Updated September 6th, 2022
I have a complicated relationship with classic adaptation films. I generally find that if you love a text, it’s a lot harder to love the film, and vice versa. There are a few exceptions, typically films which are not afraid to divert from the source material and create two unique experiences, the expectation and the new. When I say divert, I am not talking about changing major plot points or characters, just changing the way we see these characters and settings. This can be as simple as a single frame, a reaction shot which was not included in the source material. A small moment can change everything and make your experience with the story more complex and layered. It can also make a daunting classic text more approachable and human.
What do I mean by classic adaptation? A classic is a novel or story which is well-known, often taught, and generally praised for its subject, style, or legacy. I often find that ‘so-called’ classic works are unfairly positioned at the top of some academic pinnacle, where you must be smart and have several degrees to understand them, let alone critique them. Coming from someone with a Masters in English, i.e. someone who has dealt directly with this system, you don’t. In fact, many of these older academic systems operate along the same lines as the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story, where only the ‘smart’ can see that it is ‘smart’. There are certain academics out there that like a piece to seem unapproachable so they can either have bragging rights or even control the narrative and keep it away from new perspectives. For instance, I have read articles from only 10 years back that still label Mary Shelley just as Percy Shelley’s wife, or as Mrs. Shelley. That dismissal began years prior as some academics argued that Percy Shelley wrote most Frankenstein, despite the overwhelming evidence that Mary Shelley did. The sole reason for that argument was that these primarily white male academics couldn’t believe that a woman wrote such a significant work. Surely, they thought, it had to have been her poet husband. While we have thankfully moved away from that perspective, for the most part, that same group is still out there, dismissing voices who aren’t exactly like them.
I find that film adaptations dismantle some of this reputation, and allow a work to reach more audiences, even encourage them to read the text for the first time or with a new gaze. I call this approach the ‘breath tactic’, as the film gives the story and characters room to breathe. It takes a literal pause from the source material, and in that moment, changes the narrative pace.
Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourite examples of this tactic.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has yet to receive an accurate film adaptation. I would argue the only good Frankenstein films come from director James Whale, who created Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), yet neither of these films are translations of Shelley’s work. They are more of a distant commentary about Shelley’s text, one which was specifically created for an audience who had just been through WW1 and was still recovering from overwhelming trauma and widespread death, something which would continue to build into WW2.
Whale’s 1931 film highlights God’s abandonment and loss of faith, both of which are reflection of the ongoing theological crisis found especially in the depression era. This explains why so many of the changes between the source text and adaptation surround the Creature, who is less of an intelligent and scheming post-human and more of a sympathetic, wounded, and voiceless body brought into a violent world.
Despite the differences between these works, it is impossible to divide Shelley’s Creature from Whale’s work in the modern cultural consciousness. This means that Frankenstein is both literary and cinematic simultaneously.
Although Wale’s production is completely inaccurate, there are moments which bring new meaning to Shelley’s novel. For instance, the scene where the Creature first sees sunlight in Whale’s film does something quite moving.
Soon after the Creature is born, Henry (Victor in the books) asks him to sit down, to demonstrate that he understands English and will listen to commands. Henry then decides to open the roof, so he can study the Creature’s reaction to sunlight. The Creature slowly looks up and walks towards it, trying to grasp the rays spilling into the room. He starts by reaching up, moving his fingers, and closing them on the light. His face contorts slightly as he keeps grabbing at nothing.
It is a profound moment which demonstrates that the Creature has a strong connection to nature, despite his own unnatural state. It also foreshadows the Creature’s approach to the world, as something he can possess and violently grab, like the little girl he will eventually drown. Perhaps this also gestures to Henry’s rationale for building the Creature, as Henry wants to possess and invert the fertile natural world.
Once the roof closes again, the Creature lowers his arms and turns to Henry. What is noteworthy is that he is still moving his fingers. This suggests that the Creature views Henry in a similar way as the sun, as both are sources of life that he is struggling to fully understand.
This short sequence is almost entirely silent, but still incredibly effective. It is the definition of a breath, a moment where the film pauses to foreshadow events and highlight a character’s state of mind.
