of their outstanding contribution to film or television culture." It is a measure of the sense of high purpose and gravitas with which the award was conceived that its inaugural recipients were Marcel Carné, David Lean, Michael Powell, Emiric Pressburger, Satyajit Ray and Orson Welles. Asked how she felt about being offered the award, Bonham-Carter, charmingly and disarmingly, said: "I am somewhat bewildered and am not sure I am deserving of such an honour." She will not be alone in feeling that way. Talented actress though she is, we must wonder if she yet stands shoulder to shoulder with Jeanne Moreau, Venessa Redgrave and Dames Judie Dench, Maggie Smith and Elizabeth Taylor? For that matter, does Tim Burton, singular director though he is, qualify to join the likes of Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kiarostami, Kieslowski and Kurosawa in the BFI's hall of fame?

We all owe the British Film Institute a debt of gratitude for its own outstanding contribution to audio-visual culture and for London Film Festival. The BFI is, quite rightly, a cherished national institution, one of which we can feel unashamedly proud. Since its establishment in 1933, the BFI has consistently fulfilled its mission to champion the diversity of film culture, to "encourage the development of the arts of film, television and the moving image," and "to promote their use as a record of contemporary life and manners." And yet the honours awarded to Burton and Bonham Carter do hint at a disconcerting turn towards the commercial, a realignment of the BFI's priorities partly forced on the organisation from above, and . . . dare I say it, I do . . . to put us on our guard against populist dumbing down.

This year's London Film Festival programme and popcorn advertising trailer hint at that too. Clare Stewart, the incoming Festival Director and BFI Head of Exhibition, has extensive knowledge of cinema and an impressive track record on the Sydney Film Festival. Even so, she must have been occasionally daunted by the challenge she took on when succeeding the estimable Sandra Hebron as Festival Director. She responded to that challenge boldly, some might say brashly, by redesigning the festival's shop window. Sweeping away dusty tradition as new brooms do, she replaced the festival's 'New British Cinema', 'French Revolutions', 'Cinema Europa' and 'World Cinema' rubrics with the new categories of: 'Dare', 'Laugh', 'Thrill', 'Cult', 'Journey' and 'Sonic'. Hats off to her chutzpah! The tried and tested signposts were not the only thing to go: for the first time in years, the festival has no catalogue. The catalogue collated biographical details on all the participating directors, as well as statements from them on their work. It was a valuable archival and reference resource, and a collectable treasure for cinephiles. Of course, the catalogue didn't produce itself; editors, researchers and printers had to be paid to do the job, and money's as tight at the BFI as it is elsewhere. But it's hard not to wonder, when watching chaffeur-driven festival cars whizz by and red carpet events in full swing, if money mightn't have been saved somehow, somewhere to keep it going.

If such shifts of tone and register remain just that, we need not exercise ourselves about them, but they caused many of us to shuffle uncomfortably in our seats, prickly as we already were and on alert for familiar signals. The atmosphere within British Cinema has yet to settle after being churned up by the abolition of the UK Film Council (which Mick Leigh, bless his cotton socks, likened to the abolition of the NHS) and the Prime Minister's philistine assertion that funding should be directed toward the films most likely to compete with Hollywood and make lots of money, at the expense of independent production, the fostering of a distinctive national film culture, and the kind of films favoured by the kind of people who love cinema. You don't have to believe David Cameron should be steered clear of politics to believe that he should steer clear of film culture. "Men of power," it used to be said "have not time to read; yet the men who do not read are unfit for power." Powerful men and women without the time for cinema are certainly unfit to comment on cinema. Nobody's suggesting that all films appear bearing the familiar YouTube disclaimer: 'For educational purposes. Not intended for commercial use.' It's a matter of cultivating our cultural soil and letting a thousand flowers blossom, as the London Film Festival and independent cinema do.

