Adapting History and Literature into Movies
by John Dean
This essay offers an overview of adaptation, an initiation for the educated reader who is not a communications or film specialist. It will reference "The Social and Cultural Construction of Abraham Lincoln in U.S. Movies and on U.S. TV”—but mainly with an eye to the larger issue of cinematographic adaptation itself.
Literature and film, movies and books, compare like apples and giraffes, said contemporary American writer Dennis Lehane.1 But they do compare. They do interbreed. As do history and film. But the question is: How and why do history, literature and movies fruitfully nourish one another? When apples, giraffes, and other exotica interbreed what results?
Many thousands of movies areadaptations from historical or literary sources. Hence the recent internet vernacular of “litflicks”—literature adapted into flicks, the flickering medium of the motion pictures.2 History is generically dealt with by cinema in the epic, period, or historical film. Film historians generally distinguish the epic group from the strict historical group by its sheer size, expense, and the sumptuousnessof the movie’s costumes and sets. The period film is distinguished by the production fact that it can be set in the far distant past or the immediate present, as in the Jazz Age, 1926 version of The Great Gatsby or with the achingly Sixties, 1969 film Zabriskie Point.3
Although literature, history, and movies are distinct forms of communication thousands of solutions andaccommodations have been found so they can get along and have fruitful relationships. The first key is the nature and tradition of adaptation itself. Tales evolve and one generation adjusts the stories of the past to the present time and to its modern needs and ways of story telling. “My dramas are but slices cut off from the great banquet of Homer’s poems,” wrote the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525–456B.C.).4 But Aeschylus’ dramas were leaner and meaner, in search of a higher truth which synthesized moral opposites, profoundly simpler than anything all-embracing Homer ever wrote. For it is the singer, not the song, that makes the splendor of communication successful. And a story retold, as Aeschylus retold Homer, continues. What is beneath the surface of the story that has been told before and willbe told again—a story that has been alive among humans for centuries or millennia?
Literature, History, and Movies
Consider how information exists and knowledge is distilled. How a story is told is as important as its subject matter. Thus, three fundamental points about how the nature of literature and history effect their relation to movies:
First, legend precedes historical fact. DidNestor and Ajax in the Iliad ever actually exist and do what Homer claims they did? Until factual, textual proof is found this remains, at the least, an open question. The Iliad remains legend rather than history, literature rather than history, superstition rather than science. Hence, human culture as we know it shows that literature precedes history as a practice of inquiry, as a creative record ofhuman events.
Second, a fundamental distinction exists between history and memory. History is then, memory is now. A judicious, critical management of documentary evidence allows history to get as close as possible to the facts of the past; then as it was then. Memory is the past remembered and reconstructed through the lens of the present and its building blocks.5 Movies flourish in a popular,contemporary market place. They must entertain the sensibilities of the present. Anachronism is their delight and pleasure. Memory is their very breath. So history inevitably gets short-changed in movies—with some notable exceptions.
Third, with regard to the history of ideas, one distinguishes between an older meaning of literature as literacy and the cultivation of reading (dominant through...
Leer documento completo
Regístrate para leer el documento completo.