Do film adaptations retain the entirety of the source material? (and more weird ruminations on adaptations and canon)

In Linda Hutcheon’s “In Defence of Literary Adaptation as Cultural Production,” she talks about how texts are transformed by being adapted. In paragraph 15, she talks about watching the film adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” She discusses a scene in the movie in which the character is watching his wife listen to an Irish song. Although there is no dialogue in the scene to reflect his thoughts, she says that she knows exactly what he is thinking because it is in the book.

Now, this is actually something I’ve thought about before, which is why it immediately stood out to me as something to write about. It is entirely possible that the director showed the actor that portion of the text and told him to have it inform his acting in that scene. And if that’s the case, then that written thought would be as much a part of the movie as it is in the book.

But in many cases, that’s simply not what happens. Sometimes, actors don’t even read the source material. Or maybe the director just doesn’t find it important to convey every detail like that. Hutcheon subsequently makes the point that although she is supplementing the film’s silence with the “literary text’s inner knowledge,” if she had not read the book, she would be substituting her own ideas. In this way, films are these very precarious creatures, with a hidden world that is malleable and constantly subject to change.

I’ve tried to put my knowledge of the text into a movie like this before, but honestly, unless it’s really obvious that the text was taken into account, I just can’t fool myself into thinking it’s part of it. For me, movie’s are shaped by the intent. I can interpret someone’s acting any way I want, but once I find out their intentions, that’s it. I just can’t look at them and pretend they’re feeling or thinking what I want them to because it feels disingenuous. That can happen with books, but it’s not as absolute, and words are easier to put unintended meaning into.

This also got me thinking about what’s canon when it comes to source material and adaptations. Hutcheon talks about reading a book after seeing the movie that adapted it in chapter 14, and how she can only read the book as informed by the movie, even though the book is the original. This would lead one to believe that the movie, once watched, becomes canon. What about a book that is adapted twice? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was adapted twice, with the first adaptation being totally iconic, and the second being the recent one by Tim Burton. I remember reading that Burton did not watch the original movie, since he didn’t want to be affected by it. In a sense, he’s creating his own canon, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the other one. And although I had read the book and seen the first movie, when I saw Burton’s film, I related it only to the book.

Personally, I have my own characters in mind when I read that book and always will, but generally speaking, I’m a pretty impressionable person and I’ll be informed by whatever the most widely accepted canonical movie is for a book. It’s kind of a weird experience to accept two different canon’s simultaneously, and not only that, have a hierarchy for them.


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2 Responses to Do film adaptations retain the entirety of the source material? (and more weird ruminations on adaptations and canon)

  1. Mike Ketive says:

    I think the canonical acceptance of a film based on a text is rooted mostly in retaining some sort of general fidelity to the source material. If you have Willy Wonka as a hard-nosed sheriff in 1830’s Texas instead of being the eclectic candy-factory owner that he is, then maybe that version of the character won’t be accepted into canon. Johnny Depp and Gene Wilder may not have performed the character exactly the same, but that doesn’t mean they’re not both canonical representations of Willy Wonka. What we visualize as a character when we read doesn’t exactly make or break the overall canon of a text. In the end, acceptance into canon might be another nit-picky way of scrutinizing the adaptation of a text as attempting to determine whether Depp or Wilder is the more canonically acceptable Wonka seems a little pointless. They both played some form of the character and as such, they’re both some sort of canonical representation of the character, at least as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Melissa M says:

    Very interesting that you bring up the point, “Although there is no dialogue in the scene to reflect his thoughts, she says that she knows exactly what he is thinking because it is in the book.”
    I have thought about this as well. For me, when you think of an actor or actresses job, it is simply to be that character, and to get into the role of that character. So naturally you would think reading the text to understand that adaptation of the character in the film would be the key for all successful actors and actresses. My one problem with this is, often times actors and actresses are trying to upshow previous film adaptations. They are trying to be the next Heath Ledger, as the joker, (which for me is quite impossible to imagine.) But when there are too many adaptations to follow, the novel would seem like that source to go too.

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