Adaptation & Appropriation

Originality seems a modern concern. By the time the first copyright laws came into being in the eighteenth century storytelling as a whole already had a long history, indeed a tradition, of adapting and appropriating plots, themes and motifs from other works and without it literature would have stagnated very early in its development. Philosopher Walter Benjamin defined storytelling as “the ability to exchange experiences”[1] and that in the beginning its conduit was “mouth to mouth [communication], which is the source from which all storytellers have drawn.”[2] Benjamin wrote that as stories were being told new ones were already being spun from the material provided, “For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to.”[3] This process of creation, transmission and recreation contributes to “the web which all stories together form in the end.”[4] Jessica Litman writes that:

“The very act of authorship in any medium is more akin to translation and recombination than it is to creating Aphrodite from the foam of the sea. Composers recombine sounds they have heard before; playwrights base their characters on bits and pieces drawn from real human beings and other playwrights’ characters; novelists draw their plots from lives and other plots within their experience […] This is not parasitism: it is the essence of authorship.”[5]

This is how figures like King Arthur leaped from the oral poetry of the Welsh bards to the pseudo-histories of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and from there to writers like Wace (who contributed the Round Table) and Chretien de Troyes (who invented Lancelot). It is the reason we find tales of the Deluge in a variety of comparative mythologies heralding back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and why we find similarities between the Abrahamic religions (albeit with different interpretive qualities). It is why we find the popular story of King Leir —which first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1135) and later in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) and given mention in Book II, Canto VI of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590-1596)— being adapted for the stage in 1594, with a published edition appearing in 1605, two years before the first known performance of Shakespeare’s very own King Lear. The Royal Shakespeare Company explains that “Whilst we applaud difference, Shakespeare’s first audiences favoured likeness: a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.”[6]

In the modern age, adaptation and appropriation have allowed novels like Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) to be reinterpreted as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) which in turn was retooled by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Later, Kurosawa’s own Seven Samurai (1954) would be loosely reconfigured as Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) with ants replacing the peasants of Kurosawa’s film and grasshoppers and circus insects filling the role of the bandits and samurai respectively.

In 1892 Léon Bouly invented a camera he dubbed the cinématographe (a patent for which was, fittingly, later appropriated by the Lumière brothers) derived from the Greek “writing in movement”, for if a picture can paint a hundred words then moving pictures certainly tell many more— but cinema was born in a time when attitudes about adaptation and appropriation had long began to narrow and film adaptation was largely considered, in the words of Thomas Dreiser, “not so much a belittling as a debauching process.”[7] In his 1932 essay ‘The Art Form of Democracy’ William Hunter stated that it was “impossible” to “talk of Eisenstein and Pudovkin as second Shakespeares and Leonardos”[8] and he further claimed that “The cinema is unlikely ever to reach the level of the best literature”[9] and would (must) “remain on a lower level than its contemporary art-forms.” Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘The Cinema’, wrote discouragingly that “it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess […] what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.”[10] Woolf claimed that cinema as an art form was capable of too much too soon, and that its artists and technicians were akin to primitive men bollixing with flutes and saxophones and other instruments without knowing a note of music between them. “The results [of adaptation] are disastrous to both,” she wrote. “The alliance is unnatural.”

This attitude prevailed in academic circles for decades; Neil Sinyard notes that even during the late twentieth century Film and Literature teachers were “often in a defensive position regarding the film, being expected to share a Leavisite antagonism to popular culture and approaching the film as either a crass simplification or, at best, a mere memoir of the book.”[11] Despite all of its capabilities for sound and visual composition, not to mention performance, film spent much of its adolescence as the de facto inferior medium. As Linda Hutcheon states in ‘A Theory of Adaptation’, “it does seem to be more or less acceptable to adapt Romeo & Juliet into a respected high art form, like an opera or a ballet, but not to make it into a movie.”[12]

Why do attitudes about the inferiority of cinema and accusations of bastardisation exist? Doubtless some explanation lies in our tendency to view new technologies with suspicion. The invention of writing was decried by Plato as destroying the power of memory and therefore peoples’ connection to the Truth. Poets came under special scrutiny, with Plato resolving to bar them from entering his Republic for the safety of its denizens. While it is true that the novel and short story are not much older than cinema itself, they were gradual extrapolations of literature at large, whereas cinema’s emergence was more sudden with far fewer antecedents. In the modern age esteemed critics like Roland Barthes struggled with analysing and categorising cinema. “The existence of cinema is not in its technique, while the contrary is true of literature,” he stated. “I have not succeeded in integrating the cinema within a sphere [and so] I consume it in a purely projective manner, and not as an analyst.”[13] There is also a perception that film, unlike theatre productions, capture a particular performance and make it definitive. There are innumerable versions of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ to be seen on the stage, all following the same story but each with different directors, actors, set dressers, et cetera, but there is only one Star Wars (1977), a reproduction of which (with the same script but a different team of artists) would be considered by cinephiles to be palimpcestuous at best.