The discomforting developments described above, minor in the broad scheme of things but of deep significance to those of us who love film, inevitably turn one's thoughts to what is at stake in what feels like a shift in the balance of power within film culture. A few thoughts on the nature of the ongoing contest between competing views of what cinema can and should be seem in order. It's also an excuse to step back a moment from the rush of festival screenings and rest the eyes. As the hero of Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Törless says, in the aftermath of his tussles with the bullies Beineberg and Reiting, "All he felt was an impassioned longing to escape from this confused, whirling state of things, a longing for quietness, for books." It is one of the joys of modern life that we can now 'read' films at home as we read books; selectively searching out particularly pertinent and powerful scenes, slowly skipping back and forth!

So, my first dispatch from the festival frontline will take the form of some scattered, hopefully not scatterbrained, thoughts on the issues around which the battle lines drawn: on the effect of commerce on cinema, the importance of independent criticism tout court, and on two films, Joe Wright's execrable Anna Karenina and Volker Schlöndorff's excellent Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum (1978), which represent two different kinds of cinema among the many possible. I will also cast a sideways glance at Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. It may seem odd to look at these films in a festival context, but I think they reveal the differences between competing approaches to adaptation starkly. I hope they will offer food for though and raise ideas that will resonate as we watch adaptations in the festival such as Mike Newell's Great Expectations, Kieran Evans' Kelly + Victor, Deepa Meta's Midnight's Children, and Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. If nothing else, a look at adaptations must increase our delight at the originality of most of the films on offer at the Festival and our respect for those directors who refuse the easy option of reaching for literary sources of inspiration. 

The mainstream now and then

In 2004, a couple of years after resigning as 'Film Critic' of The Daily Telegraph, novelist Andrew O'Hagan wrote a long, lucid piece for that paper about the couple of years he'd spent there in that role. In his article My Years in the Dark*, O'Hagan describes the disillusioning experience of endlessly reviewing commercial rubbish, provides invaluable insight into the working life of a jobbing reviewer, and reveals, albeit incidentally, the extent to which his own work had been circumscribed and compromised by enforced concentration on mainstream cinema. He also hints at the damage done to film culture by the incestuous relationship between broadsheet reviewers and PR companies. Waving goodbye to active engagement with film, O'Hagan says: "My day was done: I'd exhausted myself and learned to hate the movies. I haven't said much about the films I liked, but there wouldn't be much point . . . over those two years I saw only two truly great films: Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay, which hardly anyone went to see, and Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, which nobody missed."

O'Hagan joined the Telegraph in 1999, the year Faber published his excellent debut novel, Our Fathers, so, although he was physically 'embedded' in Soho viewing theatres, maybe his mind was elsewhere. At any rate, his golden handcuffs shackled him to Golden Square and a certain tendency in contemporary cinema, so he missed many films with claims to greatness. Had he fought free and got about more, he might have found other films to champion. Among the memorable films released in those years were Emanuele Crialese's Respiro, Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, the Dardennes Brothers' Rosetta, Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past, Bela Tarr's Werkmeister Harmonies and Wong Kar Wei's In the Mood for Love; and two great films about filmmaking: Chris Marker's One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenvich and Scorcese's My Voyage in Italy. Readers will supplement or replace that brief list of the more obvious successes of that period with favourites of their own; the point is not which films can be called "truly great," but that were as many movies to fall in love with then as there now, for those who look in the right places; at the London Film Festival, for instance, and beyond.

