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Literary Film Adaptations as Educational Texts

Arne Engelstad

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the interesting process of transforming a work
of literature into film. What happens when narratives expressed through the written
word are to be told in a language of sound and moving pictures? And, most important
in this context, to what extent are literary film adaptations useful as educational texts?

Literature becomes film

Lord of the Rings, City of God, Chocolat, La Pianiste, Girl With a Pearl Earring,
The Constant Gardener, Brokeback Mountain – these are well-known film titles
from the past years. They have one thing in common: All of them have literary
sources, they are film adaptations of novels or short-stories.
Adaptation is not a new phenomenon at all. Intertextual studies show that stories
always seem to derive from other stories. Even the ancient Greek playwrights, like
Sophocles and Euripides, based their plays in most cases on myths and stories that
had already been told. The British scholar Christopher Booker recently published a
very thorough piece of research in which he showed, and in fact proved, that most
stories of the world – from myths and fairy-tales, novels and plays to Hollywood
films and TV soap operas can structurally and thematically be reduced to “seven
basic plots” – which is also the title of his study (Booker, 2004).
But the adaptation proper, when a specific work of literature is retold in a
multimodal medium – a film, or perhaps a video game – is a relatively modern
feature. My studies of film adaptations in Norway show that between 40 and 50 per
cent of all full length fiction films have direct literary sources – the number
depending on whether to include an already performative and multimodal genre as
the theatre play, or – as I prefer – to concentrate on literary epic sources, like novels
and short-stories. The hunt for literary narratives to base a film on seems to increase
for each year. In Norway, as in most other film producing countries of the Western
world, film makers race to buy options of any new novel that seems to have
adaptation possibilities.

Three major reasons for adaptation

Why, then, do movie makers to such an extent search their book-shelves for
material? There are at least three obvious reasons to be mentioned:
First, there is the bestseller argument. Film making is an expensive and very risky
business. To base one’s film on an already well-known bestselling book is a
guarantee that the adaptation will benefit from this and attract numerous readers.
Even if the film turns out to be a disappointment, it will still avoid becoming a
disastrous financial flop.
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Secondly, there is the prestige involved in the film’s close relationship to literature,
especially literature by authors of high standing. Nearly from the very beginning of
film history, the young medium tried to get away from the label of light and
superficial entertainment by making alliances with the far more respectable medium
of the written word. In Norway, one of the first real successes on the silver screen
was a Swedish film adaptation from 1916 of Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem Terje Vigen.
Two of the first Norwegian full-length movies from the beginning of the 1920s were
based on novels by Knut Hamsun – Growth of the Soil (Markens grøde) (1921) and
Pan (1922).
Last, but not least: One major reason why films are based on books is simply that
the best story often is to be found between the covers of a novel. In spite of
numerous classes and courses and a vast production of manuals and handbooks in
screenplay writing, there are still far too few top quality screenplays originally
written for film. The film industry will most probably have to depend on novels and
short-stories in times to come. For those among us who work with the book-into-
film process in educational contexts, this is a very comforting fact. It means that also
in the future there will be produced a lot of useful material for adaptation studies.
In addition, the development of several theories of literature and the media through
the past decades seems to have created a positive climate, as it were, for adaptation
studies. By this I refer to theories and methods that do not involve any hidden and
implied concepts of a hierarchy between different genres and media, and I shall
mention some of them in a moment. To adaptation studies, it is of vital importance
that the two discourses, the novel and the film, can be compared on equal terms of
quality, regardless of their semiotically different ways of expression.

Logophilia and film scepticism

A joke attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, who was renowned for turning mediocre
novels into film master pieces, tells about two donkeys eating scrapped film reels in
the backyard of a Hollywood film production company. “Is it any good?” one
donkey asks the other, who is in the process of eating a film. “Yes”, the gobbling
donkey answers, “but the book was much better!” The deeper meaning of this joke
is probably that only a donkey would claim an adaptation’s loyalty to its literary
source in such a way.
In some academic circles, though, one can still observe, after more than a 100 years
of film art, an attitude to the film medium as being inferior in itself to the written
word. One could with film theorist Robert Stam speak of a certain logophilia, and an
often corresponding iconophobia (Stam, 2005).
This involves a notion, perhaps derived from the inevitably physical nature of the
film, that it is unable to transform the telling modus of the book successfully into the
showing modus of the moving pictures, that the thoughts and the conceptual nature
of the novel is simply not transformable into film action and dialogue. This is all the
more surprising since the same persons would not dream of hinting at such
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limitations when speaking about the theatrical stage and the range of expression
available for playwrights: Shakespeare, say, or Ibsen.
Most certainly there exists also still a certain kind of social class distinction
associated with the book and the film respectively, the first having as it were a
certain bouquet of good wine associated with it, the second, however, a rather
distinct smell of popcorn.
But the main reason for scepticism is perhaps that the film is still the younger
medium, and although it has been the dominant narrative medium for the past
decades, it is still suffering from an inferior complex towards the book, the dominant
narrative medium of centuries before. One is reminded of Socrates and his
scepticism and fear facing the new medium of his life and times – the written word.
What would happen to people’s heads and their ability to memorize, Socrates asked,
when thoughts from now on could be expressed and preserved in writing? He had a
point, of course. On the other hand the written word and the book as a medium
certainly soon compensated for the reduction it imposed on oral culture. Perhaps we
can look at the relationship between book and film in much the same way: the
written word is certainly unbeatable in many respects, but the film undoubtedly has
its means of compensating. Thus, we should treat them not as rivals or each other’s
parasites, but as forms of expression that may complement each other, for example
in the case of literary film adaptation.

