Literary Adaptation

a short talk delivered on Radio Four’s Open Book.

In spite of the very specific claims that they make on our imaginations, novels have long provided the source material for other arts. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most popular production on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American stage, while the fiction of Dickens and Sir Walter Scott was the staple of nineteenth century British theatre. Indeed, The Pickwick Papers proved to be so popular that a burlesque version appeared in March 1837 after a mere twelve instalments of the serial, paving the way for no fewer than twenty-six such adaptations by the end of the following year.

The mechanical media have shown an even more voracious appetite for literature. Radio, with its suggestive power, might be best-equipped to replicate the novel’s imaginative scope, but the news that Radio Three has dramatised Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a work dependent on the subtle interplay between text and footnotes, has prompted fears that it may finally have overreached itself. In the case of cinema and television, those fears have long been realised.

No classic would seem to be too sacrosanct, no narrative too wide-ranging, no subject too taboo for some director to make it his pet project. Barriers of tone, taste and technology have all been lifted as the interior dramas of Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the scatological fantasies of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and the apocalyptic battles of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, to name but a few, have made the unlikely transition from page to screen.

The twin pillars of modernist fiction, Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, have been filmed by directors blissfully undeterred by the novels’ subject, scale and style. And, although both Josef Strick’s Ulysses and Sean Walsh’s Bloom were drab and disappointing, the Argentinean Raul Ruiz’s vision of Proust was both richly nuanced and arrestingly visual. The stunted hero of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and the oversized heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe were brought to the screen, respectively, by directors Walter Schlondorff and Simon Callow, while David Cronenberg found striking cinematic equivalents for the hallucinatory prose of Burrough’s The Naked Lunch and Ballard’s Crash.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses apart, it’s hard now to think of any novel that might not succumb to cinematic treatment… a point underlined by Hollywood’s most inventive scriptwriter, Charlie Kaufman, in his recent screenplay. Adaptation, which dramatised the struggle to film an (in quotes) unfilmable book (Susan Orlean’s 1994 bestseller. The Orchid Thief) and, in so doing, created an Oscar-winning hit. Nevertheless, the process remains prone to trivialisation. For every Tolkien obsessive who haunts Internet chat-rooms condemning the liberties taken in filming The Lord of the Rings, there’s a book-lover with a genuine grievance. Sylvester Stallone spoke for far too many in the film industry when he claimed that: ‘I’m astounded by people who take eighteen years to write something. That’s how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary. And was that ever on the bestseller list?’