by Fiona Wheeler
Not long ago, a fellow writer recommended the BBC’s 1977 thirteen part adaptation of Anna Karenina to me over what he described as the “ridiculous recent Cliff Notes film adaptation” of Tolstoy’s novel, penned by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightly (read the script). He further cited Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited as excellent examples of how screen adaptations should always be made.
It’s a commonly sung chorus: mainstream feature film adaptations and “retellings” of classics (10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, and Easy A, to name a few) are roundly despised and dismissed as lacking artistic merit and intellectual integrity.
Academic D. Lanier (2011) states that Baz Lurhmann’s “hodgepodge of MTV video style and pop visuals’ in Romeo + Juliet waters down Shakespeare to a point of meaninglessness. We all might as well just watch MTV.”
How are these popular movies inconsistent with the Bard’s original intentions, and the way in which he communicated and connected with his audience? Shakespeare himself was, after all, a master of mixing high and low culture. That’s how he created an ever greater audience for his works.
Plus, Will Shakespeare wasn’t rich or well-born. He didn’t have a university education. He was a regular rags-to-riches story. Why shouldn’t modern-day adaptations of his work be aimed squarely at people like him?
The Value of the Mainstream Adaptation
While I love a long and meandering BBC period drama as much as the next person, I don’t agree that long-form adaptations, which cater almost entirely to the niche upper-middle class market, are “inherently better.” Where’s the screenwriter’s originality and creativity displayed in a word-for-word adaptation?
Nor do I agree that they inspire their audience to finally get around to reading the leather-bound annotated edition of Joyce’s Ulysses they’ve been meaning to read since college.
Long-form adaptations of classics have their merits. Anyone who has heard the Brideshead Revisited soundtrack (or indeed Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King) can’t but admit the cultural merit of the work, but those merits aren’t literary. They have nothing to do with the act of reading or the art and craft of writing.
Playing “spot the detail” reduces a great work of literature to a banal list of plot points and word-for-word conversations, which devalues the initial act of reading.
Bridging the Gap
How then do mainstream screen adaptations of classics contribute to the ongoing greater cultural evolution of humanity?
Film adaptations provide common ground. A young adult who reads Twelfth Night, Emma, and Anna Karenina can happily chat about the various screen adaptations of these works with their siblings, parents, and extended family whereas previously their only interactions with these relatives might have been to be bullied, picked on, and otherwise negatively singled out as “different” because of their cultural reading list.
Also, in today’s multimedia, uber-connected world, it’s a fact that many families aren’t able to afford computers or internet access. Those who might benefit most from the research advantages of the internet are least able to find the means to access.
For a vast sector of Westerners, television and DVDs are the primary mode of cultural connectedness, and while adult literacy levels are higher than at any other time in human history, it’s also true that fewer adults are choosing to pick up a book after their final year of education.
Current generations simply won’t have acquired the literary knowledge to pass on to their children and grandkids. Pop culture adaptations of classics bridge this gap.
Television science shows aren’t made to sate the intellectual appetites of scientists; they exist to spark and foster an intellectual thirst where previously there may not have been one.
Mainstream screen adaptations of the classics might lead some viewers to develop a life-long passion for reading and writing. Surely that’s cultural validation enough.
It doesn’t matter how individuals come to reading and writing, or how they choose to celebrate and strengthen their relationship with the written word. What matters is that they do develop such a relationship.
Those who influence society and culture, such as we screenwriters, have a moral imperative to aide and foster a wider understanding and appreciation of great literary classics. Elitist dismissal of pop cultural screen representations of classics puts up further walls between the most disadvantaged members of society and great literature.
We should all seek to break down such walls.
Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.