Buried beneath vast noise

Those remarks must be qualified by recognition that mainstream cinema can still surprise and delight, as Shrek proved then and Tim Burton's hugely enjoyable Frankenweenie proves now, but there is a formulaic torpor about most of its offerings and contemporary cinematic excellence generally lies elsewhere. My comments about Andrew O'Hagan must also be qualified by an acknowledgment that he is a terrific writer who, when not manacled to the mainstream, has often looked in the right place. He was, for instance, a persuasive and passionate proselytizer for the work of his friend and fellow Scot, Bill Douglas. O'Hagan has described Douglas, without intentional irony, as being, "a complete victim of the cultural intolerance in the British film industry of the noncommercial." I remember sitting, mesmerized, in the National Film Theatre in 2006 as he lovingly and knowledgably introduced a screening of Douglas's autobiographical Trilogy [My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), My Way Home (1978)] to a grateful audience. I also remember the atmosphere of electric excitement at a gala screening, during the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival, of Douglas's magisterial masterwork, Comrades (1987). Introducing the film in the festival programme Marc Cousins called it, "one of the great, lost objects of modern cinema." This was Scotland the Brave honouring one its bravest sons and welcoming back the cinematic equivalent of the Stone of Scone; after all, Douglas was Scotland's greatest filmmaker (Alexander McKendrick was born in Boston so he doesn't count) and this, his final film, had been hidden from view by a hostile world for years.

I'd seen the film twice at the Odeon, Wardour Street after its release in 1986, then, it had vanished without trace (as did the cinema itself, which closed when they demolished the Swiss Centre, Leicester Square, to which the Odeon was attached). In his EIFF programme notes, Cousins says of the film: "It was so long in the making, so splendid, and then – almost at once – so hard to find, that it was possible to wonder if it had been made at all, and to suspect that memories of having seen it were just cinephile reverie." Comrades didn't merely recall an important moment in world history by telling the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the birth of trade unionism; it also examined the pre-history of cinema by telling that story through the eyes and lens of a journeyman lanterist, photographer and silhouettist. Douglas's work deserved a wider audience and Douglas himself deserved to work more. The British film establishment should have thrown money at him in gratitude for his talents but instead it locked him out.

I mention Douglas's Trilogy because it exemplifies what a cinema based on the director's lived experience can achieve, and Comrades because it highlights the magic that an original script in the hands of a master cinematographer can produce. In insisting on the virtues of human solidarity, Douglas was at odds with a greedy, selfish era; he was also, as Marc Cousins says, at odds with the prevailing philistinism of that period: "Filmically, too, Comrades was against its times. It was completed the same year as Top Gun, when MTV and non-linear editing had made mainstream cinema a stylistic whirlygig, yet it was classical in pace and had old school luminosity." I might just as easily have mentioned Terence Davies's Trilogy and Distant Voices, Still Lives, or the career of Peter Watkins and countless others, in that respect. The struggles Davies, Douglas and Watkins faced to get their films made, the struggles their admirers had to see their films, reflect badly on the aesthetics, politics and priorities of the mainstream.

The mainstream, marketing and money

To return to Andrew O'Hagan, I should also stress that The Telegraph's film coverage is as good as that of any other paper, but, straw or hay it's the same either way: the films reviewed by the broadsheets tend to reflect the conservative tastes of their owners and readers, as well as the marketing (and newspaper advertising) clout of the big studios. Despite focus groups and test screenings, the targetting of teenagers and other 'niche markets', picking the public's pocket is not an exact science yet. There is, nonetheless, a depressing congruity between the money spent to promote particular films and the money those films make at the box office. The days are long gone when the public were lead down the aisles of cinemas by reviewers; marketing budgets matter, and how. As the saying goes, 'The most creative people in Hollywood are the accountants," which is one of the reasons it's hard to be precise about budgets. Take James Cameron's Avatar, reputedly the most expensive film ever made. Writing in Vanity Fair, Cameron aficionado Rebecca Keegan reported that The New Yorker estimated the film's final costs at $300 million, while The New York Times put them at $500 million. Keegan considers the Los Angeles Times's guess closer to the mark; they put it at "$280 million for the production, plus marketing costs." So, the discrepancy between the two figures quoted in the Big Apple is not explained by slippery-slimy pencil-necks and off-shore tax havens, rather, it reflects Fox's marketing 'spend' on Avatar, estimated at $150 million.

