Apples and Oranges: Comparing Film and Literature

“Catherine! Catherine!”

The desperate pleas of a scoundrel assailed upon the audience’s’ ears as the cinematic adaptation of Henry James’s novel, Washington Square, drew to a close, with Morris Townsend, played by the charismatic Montgomery Cliff, stranded outside the Sloper estate and all the lavish comforts of high society to which he so vehemently coveted were lost to him forever whilst the film’s and novel’s heroine, Catherine Sloper who is played by the Hollywood icon, Olivia de Havilland, gradually ascended the staircase with just the slightest hint of malevolent glee tainting her cold, marble features. The final moments of the film, The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949), provides the viewer with a satisfying albeit slightly disturbing end as Morris is left deserted in the night, much like he deserted Catherine earlier in the film, and gives the story more closure than the original source text; indeed, if one were to search the pages of James’s novel, this scene would not be found as it is product of the filmmakers own creative interpretation of the literary classic.

Yet, the satisfaction of the film’s ending provides an interesting outlook upon the genre of film adaptations on a whole as it is evidence which dispels the pervasive myth that a film adaptation, whose main purpose is to generate a profit by presenting an already established narrative (Desmond and Hawkes, 15), is always second rate compared to the original text (Desmond and Hawkes, 2-3). Thus, the literary source, whether it be novels, poetry, plays, or even comic books, becomes the standard, by which the film is judged and within the eyes of the causal viewer, a film is received favorably by how close it mirrors the literary work that the film is portraying; however, this conception denies the inherent differences between the two mediums, as film is subject to more political, social, and economic restraints than its written companion, and forgets a simple truth: that which is appealing to the mind is not necessarily visual appealing (2-3, 40-43).

Images upon a screen impact a viewer differently, though to what degree is a subject of scholarly debate, than words on a page. Furthermore, neither a film’s budget nor an audiences’ attention span could handle a carbon copy of any literary text due, primarily, to a text’s length. Thus, the text must be condensed and changes must be made; this process of transitioning from page to screen is often problematic. A careful analysis of the film versions of Enoch Arden, The Simpson’s retelling of “The Raven,” The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Washington Square demonstrate that cinematic adaptations are inherently problematic. In adapting a text, filmmakers must take into consideration not only time constraints and technology, but also viewer expectation, since literary works already have an established fan base, wherein alterations to source text must be made in order to conform to current social trends and popular culture.

Historically, film adaptations have been viewed as a nexus wherein high literary culture merges with the lower culture of the film medium; this serves to introduce works of classical literature to audiences who would otherwise not have access to them either due to economic, social, or language barriers in the case of Enoch Arden (D.W. Griffith, 1911); thus, film adaptations spread elements of high culture to mainstream society (Desmond and Hawkes, 14-15). This is particularly evident in the silent film adaptation of Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden which premiered in the early days of cinema whereby the majority of viewers were composed of the working underclass who, after laboring for long hours, used cinema as a form of escape (Desmond and Hawkes, 15). The epic poem details the sacrifice of the heroic father, Enoch Arden, whom upon being lost on a deserted island, returns home to find his wife and children belonging to another man, Phillip – his childhood rival for Annie’s affections.  In choosing to remain estranged from his family, Enoch, an embodiment of the working class man, is able to give them all the lavish comforts that Phillip, a representative of the wealthy upper class, could provide. Thematically, the sacrifice of Enoch, appealed to the mainstream audience and provided the strongest incentive to adapt the narrative to film, despite the challenges that the film’s creation imposed- the greatest being that of the film medium itself.

Adapted during the 1900s, Enoch Arden constituted a mile-marker in cinema history, using innovative filming techniques such as close-ups, and transition editing while also establishing a new standard in casting and film length. Early cinema lacked a distinct narrative story as the technology was still very new and the possibilities of film were largely unknown. Typically, the first films involved a stationary camera shooting small ten to fifteen minute skits similar to vaudeville productions; this was largely contributed to the consensus that audiences’ ability to sit still would expire after fifteen minutes. However, this undefined rule of early cinema had to be broken in order to re-create the plot of Tennyson’s poem, resulting in a, quite uncommon, narrative format that was double the length, thirty-four minutes total, of the expected attention span of audiences.  

