Thursday, December 24, 2009


Years ago, when amateurism looked like something new, when it even seemed like an invention or discovery worthy of Time Magazine's yearly benevolence, I wrote -- and Heaven help me, enjoyed writing --an article on film adaptation. (I did not want to be part of a social revolution. I wanted to contribute knowledge to high school students who use the Internet for everything.) I enjoyed it for the pleasure of analysis, which is the complementary joy of English composition. Composing (writing) is bringing the stray herd of words and ideas together and making them all behave, making them function toward an end. Analysis is the breaking down of objects, and I love to examine and re-examine and then recombine. (My next will address how sad it is that such a fundamental concept as the difference between synthesis and analysis is forgotten and consigned to Philosophy class, when it's everyday knowledge. It could even be Business.) It is why we speak of "creativity," after all, for the ability to make a new thing from the old is as near to creation as most of us who lack plastic skills will ever get.

(A chimp has the ability to know that its reflection is an image of itself.)

In that article, I said that film adaptation (well, I implied that I said it) is not properly judged for literalness or inclusiveness or total fidelity, that a film is a separate artwork from its source and should function accordingly. How, then, is it an adaptation at all? If your movie of "Along Came a Spider" isn't going to try to be the same as the book I read, then how is it an adaptation? Well, I implied that films are adaptations of a thing in the original, not the whole. One adapts the theme, the aesthetic, the plot, or the worldview of the original, and then one employs the devices and strengths of film's art to do the thing the source did, whether that source was a ballet or a cartoon. One judges the adaptation by the achievement of the sameness within the newness. (It's like composition in that regard; the same words, but a new arrangement.) You keep the plot of the novel, or you achieve the same philosophy as the novel, or the same "point" as it, or the same worldview, or the same "effect" as it, but you use what film does to do it. If you succeed, you have adapted (made to fit). If you fail, you have not.

Adaptation is, therefore, an analytical composition. (The sentence in the Wikipedia article now saying, "it is derivative" was not mine, but amateurs are amateurs, and there's no stopping the boob Asp -- someone with a mania for categories and containers and little interest in the substances inside them -- from stomping along after one writes. I was ever comfortable with impermanence, as the achievement alone was my thrill.)

Alles klar?

There is a "however" coming in this essay. The "however" is with interesting people, like Stanley Kubrick, and dullards, like Roland Joffe. Kubrick's "The Shining" violates the plot, aesthetic, and theme of Stephen King's The Shining, but it's a better film than King's novel is a novel. (Some people say the same about his "A Clockwork Orange," which absolutely violates the intent and worldview and theme of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but I feel that both novel and film are great.) Kubrick's film is not the same at all. It is, in a sense, not an adaptation. However, his artistry and intellectual heft and cultural timing were such that we among the intelligentsia and literati and professoriate forgave him, blessed him, and honored him, and the cinephiles, who never cared about the source works to begin with, carried him about on their sloped shoulders, moth larvae and nits in a displaced nimbus around his frenzied comb-over.

Stanley Kubrick was an interesting person. He was canonized, in the academic sense. He became a lesson in film school, and dull wits always learn the wrong lessons from school.

The problem with dullards is that,
"Some are lost in the maze of schools
And emerge as coxcombs Nature meant for fools." (Pope)

The follow along directors after Kubrick are a loutish lot, half aware, half there. Where he could ignore almost everything Stephen King wrote in order to return to his solitary theme of the duality of the human psyche and civilization's Jungian shadow, he could do so because American, and western European society, was wretched, like Alex de Grand in "A Clockwork Orange" hearing the reminder of his cultural heritage, Beethoven, with the very same theme. How does a world of urban and urbane and polite and political deal with the shuddering bulk, the terrifying grin, the ravenous evil, of holocaust, genocides, and laissez-faire starvation?

