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Biology Principles as They Apply to Film

kobieta's picture

The world of Hollywood is very intense and cut-throat, each person trying so hard to be more unique than the next. With well over several decades of history and probably thousands of brains that have contributed to the success and reputation of Hollywood, screen writers and movie producers are trying more than ever to be unique and original. However, as much as society pretends that it is not, Hollywood is still very much a part of life, a part of biology. Years and years of studies have established biological concepts on survival and fitness that not only apply to humans and living things, but also apply to the elements that are part of our lives, just like entertainment and film. More specifically, the principles of adaptation that the discipline of Biology has well established can be applied to film, and has been used to successfully transform novels into film, as shows by the movie Adaptation, which was very loosely based on the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.

Through the definitions of Biology, adaptations are traits “that provide organisms with a high probability of producing more offspring than other individuals within a population” (Principles of Biology). In other words, adaptations are changes, transformations, improvements that not only help the organism survive and make do with its environment, but also help the organism reproduce and share these traits until it has successfully dominated it. The process or force that drives many of these adaptations is called natural selection, in which only certain individuals with more advantageous traits can survive and reproduce. All other factors put aside, the idea of adaptation is that the species and organisms that live in a certain environment react to their habitat and from existing traits and mechanisms, adjust to the environment in able to survive and reproduce, until, ideally, such time that most of the population only has that one trait and there is little variation. This change in the overall composition of the population is what is called evolution. In Biology, change is always constant, is always inevitable, whether it may be in form of a mutation, an evolution, or even just a reaction. The one thing that remains constant however is that there will always be change, and the process of change always follows this specific pattern. The same thing applies to film adaptations of novels.

In the world of movies and Hollywood, the force that acts as natural selection, the power that selects which traits are advantageous or not, are the audience. Just as nature is unpredictable and the traits that are advantageous one year can be disadvantageous the next, the audience of Hollywood films are as unpredictable, never really establishing what makes a good movie; their preferences are always random. But, as with nature, the key is being able to survive—be liked, praised, win awards—and reproduce—which in the world of film means selling them in other forms of media like DVDs, Blu-Rays, and even being able to put it on Netflix. It’s still a survival of the fittest, and the advantageous traits are unpredictable just as they are in nature.

Unpredictable as they are however, there are certain traits that may not have been set in stone to always work, not a “rule [that] says you must do it this way” but rather, traits that when put under natural selection, act like a “principle [that] says, this works and has through all remembered time” (Adaptation). In organisms, for example, although different morphologies and adaptations may be advantageous in different kinds of habitats, it’s almost always a positive change to be bigger in size, because it allows the organism to compete for food and other important resources and ultimately, survive. In the movie Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman refuses to “cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end” and by doing so establishing the “principles” or the processes that have proven to be effective and successful time and time again (Adaptation). Just as nature has proven to prefer bigger body sizes throughout the course of history, society, too, has chosen their preferences, choosing things like sex and drugs, love and growing up—elements that everyone wish they had a little bit more of—as the traits in films that are advantageous, time and time again. While the film uses these proven principles, they further implement other advantageous traits.

Evolution by adaptation is always driven by constant, random changes; much can be said about films that have been adapted from novels and books. The key word is adaptation; the film is not supposed to copy everything as it is from the book. It is a change, an improvement of the novel into a different medium, in which the advantageous traits are different. What works well in a novel, say some ambiguity or long elaborate metaphors and other literary devices, cannot be perfectly translated into film. Therefore, they adapt, the traits become something else and evolve into something that resembles but does not look exactly like its old form. Along with these changes, even more changes occur within the process of adaptation. As aforementioned, the structure is always the same when it comes to the process of adaptation from novel to film. However, the way which the film arrives to its new adaptive traits isn’t always clear. This is where the screenwriters and producers enter. The “originality” that the production team of a film brings into it from the book is likened to the mutations that occur in nature. They create variation, some that are good, some that are bad. Either way, they are changes that occur, ones that are not necessarily expected, but either way, natural selection, or as is the case with film, people will pick on these mutations and they might end up as advantageous. For the film, this mutation, this originality was the twist of adding the screenwriter’s story into the main plot.