Of course, you have to have heard of a film to want to see it and, when you want to see it, it has to be available to see. While marketing budgets scream, the problems of distribution whisper away, with quiet desperation, in the background. Andrew O'Hagan's resignation was hastened by a tussle with Mirimax, whom he described as "totalisers, American businessmen who too often deal in rendering cultures banal and foreign." O'Hagan stopped short of equating Hollywood hegemony with cultural homogenization. He pulled no punches, though, when delineating the decline in quality within our era's equivalent of what Truffaut called "the cinema of quality." It's time to dust down and update Truffaut's arguments about the lack of originality in commercial cinema, with its remakes, its sequels, and its over-reliance on literary adaptations. Film critic David Thomson feels so. As he prepared his impatiently awaited, newly released book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did To Us, Thomson, too, turned his aim on the failures of mainstream cinema. The avuncular British critic may have fallen in love with the American vernacular, but he has nothing but contempt for the cowardice and vapidity of modern Hollywood.

Hollywood then and now

Writing in The Guardian, Thomson compares Hollywood as it is today unfavourably with the Hollywood that responded to the last great crisis of capitalism with American classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, My Man Godfrey and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Thomson argues that the old Hollywood prospered partly because it drew on a deep reservoir of writers who had experienced life and were motivated by a sense of moral and political purpose. The writers who maintained the production lines of the factory system, he says, "felt a range of feelings from anger to compassion. So enough of the factory films came out sardonic, ironic, rueful, tortured and just plain angry . . . There is a candour in some of the films of the 1930s, a pungent wit, and a sense of necessary reform that led some of those writers being charged as reds later on." He might have added that some of those writers responded to McCarthyism with American classics such as Born Yesterday, High Noon and Johnny Guitar. By contrast, Thomson swats aside those who've made the 'hits' of the past dozen years, characterizing them as, "absurdly rich young people" who "know very little about life, except what they have to lose." He bemoans "a loss of critical spirit and a sense of politics that believes in the steady decay of power. The critical spirit that made My Man Godfrey and wrote The Grapes of Wrath is not coming back at a snap of the fingers. Americans (and the people of many other nations!) need to reacquire a capacity for experience, for registering what happens to you and seeing it writ large in the people as a whole."

Thomson concludes: "You only have to look at the films the US mainstream has made this century so far to know we lack the talent or experience that will count." If commercial cinema fails to respond to and reflect the challenges of our times, people will, naturally and increasingly, begin to look elsewhere and supplement occasional trips to cinemas with home-viewing, festivals, and film clubs. Jeffrey Richards, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, says: "Anyone with even a marginal knowledge of the cinema can hardly fail to agree that much of American film output is so drenched in violence, so steeped in bad language, so obsessed with human degradation that it is almost impossible to anyone with any sensitivity to sit through it." Actually, it's easy to find such people, if you look in the right places, and I was happy to find myself among them recently. No matter how seriously we take cinema, we should always be capable of laughing at it all, and enjoying those films of which it's said, they're so bad they're good.

Beyond the mainstream

As press screenings for the 56th London Film Festival began, the six-week-long Scala Beyond film season and the 20th Raindance Festival of independent film were drawing to a close. The organizers of Scala Beyond (a network of independent exhibitors with a shared affinity for the anarchic programming policy of the much-missed Scala Cinema) had promised an event that would operate like a fringe festival. True to their word, they enthralled and appalled audiences with an eclectic mix of horror, high-art, low-trash, soft-porn, and cult classics. The Scala closed in 1993, after being sued by Warner Brothers over an illegal screening of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, but the season perfectly reproduced the legendary cinema's alternative approach, echoing its knowing blend cinephile seriousness and playful self-indulgence. Those fortunate enough to have attended one of the Scala's triple-bill all-nighters back in the day will recognise a familiar ironic vibe, those who missed Scala Beyond's heart-stopping horrifying double-bill featuring Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (1970) and Mick Jackson's Threads (1980) will curse their misfortune. I can't have been the only greedy perfectionist who wished the organizers had created a triple-bill by adding Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965) to that apocalyptic pairing. The audience left the cinema in ashen-faced silence as it was, so, perhaps, that would have been too much – besides, by a happy coincidence, the film the BBC banned was screened a week later as part of the Peter Watkins season at Tate Modern. The Scala Beyond season, despite such dark moments and some missed opportunities, showed some important films and provided some great fun. It has served up a spunky antidote to sterile big-budget folly, provided a refuge for the censored and the sublimely silly, and proved that there is, as we say here, vibrant cinematic life beyond the mainstream.

