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A Critique of the Criticism of Film Adaptations

the.believer's picture

 Jenny Cai

Stories of Evolution and Evolution of Stories

Professor Paul Grobstein

April 15, 2011

A Critique of the Criticism of Film Adaptations

Stories were first communicated orally throughout history before the written text. In this mode of storytelling, the speaker is able to use tone, pitch, tempo and body language to shape the content of the story. In its written form, stripped of these additional sensory stimuli, the storyteller’s tone is weaker which enhances the freedom of interpretation for the reader. The reader is able to mentally depict the content of the novel and to determine the overall tone of the story.  Another form of storytelling developed within this century is films, particularly films adapted from novels. Films portray select content from the novel using visual and auditory stimuli which would replace the reader’s mental version of the novel. The film provides the audience with a specific person at a specific location whereas the novel describes the character and the setting and the reader must mentally visualize these features. By changing the medium, from novel to film, the story is retold from a different perspective. The film’s screenwriter uses his/her own discretion to select the important scenes in the novel to be portrayed on film. And so, critics often comment on the film as a biased, incomplete representation of the novel and in doing so, challenges the fidelity of the film to the original work.

Film adaptations have been on the rise because these adaptations attract a wide population of audience. Film adaptations won about three quarters of the Academy Award in 1927 and have consistently hit the top box office counts. The appeal of making a film from a novel is that there is an already established precedence in the market for the story. Furthermore, the adaptation will attract readers who have invested time in the novel as well as the usual moviegoers. The main task of retelling the story goes to the screenwriter who then tries to capture the elements of the novel and creatively transfer them to a new medium while maintaining the continuity of the novel (McFarlane, 1996). For instance, in the film Adaptation, the screenwriter working on an adaptation is obstinate about maintaining the pureness and beauty of orchids as written in the Orchid Thief. The screenwriter struggles to transfer this essence of the novel onto a script and retell a story that is continuous with the original (Orlean & Kaufman, 2002). To make a successful movie, the screenwriter must be in tune with the author’s intent with the novel and rewrite the story with emphasis on selected scenes to relay this interpretation .  However, the screenwriter is ultimately making personal preferential selections as to what to add in or remove on the script to build up this bigger picture, which is often where the criticism lies.

Criticism for adaptations often focuses on the degree to which the film resembles or captures the spirit of the original work. If the film does not meet the critic’s interpretation of the novel on the aesthetic and thematic levels, then the book is better and the film is cast in a negative light. In response to this concern with fidelity, one can argue that the criticism is subjective because the critic is essentially claiming that the film does not fit his/her individual interpretations of the book. Furthermore, the audience should be aware that the adaptation is the screenwriter’s attempt to retell the story and so the audience is entering into a selective interpretation, the screenwriters fantasy, that is separate from his/her own (Stam, 2005). Geoffrey Wagner proposed three categories for adaptations: transposition, commentary and analogy. Transposition is the direct translation from novel to film with minimal interference, analogous to a direct copy. Commentary describes an adaptation that follows the original work but with purposely altered elements from the novel. Lastly, analogy is further deviation from the original work to the point where the film can be seen as a separate work of art (McFarlane, 1996). By categorizing adaptations into the three categories, the screenwriter’s level of fidelity is made clear and the audience will have a more accurate expectation for the film in its relation to the original work.

            Stories retold by different authors generate different versions of the same story. Each storyteller has individual interpretations of the original and these insights are highlighted in his version of the story. In the earliest recollection of time, stories were first told orally before documented on paper. In today’s society, films retell stories from a written work and the screenwriter is tasked with transferring pieces of the novel onto a script in such a way so as to preserve the continuity and mood of the novel. As the audience immerses into the film, they are entering the mind of the screenwriter and seeing an interpretation of the novel through his window. However, a critic often undermines this point and critiques the film based on the extent to which the film correlates with his/her own analysis and understanding. To promote constructive criticism, the filmmakers should categorize the adaptation as a transposition, commentary or analogy and the critic should separate his interpretations of the novel from the film adaptation. Overall, the adaptation serves as a story retold from the screenwriter’s perspective and should not be seen as a replica of the original author’s literary work, rendering many critiques of adaptations obsolete.







McFarlane, B. (1996). Novel to film: an introduction to the theory of adaptation. Oxford University Press, USA.

Orlean, S., Kaufman, C. (Producers), Jonze, S. (Director). (2002). Adaptation. America: Columbia Pictures

Stam, R. (2005). Literature through film: realism, magic, and the art of adaptation. Wiley-Blackwell.




Amar Dinkar Shinde's picture

very helpful information

very helpful information.Thank you