Adaptations have been on my mind this past week as I attended a movie and a play both of which were based on existing stories.
In the summer of 1981 I, like many of my fellow Britons, sat glued to the television at 9PM each Wednesday (maybe it was Tuesday, or maybe even Thursday, I can't remember the precise night), for what was to become one of the great events of English language television production: Brideshead Revisited, the Granada television adaptation of the 1945 Evelyn Waugh novel of the same name.
I became completely engrossed in the series, which ran for 11 weeks. That was the summer I had graduated high school and was preparing to leave home for university in September. I remember being gravely concerned that, once moved into my dorm room at university, in a dorm that was all-male, I would no longer be able to watch the series; I feared my fellow residents would scoff at the channel choice in the dorm's one TV room (this was in the days before students had TVs in their dorm rooms), and would demand one of the other 3 channels be selected, preferably the one showing sport.
My fears proved unfounded and I was able to watch the entire series without interruption. It was a magical experience. I was drawn into the story from the very beginning and eagerly anticipated each Wednesday evening so I could once again languish in this television thing of beauty.
I was absorbed by the narrative, the actors (Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Jane Asher, Charles Keating etc.), the locations (both fictional and real), and the music (composed by Geoffrey Burgon). I even went out and bought the LP record of the soundtrack and played it over and over.
In 2000, the British Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, based on votes by industry professionals. The Brideshead Revisited adaptation was 10th on the list.
Now, 27 years later, Brideshead Revisited has hit the silver screen in a movie version which opened in theaters across the country last week. Needless to say I was excited and eager to go and rekindle the obsession of a quarter century ago.
Over the years I have become one of those strange folk, someone whose life has revolved around literature, who will refuse to see a movie adaptation until I have first read the book. I want my own imagination to create the images in my mind of characters and places. I don't want a visual adaptation to do that for me. For this reason I have watched none of the Lord of the Rings films, nor any of the Harry Potter adaptations.
Last week I knew this time I needed to read Evelyn Waugh's novel before I could, in good conscience, go see Brideshead Revisited. So that's what I did.
The book was as enchanting as watching the series had been in 1981. Turning the pages, I was constantly reminded of details from the adaptation, and I was surprised at how much came flooding back to me more than 25 years later. (I knew Waugh would turn out to be a first rate novelist: one of his middle names was St.John!)
Having read the book, I went to see the movie.
Maybe I should have stayed home. I was so disappointed by what I saw!
Don't get me wrong; the acting, the costumes, the locations, the cinematography etc. were all excellent. What was not, IMHO, was the adaptation itself. At a certain point during the movie I began to wonder if the person who wrote the screenplay (Jeremy Brock, after Andrew Davies had abandoned the project in medias res) and I had read the same Evelyn Waugh novel.
I understand that adapting a 300-page novel to a 90-minute screenplay requires that cuts be made; events may be conflated, subplots eliminated, minor characters forgotten. But the Brideshead movie went too far beyond this, venturing into the realm of interpretation, or maybe that should be "reinterpretation."
Almost from the outset, the movie developed a theme that simply wasn't there in the novel: that Charles Ryder was in love with Julia Flyte, Sebastian's sister, from the first time he laid eyes on her. This compromised the nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian (as expressed in the book), a complex relationship which is at the very center of Waugh's novel.
According to the movie screenplay, Charles's love for Julia, and a non-textual kiss shared in Venice, causes Sebastian to abandon the family and flee to North Africa. Not, as Waugh wrote it, Sebastian's dire need to escape the constraints of his family, a family into which he felt Charles had been irrevocably drawn.
What the Brock "interpretation" fails to take into account is precisely the reason Charles is attracted to Julia at all; as Waugh specifies on at least two occasions, Charles is constantly reminded of how much Julia looks just like Sebastian. Once Sebastian has fled England, Julia becomes his surrogate. If Charles can't have him, he'll have his sister!
Brock is a fine writer. He provided the screenplays for such impressive movies as The Last King of Scotland and Mrs. Brown. But with this project, I fear, he overstepped the bounds of adaptation and put his big feet into the realm of interpretation.
Contrast this with the play I saw this past weekend.
Houston's Nova Arts Project is currently presenting its own adaptation of Euripides's tragedy The Bacchae in the Jose Quintero Theatre at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston.
The production was "written, directed, choreographed & costume design" by Clinton Hopper, Nova's founding artistic director. I was surprised to see the designation "writer" attributed to Hopper in the program as I assumed the production was the Euripidean version.
But what I saw was an adaptation of the Greek tragedy; it is based on Euripides's play but is not a mere staging of it. Hopper has streamlined the action, the characters, the dramatic concerns, and in effect created a version of the original.
The tragedy remains, so too the choral effect, the sense of hubris, and that universal resignation Gloucester expresses in King Lear when he says "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, they kill us for their sport."
Where Hopper and Brock differ is that the former hasn't messed with "intention." Hopper's adaptation is still The Bacchae we all know and love, if in slightly modified form. Brock, however, has allowed hubris to take over such that poor old Evelyn Waugh must be turning in his grave. I'm sure Euripides is resting peacefully.
I may complain because I feel as though someone has "tinkered" with something I treasure and in the process deformed it, but what lies beneath my querulous tone is the realization that any adaptation is also an act of interpretation.
Out of necessity, when adapting a work to another medium or another venue, there are choices to be made and those choices are made based on an interpretation, an understanding if you will, of what the work is about. That understanding may not coincide with my own, but (and in the case of Brideshead Revisited on the silver screen I say it begrudgingly!) it's as valid.
Some might even go so far as to say that any adaptation of a work becomes a new work in its own right. Perhaps that's the way to see Brock's Brideshead, a film based on an interpretation of Evelyn Waugh's novel of the same name?
Brideshead Revisited revisited?