Addendum: More on adaptation

by SDG

in Uncategorized

SDG here with a follow-up to my post below on what makes a good adaptation. In the combox a reader writes:

Personally, I think the idea of valuing faithfulness in “adapting” a work from one medium to another to be wholly without merit. The source a work is based off of is irrelevant to the quality of the work itself. A film based off a book should be judged by how good of a film it is, in and of itself, and not how well it “adapts” the book. A work stands on its own merit, regardless of how it reflects and works that may have inspired it.

I agree with pretty much everything here except for the first sentence (and even there I would caveat rather than completely disagree).

I agree with judging a film on the merits, irrespective of the source material. That’s why I can give positive reviews to adaptations from Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair to Andrew Adamson’s Prince Caspian even though they all but obliterate the intended meaning of the original works.

At the same time, separately, there is a legitimate critical act that evaluates a work as an adaptation. Art is all about making choices, and the choices the artist makes in regard to following or not following source material are as relevant to the aesthetic endeavor as any other choices he makes.

Look at it this way. If you write an original screenplay about a young man contemplating revenge, and you give him a speech pondering his situation, it would be unfair and ridiculous for a critic to write, “This speech pales by comparison to Hamlet’s soliloquy, so what was the filmmaker thinking?”

On the other hand, if you are actually staging Hamlet, and you choose to dispense with Hamlet’s soliloquy — or, worse, to replace it with an inferior quasi-Elizabethan composition of your own — at that point the critic is well and truly justified in asking “What was he thinking?” Because that was a creative choice.

I’m not going to ding you as a filmmaker for failing to be as brilliant as Shakespeare in an original production. But in an adaptation, your choice to use or not use what Shakespeare did, or to replace something original with something new, is fair game for criticism.

That’s not to say that “fidelity” is “good” and “liberty” is “bad.” Not every original work is Shakespeare, for one thing, and even in Shakespeare not everything that makes a good play necessarily makes a good film.

Either fidelity or liberty can be helpful or unhelpful to the new work of art that is the film. My point is simply this: If you change something, you should have a reason; and if you don’t change something, you should have a reason. Whichever choice you make should at least arguably make the adaptation a better work of art than the contrary choice would.

That’s why I say that a good adaptation is not necessarily a faithful one or an innovative one, only one that doesn’t diminish the better you know the source material. If the more I know the source material, the less I think of your adaptation, then you made poor choices as an adapter, even if the work still holds up on its own.

And, again, it’s not just source material per se, but any relevant context. Citing Ebert again, if you set out to tell a Japanese story that I enjoy less and less the more I actually know about Japan, then you have made poor choices.

That’s not to say a story set in a given culture must always be realistic, i.e., “faithful” to reality. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon isn’t a realistic portrait of the China of any period, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the more you know about China. Ang Lee made choices in departing from the reality of historical China — but they were choices that may be felt to serve the story rather than to diminish it.

Make sense?

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy

{ 19 comments }

Paul March 7, 2009 at 7:20 am

The faithfulness of an adaptation is in part a truth-in-advertising question. As you indicate, the storyteller has a choice regarding what story he will tell. If he chooses to tell a story similar to previous stories, and does it well, then we can all appreciate that. But if he tells me, “Come see me tell story A” and when we arrive in the theater what we really see is story ~A, then we haven’t gotten what we bargained for.
If Peter Jackson had released the Lord of the Rings movies as a series of “original” movies called “The Margrave of the Bracelet,” describing the adventures of Flodnag, Odorf, and the Bracelet of Power, the Tolkien family would have sued him, successfully. But at least moviegoers would have been on notice that someone had played the hob with the story. But presenting an altered story under the label of an original one is still perpetrating a fraud; it just happens that the cost of a movie ticket doesn’t justify litigation.
I also think people view the matter as one of hubris. The filmmaker was willing to use the name of this previous work to attract moviegoers, but he apparently thinks himself a better storyteller than [creator of previous work]. When the previous work is a masterpiece, this implicit assertion will always be met incredulously.