A necessary step in establishing the tone and events of the poem’s narrative is creating the feeling of time passing for the viewer. Griffith accomplished this task in three ways: first, through the use of different set backdrops; second, through the utilization of fade out transitions to smooth out the choppy effect of changing scenes; and finally, the film was the first to feature children at different ages – thus, the viewer watched as the children matured while Enoch was deserted on the island. The combination of these elements allows the visual narrative to span, as the poem does, for years. Beyond the creation of a film narrative, Griffith’s Enoch Arden provided further innovation to the film medium through actual camera movements and close-up shots of the actors, made possible by placing reflecting lights at the actors’ feet. These techniques highlighted both the actors’ performance, whose melodramatic flair was heightened by the awkward transition from theater to film, and the viewer identification with the characters- thus, strengthening the film’s tone.

Despite the severe restrictions of early cinema, Griffith’s Enoch Arden, in comparison to the literary source text, is relatively a close adaptation; yet, as is typical of all cinematic adaptations, alterations to the text are necessary. In order to condense the text’s length into a visual narrative, much of the poem’s substance was either removed or reworked; the predominant theme of the ‘good father’ remained intact, but the religious undertones of the poem, as indicated most prominently through the scene where Annie searches through the bible for a sign about Enoch, was removed. Furthermore, the characters along with the youthful love triangle between Enoch, Annie, and Phillip are more developed in the poem. The most notable alteration, however, concerns the removal of Enoch’s youngest child’s death and the death of Enoch himself.

Since film is more beholden to social trends and because of the weight given to the effect of visual stimuli, the child’s death was probably thought too graphic for the early days of film. Showing the child’s death would risk alienating the audience and, by extension, decreasing profits. The alteration of Enoch’s death, however, has little to do with social trends and hinges, instead, upon the primary purpose of the film industry- entertainment. While the poem gives the reader a greater sense of closure as Enoch’s death, which is slower than the film version, brings him closer to his deceased child, the film heightens Enoch’s sacrifice by leaving the viewer struck with a combination of sadness and admiration for the hero; the ending of film, which features Enoch dying, seemingly, immediately after looking through Annie’s window and seeing his family happy without him, also provides more dramatic tension – making the final moments of the film much more climatic and poignant.  

In adapting Lord Tennyson’s poem, Griffith’s Enoch Arden, despite the challenges posed by the largely foreign technology of film itself, redefined the standard of early cinema; the film’s groundbreaking use of camera movements, casting, and narrative plot demonstrated the possibilities of film in creating and unfolding stories which were equally as powerful as their literary counterparts while simultaneously spreading the high culture associated with literature to new audiences.  The film’s successful blending of high and low culture spurned a trend in film which still exists today- even in television which, just as film was regarded with less prestige than literature, is perceived as a venue of low-brow entertainment. The popular animated series, the Simpsons, a show renowned for its comical absurdity, re-enacted Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven” for one of the show’s Halloween specials. However, this adaptation is not hindered to the advent of cinema technology, but is, instead, restricted by the show’s own genre; the adaptations main obstacle, then, is to recreate the poem in a comedic fashion using the techniques of animation.

Unlike Griffith’s Enoch Arden which represents an arguably close adaptation of the source text, depicting the same tone, events and central themes of the poem that the film based upon, the Simpsons parody of “The Raven” turns the literature on its head; as a loose adaptation, the show alters Poe’s tale of psychological horror into an amusing skit filled with visual puns, such as the Book of Forgotten Lore II, and “ garish color schemes” (Desmond and Hawkes, 219) that strip away the poem’s melancholy themes (219). Indeed, the adaptations choice of casting Bart as the raven, Homer as the scholar, and Marge as Lenore in the poem adds both comic effect and undercuts viewer expectation while still adhering to the show’s own dynamics, using the show’s typical narrative to re-invent conflict between Bart and Homer as they play the roles of the scholar and the raven (219). Critics have argued that the adaptation butchers Poe’s masterpiece, suggesting the Simpson’s version is evidence of the anti-intellectual medium of television itself as it removes the true substance of Poe’s poem. While, the placement of Homer, the show’s own village idiot, as the scholar seemingly adds credence to this theory (219), the argument is based upon the same, flawed myth that surrounds all adaptations – the original text is ‘better.’  