I would love to spend more time examining Whale’s Frankenstein on this blog, but I’ve already dedicated a thesis to it’s relation with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and now run the risk of plagiarizing myself. It’s called “Monstrous Progeny: Revisiting Mary Shelley’s Creature in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth” for those interested.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina is a spectacle, one which is somehow both epic and small at the same time. While it exaggerates reality, it also finds detailed and singular ways to show a character’s emotional state. Everything about the film is poised and stylized, essentially the opposite of Wright’s earlier 2005 Pride and Prejudice film (see below). It is purposefully theatrical, the environment is set up like a literal stage. This illustrates that the characters lead dramatic lives which are constantly on display for society. It similarly establishes what is at stake for Anna, as she is constantly performing but also trying to find love and authenticity, a small and personal thing, in a hyper artificial world.
Like other Russian epics, the source text features many lengthy descriptions which would be impossible to entirely capture in film. As an alternative, Wright’s film exaggerates these settings and emotions through skillful camera work. The film goes out of its way to perform these moments in an unrealistic fashion to amplify or visualize the characters internal state. The most effective instance of this occurs during the race scene.
For context, Anna is married to a powerful political figure, but is having an affair with one of the riders, Alexei. The race happens on an elegant stage, with Anna and the other aristocrats sitting in balconies, ready for drama. Just before the race starts, Anna begins to frantically fan herself, terrified of what is about to happen. The camera cuts to her husband, who is watching her neck and the fan through a pair of opera glasses. As he does, the sound of her fan blends in with the incoming sound of horses, which links Anna with her lover but also with his horse.
We zoom in towards Anna’s anxious face, as though she is about to betray herself to the crowd and to her husband. But, as the camera shifts, we get a side view of her and the other ladies. For now, her secret is safe. That is until we cut to her husband’s perspective, as he watches her break her fan.
Until this point, Anna’s husband has suspected something is going on, but now he knows. Not because he overheard it, or saw it, but because Anna broke her fan. This small moment has monumental repercussions. He slowly lowers his opera glasses and looks at the race, finally realizing why she is so panicked.
As the racers make a second loop on the stage, Alexei’s horse tumbles into the audience and begins screaming in pain. Anna shrieks Alexei’s name and has a panic attack in front of everyone. Her husband tries to calm her down, but she is crying and gasping like the horse. All around her, the aristocrats have slowed down, and are paying more attention to Anna than the horse. She is the one in pain, and that is more disgusting to the aristocrats than the horse with a broken back. Both she and the horse are failures, as the horse lost the race, and Anna lost her composure and dignity.
We then get two mirrored moments, as Anna struggles against her husband just as the horse struggles against Alexei. As Alexei’s shoots his horse, we see Anna turns to her husband. Although we do not see Alexei kill the animal, the shot sequence still creates that emotion. Anna becomes the horse, shot by her husband’s glance.
What is interesting is that unlike Alexei and the horse, Anna’s husband does not give up on Anna, as he continues to fight for her in this situation and in their marriage. Alexei does not have the same perseverance, and this ultimately foreshadows his later abandonment of Anna.
Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 (2016)
I decided to include one non-film related example, just because it’s the work which introduced me to breath tactic in classic literature. Dave Malloy’s stage musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 has a truly poignant moment which changes everything you know about Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Without spoiling, there is a moment in the musical (in the song “Ball”) where a newly engaged Natasha attends a ball and is accosted by Anatole, a narcissistic lady’s man who is obsessed with seducing her. Natasha feels drawn to Anatole but is also confused and guilty about coming to the ball and dancing with him, as she engaged to someone else. When Anatole suddenly grabs and kisses her, everything in the music and scene freezes and we get this strange drawn out note. It sounds like time has stretched, everything has become uncomfortable and otherworldly.
I love this moment because it so clearly marks a massive shift in the plot and in Natasha. This bizarre sound symbolizes her break from reality, and everything she does in the story henceforth is a reaction to this break.
When the sound ends, Natasha is left alone, and after some confusion, she begins to sing about her love for Anatole. But it isn’t love, it’s something else. She uses love to rationale this assault, as she explains that Anatole must love her, and she must love him, because Anatole never would have kissed her if that was not the case. She is incapable of accepting what just happened to her, because doing so would mean that she has to accept that Anatole intentionally hurt her and her social status.