SDG March 7, 2009 at 8:34 am

The faithfulness of an adaptation is in part a truth-in-advertising question. As you indicate, the storyteller has a choice regarding what story he will tell. If he chooses to tell a story similar to previous stories, and does it well, then we can all appreciate that. But if he tells me, “Come see me tell story A” and when we arrive in the theater what we really see is story ~A, then we haven’t gotten what we bargained for.

There’s something to this, but I’m not sure I agree completely.
I would agree that, e.g., the Narnia producers going on and on in interviews and such touting the high “fidelity” of their adaptation is pretty dishonest, or at least deluded, given the liberties that were taken. But any general implicit contract with the audience based merely on the adaptive nature of a work has to be a very loose one at best.
The act of retelling a story has always permitted liberties and license. As previously noted, sometimes the original storyteller retells his own story with substantial revisions. Other times a new storyteller reshapes a work previously told by another (or multiple others).
I blasted King Arthur for its contemptible apathy toward Arthurian tradition and scholarship. But Arthurian storytelling hase always freely reused previous Arthurian material, from White to Mallory, from Tennyson to Chr├ętien.
If it’s a question of truth in advertising, I think it is reasonable to expect people to understand that the fact that a film is called, say, Schindler’s List or Ben-Hur does not mean that the story will be exactly like the novel without alteration.

But presenting an altered story under the label of an original one is still perpetrating a fraud; it just happens that the cost of a movie ticket doesn’t justify litigation.

But by this standard, virtually every adaptation that has ever been made must be reckoned a “fraud” — from A Man for All Seasons (if you knew and loved every word of the stage play, what difference would it make that Bolt participated in the fraud?) to Beauty and the Beast (the Cocteau version no less than the Disney), from The Godfather to the BBC Narnia TV movies, from The Big Sleep to every Shakespeare film ever made.
John Paul II praised the movie version of The Jeweller’s Shop as “the best possible film based on my play.” Should he have said it was the best possible fraud?

I also think people view the matter as one of hubris. The filmmaker was willing to use the name of this previous work to attract moviegoers, but he apparently thinks himself a better storyteller than [creator of previous work]. When the previous work is a masterpiece, this implicit assertion will always be met incredulously.

Not necessarily. A storyteller standing on the shoulders of giants can sometimes hope to gloss the master’s work. I’m convinced that while Tolkien would have hated some of the choices of Jackson and company, he would have been more than happy with others, and in some cases might have wished he’d thought of it himself.

David B. March 7, 2009 at 8:51 am

“The filmmaker was willing to use the name of this previous work to attract moviegoers, but he apparently thinks himself a better storyteller than [creator of previous work].”
I don’t think that’s always the case. Books and movies are different, else they’d be called Boovies. :-P A filmmaker should be free enough to offer a cinematic interpretation of a story without immediately being suspected of hubris.
I appreciate Jackson’s LOTR, as it added to the original story, in my mind. Indeed, Tolkien himself said that he had ‘naively’ wished that (paraphrasing) the tale could be left to other hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Without artistic license, stunning moments such as the first view of Minas Tirith, the lighting of the beacons, and dramatic moments such as Boromir’s death, and Sam’s last effort on Mount Doom have added to the beauty of Tolkien’s story, not destroyed it. Jackson and other fine filmmakers who endeavor to create respectful adaptions deserve credit, not lawsuits.

patricius March 7, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I agree that if an adaptation is good, increasing knowledge of the source material won’t bring decreasing enjoyment of the adaptation. But I’m not sure that the opposite is true– after all, you could make an “adaptation” that is all inside references. The most hardcore fans of the original might think it was the greatest thing ever made, but anybody who’d only read the original once or twice would be left scratching his head. I don’t think that kind of adaptation would be “better” than one that exchanged a little subtelty for some exposition. I don’t think it would necessarily be worse either. I just think there are too many other factors to consider to reduce the quality of an adaptation to a single factor.

SDG March 8, 2009 at 5:41 am

I agree that if an adaptation is good, increasing knowledge of the source material won’t bring decreasing enjoyment of the adaptation. But I’m not sure that the opposite is true– after all, you could make an “adaptation” that is all inside references. The most hardcore fans of the original might think it was the greatest thing ever made, but anybody who’d only read the original once or twice would be left scratching his head. I don’t think that kind of adaptation would be “better” than one that exchanged a little subtelty for some exposition. I don’t think it would necessarily be worse either. I just think there are too many other factors to consider to reduce the quality of an adaptation to a single factor.