After watching Joe Wright's execrable, if expertly executed adaptation of Anna Karenina at my local Picturehouse, I had particular reason to be grateful for the tonic of a revivifying Scala Beyond double-bill that paired two important films: Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth (1950) with Alan Clarke and David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1973). My only grievance was that it meant missing another highlight of the season that same night: the double-bill screening of the Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs (1986) with its sequel Handsworth Conversations (2005). Those who prefer to experience films in cinemas with others are unlikely to see such treasures in their local cinema, which is just one reason why it's unlikely this will be the last you'll hear of Scala Beyond. During the season, I attended a networking event they hosted, a DIY workshop designed to advise novices in the art of running a successful film club. The enthusiasm on display suggests many others will join their swelling ranks and get behind the Scala Beyond manifesto pledge to  "Fill the land with cinemas" – and they define cinemas in a thrillingly broad sense: "Cinemas can be in bars, cafes, libraries or schools. They can be under motorways, on boats, in petrol stations or on the move."

It's as if a new generation of Billy Caspers are defining themselves against stifling, stultifying cultural circumstances by developing liberating passions of their own. That exciting notion of taking films to places they are not normally seen feeds into the trend for pop-up screenings. It is to be hoped that they can become part of a sustainable alternative to the mainstream exhibition circuit. We need that more than ever. The striking thing about the Scala Beyond season itself was just how madly original most of the films screened were. A glance at their programme, a replica of the old Scala 'newspaper', revealed an encouraging absence of adaptations and, unsurprisingly given the amount of flesh and blood on display, a lack of costume dramas.

Adaptation and the Academy Awards

Adaptations and costumes have, of course, become increasingly synonymous within mainstream audio-visual culture. In their very different ways, the Scala Beyond season, the Raindance Film Festival, and the growing Film Clubs movement, collectively stick two proud fingers up at that trend. The London Film Festival, while mingling the mainstream and the marginal, does so too, in its own beautiful way. It has been estimated that over 80 per cent of mainstream films have been adapted or 'translated' from either literary or dramatic sources and three quarters of all Best Picture Oscars have gone to adaptations. Hollywood's annual ritual of reward and reification offered no exception this year: six of the nine films nominated in the Best Picture category at the 2012 Oscars were adaptations. Among the many reasons I cheered when Michael Hazanavicius's The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar earlier this year is that it looks to cinematic rather than literary sources for inspiration. Although not a silent film, it presented a black and white homage to the silent era. I cheered, too, when Hugo, Martin Scorsese's homage to early cinema, won Oscars. Although Hugo is based on Brian Selznick's wonderful "novel in words and pictures," The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it is another film about film, featuring footage from the Lumière Brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat/The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) and George Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Hazanavicius and Scorsese, cinephiles both, took the Oscars by storm, winning five awards apiece, with films that reflect their reverence for Chaplin, Lloyd, and early cinema. They returned us to a time when cinema spoke the Esperanto of images. Hazanivicius told Sight & Sound magazine: "The late silent era was a utopia of a sort – a universal language, like painting or music can be." As well as reminding us of the language of images, The Artist is also a film about spoken language. Given that this was the first French film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar, it is apt that a Frenchman, Jean DuJardin as George Valentin, rasps out the few words in the film, suggesting a practical reason for Valentin's resistance to the talkies in its allusion to the dominance of English and, by implication, of Hollywood. The success of The Artist and Hugo felt like a light blow struck against cultural imperialism and for film as a form in its own right.

