The Art of Book-to-Film Adaptations

The most famous film (admittedly, it may also be the only film) directly concerned with the translation of literature into cinema must be Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation*.  Now, Adaptation is, at least putatively, an actual adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief.  But the way in which Orlean's reportage is constantly mangled and travestied en route to film is the running joke embedded in the screenplay, whose subject is, unsurprisingly given its title, not so much the theft of orchids as the act of adaptation itself, and the technical, commercial, and artistic challenges of taking a work in one medium and finding a way to convey its essence in another.  It's also about the humiliating demands and knee-jerk, unimaginative restrictions placed on Hollywood screenwriters, and, as such, it contains some moments whose oblique, angry hilarity are all but invisible to anybody who isn't a Hollywood screenwriter.  When I saw the film in a Berkeley movie theater some eight years ago, there were a few key moments when I was the only person in the room laughing.  Had I seen it in Los Angeles, I imagine I would have had more company.


But Adaptation, for all its considerable brilliance, is also something of a stunt.  I don't use the term pejoratively;  my admiration for Kaufman's achievement is unalloyed.  But the film is by its very nature a one-off, much too bizarre, much too self-referential, much too meta to serve as a model for anything but its own spectacular, showy self.

There is, however, another novel-to-screenplay adaptation of comparable brilliance, whose phenomenal ingenuity is all but undetectable unless one considers a priori the challenges posed by the source material.

John Fowles doesn't seem to be much spoken or thought of now, at least not in the United States, but in his prime he was a very good novelist, and there was a span of a bit over a decade when he had an impressive run, producing in succession four memorable works of fiction that still deserve a readership.  The French Lieutenant's Woman, a best-seller when first published in 1969, may be the best of them, and is certainly the best-known.  It misses greatness by a hair, arguably;  its eponymous heroine (the author himself refers to her, erroneously, I should say, as the novel's protagonist) is a bit underdeveloped as a character, and the denouement (or denouements, as I'll explain in a moment), in which members of the Rossetti family suddenly make a surprise and utterly unprepared appearance, qualifies as a very big stretch from a very distant left-field.  But despite these weaknesses, its merits are considerable, and the skill that went into its making is nothing less than virtuosic.  Perhaps most impressively, it plays post-modernist games with narrative while at the same time giving the conventional demands of narrative their full due.

In brief, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a sort of pastiche of Victorian romantic fiction, told in a stylized prose of pitch-perfect accuracy that falls just this side of parody.  The novel tells the story of Charles Smithson, a well-born gentleman of modestly heterodox views who conceives a grand and socially impermissible passion for a mysterious young woman with a scandalous past.  It would work perfectly well as a straightforward tale of love and intrigue set in the 1860s on the Dorset coast and amid the stews of London.  Seduced and abandoned damsels, storm-tossed lovers, marriages of convenience, thwarted ambitions, governesses and heiresses, brothels and gentleman's clubs, upstairs and down, all figure in the mix.

But Fowles was after more.  Immersed as he was in the literature of the period and knowledgeable as he was about its ethos, he wanted his novel to work both straightforwardly as a Victorian novel and at the same time as a gloss on the Victorian novel, and on Victorianism.

To accomplish this, the novel's narrator—i.e., John Fowles—becomes a sort of character himself.  For almost the entirety of the novel, he is an invisible character, whose Victorian cadences nevertheless provide allusions not only to contemporaneous ideas and events, but also anachronistic references to Freud and Marx and a full panoply of ideas and historical developments whose flowering awaited the 20th century.  He is both of the period and removed from it, accepting of its mores and regarding them critically from the vantage point of a century hence.  But although of course visible, or at least audible, to us, he plays no role in the fictional events unfolding within the novel's pages.

And then, near its end, in a remarkable passage (that, among other things, obviously made a lasting impression on Martin Amis, as any reader of his masterpiece, Money, can attest), the author unexpectedly enters a train compartment in which Smithson is sitting—Smithson glares at him, resenting the intrusion —and examines his creation in perplexity, wondering what to do with him next.  Smithson has been placed at a dramatic crossroads, the conclusion of the novel can take several different directions, and John Fowles, clad in Victorian garb, seated in a Victorian train compartment, facing the Victorian gentleman of his own devising, can't decide which direction his handiwork ought to take.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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