I did say, repeatedly, that I agree with judging a film on the merits, irrespective of source material. I’m hardly reducing the quality of an adaptation (judged as a film) to a single factor. A film that requires intimate familiarity with the source material and leaves outsiders scratching their heads is a film of limited artistic scope (although it could still be brilliant as a commentary on the original work).
What I’m saying, again, is that — in addition to judging the film as a film on the merits, irrespective of source material — there is a further critical act of judging it as an adaptation in relation to the source material. However, this additional act does not consist simply in evaluating how “faithful” the adaptation is to the source material; rather, it evaluates how effectively the adaptation engages the source material and how well or poorly the filmmakers chose in being faithful to or departing from source.
I agree that the main thing about a good adaptation is that it shouldn’t get worse the more you know the source, rather than that it ought to get better. At the same time, I think you can’t help enjoying a good adaptation more if you know the source, if for no other reason than that you can enjoy it as an adaptation as well as in itself. The pleasure of appreciating the good decisions made in adapting adds to the overall enjoyment of the work — how could it not?

Jeb Protestant March 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm

“A film based off a book should be judged by how good of a film it is, in and of itself, and not how well it ‘adapts’ the book. A work stands on its own merit, regardless of how it reflects and works that may have inspired it.”
I generally agree. However, I think if the book being adapted is a biography or history some attempt should be made to keep the adaption accurate. Take for example 300. Greek warriors didn’t look like WWE wrestlers and the Spartans weren’t a bunch of secular rationalists.
-J. Prot.

SDG March 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm

I generally agree. However, I think if the book being adapted is a biography or history some attempt should be made to keep the adaption accurate. Take for example 300. Greek warriors didn’t look like WWE wrestlers and the Spartans weren’t a bunch of secular rationalists.

While I think I tend to agree with the point I think you want to make, I’m not sure I agree with your example; at least, your example doesn’t fit what you actually said.
You said “if the book being adapted is a biography or history.” The movie 300 was adapted from a comic book every bit as stylized as the movie.
So maybe what you really mean is that if a book or a movie is based on historical events, it should try to be accurate (in which case the blame would fall first of all to the comic book).
The reason I say I tend to agree is that I often find it to be the case that when storytellers depart from historical facts for the sake of dramatic license, rather than enhancing their story they wind up diminishing it, at least in my eyes.
In other words, I often find that when it comes to such things, what Ebert said about Memoirs of a Geisha applies: The more you know about the reality, the less you are able to enjoy the story.
I don’t like stories to be like that. I want a narrative to be able to hold up to knowledge of the context, be it history, culture, source material, whatever.
However, I say I tend to agree because I think the artist does have the right to tell a fictionalized version of historical events if appreciation of the artist’s choice is not diminished by familiarity with the events.
For example: Most viewers of The Passion of the Christ probably view the scene in which the cross is inverted and Jesus miraculously hovers above the ground as non-historical. Does the fact that it is non-historical harm one’s appreciation of the scene and the film? Not for me. We take it as it is meant, a stylized representation of Jesus’ divinity and of the theological truth that the cross served the plan of God who decreed that Jesus should be lifted up from the earth, and so the cross refused to crush him to the earth).

patricius March 8, 2009 at 8:18 pm

this additional act does not consist simply in evaluating how “faithful” the adaptation is to the source material; rather, it evaluates how effectively the adaptation engages the source material and how well or poorly the filmmakers chose in being faithful to or departing from source.
Forgive me if I missed this in the original post, but doesn’t this beg the question of how you decide whether the filmmakers chose well or poorly? If you’re specifically trying to evaluate how good an adaptation a film is (as opposed to just how good a film it is), then it seems to me that you can’t judge the quality of these decisions based on their overall merit; otherwise you’re collapsing the quality of the adaptation back into the quality of the film as a whole, aren’t you?
This is where I was coming from when I remarked that it doesn’t work to judge the quality of an adaptation qua adaptation based only on whether you enjoy it more if you know more about the source material. I just couldn’t find any other alternative criterion (that was narrower than a holistic evaluation of the film itself) on which to evaluate a filmmaker’s choices in treating the source material.