What follows is Natasha’s desperate attempt to explain the assault. Natasha is willing to sacrifice everything in her life just so she can convince herself that she led Anatole on, and that it wasn’t an assault.
This abrupt yet short moment in the music changes everything about Natasha’s characterization in the source material. She is no longer just a naïve girl who fell in love with a dastardly man. Now, she is a woman trying to traverse her expectations of love and brutal reality, and the social and emotional implications of assault.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Yet another Joe Wright film…sorry.
I am not a huge fan of reading Jane Austen’s work. I find her writing style presents a sort of unrealistic and insincere world removed from ongoing social and political revolutions. I generally have trouble seeing her characters as humans, rather than uptight aliens in petty coats. I think much of this stems from my experiences with certain Austen fans, who consistently glamourize and gatekeep these texts. Not all Austen fans are like this, and things are changing, especially through media. For those struggling to get through an Austen text, it’s easier to listen to them in audiobook form, but greater still to witness them in film.
I love Austen film adaptations for the very reason I can’t finish an Austen text. They show us the human side of these characters, and often modernize certain situations and contexts in interesting and subtle ways. I should preface, Austen’s texts regularly criticize this glamourous and inhuman behaviour, but their legacy within these fan groups does not. My trouble with Austen thus has little to do with the Austen texts themselves, but the overwhelming perception of these texts. That is where film enters the conversation.
Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice brings undeniable realism to Austen work by showing its imperfect edges. Elizabeth Bennet grows up on a farm, and there are several scenes where we see farm work happening, and dirt coming into the house. The girls have mud on the bottom of the dresses, and this makes the contrast between the Bennet’s and Bingley’s even stronger. While the Bennet’s live in a very realistic and imperfect way, the Bingley’s are playing the aristocratic role, one which by comparison, seems artificial and performed. The Bennet’s also try to perform class, but it is not as successful nor seamless.
While the film is not historically accurate, or even a fully accurate adaption, it never tries to be. It’s more of a commentary on how Austen works have traditionally been filmed, especially PBS productions where the people’s movements are jarring and yet never addressed, making this reality feel impossible. Plenty of people dislike Wright’s version for that very reason, because it feels very modern and is disrupting typical Austen representation. But unlike the newest Persuasion (2022) adaptation, done by Netflix, it’s carefully balancing expectation with reinvention, rather than just fully rejecting it.
I’ve spoken about adaptations at length on this blog, and why we often frame film adaptations using romantic terms, asking how ‘faithful’ they were to the novel. This language implies that the viewer’s personal experience with the text must be represented somehow, even though they were not consulted in the making of that film. Perhaps a better way to approach adaptations is to recognize that they will be different, but that difference may offer a new way of reading the text. While it’s not your experience, not what you saw in the text, it was someone’s. It came from somewhere, and following that logic can be really interesting. The breath tactic means a project can move away from the text without changing any events, just taking a step back for a moment, so whatever changes may follow come from this pause, something within what was expected.
For example, the scene in Wright’s film where Mrs. Bennet and her daughters are relaxing at home. They are completely slouched, their dresses creased. That is until one of the girls spots Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley approaching the house. The women begin to panic and rush around trying to tidy this imperfect space. When the men enter the room, the Bennet women have returned to the quintessential Austen narrative and posture with zero trace of the laziness (or just humanness) we just saw.
I find this scene incredible because it does not change the original text, but still manages to change our perception of it. Austen’s text makes far more sense as a performed version of femininity, and arguably that was Austen’s intention. These works aren’t celebrating these system, they are critiquing them, and that sometimes gets lost because these critiques can be quite subtle. There some discussion that Austen believed her texts wouldn’t be popular after her death, because later audiences wouldn’t understand these rigid orders. It would seem to foreign and backwards to them. Austen’s work almost implies that women would eventually be able to bypass these unfair systems, the one which the Bennet women occasionally break from and only use when certain classes and people are around, something which Wright’s film embraces.