‘Adaptations are difficult and it requires patience and knowledge to work out a scenario into good, logical continuity.’ – Photoplay magazine, 1917
I have recently come across a rather poor adaptation of one of the books by Agatha Christie – the movie The Sittaford Mystery (2006). If it was not for such poor retelling of the original story the movie could have been an interesting view on a murder mystery involving the other worldly energies. But this article is not about that but about book to screen and play to screen adaptations and whether it is possible to have a good adaptation at all.
The screen adaptations have existed since the dawn of the cinematography – first adaptations were made already in mid 1910s. Back then, screen adaptations were not exactly a piece of cake. They required patience, skill, vision, and understanding of storytelling both in writing and on screen. As movie making was a new art, it was learned on the go, with many mistakes and flops occurring on the way.
The silent movie makers had one advantage though. They did not need to follow the book or play story to the letter, since movie making, apart from being visually led, had technical limitations that effected what stories could be successfully told on screen. Major limitation was the absence of sound. The silent era movie makers could not turn to dialogues and conversations to help tell a story. Neither they had the luxury of time. Film reels were short and pricey. Therefore, the stories told were revolving around romantic drama, adventure and comedy in its visual but rather simplified form. Such topic as poetic and psychological drama, fantasy, and satire were not possible to tackle successfully at the time. This certainly affected adaptations.
Despite the limitations of the screen and challenges of book and play adaptations, the silent era movie makers found wealth of story ideas in written publications. However, not all book or play stories could be adapted for the screen. Some lacked on plot development and some on action. That is why the adaptations were done by staff writers employed by film studios. They knew tricks of the trade and could adapt into scenario format various books, plays, playlists, magazine stories or stories in synopsis form that had been purchased from free-lance writers. Not always successfully though. Reasons for that were various and ranged from censorship, to lack of patience or knowledge, to cinematographic limitations of the time, to lack of intelligence or common sense in film directors.
‘Firstly, the senseless boards of censors, who are aiming to ruin the film industry. The majority of the works of fiction that warrant film production contain situations that the hypocritical goody-goodies consider unhealthy for the public – after they have seen and enjoyed the pictures themselves. Secondly, the star does not want any character to stand out too prominently in a production, and so, many characters have to be eliminated altogether. Thirdly, the director will decide that the plot is too weak and will insist upon injecting some wonderful ideas of his own. Fourthly, the adapter may consider that he should have some say in the matter and will insert some original touches of his own, which will very likely ruin the whole show, and when it sees the light of the screen the poor original author, nine times out of ten will not recognise the child of his brain.’ – Photoplay magazine, 1917
It does not take much to guess that similar reasons for poor book and play adaptation exist in the current movie making industry. Especially when ‘original touches of an adapter and wonderful ideas of a film director’ are concerned.
Personally, I believe that where adaption is concerned, the original should be followed as much as possible. For, if one wants to express his or her ‘wonderful ideas’, one must take a risk and write a screenplay of their own. But if one decides to adapt a well-known or less so story, one must stay close to the voice of the author and the message she/he wants to deliver. Especially so, that nowadays movie makers do not face the limitations the movie makers of the silent era did.
Books are much harder to adapt than plays - they contain lots of descriptions and have various plot development structures that are not always easy to relay on the screen. Plays are less challenging. Although being constructed purely on dialogues, they lack action and, if poorly adapted, can be monotone to watch on the screen.
‘In making photo dramas from novels the cry is 'Put in more detail and action.' And when you go to make a photo drama from the original every-day legitimate play, you have got to add material enough to double or treble the original manuscript. You have got to show all the things that the characters tell about in addition to showing all the things done on the stage, and then you have got to invent new things which happened before the play began and more things which happened after it was over. Then you may have enough.’ - Jesse L. Lasky, ('Photoplays of Tomorrow', Photoplay magazine, June 1915)
With invention of the ‘talkies’, plays became easier to adapt. A good example of a play to screen adaptation is the movie Blithe Spirit (1945) based on the play of the same title written by a successful British playwright, Noel Coward.
A multitalented Noel Coward, not taken with ‘flicks’, as the British called movies, preferred the theatre stage to the screen. His preference, however, did not prevent his plays being adapted by the Hollywood. One of the first adaptations of his works, the play Easy Virtue, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. In 1933, another of Noel’s plays, Cavalcade, was turned into the movie and won the best picture Academy Award. Despite the Hollywood interest in his plays, Noel Coward did not like the adaptations of his plays, for he thought that his plays were ‘vulgarized, distorted and ruined’. Such a view was mostly based on Noel’s love of the theatre for which he had skills, talents, experience, and inclination. Noel not only wrote theatrical plays but also directed them and acted in some too. Movie making, on the other hand, was something that he had no knowledge of. Thus, the attitude.