Bill March 8, 2009 at 8:45 pm

For what it’s worth: There’s a whole subgenre of martial arts movies called “wire-fu”. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was always meant to be part of this genre, not an exploration of historical China at all. I highly recommend “Once upon a time in China” (the first one – also with Chow Yun Fat, from Crouching Tiger). The DVD I had included a narration that discussed much of the symbolism that western audiences would completely miss (as well as some of the background and history of the genre).
As to other points made – even Douglas Adams struggled with this issue. He wrote numerous versions of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy because of the original radio version, BBC television, animated movie, live action (elements are in the recent movie… including Douglas Adams’ voice that had been recorded for a puppet character in his live action version). Different media REQUIRE different story tellings. Faithful adaptations are impossible.
It’s emendations that really upset me. Almost like a director saying, “I can’t tell a good story, so I’ll snag someone else’s text and ‘improve’ it because I’m a real artist.”
But to quote a friend: we were watching “The Two Towers” on opening night. Sam tries to cheer up Frodo while on a plot-modified trip to Osgiliath, explaining that Hobbits weren’t intended to get involved in the world at large. Sam: “We were never meant to be here, Mr. Frodo.” My friend: “Well, at least HE read the book.”

SDG March 9, 2009 at 3:57 am

patricius:

Forgive me if I missed this in the original post, but doesn’t this beg the question of how you decide whether the filmmakers chose well or poorly?

It doesn’t beg the question. It allows the question to be bigger than one blog post. What I am trying to do is to frame the right question, not provide a single answer. The critical endeavor is more complex than “Obey this 1 rule.”
I think my examples go some way toward clarifying my method. Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair deserves to be judged on its own, and on its own it is a fine drama. At the same time, most fans of the novel will be dismayed at the way that the film (after closely following the book for some time) changes an absolutely key plot point. Does this change make it a bad film? No. Does it make it a bad adaptation? Yes. “How do you decide?” I wasn’t trying to explain that.
But not all departures need dismay fans of the original. A small example I’ve frequently cited is the first lines of dialogue from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Neither is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” The book doesn’t have this exchange between Frodo and Gandalf, but the first time I saw the film I laughed aloud with pleasure at the rightness of the characterization. It was so in the spirit of the character.
Similarly, even subversive departures from the original can be enhanced by familiarity with the original, i.e., its flaws and foibles. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, for all its faults, does some things brilliantly, and one of these is to send up the original’s sexist dialogue and racist depiction of the natives by recontextualizing these elements into dramas-within-the-drama (see my review for more). It’s not “in the spirit of the original” — it’s precisely critiquing the original — but knowledge of the original needn’t interfere with one’s appreciation, just the opposite.
Bill:

For what it’s worth: There’s a whole subgenre of martial arts movies called “wire-fu”. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was always meant to be part of this genre, not an exploration of historical China at all. I highly recommend “Once upon a time in China” (the first one – also with Chow Yun Fat, from Crouching Tiger).

Well, it’s scarcely a subgenre of wuxia cinema today — it’s pretty much the genre, or most of it. But this is a false dichotomy: It is a wuxia film, and it is set at a certain point in Chinese history.
What you are effectively saying, it seems to me, is that historical accuracy in films of this genre is not necessarily a pressing issue. I agree. OTOH, accuracy may be an issue in a film like Memoirs of a Geisha. How do you decide? Well, now we’re asking the right question, aren’t we?

It’s emendations that really upset me. Almost like a director saying, “I can’t tell a good story, so I’ll snag someone else’s text and ‘improve’ it because I’m a real artist.”

But what if you are a real artist and can improve it, at least for the movie?
How many people read Peter Benchley’s Jaws and think “Why oh why did Steven Spielberg make Brody a New Yorker rather than a native Amity resident? Why did he omit Hooper’s affair with Brody’s wife? And why oh why does he have Brody kill the shark in that dramatic fashion rather than, like in the book, having the shark simply happen to die from its injuries mere moments before it kills Brody?”

