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If we are going to look at adaptations, we should start by considering the best: those by William Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of previously written stories or come from the historical legends of Europe. Romeo and Juliet is based on an Italian poem called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet”, Hamlet is possibly based on the play “Ur-Hamlet”, reportedly bought by the Chamberlain’s Men and re-worked by Shakespeare, and of course all the history plays are dramatic renditions of actual historical events. Originality didn’t seem to bother Shakespeare and apparently we don’t let it bother us with the film and television re-makes we pay for every year: the under-appreciated television thriller Hannibal blatantly uses elements of Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon (both the 1986 and 2002 films) but is beautiful in almost every shot, and Star Wars notoriously “borrows” elements from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress but is an epic classic regardless. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood borrows the Macbeth plot but is no less thrilling than Shakespeare’s original in its own stylized fashion. Adaptations and remakes can go horribly wrong, of course, with too many examples to cite here so I will let you recall your own. While “adaptation” does not beget “originality” in the thesaurus, this is hardly a problem because an adapted work ideally gives us a new way to look at the original story, complete with its own magical canvas of unique brush strokes and new colour palates rethought by the adaptor. So if we do not need to rigorously concern ourselves with originality in story-telling, one can appreciate an adaptation for the new perspectives it can offer that complement or even go beyond the original.
Rebuilding a story already so carefully tempered by the original author or transplanting a relatively complicated plot from a novel into, say, a play, is comparable to cutting up a painting and reconstructing a collage of the same image with the addition of cracks between the tears. The negative space created therein can be pleasing to the eye and draws our attention to new shapes and visions, like in the picture displayed here. If we’re not concerned with originality, we’re not concerned with the author having torn something up in the first place, so long as the original still exists. The adaptation might distance the familiar but it creates something new to appreciate. However, this is only the case if there is in fact something new at all. Without re-invention and re-imagination, all we are going to see is that someone tore something up and poorly put it back together. This is the danger of adaptation.
Recently, I worked on a theatre production for a play adaptation as a research-dramaturg. My job was to look at the play’s author, their influences, the source material, the context for the settings, characters and themes, and then put together a manual for the actors, director and designers to consult as needed in their own processes. I had to quickly curate which material was the most inspirational and artistically rich so that other collaborators could benefit from invaluable research. This particular play was an adaptation of a novel (I won’t name it here) which has also received several film adaptations. The script is mostly centred around the book but the films have influenced it to the degree that an audience member would recognize the film elements within the play. It looked like a great opportunity to take something already in prose and cinema and give it new life on the stage.
For any piece of art, I constantly ask the same questions: why now? Why here? Why this story? Unfortunately, the script could not answer these questions for me. Despite that this story has already been a successful novel, and having critically acclaimed film adaptations, it was not apparent to me what was to be gained by putting it on stage in 2014 or in the city of Vancouver. There was no re-imagination of the story, only recycling pieces of a beloved novel, skipping meaty action and replacing it with lukewarm jokes and necessary adaptation mechanics. Plays do not work the same way movies do–film can snap-cut from one location to the next without losing rhythm whereas in the theatre, setting changes are (usually) done sparsely and only when the action demands it. The script’s pacing read like a film which only serves to pull the audience out of their suspension of disbelief from the story and reminded that they have to wait 25 second until the action can start up again, like hitting a red-light at every intersection between Commercial Drive and Broadway. Style-wise, the adaptation pokes fun of its own genre (not as well as the original author does, though) which invites potential re-evaluation of the genre, but it was done in a way that is irrelevant to contemporary art and makes the whole concept feel like an old joke only your father finds funny. By folding scenes and action together to save theatrical time, it loses some great material that the original author so carefully crafted, much like forcing unmatched jigsaw pieces together to make the whole puzzle look finished under an unscrupulous eye. A story might be structurally sound, but structure should never take place over content which I would argue is the whole point of a story. Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler said, “It doesn’t matter a damn what a novel is about. The only fiction of any moment in any age is that which does magic with words.” Chandler’s poetic prose is an example for any writer to follow and he shows you how to appreciate good writing despite having a bland genre blueprint.A play or a film might be architecturally stable but still lacking in any creative or aesthetically pleasing way; the difference between a practical community-centre-cum-church and the majestic, flying arches of a European cathedrals. One is simply more interesting than the other.
The fact that any writer would decide to take a story that had already been adapted (to critical success) with no re-imagination of the original story raises serious eyebrows about the piece’s value. Perhaps it is a personal attempt by the adaptor to channel a favourite author or literary work into the 21st century. And with our minds being cinematically inclined, it might make sense to keep the adaptation as close to the film-source as possible for loyal theatre-going audiences. But by sticking so close to the original sources only reveals the holes and mistakes suffered in the transplant from one medium to the other, the cracks in the collage. A film is not a play and a play is not a film, and thinking one can easily swap the structural components of one for the other is a lose-lose situation.
But this just brings us back to the original purpose in writing this theatrical adaptation. It has no contextual, social or artistic connection to Vancouver or Canada in 2014. It takes place in the overly-exploited period of the 1940s in a foreign country by an author long dead that most people under the age of 40 have probably never heard of, much less read. What can this adaptation possible add to this story that the novel and the movies haven’t already? If you want my answer, it doesn’t.
Certain dramatic effects are done significantly better by television and film than what can be done in the theatre. Not to say that the former is intrinsically better than the latter; they each have separate strengths and weaknesses. Theatre has liveness. So what is the point in adapting something that succeeded as a novel and was successfully adapted into three films if nothing can be added theatrically? How does an adaptation seize on its own artistic medium in a way that the original material was unable to do? If these questions aren’t answered, the story is just being cut down, minimized and its edges dulled with the blunt instrument of another artistic medium. It is just a ripped up version of the original story that, if anything, arouses more desire for the old version it’s based on. Nostalgia is hardly a sustainable or even tasty main course.
What should be taken away from this is the need for artistic intent that goes beyond personal interest, as well as the need for some indication as to what can be taken from a work unattainable in the other versions. Theatre, unfortunately, has to make this claim of legitimacy in a world where stories are much more freely explored and aesthetically diverse in film and television. Why are we watching this? What are you giving me that I can’t get at home on Netflicks? There may be a core theatre-going audience in the city of Vancouver, and they may be content to see what a film looks like on the stage without any additional dramatic aesthetics, but to cater to them is restricting and severely limiting of ones’ artistic landscape which only results in complacent decay. The purposes of adapting must go beyond medium transplanting and make viewing the story worthwhile, especially if so many adaptations have come before you. Shakespeare pleases us with his language, regardless if we know the story or not. Kurosawa excites us with Rembrant-like compositions. George Lucas had light sabres. If a story has been adapted several times over, something should be added to the experience of the story rather than taken away or chopped up. Adapting a work, any work, is just as hard as writing an original story if not harder because of the need to propel us farther than the magic of the original piece.