The film could have been perceived as a mutation, something so original that it’s probably the first of its kind. But people—natural selection—chose it, liked it, and made it advantageous. The fact that it was very different was what made it so attractive. Of course, it didn’t stray too far from the concepts of adaptation. It was still an improvement made upon the book. It was said repeatedly that “the book has no story…there's no story” (Adaptation). It’s clear that a plot is yet another one of those traits that are deemed advantageous, thus, the novel was expanded, improved upon, adapted in order to survive the harsh criticism from its many different audiences. If they didn’t adapt, the movie probably would have been a failure, would not have even survived long enough to spread. In nature, when organisms adapt, they typically veer towards ONE advantageous trait and keep all the other ones that are not broken, impaired, or affected. This is how the film was adapted. Susan Orleans already had the mutation, the original thought of applying herself to the story of someone else, and Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter for the film, did the very same thing. Again, we see that although it is not a mirror-image of the novel, the film closely resembles the novel. Because of these, it is safe to say that the movie Adaptation itself is an adaptation, while the novel The Orchid Thief is not, but more of an orchid.

In the film, Susan Orleans says that “adapting [is] almost shameful. It's like running away” (Adaptation).  In many ways, her novel, just like her orchid, refuses to adapt, refuses to succumb to the forces of natural selection and evolution. Just as orchids have “’reduced themselves through reverse evolution into nothing but roots and flowers, and they can only survive in a perfect microclimate’ and even in the most dire situations will never asexually reproduce, Orleans’ book has also fought evolution (Orleans 134). It doesn’t stick to normal conventions of what makes an “advantageous” novel; it barely even has a plot. It’s just about an encounter and how that encounter had changed a woman—the author. In contrast, the film Adaptation is an adaptation itself; it has the elements that people select, yet still contain the mutations, the originality that people have come to prefer and select. It has transformed a very stubborn piece of literature into a different species, one that is more advantageous, and perhaps more preferred than the novel it started as.

The principles that govern change in nature are the very same principles that govern change from a book to a film. The big idea is to surviving and reproducing; the point may not even be that people like it. So long as it spreads like wildfire and succeeds in being the dominant new thing in the given environment, it has succeeded in adapting.

Works Cited

Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. Mery Streep, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper. Columbia Pictures, 2002. Film

Orleans, Susan. The Orchid Thief. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.

Principles of Biology. Nature Magazine, 2012. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.


Anne Dalke's picture

Spreading like wildfire?

You take time, in this webevent, to elaborate on the important claim you made in class last week: that adaptation is not about faithful copying, but rather always a process of change, of reproduction with difference. As you know, I'm offering a new course in environmental studies in the fall that looks @ the links between the emerging biological and social systems within which we all live, so your initial "move," claiming that the intensely "cultured" Hollywood system is part of larger, more long-standing biological processes, accords entirely w/ the way I'm thinking about the world these days. I'm especially struck by your calling originality a "mutation," attractive because marking a distinctive difference in an established form.

That said, I'd also suggest a couple of refinements in what you go on to claim. When you say, for instance, that biological "change is always constant," I think of the counterconcept, developed by NIles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould, of punctuated equilibrium--long periods of virtual standstill interrupted by very fast development of new forms. And of Thomas Kuhn's similar contrast of normal and revolutionary science (the first dedicated to replicating what is known, the second to overturning those paradigms).

When you speak of how "natural selection" occurs in the evolution of cultural forms, such as films, I find myself wanting to say that the selection isn't actually "natural," but insistently cultural-and-cultured; that the process you call random intersects with conscious choices, deliberative decisions (which may certainly have unexpected outcomes!). The interesting patterns here (I spent a year in a working group on evolving systems that was devoted to studying this) really have to do with what happens to natural, undirected, random processes when human agents with intentionality begin to participate in--and so alter--the process.

Other questions include a query about whether it really is, in the process of natural selection that is biological evolution, "almost always a positive change to be bigger in size" (really?). I have a related question in the cultural realm, where you describe successful adaptation in these terms: "it spreads like wildfire and succeeds in being the dominant new thing in the given environment." As a literature professor who spends lots of time trying to "preserve" and attend (and get students to attend!) to texts that might get overlooked in popular culture, I would say that "dominating" the market is not the only measure of successful literary adaptation. The only "value added" isn't numbers of readers or viewers. So I disagree that "the principles that govern change in nature are the very same principles that govern change from a book to a film." Similar, sometimes parallel, yes, but not identical.

A few other quibbles: Orleans did NOT write a novel, but a piece of non-fictional prose. And your saying that it's "safe to say that the movie Adaptation itself is an adaptation, while the novel The Orchid Thief is not, but more of an orchid" doesn't make any sense to me, since obviously an orchid is also an adaptation (you yourself describe it earlier as a form of "reverse adaptation," which seems to me more a judgment than a description of a process).

I take the time to offer these challenges because I think your larger framing is a very rich one, filled w/ all sorts of possibilities, and also in need of more nuanced development. Thanks so much for going exploring in this site of "the two cultures." I'm looking forward to the next chapter in your thinking!