But to quote a friend: we were watching “The Two Towers” on opening night. Sam tries to cheer up Frodo while on a plot-modified trip to Osgiliath, explaining that Hobbits weren’t intended to get involved in the world at large. Sam: “We were never meant to be here, Mr. Frodo.” My friend: “Well, at least HE read the book.”

Yes, we make this same joke every time we watch the film (most recently within the last month), along with countless other Tolkien fans, no doubt. I wouldn’t be completely surprised to learn that the filmmakers did it on purpose.
OTOH, we DON’T “mist” Gandalf’s exorcism of Saruman from Theoden, or Aragorn parrying the King of the Dead’s sword with the newly reforged Anduril, because those scenes are freaking brilliant.
See the difference?

Brian March 9, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Why, SDG? WHY? Two scenes, so horrifically emblematic of why the movies are such dismal failures, why, though I own all three boxed special editions, I can’t bring myself to watch more than a half hour of any of them but Fellowship. What other inventions of the arch heretic, PJ (cursed be his name forever) were “freaking brilliant? “If you want him, come and claim him”? “Let’s hunt some orc!”? Maybe Theoden’s change from making a desperate last stand at Helm’s Deep to a cowardly retreat? Or the scene in RotK at the gates of the Morannon where the ground bursts open and we see the Professor’s freshly violated grave, his miserable corpse spinning rapidly therein? You guys saw that part right? I kind of blacked out after Aragorn launched a preemptive decapitation on the Mouth.

David B. March 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

“Or the scene in RotK at the gates of the Morannon where the ground bursts open”
See, I liked that. It seemed like Divine retribution, as though the very earth itself was ‘used’ to defeat the enemy, and it had nothing to do with the fellowship.

SDG March 10, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Why, SDG? WHY? Two scenes, so horrifically emblematic of why the movies are such dismal failures, why, though I own all three boxed special editions, I can’t bring myself to watch more than a half hour of any of them but Fellowship.

The scene with Anduril and the King of the Dead is utterly brilliant (and I believe Tolkien the revisionist would acknowledge it as such) because it dramatizes in terms that are highly cinematic — and quasi-sacramental — (a) the objectively real power of the oath binding the Dead, (b) the capacity of physical objects to exert power in the spiritual realm, and (c) the significance of Narsil/Anduril as a tangible link between Isildur and his heir.
The sword of the ancient kings reforged embodies Aragorn’s claim to the kingship, a claim that physically prevents the Dead from attacking their rightful lord, holding them to their oath. What is better than that?
Now, in the Extended Edition it’s immediately followed, alas, by the horrifically tone-deaf action-thriller-horror effect we call the Skullvalanche. But the scene itself is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
In the same way, the waking of Theoden — also brilliant — is immediately followed by a flashy effect I rather dislike, the miraculous de-aging of Theoden. The wakened Theoden should be a man bent by age, heroically pressing his flesh beyond its wont (much like the aged JP2). He should not be a distinguished-looking, hale gentleman in his 50s or so.
But the waking of Theoden itself I think would have fascinated Tolkien, partly because (a) of its obvious resemblance to Christian exorcism, much as other aspects of Tolkien’s creation recall other aspects of Christian spirituality (e.g., Gimli’s devotion to Galadriel = Marian devotion; the sustaining power of lembas = the grace of the Blessed Sacrament; etc.) — (b) a resemblance which is all the more intriguing because of the absence of explicitly religious motives on the part of the filmmakers. (Same goes for the sacramental significance of the Anduril scene.)
Beyond that, the scene is effective because it dramatizes in highly cinematic terms (c) the insidious reality of Theoden’s bondage and of Saruman’s hold over him, (d) the necessity of grace — and authority — to achieve liberation from spiritual bondage, and perhaps most crucially (e) Saruman’s forfeiture of White status and Gandalf’s ascendancy over him.
Finally, as the first real confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman, it offers a confrontation that is not only (f) even more dramatic than the great scene in Tolkien (which itself gets short shrift in the third film), but also (g) casts Saruman in an archetypally evil light, in the role of a malevolent possessing spirit, thereby giving Gandalf’s triumph over Saruman even greater moral and spiritual resonance. His threat — “If I go, he dies” — is seen to be an empty boast; good is stronger than evil. Again, what is better than that?