There is also an attitude that film adaptations must remain absolutely true to the book, even though films operate in visual and audio vocabularies and are restricted by factors such as budget, runtime, an inability to dump reams of background information (even the longest of films have a need to be relatively concise) and various other production realities. A film’s creation and success is dependent on hundreds if not thousands of moving pieces: directors and actors and producers and screenwriters and cinematographers and composers and editors and on and on. A novel, in comparison, is limited only by the imagination and ability of its author and whatever raw materials s/he is using to build their story.

When a novel is adapted to the screen, it has to be rethought from the ground up, since a novel, translated literally to another medium, will fail to expound the same messages as the text. Alfred Hitchcock once elaborated that a film version of Crime and Punishment would be difficult to translate to the screen because “in Dostoyevsky’s novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function”[14] – that is, the novel’s greatness is due to its form, to its literary excellence, and a film adaptation would have to convey this in its own particular language. It would not have the ‘crutch’ of Dostoyevsky’s prose to help carry the story. Hitchcock explained that the best method of adaptation was to familiarise oneself with the story at hand and then try to create a film around that, rather than trying to expound details that are great because of their literary rather than filmic function. “There’s been a lot of talk about the way in which Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces.” Hitchcock said. “I’ll have no part of that! What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I read it only once, and very quickly at that.”[15] For his part, Roland Barthes agreed, explaining in an interview that:

It always seems very difficult and rather vain to carry over a technique (and meaning is one) from one art to another; not from a purism of genres, but because structure depends on the materials used; the spectatorial image is not made from the same material as the cinematographic image, it doesn’t lend itself in the same fashion to editing, duration, perception…[16]

To demonstrate what Barthes means by ‘meaning’ not necessarily needing to be carried over from one medium to another, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and its Disney adaptation serve a good example. The Andersen story contains this passage on life, death, and the afterlife:

“We can live for three hundred years, but when we stop existing, we turn into foam on the sea, and we don’t even have a grave down here among our loved ones. We don’t have an immortal soul; we won’t ever live again. We’re like the green rushes: once they’ve been cut they can’t grow again. But humans have a soul, which lives forever – it lives even after the body has turned to dust.”[17]

Disney’s The Little Mermaid in contrast is not concerned with life, death, and the afterlife (or lack thereof), and instead elects to busy itself with upbeat songs and the ‘true love’ trope so prevalent in the studio’s other productions. Other classic tales have been given the same treatment by Disney, for example, the Greek myth of Hercules was popularised as a family friendly musical, severely altering the personalities and outcomes of the original tales so that the only likeness between the film and its antecedent mythologies are shared names. The Hades of Disney’s Hercules resembles the Christian Satan more than his Greek counterpart, just as Disney’s Zeus is rendered as a bumbling, loving father figure rather than the distant, perfidious terror of Greek lore. To say that this method of adaptation is wrong however would be nothing more than an exercise in fidelity criticism; that something is inferior because it is not the same.

Yet the Disney films, stray as they do from the original sources, remain popular and entrenched in the public consciousness; for many, the Disney versions have superseded the original sources and many children today will not be fully aware of Andersen’s story. This may be a trend worth decrying, but it is no different a fate than that of the Welsh King Arthur, a figure quite alien to modern (and even medieval) audiences familiar with the latest Arthurian literature. Likewise, Robert Zemeckis’ film Beowulf (2007) features the titular hero asking the members of his comitatus to remember him “not as a king, or hero, but as a man, fallible and flawed”, a request which is diametrically opposed to the aims of both the original poem and the culture that produced it.

