Literary Elements Represented on Screen

Thomas Leitch’s “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads,” does a thorough job at explaining and summarizing the main questions that fuel film adaptation theorists and critics.  Leitch expresses a lot of the frustration that I have when it comes to discussing adaptation – it seems as if the same questions are being asked over and over, leading to the same conversations taking place over and over.  For example, the first few questions listed involve the film betraying its source novel, the mission of transcription or interpretation, the question of how cultural or historical shifts impact adaptation, and the possibility of what would happen if the film adaptation is better than the source novel.  All of these questions have been explored in our class…

The fifth question listed, however, is VERY similar to my investigative proposal.  The question is, “Is it possible for a film to recreate what might be assumed to be specifically literary aspects of its source that challenge medium-specific models of adaptation by indicating unexpected resources the cinema brings to matters once thought the exclusive province of literature?”  My investigative proposal relates to this because it questions if the 1974 Film Adaptation of The Great Gatsby can successfully represent the same themes and symbols found in its source novel.  In general, to answer this question, I would say yes – but film represents these two literary elements in a very different way than novels do.

For example, novels can convey symbolism by repetition.  Readers are forced to read every word on a page, which guarantees that they will not miss a symbol’s importance when their attention is constantly being called to it.  When symbolism is being conveyed in a film, it cannot be casually displayed in the background, it has to be blatantly shown to the audience if the director wants them to pick up on the symbolism.  On the other hand, theme is not as difficult to convey.  In fact, due to the added elements of film (sounds, visuals, etc.), theme might be more easily conveyed via film than novels.

In conclusion, this question is more interesting to me because it is not a “stale” type of research.  It is very relevant to people researching and studying film adaptation today.

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2 Responses to Literary Elements Represented on Screen

  1. Dana Choit says:

    I like your example of symbolism as use in films. My seventh grade English teacher liked to use film in class to help teach us about literary techniques. I remember things like use of lighting an shadows or shapes as foreshadowing. For example, if there were shadows of lines going down behind a character on screen, he might say, thats foreshadowing that he’s going to jail or he’ll commit a crime. He used twilight zone episodes a number of times (why my brain went to talking Tina and the dummy during the ventriloquist stuff a couple of weeks ago) and its reminds me on the mis-en-scene idea. That film can in its own way create sentences and messages as a art of the narrative.

  2. Ohhh, nerdy moment: I totally want to read your hypothetical paper, Lisa. Can you actually write it even though Prof Ferguson doesn’t require that? For me?!

    In all seriousness, though, I love that you’re addressing adaptations of The Great Gatsby because what separates that book, for me, is not just the fact that a lot of symbolic imagery is included, but also the beautiful language that Fitzgerald was known for, which gets lost in an adaptation unless the director resorts to voiceover. I mean, if we did a poll of the class in which we asked “Who knows the last line of The Great Gatsby by heart?” I wouldn’t be the only person raising my hand. It is a KILLER, that line! But does it have the same effect if we’re, say, watching Tobey Maguire say it aloud/hearing him think it to himself while he does something else? (I obviously haven’t seen the latest adaptation since it’s not out yet, so this is pure conjecture.) There’s something about the lack of distraction in that last line that would be lost in a film where there is, necessarily, more going on than just words on a page.

    And you make a good point about the differences between symbolism in film vs symbolism in literature. That sort of necessarily obvious way of showing symbols in a film makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s use of red in The Sixth Sense. When that came out, I was 12 years old and my mind was BLOWN when I realized that he used red to symbolize a break between the world of the living and the dead. Looking back, however…. it’s kind of cheesy and amateurish, and it’s definitely very in-your-face obvious. (It’s also not necessary, which is probably the biggest problem with it.) Or, to use an example from an adaptation: In my other class this semester, we’re looking at film adaptations of Shakespeare plays, and in the 1996 Baz Luhrman edition of Romeo + Juliet, the use of water as a symbol is about as subtle as an anvil dropped on the head of the viewers. (The lovers see each other through a fish tank! The balcony scene takes place in a pool! And then Tybalt falls into a fountain after he’s been shot and the water is tainted with blood!) It’s like the directors in these films are going “Do ya get it? Do you? Didja see what I did there?!”

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