[It's a long explanation. I urge you to look at some of the books on Kubrick. The author of The Short Timers, the collection of short stories upon which "Full Metal Jacket" was ostensibly based, wrote an essay for Esquire or The New Yorker or something that I read some years back that talked about his conversations with Kubrick during the adaptation and Kubrick's obsession during that process with Jung. That obsession, whether articulated in Jungian terms or not, is present throughout Kubrick's films. To be too brief: imagine that we have an inherited savage in our subconscious, a violent, gleefully hateful thing that is not the "id," but the negation of civilization. Civilization has to let that creature out in a safe form, if it is to function. Individuals in tightly controlled and anesthetized societies must reconnect with the savage, or else the savage will emerge in a crazy way. Wouldn't it be a good thing for a Jew after the war to examine that, to see in the holocaust and Mi Lai alike an expression of the savage in every apple faced youngster? Wouldn't it be good to take intellectuals, the ones partly to blame for the rise of the mechanized evil of the Reich, and make them confront their own culpability?
Don't believe me. It's ok. They're just movies. The point is that other people think this is happening and so are happy to see a novel by Stephen King turned into a meditation on how suburban marriage (and what would become the main text of "Fight Club" as the "feminizing" of men) can be another control that is susceptible to the Shadow.]

The little shoal of broken heads, scattered wits, and eager tits known as the other directors married the self-congratulatory Film World with the despair-induced coma of post-Modernism ("post-mortemism" is an old joke, but I think there's merit to it, because post modernism is not merely a collection of works without a manifesto, a series of nervous tics without a disease, but it is also a profoundly despairing "movement," in that it proclaims the vaccuum of Movement art; whatever emptiness we may now see in movements, giving up the effort is rather cheap) to announce "Whatever it is, it's alright." Oh, Donald Kaufmann's "Adaptation." doesn't count, so don't even bring that up.

No, if you'd let me...

Look, it's just that it's...

Ok, fine, let's do talk about it.
"Adaptation." doesn't count because it is an examination of adaptation. To say that it is an adaptation that examines adaptation is incorrect, because the adaptation within the examination is merely more cogitation. As a film, it is purely discursive. There is no "inside" to it at all. The film is completely outside itself at all times. Every element of the film, whether visual or spoken or gestured, is not a reference to a world, but a reference to potential references. Each thing is a question, not a statement, and certainly not a statement about the art object that is putatively source.

Now, can I proceed?

No? Well, we'll have to argue about that particular movie some other time, then. Better yet, go to Film Comment and get cheers from the chorus. Meanwhile, I'll while away the mean.

So, these vacuoles that I'm referring to -- wretched creatures like the "remake" of "Wings of Desire" into "City of Angels" or "Bedazzled" or "Wicker Man" -- and the "adaptations" of works of literature like the Roland Joffe horror shows "Fat Man and Little Boy" and, of course, the most flightless, bloated, emetic turkey of them all, "The Scarlet Letter," passed themselves off as "different artworks." Anyone who complained that they had done violence to their originals got dismissed the same way that a fanboi is dismissed for saying, "But Rochester should never have blond hair!"

Because we had recognized that adaptation was not literalism, the film world had taken that as license to "riff on" source material. Because post modernism had used history in original works (like Mason & Dixon by Pynchon) freely as a metaphor, and because commercial media had begun to re-spin source tales over and over again (endless Christmas specials with the same Scrooge-vision for the regular characters of one's favorite TV drama or comedy), film makers had decided that the historicity and factuality of the source had no relevance. In fact, repetition or fidelity was "square" (or, when Gus van Sant did it in his "Psycho," "super post modern"), and so it was the duty of film makers to prove their artistic mettle by artless meddle, and every person unappreciative could be, should be, and must be, one tribe or another of Philistine.

What, then, do we do when new works, completely new works, use the names of old works? Do we say these are adaptations, when both the creators' intent (announced, usually) and execution are not to adapt any aspect or element of the original, but merely to "riff on the classic" or "tell a story the original author didn't get?"

