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3377 words

The adaptive eye

2 May 2013

The boldest translations of book to film usually make for the best cinema, argues Brian McFarlane


Outsider: Solomon Glave as Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.

Outsider: Solomon Glave as Heathcliff in Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.

“IF ONE has nothing new to say about a novel, why adapt it at all?” Orson Welles once asked. He generally adapted classic plays rather than classic novels, but he knew what he was talking about as an adaptor of fictions created in another medium. Has there ever been a more imaginative Shakespearean film than his Chimes at Midnight, in which he takes what excites him most – the character of Falstaff – from three plays and makes a new masterwork? As to novels, perhaps there was less challenge in adapting Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, but even so Welles made something imperishably new and personal from that source material.

Everyone has a view on adaptation, and everyone feels free to voice that view while not applying the same exacting standards to most other aspects of cinematic art. You’re not likely to emerge from a cinema and hear someone declaiming the merits of a film’s delicate control of the mise-en-scène. But audience members will cheerfully declare that “It wasn’t like that in the book” or “They shouldn’t have changed the ending” or, to get down to basics, “Why did they change her to a blonde?” At every level from gossip like this to academic exegeses (I plead guilty to some of the latter), the fascination with the business of filming famous novels, whether they’re classics or merely bestsellers, never goes away. There is even, at one English university, a Centre for Adaptations whose attention is devoted entirely to this matter. And don’t forget all those paperback editions of novels that appear bearing the legend “Now a major motion picture!” Well, it would be a brave publisher who proclaimed, “Now a minor motion picture,” wouldn’t it?

So what do filmgoers really want from movies made from novels they revere? Do they hope for an exciting new approach, even if this may be at odds with their own reading of the book? Or do they get cross when the benighted film-maker has produced a movie version that doesn’t match their own idea of the novel (or play for that matter, though some of the challenges are different)? My view is that it is unreasonable to expect a film-maker to come up with a version of a novel that coincides with the version the reader has created on the screen of his or her own mind. Many of the dismissive comments about the “success” or otherwise of this or that adaptation seem to derive from failure to take this subjective element into account, and from a consequent reluctance to allow for other approaches of more and less daring and originality.

Of course, changes in narrative detail and emphasis will occur in even the most slavishly “faithful” adaptations. This is inevitable in moving from a sign system which comprises black marks arranged in straight lines on a page to one that involves moving images and sound. The “how” will inevitably govern the “what.” This seems so obvious that it should scarcely need repeating, but the kinds of dismissiveness one hears in relation to films derived from novels suggests that this simple-sounding dictum can’t be reiterated too often.

Whatever one thinks about such matters, adaptation shows no sign of slowing down. In recent months, we have seen big-screen versions of three unassailable literary masterworks, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina and Great Expectations, and Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is due for mid-year release. All three of the films already on our screens have been made many times before, for television as well as for the cinema, so let’s consider how the new versions have addressed their great antecedents, and what new light, if any, they throw on them.

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights

Those reclusive Brontë sisters have provided between them the basis for about sixty film ventures, most recently Cary Fukunaga’s imaginatively reordered Jane Eyre (2011) and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2012). There is obviously something at the heart of these powerful works that goes on inspiring film-makers and shows that no one has had the last word about their core concerns. This alone should tend to make us receptive to new versions. If Wuthering Heights has excited the attention of about twenty film-makers, this should make viewers less unyielding in what they require in the processes of transformation.

Arnold’s film is innovative in several important ways. Emily Brontë chose to filter this tale of passionate love through two narrators. The inept Lockwood, who fetches up at Wuthering Heights and spends a disturbed night there as the unwelcome guest of his prospective landlord at neighbouring, and more “civilised,” Thrushcross Grange, initiates us into the comfortless word of the Heights and is the ostensible first-person narrator of all that follows. More seriously, though, the servant Nelly Dean, now at the Grange but formerly of the Heights, takes over the narrative as she recounts the full story of the obsessive love between Heathcliff and Cathy. Nelly has had unlimited access to the library at Thrushcross Grange, and this author’s device gives us an insider’s view in language we can bear to follow. Imagine if it had been told in the daunting dialect of that other servant, the sanctimonious old Joseph!

