Showing posts with label Vonnegut. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vonnegut. Show all posts

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Transtextuality in Film Adaptation: Fidelity Revisited

Presentation to a Joint session of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures and the Film Studies Association of Canada, Monday, May 30, 2005; University of Western Ontario

In a course on American literature, I typically showed students scenes from Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, The Age of Innocence. The Scorsese film is what one would commonly describe as a  faithful adaptation of the novel–a Visconti-style film fitting to the turn-of-the-century splendour and mannerisms which Wharton describes. Most of the film’s dialogue and narration are pulled directly from the novel. The scene from the film which I presented to students is the major turning point of the narrative in which May Archer, the novel’s most conspicuous symbol of innocence announces to her husband, Newland, that Countess Olenska, her cousin who was about to become Newland’s mistress, had decided to leave New York and return to Europe. In this scene, the novel announces to us May’s loss of innocence. She has lied to her cousin, claiming to be pregnant and thereby putting a stop to the affair which was about to take place and, in the same manoeuver, taking control of her husband. This episode is the turning point of the novel, and Wharton signals May’s loss of innocence by having her wearing her wedding dress on this occasion, which May has just torn and muddied while getting out of a carriage. At the very end of this crucial “loss of innocence” chapter, Wharton presents us with the image of May turning to exit “her torn and muddy wedding dress dragging after her across the room."

This scene in the novel is markedly filmic, in that May’s loss of innocence is principally and forcefully signaled to us through the visual image of the “torn and muddy wedding dress.” The scene in Scorsese's film is as described in the novel, except that May’s dress is spotlessly clean and without a sign of a tear. How can we talk about this difference between film and novel, this absence of the “torn and muddy wedding dress”? I call it a mistake. An inexplicable oversight. An unaccounted-for error. 

I begin with this example, simple to signal that there are cases in which we can discuss the relationship between a literary work and a film in these terms. The director missed something or something went wrong somewhere. Once we admit this possibility we can begin to look at those changes which are matters of interpretation or intentional shifts from the themes and ideology of the literary work. An obvious example of the latter would be Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The novel is a series of stories of women striving for and achieving independence from patriarchy. The novel’s heroine, the blues singer Shug Avery, resists all domination by men, most especially her own father who is an evangelical preacher. However, in the musical climax of Spielberg’s film, Shug Avery spontaneously and inexplicably decides to go to her father’s church and ask for his forgiveness, thereby contradicting not only the plot but the central theme and ideology of the novel. Spielberg’s attempts to privilege male-female relationships and male characters become laughably obvious in the conclusion of the film as Spielberg makes the character identified as "Mister ---" the hero of the film through changes to the plot and then desperately reinforces this point through a series of shots and slow dissolve superimpositions not only intertextually connected to the film cliché of the hero riding off into the sunset but graphically reminding us that there is a man behind this film’s happy ending.



My sense of outrage at the Spielberg film is somewhat tempered when I come to consider the Milos Forman adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. There is a parallel in the cases in that the Kesey novel is an explicit defense of masculinity to the point of suggesting that mental illness and male suicides are a direct result of emasculation and the suppression of masculine sexuality, desires and values, which the Forman film significantly under-plays.

In an essay entitled “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation,” Robert Stam argues:

The concept of intertextual dialogism suggests that every text forms an intersection of textual surfaces. All texts are tissues of anonymous formulae, variations on those formulae, conscious and unconscious quotations, and conflations and inversions of other texts. In the broadest sense, intertextual dialogism refers to the infinite and open-ended possibilities generated by all the discursive practices of a culture, the entire matrix of communicative utterances within which the artistic text is situated, which reach the text not only through recognizable influences, but also through a subtle process of dissemination.

Intertextuality, then, helps us to transcend the aporias of “fidelity.”

Although I agree with Stam in general terms, the question which his claim gives rise to in my mind is: Can the concept of adaptation survive in any meaningful or practical sense if “intertextual dialogism” generates “infinite and open-ended possibilities”?

If we cannot find and argue for at least some meaningful, definite, assured points of contact and closure in the comparison of film and literary work, then what is it that prevents us from simply bracketing the concept of adaptation and completely divorcing novel from film in order to treat, analyze and interpret each independently. Despite the temptations of such a divorce, however, it seems clear that there will always be some sort of relationship between the film and the literary work upon which it is based. In fact, Stam goes on to argue for a defined set of relationships between film and novel by invoking Gerard Genette’s concept and taxonomy of transtextual relationships.