In fact, the original poem and the Simpson’s framed reenactment are largely incompatible due to the surrealistic nature of animation which is the main obstacle of the series’ adaption of the poem (210-212). However, the adaptation does keep to the same events and delivers the same verses, with some minor interruptions from Bart, of the source text. Also, the busy movement of the camera speaks to “the agitated mood of the scholar” (219) due to the loss of love, Lenore, and his frustration with the raven’s taunting – both of which are essential in the poem.  The fact, however, that the poem is introduced and narrated by Lisa, the most intelligent character of the series, speaks to the poem’s literary merit and contradicts the anti-intellectual argument (219- 220). Furthermore while the adaptation, functions primarily to provide the viewer with a comedic experience, the Simpson’s retelling of the poem, like the film version of Enoch Arden, serves as a means of spreading high culture to the middle and working viewers; this is particularly evident in the scene where Homer, as the scholar, is pelted with the other famous works of Poe. Thus, viewers watching the Simpsons version of “The Raven” might be motivated to read the original and/or other works from the author.

Both the film adaptation of Enoch Arden and the Simpson’s version of the “The Raven” demonstrate the inherent difficulties of adapting a source text through the restrictions of genre and technology, but cinematic adaptations must also navigate obstacles outside of the literature itself; generally speaking, successfully mimicking or twisting a text to fit into a certain genre is not always enough to ensure viewer acceptance and by extension, profit generation. Other factors such as social trends, particularly concerning gender representation, and popular culture must also be taken into consideration, as is clearly demonstrated by the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931). Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, at the premiere of Mamoulian’s film, about the struggle between the brilliant scientist, Dr. Jekyll, and his dark alter ego, Mr. Hyde, had saturated popular culture; the phrase pulling a Jekyll and Hyde to describe someone’s contradictory attitudes and behaviors became commonplace. Therefore, individuals who had not read the novella still knew the story; this created the greatest obstacle to adapting the text as it ruins the climax of the narrative.

In order to re-invent the narrative on the big screen, the mystery element of the novella had to be re-worked as the secret of Jekyll and Hyde’s connection was… well, not a secret to the mainstream population; this, in turn, altered the focus of the film, removing the character of Utterson, along with the outside point of view his character represents and leaving the audience to identify with Jekyll. This major alteration of the source text provided three main benefits for the film. First, by following Jekyll and watching him transform, one of the key motivations to adapting the novella, the film firmly establishes Jekyll as the protagonist, a shortcoming of the novella, and creates more sympathy for his character as he gradually loses control of his darker side; indeed, the film’s success would have suffered if the audience perceived Jekyll as nothing but cowardly man who wishes to partake in despicable actions without needing to face the consequences of those actions.

Secondly, the shift of focus upon Jekyll’s character places the audience in the middle of the action. Within the novella, the audience follows Utterson who is never present during the transformations or when Hyde is committing his crimes; thus, all the action and drama happens off the page so to speak – to do this during the film would be disastrous as it films hinge upon action and dramatic tension, demonstrated most powerfully in the film by the sensational ending where the Hyde is shot by the police, to hook and maintain audience attention.  Finally, using Jekyll as the point of identification for the audience allows the film to embellish the source text, giving Jekyll’s personal life and career as a scientist more substance. This creative license the film takes with the plot not only serves as an avenue to alter Jekyll’s motivations for creating Hyde in the first place but also provides for an ending with more closure than the ambiguous suicide at the end of the novella. Furthermore, the plot embellishment enables the filmmakers to address and improve upon one of the narrative’s greatest weaknesses – the omission of women.

Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lacks not only action but also memorable female characters as there are only three un-named females, the girl Hyde tramples on, the old woman Hyde assaults, and the maid, throughout the entire narrative. The film changes this dramatically through the insertion of Muriel and Ivy. Adding women increases the film’s likelihood of success amongst a wider audience demographic by appealing to female viewers craving for romance as established through the added love story between Jekyll and Muriel. The insertion of female characters also appeals to male desire as both actresses Rose Hobart, who plays Muriel, and Miriam Hopkins, who plays Ivy Pearson, conform to the standard of beauty during the time period of the film. Finally, the two female characters represent the time period’s adherence to a patriarchal and classist society whereby women are meant to be the object of desire, not the one who desires.