What other inventions of the arch heretic, PJ (cursed be his name forever) were “freaking brilliant? “If you want him, come and claim him”? “Let’s hunt some orc!”? Maybe Theoden’s change from making a desperate last stand at Helm’s Deep to a cowardly retreat?

Those things suck, and I comment specifically on the last in my review of The Two Towers, among other things. Other things that suck are listed here. (On the cataclysmic destruction of Mordor, I like what David B. says.)
However, unless you just hate anything that is different from the text — and I understand if some people feel that way, though I can’t take such a view myself — I can’t see hating terrific innovations like Aragorn parrying the King of the Dead’s sword or the exorcism of Theoden.

Tim J. March 10, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Personally, I find the scene wherein Galadriel refuses Frodo’s offer of the One Ring to be very affecting cinema.

SDG March 10, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Personally, I find the scene wherein Galadriel refuses Frodo’s offer of the One Ring to be very affecting cinema.

That it is — and it’s a reasonable interpretation of the scene as Tolkien wrote it. But I don’t like it myself. It seems to me to come from a very different place from the Marian devotion that was the major inspiration for the character. But I don’t quarrel with anyone else who does like it.

Randolph Carter March 10, 2009 at 9:12 pm

At the same time, separately, there is a legitimate critical act that evaluates a work as an adaptation.
No, there isn’t. A good book is a good book, and a good film is a good film. All works are derivative. They steal their ideas from other, older works, and in this sense all works can be thought of as “adaptations”. Some creators borrow loosely from a wide variety of sources in crafting their work, like Lucas did with STAR WARS. Others merely decide that they are going to borrow more heavily from one particular source, even to the point of keeping the same title, names of the characters, dialogue, plots points, etc. A book and a movie based off the book are still two completely different works, and should not be conflated, no matter how much the similarity of the titles would tempt us to do so.
A filmaker could take a novel and borrow very heavily from it in making a film, keeping the same overarching plot structure as the novel. Or he could just take the general conceit behind the novel and run with it and do his own thing. Or he could just keep the name of the novel (for publicity purposes) and make up a completely and totally different story. And I can’t see anything wrong with doing any of these things, aside from attempting to pass his film off as a more rigid “adaptation” of the novel to fans (which after all does amount to false advertising, but can be averted simply by giving the movie a different name from the book, ala Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now).
If a filmmaker sets out, from the beginning, to do a loose “adaptation” of a novel, I can’t see why we should judge him harshly for not adhering rigidly to the text. The only really criterion by which I think a work can be judged is “Is it good” not “Is it absolutely alike to the source it purports to base itself on”.
I do agree with you, however, that we certainly can criticize the choices a creator makes in bringing his idea to fruition. There’ve been times when we’ve all been watching an otherwise good movie that has one great flaw in it, and which also seemed easily avoidable, so that we ask ourselves “Why did the director choose to do Y, when he could have done X. The picture would easily be better if only the director had done X instead.” I can see how, if a director claims to be taking the dialogue of his film right out of a novel, yet at one point a line of the dialogue in the film doesn’t work, but was changed from the line of dialogue in the book, which actually would have worked a lot better (like changing, for example “Thus I give up the spear!” to “EAT HARPOON, YOU FAT FISH-FACED FREAK!”), then I can see how we could criticize the filmmaker for putting something bad in his film when a perfectly good alternative was staring him right in the face. This might accentuate the derivative work’s flaws on a subjective level, but I don’t think it makes the work objectively worse. It is more a criticism of the creator than his creation.

SDG March 11, 2009 at 8:00 am

Randolph,
I find your proposed approach to critical theory as regards adaptation unconvincing.
More or less in descending order of problematicness:

A book and a movie based off the book are still two completely different works, and should not be conflated, no matter how much the similarity of the titles would tempt us to do so.