That relationship between film and literary work might be characterized as hypertext to hypotext, using Genette’s terms as Stam suggests; that is, the film hypertext could not exist as it is without the earlier existence of the literary hypotext. However, framed this way the relationship remains vague and ambiguous. In individual cases, the relationship could be one of agreement and mutual support, of premise and extrapolation, or the relationship could be antagonistic and critical. Whatever kind of relationship might exist between a film and the work from which it is adapted they fall within and can be judged and understood within some framework of coherence.

In making this claim I am very much influenced by what Bertrand Russell among others calls a “coherence theory of truth”–which is to say that statements, signs, and semiotic units cannot be judged true or false through their correspondence to objects in the world. The only way we have available to us to judge truth is by verifying the degree to which a particular statement is coherent in relation to other statements, signs, events, objects and so on. I agree with Stam’s conclusion that

[. . .] to look at adaptation is to see it as a matter of a source novel hypotext’s being transformed by a complex series of operations: selections, amplification, concretization, actualization, critique, extrapolation, analogization, popularization, and reculturalization. The source novel, in this sense, can be seen as a situated utterance produced in one medium and in one historical context, then transformed into another equally situated utterance that is produced in a different context and in a different medium.

Novel and film are separated and connected through these various transformative processes. There is a connection, a relationship between them which can be judged within an inclusive pattern of coherence. This relationship between literary work and film, which is one of mutual, connected coherence, allows us to talk about adaptations in terms of something like fidelity. Films can be judged to be mistaken, false, “in bad faith,” reduced and inferior; or apt interpretations, honest, “true to the original” and even superior works of art, as well as critiques, rebuttals and parodies in relation to a literary hypotext. We can legitimately note a mistake in Scorsese’s film, claim that Spielberg’s film is a betrayal of the feminist ideology of The Color Purple and that Milos Forman’s film is a softening of the masculinist ideology of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


As we move from literary work to a commercial film for a mass audience there is typically a softening and watering down of themes and ideological implications of the literary work accompanied by a shifting down of architextuality to reduce the perlocutionary or affective impact on the audience. When transferred to film, tragedies become satires and thrillers, satires become melodramas, romances and comedies. A classic example of this shifting down would be Elia Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In Kazan’s version, for example, the audience is prevented, by the sound of a passing train, from hearing Blanch Dubois’s speech in which she makes the metaphorical connection between raw sexual desire and the streetcar named Desire. More strikingly, although the play ends as a tragedy with a dark and seemingly omnipotent fate looming in the figure of Stanley Kowalski, the sexy gorilla, who as indicated in the stage directions: “kneels beside Stella [who is sobbing] and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.” The final line of the play is Steve the poker player’s announcement: “The name of the game is seven-card stud.” It is no accident that the last word of this play is “stud.” In the film version, Stella takes her baby upstairs to escape Stanley, promising in muttering tones that “he will never have the baby or touch me again.” The tragic drama thus becomes a satiric melodrama, with the villain Stanley being defeated in a last-minute reversal.

The shift of narratological structure and architextuality though significant does not yet approach the complexity of a comparison of film hypertext and literary hypotext which Stam has suggested. As every text is a collection, a tapestry of interwoven intertextual references, quotations, allusions and so on, a key to comparing film and literary work is through this intertextuality. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who am I this time?” offers a clear example of what I wish to suggest because the story depends so heavily upon on intertextuality to get its satiric point across. In Vonnegut’s story, the small town of North Crawford’s theatre club decides to produce A Streetcar Named Desire. The play having been chosen, the director discovers that the town has a surplus of older, faded ladies who could play the role of Blanche Dubois, but no-one who could play her sister, the young and passionate Stella. The choice of this particular intertext, A Streetcar Named Desire, allows Vonnegut to display, in a particularly effective way, the malaise associated with the aging and near disappearance of small-town America. A second, significant intertext in Vonnegut’s story is Shakespeare’s tragedy of passionate young lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

In the made-for-television film based on this short story, the intertextual references; ie, Streetcar and Romeo and Juliet, are maintained. In the film, the satire of the short story is reduced and the narratological structure is transformed into romantic comedy in two obvious ways. The first is that the director fills street scenes with young women who are supposedly residents of the town. The film then introduces a third major intertext; the proposal scene from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being