Muriel, a wealthy aristocrat, is the embodiment of what a woman should be: glamorous, affectionate, and chaste; she is the object of Jekyll’s desire and possibly his salvation. Ivy, however, is just the opposite; she is sexual enticer of the underclass, a woman who enjoys drinking and seeks to improve her circumstances through finding a wealthy lover as indicated through her interaction with Jekyll in the beginning of the film. Ivy’s sexual advances spur Jekyll’s creation of Hyde along with his scientific ambition. Ivy is punished for her sexuality, as she is tortured and eventually killed by Hyde, while Muriel is rewarded for chaste, submissive behavior since she lives through the film’s narrative. Thus, the film adaptation conforms to the social trends that were prevalent during the film’s creation; these social trends, in turn, changes the themes and tone of the narrative – proving that film both reflects and shapes society.

As illustrated in the sensational ending of the film version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a key factor to a film’s success amongst viewers is closure; often times in literature, the narrative is left in ambiguity and while this makes for an intellectually stimulating end to a work of literature, it does not often translate well onto the screen. Therefore, sometimes the main obstacle in adapting a work of literature is the text, itself. This proves true not only in Stevenson’s novella but also in the cinematic adaptation of the Henry James’s Washington Square.  As discussed earlier, the final moments in the film, The Heiress, where Morris is shut out of Catherine’s life forever cannot be found in James’s novel. This is because the novel’s ending, where Catherine sits with her embroidery, lacks a feeling of satisfaction and would make for a lackluster end to a cinematic narrative that is strongly rooted in characterization.

The novel features a heroine who upon the narrative’s end has been jilted by both her father and love; she is distant and accepting of her solitude. The film, however, alters the ending by allowing Catherine revenge upon those who have wronged her; thus, her character, and indeed all the characters from James’s novel, has been transformed from the page to the screen. Catherine leaves the viewer with a cold, vengeful, and slightly demented expression playing upon her features. Her father, who through a combination of Ralph Richardson’s delightful performance and the adapted screenplay, is depicted less as a devious tyrant and more as a broken man who’s misguided attempt at shielding his daughter ruins her forever. And Morris is left out in the cold, just as he deserves for leaving Catherine himself. Because the novel is character driven rather than plot driven, the characters are the main means of hooking the audience; therefore, while the events of the film closely mirror the events of the novel, the impression left upon the reader and viewer is completely different as the viewer of the film does not have the benefit of the omniscient narrator to instinctively know how the characters will clash.

The film builds up the dramatic tension between the characters by slowly unraveling the malicious motivations of Morris towards Catherine and the gradual erosion of Catherine’s relationship with her father. Morris’s intentions are more subtle in the film, particularly since the scene with his aunt pleading with Dr. Sloper to stop the marital union between Catherine and Morris is removed in order to keep the audience guessing. The father’s thoughts about his the disappointment of Catherine are not known to the viewer right away, especially since his temper toward Catherine is more gentle, save for the scene where he declares he never loves her. Therefore, the end result of the film, Catherine’s transformation, leaves a more powerful impression upon the audience.

Though film adaptations of classical and popular literature serve primarily as a means to ease the financial risk undertaken by those involved in the film industry as they build upon an already established fan-base and increase the likelihood of commercial success, the prominent motivation behind film adaptations (Desmond and Hawkes, 15), amongst a mainstream audience due to their familiar characters and storylines, the process of transitioning from the page to the screen is no simple task. Filmmakers must take into consideration not only time constraints and technology but also viewer expectation wherein alterations to the source text must be made in order to conform to current social trends and popular culture. In analyzing the film adaptations of Enoch Arden, The Simpson’s retelling of “The Raven,” The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Washington Square, it is clearly demonstrated that film adaptations are inherently different than their literary counterparts and that comparing the two mediums is akin to comparing apples to oranges.

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