Really? A film version of Macbeth is a “completely different work” from Shakespeare’s play? A filmed dramatization of one of the Gospels is a completely different work from the Gospel text? Should such works be evaluated sui generis, without reference to the source texts? Is that how the filmmakers themselves wish their work to be evaluated?
Godard famously said that one way to critique a movie is to make another movie. He probably meant that in a general sense, but it’s also true that one work can have a specific and critical relationship to another work. For example, a book may be a commentary on, or a critical evaluation of, another book. Does your dictum that “A good book is a good book” mean that we should judge all books, even commentaries, without reference to the work commented on? Does it make sense to say that Dunn’s commentary on John is a terrific book without evaluating what Dunn wrote in relation to what John wrote? (For that matter, what about my movie reviews? Should they be evaluated sui generis, without reference to the films in question?)
Similarly, a film may critically offer a commentary on or interpretation of another work. I submit that to evaluate (for example) Branagh’s Hamlet ONLY “as a film” and not ALSO as an approach to Shakespeare’s play is to leave the critical endeavor at least half undone.
(To reiterate a point I’ve been making all along, this doesn’t necessarily mean evaluating Branagh ‘s film or any other for its fidelity to source. Departures from source can be just as critically interesting and worthwhile as close adherence. They can also be miscalculations. All of this, I submit, is part of the critical endeavor.)

All works are derivative. They steal their ideas from other, older works, and in this sense all works can be thought of as “adaptations”.

Stretching a word to apply to everything is a first-class way to empty it of meaning and utility. “Adaptation” is a useful word because it is understood to usefully describe some works and not others. The fuzziness of the boundary between an adaptation and an original work does not obliterate the usefulness of the distinction.

A good book is a good book, and a good film is a good film. … I can see how we could criticize the filmmaker for putting something bad in his film when a perfectly good alternative was staring him right in the face. This might accentuate the derivative work’s flaws on a subjective level, but I don’t think it makes the work objectively worse. It is more a criticism of the creator than his creation.

You seem to assume a sharp distinction between presumably objective judgments about “good” and “bad” works, and wholly subjective responses influenced by creative choices. The first half of that equation seems to assume a considerable onus of proof in establishing that judgments of “good” or “bad” books or movies are objectively right or wrong, so that, e.g., if I think that The Sixth Sense is a good movie and you don’t, one of us is wrong. I don’t say that isn’t the case myself, but it’s a lot to assume without argument, and a lot to set out to try to prove.

If a filmmaker sets out, from the beginning, to do a loose “adaptation” of a novel, I can’t see why we should judge him harshly for not adhering rigidly to the text. The only really criterion by which I think a work can be judged is “Is it good” not “Is it absolutely alike to the source it purports to base itself on”.

I just about agree (prescinding from the word “only” [and the adverbial form of "really" :-) ]). In fact, I’ve been arguing from the beginning that fidelity per se is not the issue, so I’m not sure why you feel the need to make this point.

