The Problems of Adaptations

(written 5 Sept 2008)
I am currently giving much thought to the importance of screen adaptations. I have to think simultaneously of the stage adaptations, too, because very often we are speaking about one and same text adapted to either stage or screen. The reason why I am so preoccupied with the screen adaptations is because I feel that particularly Russian cinema of today suffers from the lack thereof. At the same time, world’s cinema is probably just as deprived by the lack of attempts to put to screen the “old” or “foreign” narratives that exist out there.

To think about it, somehow it seems much easier to create a YouPorn channel, or to make a soft- or hardcore porn film, or to blend a pornographic content with some metaphysical or political discourse, than to actually put to screen the narrative of de Sade as it is. This is not to defy or to forget Pasolini’s Salo (that draws on 120 Days of Sodom), but de Sade was writing on the wane of the Age of the Enlightenment, and he was drawing on the hyperbolas of Rabelais and contemporary ideas of theatre, in particular. The scholars who pointed out to de Sade’s striking theatricality are correct in that they first find the place for de Sade in his own time, instead of dragging him all the way into the 20th c., openly linking Sadism to Fascism.
(120 Days of Sodom French and English texts).

Another example is, obviously, Hamlet. A classical role, a secret dream or ambition of many film makers and actors alike. Olivier’s adaptation is Shakespearean, so much so that certain frames remind you of the Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Kozintsev’s film does not depart far from the Renaissance theme but at times can even remind the viewer of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Zeffirelli’s adaptation is an interesting go at understanding Shakespeare that has taken the director well beyond Shakespeare’s times, very close to Freud, but potentially not too far from the truth. The re-positioning of Hamlet’s soliloquy is a great achievement, in that we are invited to view Hamlet’s situation on a different dramatic level. Usually Hamlet’s soliloquy is followed by his dialogue with Ophelia in which he orders her to become a nun. We are left not with Hamlet but with Ophelia who is trying to cope with the evidence of the mental break of her beloved. In Zeffirelli’s film the dialogue with Ophelia precedes the soliloquy, so when Hamlet gets to his “to be or not to be” it is indeed the question, for at that point he is finally left totally alone.

However, all mentioned adaptations more or less faithfully follow Shakespearean notes; they are set in either medieval or quasi-medieval (~Renaissance) times. The adaptation by Kenneth Branagh is different in that it uses the full 1623 text, but brings it to life in the middle of the 19th c. Branagh chose the time for its state of political turmoil, sex and post-Napoleonic glamour. The problem, however, is that in 1848 The Communist Manifesto was published, not to mention many Revolutions that preceded and followed its publication. The political climate was far too different from the one in which Shakespeare produced his play. And the beginnings of psychiatry leave one suspecting that Claudius could easily send his nephew to the asylum instead of hiring two guys to spy on Hamlet. This could indeed be a great and masterful adaptation, if it adapted the text to the time. Instead, we have something of a family theatre that went too far – pretty much like the feast in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.

I deliberately took two different examples, one of a narrative (de Sade), another of a play (Shakespeare), to underline the difficulty of adapting a text to the screen. Many more examples can be cited, particularly The Death in Venice as it was written by Thomas Mann and subsequently adapted by Luchino Visconti. Visconti’s film was already criticised by Alberto Moravia who as yet acknowledged the doubtless subtlety of Visconti as the film’s auteur. Umberto Eco has a good sub-chapter on it in Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation. It is worth a notice that Eco chose a Hamletian expression to illustrate the conundrum: there is, of course, a big difference between a mouse and a rat, but exactly what did Hamlet mean, and thus how to translate it into a foreign language?

(Der Tod in Venedig (original). The Death in Venice (English text)).

We may think these linguistic nuances have no relation to cinema; in such case, however, we forget that a film is in itself a translation of a literary text into the language of cinema. It is a delicate and laborious process of finding a cinematic equivalent to verbal or visual metaphors. And here we have many more problems emerging that concern the crew, cast, and even the audience as the mediators between the source text and the target text. The 2006 premiere of the long-abandoned Quiet Flows the Don on the Russian TV comes to mind. Much of the criticism was based on the fact that the “foreigners” dared have a go at playing Russian characters. Strangely enough, a careful reader of Sholokhov’s novel will recall that the Cossacks positioned themselves vis-a-vis even Russians. If we take it to the letter, then the only true adaptation can be produced by the Cossack community. However, it has not yet been produced, whereas the problems that Sholokhov raised and discussed have not lost their importance more than 80 years later, whereby it is perfectly possible for the “foreigners” to relate to these problems and therefore have a go at playing out the source text to their, foreigners’, native audience.

This is all the better subject to think about as a Hollywood version of Master and Margarita is in the making. The fame of this novel is such that it is virtually unadaptable and that it sends a curse on its makers. Given the number of diabolic characters in the novel, both in proper and figurative sense of the word, this should not come as a surprise. What will be a surprise is, of course, how Hollywood treats Bulgakov’s Soviet Moscow, especially given the changes in Moscow’s political climate and in political relations between America and Russia in the recent years. The question is, perhaps: is there a possibility that this interpretation will be more political than any that previously existed? Shall it draw any parallels between Stalin’s Moscow and Putin’s/Medvedev’s Moscow?

What interests me, however, is the script. One of the problems of adapting Bulgakov’s novel is that there are, in fact, two novels in one. Of course, Bad Education by Pedro Almodovar comes to mind, where the real-time events intertwine with memory flashbacks and a film directed after the script of a long-dead character. From this point of view, there should be no problem adapting the biblical and Moscow chapters in Master and Margarita. But then precisely how, and to what extent, should they be adapted? Even the 6-hours long adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don by Sergei Gerasimov naturally has a plenty of cuts from the original text which comprises 4 volumes. My view has long been that, in order to successfully adapt this novel to screen (or even to stage), it is important to study Bulgakov’s own adaptations of his texts to stage.

(For a modern text inspired by Bulgakov’s novel and Russian painting, opera, and ballet, read From Russia with Love by Martin Blythe over at Sexual Fables).

Images are courtesy of Classic Movie Favourites and Amazon.

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