A key to understanding any text is how it uses and/or transforms an intertext. Oscar Wilde’s play is a satire. The proposal scene, in which Earnest Worthing proposes to his love, Gwendolyn, is a parody of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is willing to be frank, throws the rules of courtly love out the window and dares to ask: “What’s in a name?” And answer: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolyn, in contrast, is a dogmatic believer in the rules of propriety and has always dreamed of marrying and will only accept to marry a man named Earnest. Knowing about Juliet is the key to understanding Gwendolyn’s fetish for the name Earnest, and essential to getting Wilde’s irony and satire.

In the made-for-television version of “Who am I this time?” the scene from Earnest is flattened of its satiric import. The scene becomes a lighthearted but sincere proposal of marriage, reiterating rather than parodying the romantic and passionate love already echoed in the Romeo and Juliet and Streetcar Named Desire intertexts. It would be tempting to suggest that, in the adaptation process, if the intertext is transformed from satire to romantic comedy, then the film as a whole will perform the same transformation. Although I think such a claim would warrant investigation, I am not prepared to go quite that far at this point. What I am prepared to suggest is that we should pay particular attention to what happens to transtextual elements as we move from literary work to film and that these elements can become the concrete evidence of the transformation that has taken place in the process of adaptation. Both film and literary work are coherent structures and a change in the intertext must be accompanied by other transtextual and textual adjustments in order to maintain some sort of overall coherence in the film hypertext. With this in mind, I would like to consider two Canadian examples: The Handmaid’s Tale and Anne of Green Gables.

Peter Dickenson has already pointed out that
[. . .] the 1990 film of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale [. . .] turned Atwood’s dark dystopian and ironic feminist text into a stock Hollywood romance, complete with a traditional happy ending in which the boy presumably gets the girl.
Although I agree in general terms with this description of the adaptation process, I would like to offer a slight variation by focusing on the transformations of the transtextuality from novel to film.


Atwood’s novel opens with three paratextual citations: a quotation from the Bible which is the core of the novel and justifies the existence of the handmaid function, an epigrammatic quote from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” which clearly signals that what we are about to read is a satire, and a Sufi proverb. The film does away with these epigrams and substitutes a new paratext which establishes a new intertextual allusion to children's fairy tales. The film begins with a paragraph-long summary/comment projected on the screen: “One upon a time there existed a country called Gilead [and so on].” Rather than using any of the novel’s literary intertexts, such as the references to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the film opens with a series of filmic allusions: a James-Bondish gun battle on a snow-covered mountain, a repeated fairy-tale-like image of a female child wandering lost in the mountains, scenes of a train station and a military occupation alluding to the Holocaust, and scenes of the handmaids which give a nod to the genre of prison film. In my reading of the film, the adaptation begins to make sense as an adaptation at a very precise moment. In the film, as in the novel, the Handmaid is brought to meet Serena Joy, the Wife of the Commander whose child she will be expected to conceive. In the dialogue between Handmaid and Wife, in the film, Serena Joy pointedly mentions: “This is your first time.”

In the novel, however, Serena Joy says: “This is your third time.” Why does the film shift the situation from the Handmaid’s third to her first experience as a commander’s handmaid? In answering this question we discover the coherence of the adaptation process. The overall effect of the numerous changes made in the adaptation process are designed to transform the novel from a satire into a melodrama. In addition to its play on heightened emotions, what defines melodrama is its strict adherence to moral justice. In a melodrama, we are invariably presented with good and innocent characters threatened by conspicuous evil, a villain. The melodrama guarantees us a build-up of suspense through a predictable series of surprises and reversals leading to the last-minute rescue of an innocent victim by a good hero and in the denouement the assurance that justice has unquestionably been served. Atwood’s novel in addition to being a dystopian satire is the first-person narration of a woman’s internal struggle to survive. In the course of the novel, the Handmaid’s conscious decision to survive also implies that she must not only co-operate in her role as a handmaid but she chooses to play the role of a prostitute with her commander and then to be unfaithful to both her commander and her husband, Luc, by having an affair with Nic, the commander’s driver. The novel suggests to us that with time this handmaid might and future handmaids definitely will become adjusted and accepting of their roles and duties.

