Adaptations: Passionate, Not Precious

Last weekend, I was visiting my girlfriend in the suburbs of Boston. Wishing to push my absence from the Big City to its breaking point, we decided to go camping in the woods of nearby Plymouth (everything in Massachusetts is frighteningly close together). “Glamping” (glamour+camping) is probably the appropriate portmanteau; the site we chose at random turned out to have coin-operated showers, running toilets, a store with firewood, sunscreen and other essentials, and wi-fi available at daily or hourly rates.

We enjoyed living off the land as best we could the first night, then bummed around the town of Plymouth all through the following day, before being caught in a rainstorm that erased any plans of sitting around a fire. Feeling ashamed of our bad camping spirit, we trekked off to a nearby mall theater and caught what must be one of the last screens in the country showing The Great Gatsby.

Artists should tread carefully when dealing with classic stories people have deep and personal connections to, but as...the number of viable stories dwindles, clinging tight to the idea that certain pieces of art are sacrosanct becomes less of a tenable position.

I’m a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel: it stands head and shoulders above an entire generation of quality literature as a beautiful and elegant paean to a time when we still believed in the American Dream. It should be unsurprising that I was wary when yet another filmed version was announced. The book has been adapted for the screen a whopping six times (in a previous article, I erroneously cited seven adaptations), including Baz Luhrmann’s most recent effort, but the entry freshest in the minds of viewers is probably Jack Clayton’s 1974 film starring Robert Redford as the eponymous bootlegger. It was critically savaged upon its release, even with a script by no one less talented than Francis Ford Coppola, and seemed to firmly entrench the idea that The Great Gatsby was simply unfilmable (a made-for-tv movie in 2000 didn’t help). Why would anybody think that a shock-jock ringmaster like Luhrmann could do any better, especially after the atrocious trailer and lukewarm reception?

In case you haven’t figured it out, I was prepared to hate this movie, but was pleasantly surprised. The criticisms aren’t unfounded: Luhrmann’s fingerprints are definitely all over the final product, some of the casting is questionable, I still think the contemporary score is a total misfire, and the framing device of the entire film is totally unnecessary. Still, Luhrmann’s trademark fever-dream style works well, and the glitz and glamour of the production fades appropriately as the story lurches towards its heart-wrenching conclusion. All things considered, the film made me want to revisit Fitzgerald’s classic yet again, while remaining a unique and wholly separate artistic project.

My own unpopular opinions aside, perhaps it's high time we story purists reconsidered our ironclad stances when it comes to our darlings. Maybe an insistence that contemporary artists stick to the script when adapting the classics (or, as some would have it, refrain from adapting the classics at all) is a recipe for disaster. It’s been said there are a finite number of basic stories available to writers, and it stands to reason that even the most talented storytellers are going to tell updated versions of the same story. If this is so, why should we force those storytellers to pretend there isn’t recycling going on, and if we accept it in general, why should we prohibit the necessary changes that make adaptations stand apart? Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s a difference between taking style cues from a fashion icon and getting plastic surgery to look like them.

At the risk of further alienating myself from our reader base, I feel compelled to expound on yet another adaptation that surprised me recently: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.  A caveat to the many comic book fans who are sure to blow up the comment section, as well as the more learned comic book authorities who work for this site: I’m not a huge comic book person, and I’m especially not a Superman person. He was always my father’s superhero: steeped in archetypes, impossibly old fashioned, and so bereft of pathos you might have sworn he was a robot (and you might have felt vindicated if you read the heinous “Death of” and “Return of” Superman story arcs, but I digress). Yes, I’m aware Superman was the first hero and he set up all the archetypes and blah blah blah blah. The fact remains that the character hasn’t aged well, by and large, and until recently, the only on-screen Man of Steel I had any connection to was George Reeves, from The Adventures of Superman, which my dad and I used to watch on Nick at Nite.[1]