Well, Arnold is having none of these narrators. She dispenses altogether with Lockwood and reduces Nelly to a figure of no special consequence to what we make of the events that constitute the plot. She simply, but not simple-mindedly, plunges us into the drama at the novel’s heart, forcing us to confront it without intermediaries. Nor is she concerned, as Brontë was, with any sense of the healing processes at work in the second generation of those living at the two houses. A small boy is seen hovering round a doorway, but he is not allowed to grow into a more benign figure who will usher in a gentler future. It is as if Arnold doesn’t believe that a passion like that between Heathcliff and Cathy is likely to work itself out so reassuringly – or if she does, that is not what absorbs her or what she wants us to focus on.

Most crucially, however, the film presents us with a black Heathcliff, and this is Arnold’s most radically “new” response to the novel. All we know about Heathcliff’s background from the novel is that Cathy’s father, Mr Earnshaw, rescued him as a child, perhaps from the streets of Liverpool. I’ve read even of speculations that he was Earnshaw’s illegitimate child, but this can be no more than speculation, though it would endow the central passion with a much darker potential. But Liverpool had – has – a very long history of black immigration and community, so Arnold may well be on viable historical ground. This child might easily have been a poignant leftover from the hideous slave trade. More important than historical possibility, though, is the artistic conviction with which Arnold (with co-screenwriter Olivia Hetreed) has effected this daring piece of casting.

Traditionalists may regard this as mere iconoclasm, but it can also be argued that making Heathcliff black reinforces his outsider status at Wuthering Heights and, even more so, in the relative refinements of Thrushcross Grange. Through the imposing stillness of the performances of Solomon Glave and James Howson, as the child and adult Heathcliff respectively, his potentially explosive otherness underlines what was obviously Brontë’s intention. This is a Heathcliff who is never going to “fit” in either of the family or community settings in which Mr Earnshaw’s philanthropy (if that’s what it was) has placed him. Only on the moors, on Penistone Crags where he and the young Cathy roam, does he seem at one with his surroundings.

And this brings me to another strength of Arnold’s adaptation. The 1938 Hollywood film, starring Laurence Olivier and that matchless beauty Merle Oberon, is really a handsome, well-acted romantic melodrama, missing the hard, raw passion of the novel but settling for a different kind of gratification. Arnold instead takes on board the novel’s intense realism in matters of place and time and in doing so she offers a sort of warranty for the strangeness of what binds Cathy to Heathcliff. If we can accept the often harsh rigours of the world in which they are set, we may be better placed for accepting what goes beyond our usual understandings. Everything about the strategic decisions she has made works towards this film’s becoming a Wuthering Heights for today. That doesn’t imply lack of respect for the preceding literary text; rather, it shows an awareness of its ongoing power to excite and hold our attention. Arnold has made her name with two abrasive accounts of contemporary life – Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) – and her Wuthering Heights shares their commitment to things as they are.

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina

About the latest version of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, two people more than casually acquainted with Russian literature have told me, respectively, “I wanted to walk out of the cinema” and “No, I’m not going to see it. It sounds like a gimmick to me.” Neither seemed to me to approach Joe Wright’s imaginatively daring production with the sort of open mind that might have found something new and rewarding in its version of the celebrated text. Wright made a refreshing adaptation of Pride and Prejudice a few years back that may well have had the Jane Austen Society seething with anger for failing to preserve the sacred text in the more usual decorums of costume and design. It even dared to show the Bennet farm as a going concern, with crops and a pig. Now Wright has had the nerve to set the world of Anna Karenina in a theatre. At the start we hear the sound of many voices behind the credits; this is followed by a cut to the inside of a theatre just as the curtain goes up on, a title announces, “1874 Imperial Russia.”

There have been over thirty goes at Anna on film and TV, none perhaps truly satisfying the purists, though the image of Greta Garbo’s face swimming up through the steam of the train that brings her to St Petersburg endures when other perhaps more conscientious versions have totally faded from the mind. Whereas Hollywood made a cheery romantic comedy out of Pride and Prejudice, the same company (MGM) made a lush romantic melodrama of Tolstoy’s complex original. The British version in 1948 had a rather kittenish Anna in Vivien Leigh, and among many successors the most potent realisation of Anna’s passion and move towards ultimate destruction is Helen McCrory’s performance in the 2000 miniseries. I don’t mean that McCrory is necessarily the most “Tolstoyean ,” though she may well be, but rather that she wholly persuades one that this Anna is equal to the challenges of the role as offered by the screenplay.

Keira Knightley is the latest Anna. In spite of the imposing list of credits she has run up, there seems to be something grudging about the critical response to this gifted and very beautiful actress. She was Wright’s Elizabeth Bennet, and brought a contemporary relevance to that young woman’s dissatisfactions and constraints, as well as to her lively, incisive intelligence. And in Atonement, again for Wright, she played a poignant (and erotic) Cecilia caught up in her sister’s misconstrued accusations. Now, she is an elegant and frustrated Anna, impressively suggesting the conflict between her character’s sense of propriety and the passion awakened by her meeting with Vronsky (a nondescript performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, dashing as he may look). She convincingly evokes a real sense of torment, and Jude Law’s uncomprehending but humane Karenin gives her something substantial to act with and against.

But the real innovation and the main bone of contention about the film is its use of the theatre. There seem to me at least two justifications for this strategy. First, each of the various strands to the narrative – Anna’s, the “positive” of Kitty and Levin’s marriage, the domestic chaos of the Oblonsky household, the sense of a larger society – all take their place in this vast theatrical space. As a result, there is an interesting sense of the contemporaneous interaction of these lives, of a society going off in all directions but with some notion of a common core. Second, and this works particularly well in the film’s main drama, the theatre setting provides a kind of metaphor for a society in which “performance” matters. There is a pervasive sense of lives being acted out and upon, and of their being observed by others, as if they were all part of a theatrical performance and its audience. One very notable example of this comes when, the theatre having become a fashionable ballroom, everyone watches as the infatuated Anna and Vronsky dance and the waltz grows increasingly frantic. This scene is preceded by a moment when the lovers, so preoccupied with each other, seem to be dancing alone, but are in fact the cynosure of every curious and/or censorious eye.

We are perhaps so habituated to giving ourselves over to the “what” of film that we may be unused to having so much of our attention commanded by the “how.” This adaptation insists that we keep both in mind. Levin, offering another view of life in nineteenth-century Russia, is first glimpsed cramped in the flies above the theatre’s stage. We remember this when we later see him in a glorious long shot of harvesting in the fields, a potent contrast with the superficialities of the fashionable world or the confinement of Karenin’s house. I don’t want to make unsustainable claims for Wright’s film, but I do want to applaud its imaginative take on a great novel and the tour de force it pulls off in making us respond to the methods by which it creates its meanings.

Mike Newell’s Great Expectations

Recently I heard someone describe any film version of Great Expectations after 1946 as “superfluous,” a comment which implied that David Lean’s black-and-white version of Dickens’s indispensable coming-of-age novel had got it so “right” that there was no point in anyone else having a go. Indeed, the Lean version, with its stunning camera work, especially in the opening graveyard encounter and in Pip’s first impressions of Satis House in desuetude, and its cast of incomparable British character players, was in many ways remarkable, but it has been allowed to cast too long a shadow. There have been plenty of other intelligent versions of the novel, including Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 film, which transposed its action to the Manhattan art scene, and the 1999 TV movie which, among a number of interesting casting decisions, included a less-decrepit-than-usual Miss Havisham from Charlotte Rampling. Actually, Miss Havisham always seems to emerge as a compelling figure in even the least distinguished versions, with actors such as Margaret Leighton, Joan Hickson, Jean Simmons and Anne Bancroft bringing something of their own recognisable personas to bear on one of Dickens’s most bizarre creations. And perhaps that conjunction is one of the recurring pleasures of the adaptation processes.

What is it about Great Expectations that has so perennially excited the attention of film-makers of both large and small screens, not to speak of the adaptors of radio versions and the several novelists who have taken it as their starting point, most recently Lloyd Jones in his Mr Pip (2006)? Its narrator, Pip, is an orphan whose horizons in life may seem no broader than an apprenticeship to his blacksmith brother-in-law Joe Gargery. A frightening encounter with a convict on the Kentish marshes will eventually change this course by providing the means for his gentrification, bringing with it a sense of shame about his humble background. The other orphan, the imperious Estella, has been raised by the eccentric Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on the male sex, a representative of which had jilted her many years before.

Mike Newell’s adaptation, scripted by David Nicholls, doesn’t take the sort of bold chances that Wuthering Heights and Anna Karenina do, but it is persistently intelligent, compelling in its dealings with the familiar narrative ingredients, and on occasion surprisingly moving. Any new version of Great Expectations has somehow to address the challenge of how to deal with the opening in the graveyard, in which Pip is grabbed by the convict Magwitch, without merely copying Lean’s memorable shock cut. Newell, aided by John Mathieson’s impeccable cinematography, endows it with both melancholy and promise, with grey shifting fog giving way to a soft full moon as Pip runs through the marshlands to the churchyard, past grazing cows. It’s not as startling as Lean’s opening but it has an aptly bleak look that initiates us into the story of a life about to undergo major change. Similarly Mathieson, colluding with Jim Clay’s immaculate production design, creates a wonderfully strange and suggestive Satis House, where Helena Bonham Carter holds sway as a batty but potentially lethal Miss Havisham.

Newell has on the whole played down the obviously eccentric in his casting. Ralph Fiennes is an alarming Magwitch but not the farouche figure of, say, Finlay Currie in the Lean film; Robbie Coltrane’s lawyer Jaggers is substantial of course, and Ewen Bremmer’s clerk Wemmick has an easy amiability; Sally Hawkins makes Mrs Joe the shrewish harridan we expect, just as Jason Flemyng incarnates Joe’s gentle humanity; but all are more amenable to a realist reading than is sometimes the case. As to the protagonists, Holliday Grainger has a striking, chilly demeanour as the grown Estella, but Jeremy Irvine as the adult Pip is a rather bland presence whose experience seems not to have been written into his face and bearing. (As the child Pip, his brother, Toby Irvine, seems to belong more convincingly to the world of the film.) To be fair, Pip is essentially a character who is acted upon rather than one who acts.

Newell has not opted for striking coups de cinéma but there is one touch of originality that is worth noting. Whereas the film’s pace sometimes seems to elide important narrative connections, on several occasions he uses strangely lit flashback sequences – sometimes no more than moments really – to do the work of some of the novel’s long spoken accounts, as in the filling in of Miss Havisham’s “backstory” and, touchingly, of the arrival of little Estella. In such moments, in his less spectacular way, Newell is staking a claim for tactics peculiar to film, the shift in visual style differentiating past from present, memory from actuality.

So why these films?

A classic novel speaks meaningfully to succeeding generations. Readers in different periods will find different things in it, and that also is what film-makers have been doing over the last hundred years. They may have banked on securing some of the prestige (and commercial appeal) of a well-loved title, but their own work has been at its most artistically stimulating when they have been venturesome rather than slavishly reverential. Each of these three films makes a case for why their antecedent novels are classics and why we might expect yet further film dealings with them. •

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One panel, Main Street – Small Town, from Saul Steinberg’s seventy-five-metre panorama The Americans, 1958. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst 2013

One panel, Main Street – Small Town, from Saul Steinberg’s seventy-five-metre panorama The Americans, 1958. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles. © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/ VG Bild-Kunst 2013