SDG here with thoughts on a question that, as a film critic, I’ve been thinking about for years: How should a film based on some preexisting work — a novel, a play, a comic book or even a previous film — be judged?
Does it matter at all if a film is an adaptation? Should a film, whether an original work or an adaptation, simply be judged for what it is? Or is there a sense in which it ought to be measured by the original? If there is, what makes an adapted film a good adaptation or a bad one?
Fans of the work being adapted often have a simple answer: A good adaptation is faithful to the original. This answer is too simple, I think. For one thing, what constitutes “fidelity”? Does fidelity mean following the original exactly, or are departures allowed? What sort of departures?
If the author himself revises his own work, is he necessarily being “unfaithful” to the original? (Consider how obsessively Tolkien rewrote and rewrote the history of Middle-earth.) Or is he often rather trying to extend or develop the vision informing his work, perhaps eliminating inconsistencies that arose as the work developed, or realizing more successfully the possiblities of the premise?
I don’t deny the possibility that such revisions, even by the artist himself, may wind up harming the revised work. But they don’t always — and the very fact that we distinguish between revisions that enhance the work and those that harm it suggests that mechanical “fidelity” to the existing work is not the key.
Can fidelity be a matter of the spirit of a work rather than the letter? Is it possible to make distinctions between additions or changes that are in keeping with the essential spirit of a work and those that mar or disfigure that spirit?
If so, is it possible in principle that another artist, adapting another man’s work, can find ways of revising that work that honor the spirit of the original — possibly even ways that the original artist might approve of, even wish he had thought of himself?
But what if the original artist’s vision is limited, problematic or flawed? What if the adapter doesn’t want to be limited to the spirit of the original — if he wants to improve, go beyond or even potentially critique it? (For example, a filmmaker adapting an older work with racist or sexist elements may deliberately subvert those elements in his film.) This seems legitimate in principle.
So here are my current thoughts on the ethics (or aesthetics) of adaptation.
Strictly speaking, fidelity by itself is neither here nor there with regard to the artistic merit of an adaptation. Whether a film is good or bad, and whether or to what extent it takes liberties from source material, are two separate questions permitting all kinds of possible combinations.
However, in addition to judging a film in itself, it is also possible to judge it as an adaptation — but the most relevant standard is not simply “fidelity” — either to the letter or to the spirit. Here is how I like to think of it: A good adaptation is one for which, the better you know the source material, the more you are capable of appreciating the film.
This has an applicability beyond adaptations per se. Roger Ebert wrote in his (excellent) review of Memoirs of a Geisha that the less you know about Japan, the more you will like the film. I don’t like movies like that — that work best to the extent that the viewer is ignorant of (or unconcerned about) relevant context, be it history, culture or source material.
To the extent that the source material is any good, the adaptation should honor the spirit of the source. To the extent that the source is limited or flawed, the adaptation may transcend, subvert or critique it. Either way, the better one knows the source material, with its good and bad points, the better one should appreciate the filmmakers’s achievement in adaptation.
A good adaptation thus presupposes real understanding of the source material on the part of the filmmakers, for good and bad. Departures great and small can be legitimate, but they should be thoughtful departures. They can honor or subvert the original, but they must interact with it, not just ignore it. If not, they are not worth doing as adaptations. You might as well change the names and call it something else.
The one thing I have little patience for is the sort of “adaptation” that shows little or no interest in or comprehension of the material upon which it is supposedly based. Case in point: The 2004 film King Arthur, which interacts in no very significant way either with Arthurian romance or Arthurian history. It’s just a remake of the director’s earlier Tears of the Sun, dressed up in 5th-century British gear. Why did they think that was more interesting than a thousand years and more of Arthurian legend and scholarship?
So that’s where I am. Any other thoughts?