Cinema's debt to literature

Discussing the love affair at the heart of The Artist, Michael Woods said that the film's heroine, Peppy Miller (as played by Hazanavicius's wife, Bérénice Bejo), 'believes the movies can't be what they should be if they forget what they once were." Reviewing Jean Epstein's silent classic Coeur fidèle I went further, suggesting, after Jacques Rancière, that cinema cannot be what it should be if it forgets what it might have been, and might be again. Whether we accept Rancière's arguments that cinema's early attempts to create a language of images were forestalled by the talkies ('la coupure du parlant') or believe that the arrival of sound expanded film's formal possibilities and extended its range, we must acknowledge the debt film owes literature. The history of cinema has, since its infancy, been as inextricably bound to books as it has been to money and technological advances, and there are few signs that adaptation will become any less dominant within film culture in future.

It has even been argued that literature predicted as well as preceded cinema. Geoffrey Wall, for example, in the introduction to his new translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, says that Emma Bovary, "precociously invents cinema while gazing on the pages of her keepsake album." It is tempting to counter Wall's hyperbolic flourish by replying, "Well, no actually, cinema was invented by the likes of Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, John Roebuck Rudge, the Lumière Brothers, William Friese-Greene, George Méliès, and Thomas Edison." He does have a point though. It may overstate the case to describe Flaubert as the bridge between literature and cinema, but his realist masterpiece certainly contributed to its construction. Building on the achievements of predecessors like Balzac, Victor Hugo and Walter Scott, Flaubert created an idiom that became characteristic of later realist fiction and invented a style that, as Wall says, "sounded like the authentic voice of modernity." Flaubert's style nudged the novel towards film, influencing successors such as Joyce, Kafka and Sartre, who built on Flaubert's advances to develop new narrative strategies and new 'filmic' ways of seeing.

Later, a generation of literary pioneers – Joyce, Kafka and Sartre, Gorky, Greene and Grass – came to dote on the new art form and absorb something of cinema's way of describing the world. As AS Byatt says of Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The Magic Mountain: "It is a masterwork unlike any other. It is also, if we learn to read it on its own terms . . . a new form of language, a new way of seeing." Cinephile-bibliophiles such as Greene and Grass were influenced by cinema, and influenced cinema in their turn. That process of cross-cultural fertilization has continued to this day. Interviewed by Greil Marcus for the October issue of Sight & Sound, David Thomson said he learned "to write American rather than English" while working on his two most recent novels: Suspects, which was published in 1985 and is inflected with the cadences of film noir, and Silver Light, which appeared in 1990 and is steeped in the westerns. In both novels, Thomson melds cinema and literature by working characters from films into his books (e.g. Mathew Garth, as played by Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawkes's Red River, and Noah Cross, as played by John Huston, no less, in Roman Polanski's Chinatown).

Adaptation and change

The relationship between literature and cinema has, then, been one of exchange. Literature's great trilogy of realist novels about bourgeois heroines punished for breaching social convention – Fontane's Effi Briest, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina – have all been filmed. Literature may not have 'invented' cinema but it certainly influenced its development, combining with commerce to drive it, for good and ill, into a narrative corner. As the novel became increasingly cinematic, not least as the lure of lucrative film deals shaped the work of novelists, so cinema has always been happy to purchase and appropriate some of literature's cultural prestige and gravitas, as well as its stories. Books have always provided 'cost-efficient' raw material to 'risk averse' film producers, while films, in addition to offering financial rewards rare in publishing, seemed to render literature 'real'. We see before we speak, and films answered a question asked by many a reader, "How does the book look"? As Anthony Burgess said, perhaps with Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in mind: '"Every best-selling novel has to be turned into a film, the assumption being that the book itself whets an appetite for the true fulfillment – the verbal shadow turned into light, the word made flesh." To paint with a broad brush, we might say that cinema, the popular art form of the 20th Century, offered a lifeline to the novel, the dominant art form of the 19th Century, as it became increasingly isolated within a pictorial culture and damaged by declining literacy levels.

