Books to Movies, Part II: The Faithful Interpretation

1995 Darcy is extremely introverted. I recently watched
Victoria and Albert, starring Colin Firth's brother, Jonathan.
He delivers a flawless performance of Albert as intensely
introverted. Either the Firth brothers ARE introverts or
they have an excellent role model upon which to draw.
Interpretation is the second of my five categories. To be precise, I will be addressing faithful interpretations.

Faithful interpretations stick to the plot and characters of the original text. Unlike strict renderings, however, they deliver the plot and characters through a specific understanding. This is not only necessary but one of the truly lovely things about interpretations.

One can, for example, watch multiple versions of Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice or Shakespeare or (some) Agatha Christie and come away with a new perspective not because the plot has changed (assuming that all comparable versions are faithful interpretations) but because the vision/ worldview of the movie-maker* is so distinct.

Without this vision, a film will be clunky, confused, and out of focus (metaphorically--although some directors go in for that sort of thing literally as well).
1980  Darcy, played by David Rintoul, is more aloof and
arrogant than 1995's. 1983 Elizabeth is witty and
observant while 1995 Elizabeth is witty and direct

Jane Eyre (1983) focuses on the mental integrity of Jane; Jane Eyre (2006) focuses on her desire to be loved. Both issues are in the book, and both film versions bring up the conjoining issue but never at the expense of each series's main interpretation. The thread of "sight" (the thing the director wants us to see for ourselves) holds the piece together.

Granted, many times, artists--including movie-makers--are unaware of their thread. Writers, poets, painters: very few of them are George Bernard Shaws, interpreting their own work before and after the fact (one reason why commentary by directors is rarely as good as expected; even self-aware directors like Whedon and Branagh spend more time focusing on technicalities--the HOW of creation--than the meaning).

Yet a movie without that thread fails to carry its plot--much like Star Wars I, II, and III.

And 1940 Darcy is practically an extrovert! He is
also suave and debonair, displaying little of the discomfort,
shame, and confusion of 1980 and 1995 Darcys.
Consequently, Hamlet (Mel Gibson), Hamlet (David Tennant), and Hamlet (Branagh) become not competing visions (what would be the fun in that?) but complementary visions whereby each carries its own insights into Shakespeare's masterpiece. Likewise, although I greatly prefer Pride & Prejudice (1995) to BBC Pride & Prejudice (1980), I still enjoy aspects of the 1980 interpretation (in general, 80s BBC Austens fall into the strict rendering category).

As for Pride & Prejudice (1940): I would call it an interpretation plus make-a-place-for-something else, "something else" in this instance being Gone With the Wind (as far as I can tell). It's a good movie, just far easier to appreciate if one ignores the title (and connection to the book).

In comparison, Jane Eyre (1943), though massively cut, is a faithful interpretation, even if Joan Fontaine is depressingly miscast.

Other faithful interpretations include the following:
  • Anne of Green Gables (1985): Jonathan Crombie sadly recently died.
  • The Little Princess (1986): excellent television series.
  • Shawshank Redemption, oddly enough (the tone is totally different, but the plot is faithfully interpreted). 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Interestingly enough, this film also retains, to an extraordinary degree, the point of view of the book. I will address viewpoint in more detail in my next post.
*I refer to the director as the author throughout these posts, simply because it is easier. However, as with a play, movies are the result of multiple authors. War & Peace is Tolstoy. But Henry V (1989) is Shakespeare (naturally), Branagh (to a huge extent) as director, scriptwriter and actor plus the other actors  (Judi Dench's stunning soliloquy on the stairs) plus the costume director (won an Academy Award!) plus Patrick Doyle and his haunting music plus the film's editor.

In fact, the recent movie Hitchcock argues, rightly or wrongly, that without Alma's editing, Psycho would have been a flop! While some books benefit greatly from an editor, the product is two authors at most--plus, perhaps, a famous illustrator like E.H. Shepard for A.A. Milne. Every movie, however, no matter how self-important the director, has many, many hands. One of the pleasures of listening to Whedon is that he is fully aware of this and will tell you how other people contributed to the film, including the actors.


a calvinist preacher said...

I'd say the difference between a faithful interpretation and a strict rendering is that the former is true to the text while the latter is bound to the text. In a way, it's kind of like a marriage relationship - in a healthy marriage, the spouses are true to each other but not enslaved. They are free to be themselves, but are themselves in willing service to each other. A screen or stage production of a book should be lovingly, willingly in service to the book and yet free to be a screen or stage production. Likewise, a book version of a stage or screen production (I think James Blish did this remarkably well with the original Star Trek episodes - going from screen to short-story/book).

But when a spouse is bound, almost chained to the other spouse, the scope to be the self God made is denied and both spouses suffer for it. And when a screen or stage production is chained to the book, both the book and the production suffer.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Interesting analogy! In my last post in this series, I comment that I can forgive a lot of changes in a movie if I feel that the movie-makers appreciate, love, the source as much as I do.