In 1927, in support of the national moviemaking industry, the UK government passed the Cinematographic Films Act, which favoured British films and film makers over the Hollywood ones. But it still took Noel Coward a decade before he ventured into filmmaking. He did it by writing his first screenplay In Which We Serve (1942) that he co-directed with David Lean, one of the founders of the independent movie production company, Cineguild. Two years later, in 1944, Noel Coward sold Cineguild the rights to produce his play Blithe Spirit that he wrote in 1941.
Although Noel Coward never quite liked the adaptations of his plays either by the Hollywood or the British production companies, the adaptation of his play Blithe Spirit (1945) is a great example of the movie that, while staying true to the voice of the author, enhanced storytelling by varying of settings, introduction of action, and usage of visual effects and technicolour.
Varying of Settings
The play Blithe Spirit is set in the living room of the Kent house of a socialite and writer, Charles Condomine, who invites to his house an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance to help him gather ideas for his new book.
Whilst one setting works in the theatre, in the movie it can be regarded as claustrophobic and monotone. The cinematographic solution to this was to split the one setting between two locations: the house of Charles Condomine and the house of Madame Aracti, the medium.
The scenes that took place in the house of Charles Condomine were further divided between the house’s bedroom: the opening scene, involving Ruth and Charles Condomine; the living room: the scenes of the séance, conversations held between Ruth and Charles Condomine, and Charles and the ghost of his ex-wife, Elvira; the staircase: mainly connected with the bedroom of Ruth and Charles Condomine, the hall: the arrival of guests, comings and goings of Ruth and the final Charles Condomine leaving scene; the front of the house, and the garden: the breakfast scene. Such division of settings created variety and sense of change.
The exteriors of the mentioned locations were filmed at the Denham Mount house (Charles Condomine's house) and the Fairway House (Madame Arcati's house), Cheapside Lane, Uxbridge, Buckinghamshire.
Introduction of action
In the play, all comings and goings take place in the living room of the house of Charles Condomine. To introduce a sense of progression in the unfolding of the story on the screen, extra action was added. This mostly involved physical movement of the characters such as ascending and descending the staircase – Ruth and Charles Condomine, the servant, Edith; entering and leaving the house – Dr Bradman and Mrs Bradman, Ruth Condomine, the medium, Madame Arcati; driving in the car, a sort of ‘road trip’ during which certain revelations are made between Charles Condomine and the ghost of his ex-wife, Elvira; getting in and out of the automobile – mainly Ruth and Charles Condomine; and walking and cycling along the road – Ruth Condomine, and Madame Arcati, the medium.
Some of the actions introduced were based on the information mentioned in the dialogues of the play - 'the things that the characters tell about '. For example, the conversation where Madame Arcati is mentioned before she arrives at the house of Charles Condomine:
(A bell is heard)
Charles: That’s probably the Bradmans.
Ruth: It might be Madame Arcati.
Charles: No, she’ll come on her bicycle. She always goes everywhere on her bicycle.
In the movie, instead of hearing the characters talk about Madame Arcati, we see Madam Arcati cycling along the road on the way to Charles Condomine house. This scene tells a lot more about the character than spoken words. We immediately get her looks, her dressing style, her mood, her attitude, and her lifestyle and form out opinion about her.
Another great example of turning dialogue into a progressive scene is Dr Bradman and his wife mentioning them seeing Madame Arcati cycling, as they drove down the hill:
Dr Bradman: We’re not late, are we? I only got back from the hospital about half an hour ago.
Charles: Of course not. Madame Arcati isn’t here yet.
Mrs Bradman: That must have been her we passed coming down the hill. I said I thought it was.
In the theatrical play, visual effects such as appearances of ghosts are not possible to act out precisely and believably. Such a ghost will still look very real - of blood and flesh, even with lots of make up applied. In the movie, however, the ghostly effect is much easier to achieve, even in 1940s. Certainly, the effects available back then cannot be compared with computer graphics of today, but the result was still great. The ghost of Charles Condomine's ex-wife, Elvira, as well as the ghost of Ruth, look ghostly enough.
Overall, taking into consideration that the adaptation followed the voice of the author closely, and preserved the logical sequence, it can be regarded as a successful one. With one thing, though, being a flop – the alerting of the end of the story.
The play ends with Charles Condomine going away, freeing himself from the ghostly oppression of his two wives. In the movie, however, he drives away only to have a car accident and join his ex-wives in the Other World. The reason for changing the end of a very successful play and a great adaptation is somewhat unclear. I cannot imagine that Noel Coward himself wanted to alter the end. Most likely, it was the film director, David Lean, who advised on it. His motives are also unclear. Was it that he wanted to adhere to the overall mood of loss and death that prevailed during the World War II years or he simply thought that a differing from the play end would please the movie goers? Perhaps. But, personally, I believe that it did not do any good to the original story. You can, of course, agree to disagree.