Theories in favour of adaptation studies

Luckily, the tolerant view expressed above, is supported, directly or indirectly, by
several recent theories and methods.
– Narratology, to mention one, describes the nature and the elements of a
narrative – regardless of its form of expression being verbal, visual or
– Intertextual studies have showed us that even the seemingly original story
has its precursors, a fact that somehow reduces the absolute authority of the
source text in an adaptation process.
– Interart and intermedia studies search for the equivalents of expression
across the different arts and across the media. The research into
correspondences between the specific languages of novel and film is a
natural part of such cultural studies.
– Reception theories – reader-response and viewer-response – maintain that
there is no standard, no ideal interpretation of any text or any artefact.
Following this view, the often heard accusation against a film adaptation
for not being true to or loyal to the book it is based on, falls to the ground.
Besides, a critic’s claim for such a loyalty or fidelity to the source novel, in
most cases seems to be about the fidelity to the critic’s own interpretation
of the book.
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Summing it up so far: Literary science in many ways encourages the relevance and
the importance of adaptation studies. We have also seen that there is no shortage of
material for those who want to work within this field. Two major questions remain
for me to discuss: Why should we study film adaptations in school? And how could
we do it, using what method or study model?

Why study film adaptations in class?

The study of film, its specific language and specific codes, is in itself important, not
only to our pupils and students, but also to ourselves. We are all great consumers of
moving pictures, but learning to read films is another matter than just consuming
them. The study of the adaptation process from novel to film in addition offers an
insight into the nature of expression through words and through pictures,
respectively. In what contexts do the seducing powers and the suggestiveness of the
film really unfold? And when is one word capable of saying more than a thousand
Another very good reason for novels-into-film studies in school is that such studies
clearly stimulate the interest for literature, for reading. Through my own teaching I
experience this, and there are numerous examples of film adaptations causing a
demand for the books they are based on. Frequently, old and little known novels
experience a revival. After successful Norwegian film adaptations, long forgotten
novels like Knut Hamsuns Sværmere and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons Fiskerjenten have
been reprinted, published in paperback with pictures from the film on their covers
and sold in newsstands along with magazines, papers and comic books. Even an
author with a more limited accessibility, like Virginia Woolf, gained a considerably
enlarged circle of readers after the adaptation of her own Mrs. Dalloway (1997) and
of Michael Cunninghams The Hours (2002).
There is also the new phenomenon of novelization. When Charles Dickens’ Great
Expectations was filmed for the last time so far in 1998, lots of people wanted, as
usual, to read the book on which the film based itself. For a number of
inexperienced young readers, however, Dickens’ original was too much of a
challenge. Instead they chose to read a light version of the story, based on the film
screenplay – a so called novelization. Naturally, this is a controversial type of novel,
but some people maintain that sometimes it is a good thing that young people read
books at all, and that a light version is far better than no version. In any case, the
reading of the novel is stimulated by the film adaptation.

Novels into film. A model for classroom work

There are undoubtedly a lot of ways to work with film adaptations in an educational
setting. I have made a model that I follow more or less in my own teaching, and that
very often leads to interesting discussions in class. I will finish this introduction to
the subject by giving a brief outline of this model. It consists of four steps after we
have read the novel and seen the film adaptation of it.
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First, we concentrate on comparing the two discourses on a strictly narrative level.

This direct comparison is possible because the film manuscript basically is
comparable to literary genres. The synopsis and the treatment, for example, that
represent stages towards the screenplay, are in fact very much like the short-story. In
this part of the process we try to answer questions like: What has been kept of the
novel’s narrative? What has been reduced – and why? What has been changed from
novel to film narrative? What has been added – and why?
Secondly, we study the apparent results of the transformation from verbal to visual
representation, from telling to showing. What happens when words become flesh, so
to speak? Do we get a different impression of the characters of the plot and the
relationship between them when we can watch the situations for ourselves, than, for
example, when we are forced to rely on the novel’s first person narrator?
Thirdly, perhaps the most interesting part of the analysis: Has the film adaptation
tried to develop film equivalents to elements in the novel that are not directly
transferable? What has for example happened to the interior monologues, to the
shifting point of view of the novel, to the poetic language of the book? Has the film
used some of its specific elements like music, light, colour, camera movements, film
editing to compensate or perhaps even to create new aspects?
Finally we collect all our observations in an overview of the film’s main theme or
themes compared with the novel’s. How has the film in question interpreted the
novel? What may be the reasons for this choice? Has it perhaps to do with a modern
reading of an old story? Has gender anything to do with it – female author, male
director, for example?
Film and television and the part they play in our lives, not least in the lives of our
pupils and students, represent big changes in the learning environment. Naturally,
this must have consequences for the textbooks and the educational media that are
produced now and in the future. Through this brief presentation of literary
adaptation work in education, I have suggested a method which deals with not alone
the modern multimodal texts, but also offers a possibility of building bridges
between the traditional and the modern, between literature and film.

Booker, Christopher. 2004. The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories. London and New
York: Continuum.
Stam, Robert. 2005. Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation. In: Robert Stam
and Alessandra Raengo (eds.). Literature and Film. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.