Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adaptation is always a hot topic when it comes to discussing about creativity, and so it came when a few of my old students from L V Prasad Film and Television Academy visited me at my Studio - ScreenWrite.In

I think the prototype of adaptation is what John Ford (Director) did with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940), which was a book of over 400 pages boiled down to two hours (screenplay by Nunnally Johnson). Somehow Johnson and Ford get the essence of that book on film. The same with William Goldman’s Marathon Man – a 336-page novel adapted to a movie time of two hours and five minutes, by the author himself. (Wow! I adore William Goldman!)

These two projects were in the back of my mind when I did ‘Soorya Manasam’ (Malayalam – actors Mammooty, Shawkar Janaki dir. by Viji Thampi) an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novella ‘Of Mice and Men’. The literary material I was dealing with was schizophrenic, emotional and down to earth, and kind of unpredictable. The book had an unsophisticated pace and a lazy rural quality.

I have seen many nomads in my childhood (mostly from rural North Eastern states of India)who used to come to my household for carving stones for traditional grinding for making dough, the way they move around from place to place, their lives always connected to movement at a certain pace. I reckoned I should keep that feeling when I wrote ‘Soorya Manasam’. I didn't want to go too far where the pace got sagging, but at the same time it couldn't be staccato because it wouldn't be true.

In literature, the author has the opportunity to explore in pages all kinds of explanations inside of characters' heads. You can be more psychologically motivated than you can in film, where you have a finite medium, where you have to give an image and a certain set of audio and visual information presented clearly.

When a film is an original idea, at least for me, it writes itself. It won't let you sleep. It wakes you up. You're writing on napkins. You're almost having wrecks on the street trying to talk into the tape recorder. When you adapt a screenplay, my experience is that somehow you are so mindful of the spirit of another work that you are always trying to keep from being a generation removed. You run the danger of being one generation removed from what the author was able to do with the book initially.

Somehow we need to teach ourselves how to approach adaptations safely as neither movie barbarians nor literary purists. A film shouldn’t need to form fully from a writer / director’s cerebral approach in order to be deemed good. Nor should an adaptation tethered too tightly to its source. The Scarlet Letter (screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart) didn’t fail because it was unfaithful to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel; it failed because it wasn’t a very good film.)

In Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Devdas (2002) irrespective of the studding star cast, Saratchandra Chatterjee’s novel is badly adapted as compared to Dev.D (2009) Anurag Kashyap has made. Comparatively the screenplay generates a version of the source-story, which is curiosity generating either by the pictures that back emotions or the purity of emotional content in relation to the current placement of the topic. Dev.D has achieved both and hence a better adaptation.

For artistic, financial, and practical reasons – (there will always be a large percentage of people who never read the literary source) – films must succeed on their own terms. At the same time, though, they shouldn’t replace the stories they are based on – though we the reading public, have let this happen all too often. In the best cases, adaptations extend, enhance, and elaborate on their sources. And when the pairing of director and author is complimentary as with Julio Cortazar and Antonioni (Blowup), or Altman and Raymond Carver (Short Cuts), or interestingly William Goldman and William Goldman (Marathon Man) they do even more. Then the works and themes of each artist gain synergy and resonance when taken in concert, and even the differences are instructive.

“In the end the film is there, and the stories are there and one hopes there’s a fruitful interaction.” – Robert Altman, Director.


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