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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Nature of Film Adaptation

Every screenplay adaptation is a unique understanding of the ‘ideas’ of the original writer. No matter how loose the adaptation looks, the talent exhibited by the screenplay should be appreciated. However, Salman Rushdie explains adaptation as ‘the process by which one thing develops into another thing, by which one shape or form changes into a different form.’ We have had books made into plays and films. We have also seen films turned into books.

Infact, in the music industry, they call ‘adaptation’ by another name, which I think is ‘remix.’ For the nature of trying to turn books into movies, one needs to pay attention to details and these details consist of the main ideas of the story, the heart of the story and the setting, which is very important, if the story happens to be historically relevant to a particular group of people. So, when you have a work of art being changed from its original nature to another thing, the transformation becomes a burden to whoever is in charge to do the ‘transfer’ from print to film. Now it is not easy to take a story from another form to another if you don’t understand the entire work. For every serious screenwriter asked to do an adaptation, what should matter to him is the sense of understanding that has to envelope him, because whatever shape the story takes is the way he has understood it. This shows that the screenwriter understands the story he’s adapting emanated from how many times he had read the story and how deep his understanding of it is.

When a screenwriter is working on such project, of transferring an idea, a certain idea that was produced many years ago into some other form, he is conscious of the way it goes. Every screenwriter has a solid control of what he is writing. He is concerned about the viewer, so he tries so hard to tell the story the way he wants. The book, which is being adapted remains a treasure that he is about to open to the world. If he messes it up, we will know, but there is a belief that a book is always better than the film. Furthermore, there are wonderful adaptations. A lot of them are close to the story and have strong relevance to the main theme being discussed in that different form of art. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake remains one. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is a classic example too, although most people believe that the characters in the film were not properly fleshed out, but the truth is that screen-time won’t let any screenwriter play with time. It will be awful if a screenwriter forces himself to plug in all the necessary requisites integral to a good novel into a film. These are two different forms and should be followed closely the way they are.

Having asked the class to do a 5 paged adaptation of the first chapter of my book, with the action and dialogue in the real place, it is my job to say which story tells the ‘real story’, because I’m the author. In the sense where the original author is not around, the screenwriter should be able to go back in time to understand where the author was coming from, before plunging into a heavy task of making the story his own. The first thing he should do is to spend time to study the environment where the story is set. If fictional, why was it created? If the setting is known, why the author originally set the story there? If these questions are answered, then you can easily start talking about the characterisation. The screenwriter should tend to understand who the characters are and why they are in the story. Who are the characters that make this story complete and whole? If you can’t find them, then your story dies completely. What I mean by die is this: it becomes a total loose adaptation, which is not based on the book, but on the ideas of the screenwriter to easily detach him from the original story. For an author, this is a huge insult and should not be tolerated. Screenwriters are fond of this.

Sajju Shreshta, one of my students and the most inquisitive among them thinks that the adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is a good one. There are stories that don’t need to be hardened when it comes to transforming them. These are folklores, stories that we orally circulate, stories that we know by heart. However, this doesn’t guarantee that such stories can’t be ridiculed out by the lazy transfer most screenwriters engage in. Then again, it is left for the director to try to look at the finished work and make changes where necessary. If the director is a good one, he should as well read the original work to understand the art better. This will help, but in a way, most directors are actually lazy they have no interest in whatever they are doing, except for the pay. Such misdirected passion leads to the bastardisation of some art works.

Films you should see:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Then, make a comparison of both adaptations to their original works.

1 comment:

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Onyeka. I have read and seen both 'The Namesake' and 'Memoirs of a Geisha'. And though I loved both the books and the movies, I think on comparison it's the screenplay of 'The Namesake' which stands out. That's because, '...Geisha' the movie was as lavish as '...Geisha' the book. Turning that book into a film was not that tough as cues were given throughout the book as to how a scene should have looked. In the case of 'The Namesake', there was so much in the book that was left unspoken as there was more action than dialogues in 'The Namesake' the novel. When Sooni Taraporewalla and Mira Nair turned 'The Namesake' the book into 'The Namesake' the movie, they sort of gave voice to a number of actions in the form of dialogues and the screen movements of the characters. I agree, screenplays are never perfect, but 'The Namesake' the movie had a better screenplay than '...geisha' the movie. By the way, what do you think of the screen adaptation of Ian McEwan's 'Atonement'? I think it was a very very loyal adaptation of the original novel, right to the most minor details :-)