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The Torch: In the crux — literary adaptation

15 April 2008

The Torch: In the crux — literary adaptation

The better the original text, the worse the film? Stating this for a fact just after the latest “Beowulf” beautifully proved the truth in it to the dot once more? Well, you decide. Another commonplace belief has it that things are easier spoilt than perfected, and especially so with any form of translation for sure.

thetorch.jpgBut tastes do vary, which is only legitimate — and also an aspect of the human capacity and its limitations. Accordingly, there will be those who claim that it can work, the rendition of a text into film, and likewise staunch adherents of the opposite faction pointing to the overwhelming heap of crap so derived, which in their opinion aptly supports the hypothesis of mutual exclusivity in the media concerned. But let’s not argue about how much leverage either of the two parties can claim their respective argument to have. Let’s get to the centre of things instead and talk straight to the heart of the matter; and irrespective of “facts” if you don’t mind.

I sense in many an up-and-coming director a certain sweepingness which in essence is nothing but a blatant disregard for writing; whether fresh out of film school or not makes no difference, and it is growing. So convinced are they of the pre-eminence of their craft, they would never put it in doubt. Their “craft” I’d say, since speaking of art in the vast majority of cases couldn’t be any further from the truth. This kind of film-folk would understand writing to be the job of putting together a story, of sketching a plot. How brutish, how miserably primitive, how wrong!

Like was the case with “Battle Royale”, for which stunning movie Fukasaku Kenta so brilliantly adapted the controversially famous novel by Takami Koushun to deliver a once-in-a-decade screenplay, which allowed for the final outcome to be just the defining masterpiece in film that it is: eerily suspenseful, perfectly paced and addictive. Only to prove himself an astoundingly incapable original screenwriter-director, when three years later concocting that disastrous and wholly unnecessary sequel that made you cringe with despair or embarrassment. So in the end, the film, the first one that is, clearly outshines the book; I don’t know about the manga version, though, but am aware that this would only distract from the point I’m trying to make, and will therefore deliberately put aside any discussion thereof. At times it is just unavoidable to simplify a matter, it seems…

Working words into a motion picture — maybe it is just that the well-known auteur formula doesn’t fit our modern film environs any more, developed, matured as it is. Audiences, critics and producers alike have become substantially more demanding over the past 40-odd years since first the term was coined. Who would there be nowadays to master it all with sufficient skill: the conceptualizing, directing, lighting, editing, the score composition, the sound recording as well as guiding and instructing the actors to the best of their performance? And write? All of it to make for one flawless movie that wins at festivals and earns money? You better believe if you want to.

It will just no longer do these days to simply shoot 30 minutes straight of some traffic light at a crossroads in the evening hours’ waning daylight, uncut, and say it’s art-house (like Wim Wenders did in the early 70s with some political implications, too). The viewer has grown alongside the medium and has become significantly more sophisticated in their appreciation of an art form. With more right than ever before will they dispose of what doesn’t add up; and it is about maturation, not mainstreaming that I’m talking here.

To adapt a piece of writing so that it fits the screen poses many challenges; and this goes for an original screenplay no less than for a novel, for instance, when it suffers the process of begetting a movie (its own twin?). It can yield a convincing result only if the translation between the two output formats of text and image is complete. For an outstanding example take Tsukamoto Shinya’s adaptation of a story by Edogawa Rampo, “Gemini”, who in turning the literal into a visual thrill concentrated on the atmospheric spell of the original — instead of enacting a text and cladding a plot scaffolding with plain images, a procedure which would inevitably have turned out nothing but hollow. Look at the textual model and you’ll see how the feat is in extracting the essence, in reducing it and gaining a sense of perspective that achieves a cogent telling. The words didn’t inform the director on where to put his camera. It was his primary task (and his alone) to figure out which angle would generate a viewing experience that is emotionally charged in exactly the right way. Being his own best skilled cinematographer, Tsukamoto did manage brilliantly: by all accounts, “Gemini” is anything but bookish, it has a flow and presents a picturesque riddle which is truly cinematic and obviously conceived by a filmmaker as a film entity, as it should.

Like I said at the beginning, I shall not give any examples of failed attempts of literary adaptations, for they are legion anyway. Everybody has their own dire history of such major disappointments of seeing a much loved text coming to the silver screen as nothing but dead meat; and causing quite profound fits of frustration and anger, because they only served to destroy yet another precious part of our afforded dose of illusions. But what these blunders invariably have in common (disaster movies of a different kind that they are) is that their creators failed to get to the soul of their original model, which after all is a literary text: genuinely conceived as such and geared to operate as afforded by the inherent rules of the medium.

It must never be ignored how literature functions on a wholly differing set of ways (and occasional sidetracks) of achieving greatness, than does film. Take the matter of suspense as a technical example of this, and observe how it is generated and maintained. Soon you will get to notice the vastly unlike operations of information distribution that are applied in a text made of words, as opposed to a story established by images. By nature of the image, there can be no visible foreshadowing of things to come without shedding light prematurely on the hidden clue and spoiling the effect; which effect will then most likely call for the adequate score to accompany the visuals and build up the necessary level of emotional engagement in the viewer to heighten their sense of expectation — and create suspense.

Time is elemental to any movie viewing experience: with a text you can go back a paragraph or an entire page if you feel like you’ve missed out on something important; delivery in a movie is always to the point of imminence, it is the addressed totality of a momentary presence in time — the present. The fading into and through memory is not only conditioned by the recipient’s own personal history, but firstly by the degree of their alertness to the moment in question. Means of framing an input (and here I speak of the creation of context, the art of embedding a detail into a whole, its narrative fitting) are specific and manifold: in film you have several techniques of foregrounding, of distance and space; there is also the aspect of pacing, everything that goes into (or comes with) editing the raw footage. What it all adds up to is in principle the director’s control, their ways of manipulating by the fullness of their craft. And an author does the same — only very differently.

Standard procedure or not, film and literature are being differently perceived which in turn affects how they make sense to the opaque screen that is our human understanding. Does this sound cryptic to you? Agreed, but then, do consider this: how exactly is a text specific, or telling — but not blunt? Or something even more basic: how does a verbal expression open up? How does it present, how will it suggest alternative readings to the mind without being amorphous and arbitrary? And the same in pictures? What constitutes a voice in film? You want to make your images speak, do you not? Well then, find an answer! Because I am sure that no originality, no truly break-through quality whatsoever can be attained by the filmmaker who doesn’t try to define an individual stance on these and like issues — for themselves. If this text works, and if what I claim about any text’s unique way of “performance”, then you can easily check whether I’ve succeeded in doing my part: re-read! Maybe, you will find that I’ve hinted at some possible answers or solutions somewhere in-between those lines already.

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