The film eliminates these sources of internal conflict and moral ambiguity by making the Handmaid a figure of innocence and restructuring the storyline around the only conflict that melodrama permits: good and innocence versus evil. The once-upon-a-time epigraph and opening images of innocence (a child wondering lost) and evil (the Holocaust) suggestively reinforce the style and structure of the melodrama. In addition, in the film, the Handmaid’s husband is explicitly shown to have been killed whereas in the novel he is thought to still be alive. Nic is unquestionably heroic and an object of love, rather than the ambiguous, ultimately unknown, target of lascivious desire and source of the Handmaid’s infidelity to her husband, Luc. The film goes on to complete the Handmaid’s story in keeping with the structure of melodrama. She defeats evil by murdering the commander and is unequivocally rescued by her lover/hero in the nick of time (no pun intended). The film's denouement confirms her goodness, innocence and the happy ending of a victory over evil. The relationship between novel and film is the relationship between a satiric hypotext with undertones of tragedy and a melodramatic hypertext with undertones of romance.

In his essay “Stand by Your Man: Adapting L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables,” Benjamin Lefebvre describes the television mini-series produced by Kevin Sullivan as transforming Montgomery’s novel from a satire of “the conventions of patriarchal romance” into “a conventional
romance." As Lefebvre points out, in the novel Anne and her friends attempt to act out Tennyson’s epic poem “Elaine and Lancelot”; however, the poem which Anne recites, in the miniseries, while floating down the river in imitation of Elaine’s funereal voyage to Camelot is Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot.” Lefebvre concludes that while “it would be worthwhile to consider the shift from Anne reenacting Elaine [. . .] to the Lady of Shallot, my point is that the intertextual referent for this scene in the 1985 miniseries is not Montgomery’s novel but the 1934 film."

I have a strong hunch that the intertexts for this scene in both audiovisual productions were the numerous paintings done of “The Lady of Shallot,” the most popular of which was painted in Gothic style by Waterhouse in 1883. Montgomery seems to assume that her readers will be well acquainted with the Elaine poem and is quite clear that Anne and her friends are. Sullivan’s production conflates the Elaine poem and “The Lady of Shallot” such that if we didn’t know better we would assume that “The Lady of Shallot” is the Elaine poem. Anyone familiar with the Elaine poem would know that Elaine is a beautiful young woman who is so stubbornly romantic that no-one can dissuade her from her decision to die of unrequited love–not her brothers, nor her father, nor Launcelot himself (the object of her unrequited love). “The Lady of Shallot” is a much more enigmatic and Gothic poem, and the Lady herself could not be connected to Anne. The Sullivan production uses the scene to promote a romance between Gilbert Blythe and Anne. In the novel, the scene between them concludes with Anne’s firm rejection of Gilbert’s offer of friendship. In the conclusion of this chapter of the novel, Anne announces to Marilla that “today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic." In other words, Anne’s playing Elaine, the “lily maid,” has cured her of being like Elaine. If Anne plays the Lady of Shallot as she does in the film and miniseries she cannot be cured of the romanticism specifically associated with Elaine.

When we observe “Elaine and Lancelot” in relation to the other explicitly quoted intertexts of the novel such as “Pippa Passes” and “The Maiden’s Vow” we discover a common thread of women who remain single and chaste but have a profound effect on other people’s lives. This motif is carried forward in Anne’s life models and mentors: Old Mrs. Barry, Miss Stacy and Marilla. It also reminds us that all the male-female relationships of the novel involve strong women--Marilla, Mrs. Allen, Rachel Lind, and Mrs. Barry--and muted or absent men.

In the TV version, Pippa and the poet Browning disappear. Elaine is erased by the Lady of Shallot, “The Maiden’s Vow” in which a woman simply prays to honour her lost courtier is replaced by a historical anachronism, “The Highwayman,” in which a barmaid commits suicide to warn her American lover that the British have set a trap for him. The television miniseries transforms Montgomery’s meliorist satire on the dialectic of Romanticism and Victorianism into a romantic comedy in which young lovers must overcome the blockage of an older character, Marilla. My suggestion is that these and other film adaptations of Canadian literary works can and should be read in the context of a coherent transtextual relationship which can be analyzed, perhaps judged, and certainly better understood when we closely attend to the intertextual and textual shifts which have taken place.

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