Despite the convergence or exchange between the two forms, "the two ways of seeing," adaptations continue to be reviewed and received primarily in terms of their fidelity to literary source texts. This amounts to a slur on cinema. It also, needless to say, gives the novel an unfair advantage since, as academic Tomas Leitch says, the source texts will always be better at being themselves: "The book will always be better than any adaptation because it always better at being the book." To ask of any film adaptation, "Is it as good as the book?" is, therefore, only marginally less unproductive than to ask, "Is it how I remember it?" A succession of film critics – notably French critics such as Bazin, Bellour, Daney and Metz – cleared a path through the theoretical minefield of 'fidelity discourse' by establishing 'medium specificity' – which is to say by describing what is filmic about film and bookish about books, by proposing new ways of reading the different signifying systems, and by insisting on our right to rewrite texts. In so doing, they created a breach through which contemporary 'adaptation studies' followed, only to raise further questions and lay a few minefields of its own. To paraphrase Nöel Carroll's famous comment on Direct Cinema, "Adaptation theory opened a can of worms and then got eaten by them." Anyone approaching this treacherous terrain, then, must tread carefully; we may do so less nervously because Thomas Leitch, who has done more productive thinking about adaptation than most, is on hand as sapper and guide. In his book Adaptation and Its Discontents, and in an illuminating essay in the journal Adaptation*, he provides us with an indispensable overview of possible approaches to adaptation.

Adaptation, The Artist and Apocalypse Now

Thomas Leitch rejoices in the assault on fidelity discourse and the way it has shifted critical attention to 'intertextuality' and forms of cultural recycling, "with each text, avowed adaptation or not, afloat upon a sea of countless earlier texts from which it could not help borrowing." We live, says Leitch, in "a culture marked by the traces of thousands of texts," and should explore all sources for films, not just literary texts, which themselves draw on an infinite number of sources. A quick glance at The Artist illustrates his point. Jean Dujardin's George Valentin is an amalgam of Rudolph Valentino, Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, as a composite of Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland. The film adapts and appropriates Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to Hitchcock's Vertigo; draws on the early sound experiments of René Clair and Fritz Lang; winks at Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Murnau's Sunrise; tips its cap to Chaplin, Lloyd and The Keystone Kops; and cites films as various as A Star is Born, Citizen Kane, and Singing in the Rain. Although Hazanavicius's references are primarily cinematic, film is generally an impure form that borrows not just from books but also ads, journalism, painting, photography, pop music, television, theatre, and so on.

Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) might be a more salient example of film as a magpie form. Coppola's film was adapted from Conrad's Heart of Darkness but drew heavily on Dante's Divine Comedy, Melville's Moby Dick, Eliot's The Wasteland, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Richard Brooks' Lord Jim, Ford's The Searchers, Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. The film also moves to the sound of Wagner's The Ride of the Valkeries and The Doors' song The End, while playing with the Japanese code of bushido and tipping its cap to the Westerns by reworking the myth of the US Cavalry scout.

The Artist, Apocalpyse Now, Hugo and, as we shall see in Part 2, The Tin Drum are typical of a layering process that, as Christine Geraghty says, involves "an accretion of deposits over time, a recognition of ghostly presences, and a shadowing or doubling of what is on the surface by what is glimpsed behind." To consider adaptations is, Thomas Leitch warns, to adopt a position in this complex debate, if only by default. I'm no academic so I have no position, but it is the notion of intertextuality that attracts me most, the idea of books and films as hybrid texts. It within that theoretical framwork that I will consider Anna Karenina and The Tin Drum, while bearing in mind David Kranz's call for a contextual approach to adaptation, one that strives for "an appreciation for the economic, historical, cultural, and ideological pressures which impinge on the production of film adaptations."

 

Part 2 >

 


*Andrew O’Hagan’s Telegraph article, My Years in the Dark:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3620261/My-years-in-the-dark.html

Thomas Leitch’s survey of ideas on adaptation issues, from the journal Adaptation:
http://adaptation.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/1/63.full