Film adaptations cannot be a literalisation of the text; they can only tell the same story in a general way, with characters excised or composited, subplots trimmed or deleted, et cetera. But differences need not be condemned simply for being so, just as Mary Shelley’s thoughtful, lovelorn Frankenstein’s Creature bears no relation to, and yet can co-exist alongside, the grunting, lumbering monster in James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931). Likewise, Alfonso Cuaron’s acclaimed apocalyptic film Children of Men (2006), an adaptation of the P.D. James novel of the same name (released 1992) shifts its focus away from twentieth century notions of dictatorships (James’ novel features a tyrant, Xan Lyppiatt, as its villain) and a Big Brother society for a Carlylian critique of democracy. Director Alfonso Cuaron stated that:

“I really wanted to make a film that would speak to the twenty first century. And the specific dynamics that the twenty first century has taken as opposed to the twentieth … I think, there’s a certain nostalgia for the twentieth century that I don’t know is healthy. There’s this whole idea of tyranny created by a single figure, a dictator. In the book, there actually is a dictator of Great Britain … We wanted to make this world, this universe, a democracy. Britain is a democracy. But, by the way, being a democracy doesn’t mean people are choosing the right things or what is just.”[18]

It is worthwhile to examine a few more film adaptations that explicitly avoided replicating their source material verbatim and instead were acclaimed for their efforts in making unique pieces of film art rather than slavish fidelity.

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) took two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, ‘Rashomon’ (1915) and ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ (1922), and merged them together to create a ‘new’ work. The film’s screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto had originally based his script on Akutagawa’s ‘In a Bamboo Grove’ but combined it with ‘Rashomon’ to pad out the length of the script. “We only had ninety pages,” explained Hashimoto, “that’s why we decided to add Rashomon.”[19] Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography that Akutagawa’s ‘Rashomon’ was utilised as a framework or wraparound for the main plot simply because it was set in the same period as ‘In A Bamboo Grove’ and its length, coupled with ‘Rashomon’, “would be just the right length for a feature film.”[20] Kurosawa has also intimated that ‘Rashomon’ was incorporated into the script to give the film more of a definitive shape and meaning. “[The studio] did not like it and kept asking: But what is it about? I made it longer, put in a beginning and an ending, and they eventually agreed to make it.”[21] The original stories ended ambiguously (Akutagawa’s ‘Rashomon’ climaxes with an uncertain “What happened to the lowly servant, no one knows”[22] and his ‘In A Bamboo Grove is bleaker: “I sank once more and for all into the darkness between lives…”[23]) but Kurosawa’s adaptation was resolved with a happier ending that shows the sun breaking through the clouds and a renewed sense of hope.

The script that Hashimoto and Kurosawa wrote was “done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible” so that Kurosawa would be free to “create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film.”[24] Here we see little concern in adapting the film to mime the original narrative, and though Rashomon as a film does not exactly replicate either of its constituent texts it still manages to encapsulate the themes of both (the unreliability of individual narrative, for example) despite their transplantation to another medium and their synthesis with other stories.

Though his Rashomon was an unmitigated success both as an adaptation and as a film in its own right, Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) was a more literal adaptation and was what biographer Stuart Galbraith called “at times […] a literal transposition”[25] of Dostoyevsky’s text despite the relocation of the story from Russia to Japan. According to Kurosawa adapting the novel so literally was “ruinous”[26] for the overall film, since the characters and their motivations remained distinctly Russian rather than Japanese and the actors themselves had trouble emoting with characters written with distinctly foreign attitudes and values. Time magazine surmised that “the trouble seems to be that Kurosawa got fascinated with Dostoyevsky’s genius and forgot about his own […] he forgets to translate the [author’s] words into correlatively compelling images.”[27] Kurosawa fared better with his transposition of MacBeth in his Throne of Blood (1957).

Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) is both an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief (1998) and a critique of the adaptive process itself. The book follows New Yorker writer Susan Orlean as she documents the story of John Laroche, an orchid poacher whose passion for the flower has an invigorating effect on Orlean herself. The film tells this same story, but screenwriter Charlie Kaufman inserts himself into the film as a character and documents the journey not only of Orlean and Laroche but also Kaufman himself as he struggles with the script.

At the beginning of the film Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) tells a Hollywood executive that he does not want his adaptation to conform to a typical or clichéd movie template: “I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases, or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running … or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons, or growing, or coming to like each another, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.” Though such an approach would be true to the book, it does not come together as a film and Kaufman spends much of Adaptation struggling with the screenplay and resisting what he deems to be bad advice from his twin brother Donald (a fictional character representing the schlockier tendencies of Hollywood) who is an aspiring screenwriter with a penchant for by-the-numbers thrillers.

It is only once Charlie asks for his brother’s help that Adaptation leaps into its third act, and in typical Donald fashion the film becomes a clichéd thriller that encapsulates everything that Charlie tried to resist and reject about conventional movie making: Orlean and Laroche are revealed to be in a licentious relationship (“I don’t want to cram in sex”), they hold Charlie at gunpoint when he discovers them (“or guns”), a car chase breaks out in the swamps (“or car chases”) and it is revealed that Laroche and Orlean have been poaching the Orchids for their psychotropic qualities (“or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running.”) This culminates with Orlean and Laroche attempting to murder Charlie and Donald (who share a “profound life lesson” as Donald tells Charlie, “You are what you love, not what loves you”) and eventually an absurd death for Laroche, who is mauled by swamp crocodiles. Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter ends Adaptation with Charlie Kaufman the character finally figuring out how to end Adaptation. The film is not only, as its title plainly states, an adaptation, it is also a dissection and critique of adaptation as a whole.

There are several references and allusions to Charles Darwin throughout the film, most notably at the beginning which shows the biological and geographical evolution of Earth life, and later when Laroche (who carries ‘The Writings of Charles Darwin’ on cassette) explains the relationship between insects and orchids. “By simply doing what they are designed to do,” he tells Orlean, “something large and magnificent happens.” Orlean is subsequently drawn to Laroche’s ability to feel intense passion and then to move on to other passions, in other words, she respects his ability to adapt to changing desires and circumstances. “Adaptation’s a profound process,” he tells Orlean at one point. “It means you figure out how to thrive in the world.” Laroche’s existence is fluid while hers is stagnant.

Charlie Kaufman also wishes to adapt – his inability to step outside of his self-imposed confines leaves him and his script languishing and it is not until he consults the advice of others that he finally learns how to adapt both the book and to situations around him. Each of the three central characters in the film –Kaufman, Orlean and Laroche– use adaptation as a pathway to self-actualisation; both Orlean and Kaufman agonise over their inability to change and it is through Laroche that they learn the value of doing so, no matter how off-kilter or unexpected the change may seem – the same is true of the process of turning Orlean’s book into a film; Kaufman resists changing the novel as he writes his screenplay until he can resist no longer. He must either adapt or discontinue his work.

When Orlean read the script for Adaptation she described it as a complete shock. “My first reaction was ‘Absolutely not!’ They had to get my permission and I just said: ‘No! Are you kidding? This is going to ruin my career!’”[29] However, the film managed to impress Orlean with its critique of adaptation and the creative struggles in both ‘original’ and ‘derivative’ works. “It took a while for me to get over the idea that I had been insane to agree to it,” she stated, “but I love the movie now. What I admire the most is that it’s very true to the book’s themes of life and obsession, and there are also insights into things which are much more subtle in the book about longing, and about disappointment.”[30]


[1] Michael McKeon (ed.) Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2000) p. 77.

[2] Ibid., p. 78.

[3] Ibid., p. 82.

[4] Ibid., p. 86.

[5] Jessica Litman in ‘The Public Domain’ [http://law.duke.edu/pd/papers/litman_background.pdf]

[6] Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (ed.) William Shakespeare: Complete Works (London: MacMillan Publishers Ltd, 2007) p. 215.

[7] Deborah Cartmell (ed.) A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation (New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014) p. 2.

[8] William Hunter ‘The Art Form of Democracy’ [http://www.unz.org/Pub/Scrutiny-1932may-00061]

[9] Ibid.

[10] Virginia Woolf ‘The Cinema’ [http://www.woolfonline.com/timepasses/?q=essays/cinema/full]

[11] Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (Beckenham: Crook Helm Ltd, 1986) p. 99.

[12] Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, (New York: Routledge, 2006) p. 3.

[13] Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1982) p. 13.

[14] Deborah Cartmell (ed.) A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation (New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014) p. 110.

[15] Ibid., p. 109.

[16] Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980  (Northwestern University Press, 1982) p. 20.

[17] Hans Christian Andersen, Diana Crone Frank & Jeffrey Frank (trans.) The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen (London: Granta Publications, 2004) p. 81.

[18] Mary H. Snyder, Analyzing Literature-To-Film-Adaptations: A Novelist’s Exploration and Guide (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011) p. 298.

[19] Stuart Galbraith, The Emperor and the Wolf (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 2001) p. 127.

[20] Akira Kurosawa, Something Like An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1982) p. 182.

[21] Donald Ritchie (ed.), Rashomon: Akira Kurosawa, Director (New Brunswick: Rutgers, the State University, 1987) p. 1.

[22] Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (London: Penguin Group Ltd, 2006) p. 9.

[23] Ibid, p. 19.

[24] Akira Kurosawa, Something Like An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1982) p. 182.

[25] Stuart Galbraith, The Emperor and the Wolf (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 2001) p. 145.

[26] Ibid., p. 145.

[27] Ibid., p. 148.

[28] Dorothy J. Hale (ed.) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900 – 2000 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006) p. 368.

[29] Kevin Perry, Interview with Susan Orlean [http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2012-04/16/susan-orlean-adaptation-orchid-thief-rin-tin-tin]

[30] Ibid.

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