Randolph Carter March 13, 2009 at 7:13 am

Really? A film version of Macbeth is a “completely different work” from Shakespeare’s play?
Yes.
A filmed dramatization of one of the Gospels is a completely different work from the Gospel text? Should such works be evaluated sui generis, without reference to the source texts?”
Yes, this all does follow logically from what I’ve said.
Is that how the filmmakers themselves wish their work to be evaluated?
It is the only way to evaluate such works.
For example, a book may be a commentary on, or a critical evaluation of, another book. Does your dictum that “A good book is a good book” mean that we should judge all books, even commentaries, without reference to the work commented on?
All the remarks I’ve made up until now were directed toward works that attempt to tell a story, and judging them on the basis of their storytelling. I thought because we were talking about movies and novels and other works of fiction that this would be clear. A commentary cannot be judged as telling a good or bad story, because it is not a story but a commentary.
Similarly, a film may critically offer a commentary on or interpretation of another work
We can judge works by many different dimensions. A film may offer a commentary on another work, and we can judge it along that dimension; this, however, has no bearing on how well the work tells a story.
Stretching a word to apply to everything is a first-class way to empty it of meaning and utility.
I was not stretching a word to apply to everything. I was attempting to imply that the word had already no meaning — that there is no qualitative difference between an adaptation and an original work. The “fuzziness of the boundary” renders any such division indefinite and therefore useless in an argument.
You seem to assume a sharp distinction between presumably objective judgments about “good” and “bad” works, and wholly subjective responses influenced by creative choices.
I assume that works are composed of many different elements, which can be judged along different dimensions to be good and bad to varying degrees. A work whose element’s good tends to outweigh their bad is considered good; the opposite, bad.
A work that excels at story telling is one that comes the closest to resembling the metaphysical ideal of a story. The elements that support this end are, when judged along this dimension, good; again the opposite, bad.
If the creative choices that went into making a work support the end of telling a good story, and that was the end intended, then such choices were good choices; if not, etc. We can judge those choices on their own. yet though they have gone into making the work, such decisions are not the work itself. The two should not be conflated.
The first half of that equation seems to assume a considerable onus of proof [ . . . ] but it’s a lot to assume without argument, and a lot to set out to try to prove
Proof? Prove? We are speaking about metaphysical concepts whose existence is no more demonstrable than the existence of morality, or of God, or of the after-life, or fairies or elves or all those other immaterial and vague realities that eternally plague the dreams of men. I can no more prove that they exist than I can prove that the world I see around me is real and not an illusion. You can’t prove assumptions; they are irrational, we accept them without reason and they are not subject to verification. And the burden of proof only ever falls on the one who claims he can prove something.
Really though, I think the problem with conversations like these is that you and I are both making a series of mutually exclusive — and unstated — assumptions. If we were to actually list all the assumptions we are making it would take up far too much space; instead we just talk past each other and march around in rhetorical circles, hoping the points we feebly try and make will stick. Here we can’t really try and prove anything: though we might come to an understanding of each other’s opinion on the matter. I think, however, that doing so would take up far too much time and combox space to be beneficial, and that this conversation has run its course.

SDG March 14, 2009 at 11:07 am

All the remarks I’ve made up until now were directed toward works that attempt to tell a story, and judging them on the basis of their storytelling. I thought because we were talking about movies and novels and other works of fiction that this would be clear. A commentary cannot be judged as telling a good or bad story, because it is not a story but a commentary.

Here, I think, we are very close to one of the an unspoken assumptions that is at the heart of our disagreement.
You seem to assume here that evaluating “works that attempt to tell a story” means “judging them on the basis of their storytelling” — and on that basis alone. Since you recognize that some works, such as commentaries, may be doing something other than storytelling, you agree that evaluating such works may mean evaluating these other endeavors.
Yet it is equally true that a work that attempts to tell a story may also be doing something other than storytelling, and that an adequate evaluation may entail evaluating those other things as well. In fact, “telling a story” is not only merely one possible endeavor of a fictional narrative, it is not even always the most important part, or something that a work of fiction necessarily needs to do with any distinction at all in order to succeed. Sometimes, evaluating a work that attempts to tell a story primarily on the basis of its storytelling is almost beside the point.
The odd thing is that you seem to offer a converging acknowledgment when you write:

We can judge works by many different dimensions. A film may offer a commentary on another work, and we can judge it along that dimension; this, however, has no bearing on how well the work tells a story.

Even granting this point for the sake of argument, how does it follow that evaluating “how well the work tells a story” is “the only way to evaluate such works,” as you seem to say?
You grasp the nettle of my reductio ad absurdum, that a film version of Hamlet and even of the Gospels should be judged solely as a film and not as an approach to the text. Allow me to drive the nettle home.
Suppose a Jesus film were to depict Jesus relating the story of the Prodigal Son, except that at the end of the story Jesus goes on to describe the older son, chastened by the father’s words, joining the party and embracing his brother — or, alternatively, refusing to do so and departing in bitterness.
Does either alternative ending make it a bad story, either dramatically or morally? I don’t think so — in fact, one might make a case that the latter ending is actually more dramatic and poignant than the canonical ending. The only thing “wrong” with it, if we can call it that, is that it’s critically different from the deliberately open-ended and indeterminate story Jesus told in order to highlight the moment of choice before his hearers.
But that only matters if you’re taking source into account. If the story itself is all that matters, then it would be of no critical importance at all that our hypothetical Jesus movie depicted Jesus telling the parable so differently from the Gospels, and there would be no reason for a critic to pay more attention to that detail than to any other aspect of the parable.
Is that really what you would say?

Previous post:

Next post: