Cinematic Adaptations of Literary Texts: What Remains, What Changes, What Matters

Cinematic adaptation of literary texts is the process of translating a written work, such as a novel or a play, into a movie or a TV show. Literary texts have been a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers for decades. From classic novels to modern works of fiction, filmmakers have taken to the big screen to bring these stories to life for audiences worldwide. 

The process of adapting a literary text into a film is a complex and multi-faceted one. It involves a deep understanding of the source material, as well as an understanding of what elements of the story will translate well to the big screen. Some famous sources of adaptations are Jane Austen’s novels, Shakespeare’s plays, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series. More recent examples include Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

Why Cinematic Adaptations?

There is certainly a reason that cinematic adaptations are so popular and prevalent today. And it is the popularity of visual media itself. Due to the rapid development of science and technology the 20th and 21st centuries became the time of creation and development of new synthetic art forms. Hence, the existence of cinema, television, computer graphics and others in the past century. 

Cinema today isn’t only culturally influential but also a successful and prosperous commercial industry. It has a stand that literature occupied in the late 18th and 19th century, that of popularity and political significance. Cinematic adaptations therefore bring the story its maximum reach today, if done right.

What Remains The Same?

More often than not, the central narrative remains the same. The plot and major events are carried into the adaptation as they are. The characters too are portrayed the same way with whatever humanistic values and power positions they have. They might sometimes have changed names. In period films adapted from classics, like, Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet, it is even possible to exactly produce the novel’s texture on screen.

There is an attempt to restore the essence of the literary work and produce the same emotional effects that the source text has on readers. That assured, the director doesn’t owe detailed faithfulness to the literary texts.

What Changes?

The whole grammar of a film is different from a literary piece. Where novels or plays deal with words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters, films deal with shots, scene, sequence, and other elements like lighting, sound and so on. A novel can convey the protagonist’s mental state by describing it verbally. The film, instead of being so verbose, has to externalise the state of mind by camera movements, lighting, and sound. 

The length of the literary piece might not be always viable to adapt into a film’s length. Adapting a literary work for the screen also, therefore, involves making decisions about what to include and what to leave out. The idea is to reproduce the holistic essence of the literary text in different clothes. A director’s understanding of this essence dictates the choice of leaving out or keeping elements. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an 800+ page novel adapted into Joe Wright’s 2-hour film of the same name. 

Apart from the technical constraints, there are often some creative deviations. The film director may choose to relocate the story in time and space. Vishal Bhardwaj’s three Shakespearean adaptations, Maqbool, Haider and Omerta, from Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello respectively, relocate carefully the Shakespearean politics and poetics in the Indian context.

What Matters About Cinematic Adaptations?

One of the key considerations in adapting a literary work is fidelity to the source material. But adaptations don’t owe any fidelity to the source text as it is a new independence art piece in itself.

Some adaptations have been appreciated for their creative take moving away from the source text for example Haidar, adaptation of Hamlet, for its ending. Some face criticism for deviating too far from the source material like Bride and Prejudice, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but that’s because of its failure to capture the essence of the text.

A more important consideration should be the director's vision and creative choices. A good film enhances and reveals the meaning of the original material and creates a dialogue between two forms.

Written by Prachi Rautela

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