In The Spirit of Fidelity

Dudley Andrew in Well-Worn Muse discusses the fidelity of adaptation. He states that “Unquestionably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation (and of film and literature relations as well) concerns fidelity and transformation. Here it is assumed that the task of adaptation is the reproduction in cinema of something essential about an original text; we have a clear-cut case of a film trying to measure up to a literary work, or of an audience expecting to make such a comparison.”(Andrew 12). I think Andrew is trying to say that when dealing with film adaptation we have expectations of what it should be as well as what we expect the audience to expect it to be. However he goes on to say that this issue goes deeper. He explains that creating a “skeleton of the original can. More or less thoroughly, become the skeleton of a film.” (12) So if creating eh skeleton is accurate and more plausible to create, then what is challenging? Andrew says its the difficulty lies in the “fidelity to the spirt,” the essence of the original, the feelings and tones it evoked. I feel this is where the hard questions get asked and what ultimately most people wish to know. Is it faithful to the original? Is it as GOOD as the original? WHY are they adapting this? HOW will they adapt this? I think keeping in the spirit of things is always the most difficult thing to convey honestly to the audience. When I say honestly I don’t mean that those who are adapting this work don’t want to achieve this spiritual fidelity, I mean that the audience dismisses the work that was done on the part of the adaptors because of allegiances they have to the source material or the aforementioned comparisons that Andrew discuses that we expect to make as the audience. This goes back to Bazin when he talked about a proper adaptation and how “All it takes is for the filmmakers to have enough visual imagination to create the cinematic equivalent of the style of the original, and for the critic to have the eyes to see it.” So what happens when the greatest and most critical of all critics, the audience, doesn’t see it?

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4 Responses to In The Spirit of Fidelity

  1. Melissa M says:

    These questions you pose are very interesting. Have you ever seen an adaptation, and thought oh that was a great movie, it made the book realistic, and then pick up the New York Times review and read about the movie getting bashed? For me, this instance has happened a few times. As an audience, we all see things differently, so for some of us, it works, and for some of us it sometimes doesn’t. So the question is, is it possible to please an entire an audience, or is the creation never going to live up to the expectations of the original piece in the eyes of the audience as a whole? Balázs says “Film can lifts such a figure out of the greatest crowd and devote special attention to it, penetrate deeply into its emotions and psychology.”(221) Comparing this and what Andrew says about comparing a film to a literary work, I believe they are two totally different arts, which can impact an audience differently depending upon the individual. Sometimes an adaptation can feel so real, that it releases more emotion than literature could do.

  2. I wonder, more generally, what you think of Andrew’s anatomical example. Is making a film or a novel really like making a human body? Is the skeleton really the most important thing to “hold together” a text? What would the “skin” of an adaptation be?

    • Mike Salerno says:

      For me, Andrew’s claim that the “skeleton of the original can, more or less, become the skeleton of the film” (12) implies that the plot elements in the narrative of a novel can become the plot elements in the narrative of the film. But, as you have suggested, a skeleton is only a structure and can’t stay together without muscles, skin, tendons, etc. to hold everything together.

      The meat that one may be looking for to hold the frame together would be something that only film can do. Or, rather, as Chatman implies in “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa), something that film can do better than literature. For example, Renoir’s adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s “A Country Excursion” could have been a simple retelling of the story. However, there are sections in the narrative that imply a sexuality to Henriette’s on the surface innocence. How to establish this in a film? Renoir shows numerous voyeurs (shepherd, young boys, boatmen) that are gazing at Henriette as she is swinging on her swing.

      Shots like these, while not being written as such in the original narrative of the story, are in keeping with the “spirit” of the story, which many audiences would appreciate. While some may claim that since these voyeurs were not in the original story that the fidelity to the text has been compromised, others would assert that these shots are in keeping with the atmosphere that Maupassant was intending to create. Not only is the skeleton there, but there is more meat on the skeleton to hold everything together now.

      But then again, audiences may disagree as to how much meat is necessary to hold the skeleton together. Or the type of meat they want. Some audience members may even be vegetarian.

  3. Raj says:

    I’m curious as to why Andrew was initially so dismissive of ‘fidelity’–referring to discussion of the topic as “tiresome” and dedicating only a short paragraph to the “difficult” task of determining fidelity to the spirit of a work. I like the post’s framing of fidelity around the concept of expectations, since that challenge’s Andrew’s subsequent claim that film and novel are governed by certain narrative codes which can be used (easily) for comparative purposes. This notion of expectations, of audience/subjective readings, seems to throw a bit of a wrench into these structuralist claims. Andrew makes a big deal of connotation, but what is implied to one is not necessarily implied to another hence the typical kvetching over whether an adaptation was good/worthy/justified/necessary.

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