Let me put a case to you away from film to make it clearer. Rod Stewart, who is a fine soccer player, sang a version of Tom Waits's "Downtown Train" and had a top 40 hit, back when there were such things. Stewart's version reiterated the chorus quite a bit, as well as introduced an orchestral marshmallow in both speakers to occupy any quiet, and his producing machine also made sure that there were sweeps of sentiment that simplified any possible irony. Waits's song had been complex, melancholy, and even bitter, and Rod's song had been a rendezvous between lovers. Stewart said, though, that, while he respected Tom Waits, he thought he found things in the song that Tom had missed. So, folks: is he "riffing?" People who would hesitate to object to a violently free film will quickly sneer at Rod Stewart's comment, and yet he kept all of the same lyrics and generally maintained the chord structure. He changed the aesthetic of the song. He kept the frame and changed the heart, because his purposes were different from the original purposes.

Ok, so here's my position. When you adapt, then that's no big deal: you adapt. When, though, you "riff," you have some duty to acknowledge that you are creating a new artwork by creating a new title. If you wish to muddle about with the Gawain story to make it fit the 1950's audience, then have the grace to call your title "Prince Valiant."

Microsoft did a very, very evil thing some years ago when they decided that Java's cross-platform programming language was a threat to their goal of One Ring to in the Darkness Bind Them. They wrote their own version of Java that would run only on Windows machines. This was known as "polluted Java." They released it free, and all sorts of polluted Java got out. It was like a virus, some thought. The biggest thing is that people couldn't tell if they had "real" Java or polluted Java applications, and so they couldn't tell, without laborious testing, if their Java applications were cross-platform or not. Well, an "adaptation" of "The Scarlet Letter" that has Hester and Dimsdale grooving in the woods while Micmac Indians teach the Puritains how to tolerate is polluted art.

"Riffing" on Beowulf is your business. Have a ball! Prove that you have no slavery to history (or fact) by simultaneously insisting that Christian influences in the work are not historical (thus belying your historical freedom as a post-modernist) and thereby continue the work begun by the Nazi scholars but now in the name of your Robert Graves quoting Wiccan friends and merging "myths" from different continents, centuries, and ethnicities in the belief that there must have been some gigantic vanilla porridge of Story underneath that you -- you clever dickens, you -- can decode. Go on! Have fun. Be a director who claims that Beowulf bored him at age 14 and therefore it is a boring work, and be a man who is so filled with satisfaction and self that he cannot realize that he has just admitted that his mind has not grown from early puberty. Go on! Get money for the project. Work with sinews and CGI to erect hundreds of thousands of tent poles in theater seats, and mistake that for interesting -- but do so under the banner of the U.S.'s PG-13. Declare artistry while feeding a multi-input, single-output media machine, and hope for a Christmas release and lots of dolls to be sold. Go on!

Do NOT call it "Beowulf," though. Call it "Wild Wolf, Monster Slayer" or "She Dragon: It's Really Hot in Here." Call it "Handsome and Grendel."

What is being done is not, simply put, adaptation. What the film makers are doing is not any attempt at adapting. It is an attempt at taking a title, of replacement. Roland Joffe wanted to replace Hawthorne's tale with his own, and Gaiman, the pleasures of The Graveyard Book notwithstanding, is not to be forgiven his involvement in the theft film of "Beowulf." As technology has allowed films to tell impossible tales faithfully, film makers have decided to cease even adapting. By itself, that would merely leave room for future films -- a future "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- but it is combined with a gleeful kleptomania and pollution.

Film makers, know this: Post modernism is no cover for theft, and it is no excuse for being a polluter. If you will not adapt, then do not steal. If you will take a name, then be aware that you risk pollution. There are stakes on the table, and some of us still care.

There are items in the cultural inventory that are not disposable. That is one of my objections, and I won't hide it. "Riffing" on a James Patterson novel does not bother me as much as "riffing" on George Eliot. The reason is not any dead white European snobbery, either, but rather than some items exist in a web of reference that constitutes culture, and when we release "polluted Java" into the stream, we are contaminating culture. Additionally, though, the simple fact is that this is not an act of adaptation. It is an act of erasure and rewriting. When the author or or studio executive has that in mind, then the result will be a new thing. It's much better if we notice that The Lion King is Hamlet than that Disney studios called it "Hamlet" and made it with cartoon lions singing Elton John songs, while they claimed that they "saw things that Shakespeare missed in the story" or that "Shakespeare is boring" and so they wanted to improve on it.


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