...being a blog authored by the members of English/CSPW 390, "The New York Review of Books at 50".
Monday, February 24, 2014
The Adaptation of Art (and Vice Versa)
The Adaptation of Art (and Vice Versa)
by Kayleigh Butler
The societal compulsion to translate pre-existing art to the silver screen today seems almost innate. Once something, whether a book, theater production, or even an individual experience has gained a certain amount of public attention, the response of the film industry is almost immediately to scoop up copyrights and begin production. And while true art devotees may resist the conversion of whatever stands to be transformed, arguing the perfection of an original, the process undeniably feeds the public’s insatiable desire for more.
Whether on stage or in film, the presence of musical theater, in particular, predates the procedure of film adaptation: original theater and film productions alike almost instinctually used catchy songs as methods for telling narratives. Mainstream film eventually diverged from this technique, but has over time repaired its relationship with the genre by popularizing existing musicals through film adaptations. Notably, films like Chicago (2002), Rent (2005), Mamma Mia! (2008), and most recently, Les Misérables (2012) have brought Broadway to the big screen, inciting widespread public adoration for a subculture otherwise exclusive to those who have been pre-exposed.
Determining the success of such film adaptations, however, presents another challenge, as filmgoers unfamiliar with the originals, filmgoers familiar with the originals, and professional critics all stand to have varying opinions of the end products. Unfamiliar filmgoers may go either way, depending on their depth of knowledge and affection for musicals in general, but none are as volatile as viewers predisposed to the original—whether critics and familiar filmgoers—and understandably so. When someone loves a piece of art, or on the contrary hates it, that individual certainly approaches an adaptation with certain expectations, entering the cinema with either overexcitement or a premature, begrudging distaste at the thought of a Hollywood translation.
Volatility is an understatement when it comes to responses to the resurrection of the Kandor & Ebb musical Chicago, an adaptation thatexemplifies the fickleness of filmgoers (specifically those familiar with the revival production of 1996, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical). Despite having been nominated for thirteen Academy awards and taking home six, including Best Picture, the movie provoked displeasure from experienced theater patrons.
Film critic Stanley Krauffmann of The New Republic laments, “..the net effect of the incessant dazzle is depressing” and that “most of the lead performances are weak.” Note: Among the 13 Academy Awards nominations were Rene Zellweger for Best Actress, John C. Reilly for Best Supporting Actor, Queen Latifah for Best Supporting Actress; and among the winners was Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Supporting Actress.
Anthony Lane writes for The New Yorker, “The setting is so stylized, so shamelessly grounded in a hundred other shows and films, that ‘Chicago’ barely qualifies as a period piece”. He continues to critique the director’s editing decisions, noting, “Rob Marshall cuts away furiously during every song and this chronic wish to glance aside makes us wonder: could the performers not weather the camera’s unstinting gaze?” Note: Rob Marshall was also among the Academy Award nominees, for Best Director, and Martin Walsh won the Oscar for Best Film Editing.
And so on. Certainly, there exists tremendous value in criticizing stylistic choices in films, especially those in adaptations; and, certainly, this particular adaptation, what with its many accolades and nominations, represents an outlier in its strength to oppose criticisms like those above. But that these critics, holding minority yet powerful opinions, specifically condemn aspects of the adaptation that were otherwise applauded seems to point toward a pre-existing prejudice toward the film.
Even those who admittedly prefer the theater production and criticize Marshall’s direction acknowledge its successes: Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Rob Marshall's screen version of the near-venerable show looks great, in its razzly-dazzly neo-Fosse way, and sounds good, especially when Renee Zellweger's gorgeous Roxie Hart is singing her heart out.” But the best reviews are those that acknowledge the film for what it is, an adaptation. Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols commends the adaptative process, “The path from stage to screen was arduous and the director could hardly be greener, but the Broad-way-spawned "Chicago" is every inch a movie. It’s kinetic, dynamic and always entertaining.”
That the film industry not only embraces musical adaptations but competes for the rights to do so has a net positive effect, for audience members as well as the original musicals themselves. It is a saddening truth that for the general population Bob Fosse and his cohort are strangers, foreign entities typically associated with high culture enthusiasts. Even worse, the Great Recession has facilitated an ongoing depletion of art programs across primary and secondary education institutions nationwide, leaving the responsibility of invoking appreciation for art on the shoulders of parents too often preoccupied with maintaining or gaining stable work. For their children, film adaptations of musicals, or plays for that matter, provide access to the art of Broadway, which at its least powerful is educational, and at its most, inspirational.
Surely, familiar filmgoers, both hopeful and cynical,have a sincere hope that the industry will do justice to their favorite productions. And in this hope they are indeed entitled. But to directly compare any adaptation to its original undermines the art itself. Film adaptations are mere extensions of originals, meant to capture some essence or to portray some understanding of the material rather than to meticulously replicate it at the same level. In this way, film adaptations are themselves works of art that should be regarded as separate entities from their predecessors. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example. A theatergoer attending a production of this work expects something unique, an insightful, yet unexpected take on the classic text. And on Broadway, shows that run for years straight must continually reinvent themselves to stay relevant and exciting.
Why are films treated differently? Perhaps the prospect of unlimited funds raises expectations, and the thought of A-list actors playing renowned Broadway characters raises doubts. Rightfully so, since an adaptive failure could potentially turn the general public against the original, the opposite effect than that desired. But no cigar, as it would seem that directors of recent musical adaptations are genuinely dedicated to finding the right balance between paying homage and utilizing artistic license. By doing so, they bring Broadway home for viewers of all backgrounds, educating minds young and old about culturally significant productions and inspiring some to look further into the dazzling realm of theater. And in doing so lies the true determining factor of success in an adaptation.