I really enjoyed Man of Steel, and as an avowed Zach Snyder hater, I feel secure in saying it’s easily his best film (the only other Snyder picture worth talking about is his directorial debut, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake). Nolan works wonders as a producer, keeping Snyder’s garish Michael Bay-esque qualities in check, only unleashing them when appropriate, and Nolan and Goyer’s story serves up an appropriate blend of origin and action. This isn’t a full review, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and judging by the weekend box office ($125 million last I checked), most of America did as well. While the audience reception has been hot, critical reaction has been lukewarm (but let’s face it, there’s a pretty thin line between comic book fanboys and film critics these days), with many hung up on notions of what a Superman movie is “supposed” to be. Superman is apparently not supposed to have any pathos or emotional journey (or “be a bitch” in the parlance of educated Internet commenters), and Man of Steel apparently has too much action, not enough action, is too concerned with loss of human life, or isn’t concerned at all. One review even insists that it’s a wrong move to have action alongside character growth, which is just as baffling as it is sad.

All that aside, the most foolhardy item floating around in the critical soup is the notion of what a story like Superman’s is “supposed” to be. Yes, this is a classic tale, more or less The Odyssey for colorful-tight wearing do-gooders, and these days, the Man of Steel is more recognizable than any other character in the medium of storytelling. Still, the modern Superman “canon” contains enough writers and story revisions to stuff a clown car, and, as with any long-lasting comic book, is subject to endless ret-conning, alternate universes and  chronologies, and other dilutions that make nitpicking what Superman is “supposed” to be all the more ridiculous. It’s as silly as fighting over which version of The Bible is the one true word of God.

Artists should tread carefully when dealing with classic stories people have deep and personal connections to, but as storytelling continues and the number of viable stories dwindles, clinging tight to the idea that certain pieces of art are sacrosanct becomes less of a tenable position. This is not to say that there aren’t studio heads and other unscrupulous money-mongers who will milk any concept for a quick buck, but Luhrmann and Snyder have both delivered their own interpretations of beloved stories that stand alone as unique experiences and invite the audience to explore the source of inspiration, an achievement which can’t be overlooked in a cultural landscape so clogged with garbage. We’ll all become our parents one day, but for the time being, let’s try to be open-minded when the next adaptation rolls around.

I can’t wait for The Great Gatsby II: Wilson’s Ghost.

[1] Reeves apparently died at 45 from a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances. You can read about it in Hollywood Kryptonite, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Being an adult is weird

John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 26, 2013 - 10:42pm

Before I got my degree to teach English, I got a degree in film and video production. It was interesting to see what goes into adapting a text. We were always told that it would be a crime to be 100% faithful to a text because some stuff isn't as interesting to see in a film. Then there are the time constraints. A huge part of the reason adaptations are met with protests/anger is because we all have our own mental adaptation in mind before we see someone else's vision. It rarely ever meets our mental picture because it isn't ours, and it never will be.

A good example of the anger toward an adaptation is The Hunger Games. There were a bunch of people who were pissed off that the little girl playing Rue was black. In their mind, she was white and it invalidated the power of her story by making her black (racist much?). She didn't meet their racially vanilla mental picture, so they felt betrayed.

I could write a novel about the subject, so I'll stop now and spare everyone. Haha

Brian Ingham's picture
Brian Ingham from Stillwater Oklahoma is reading There is No Year by. Blake Butler July 8, 2013 - 12:14pm

SammyB, very well said, I agree 100%. Great Article!

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster July 27, 2013 - 4:34pm

Well done, and personally, I loved Man of Steel. I always found Superman totally unrelatable, because he seemed so perfect (even his hair was always perfect... please). This Superman was certainly incorruptible morally--at least, he seemed so to me--but he had emotions and character and depth and was a truly sympathetic character. 

Reinventing a character will always have criticism leveled at it, and daring to add a dimension to a character that maybe was subtle or never-before-seen will always be risky, because you're bound to annoy a certain percentage of your supposed built-in fan-base. I think that film-makers do have a certain responsibility to their fan-base to not completely butcher a work, managing to miss the central point of the work and just sort of take off on their own thing while calling it, say, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (but I digress), but adaptation is just fine.