Literary adaptation has been a prominent bedfellow of cinema since the earliest days of the medium. From silent shorts and the rousing success both commercially and creatively of Gone With The Wind (1939) to the forthcoming Cloud Atlas (2012), the viability of novels as a springboard for cinematic adaptation is given frequent opportunity to be questioned, criticized, and derided.
While contentious opinions could fill infinite tomes on the specific viabilities of individual stories, a broader question worth asking, but seldom asked, is: what, specifically, is it about a story or work that makes it “unfilmable?” (The phrase so popularly chosen.)
A survey of published criticism shows a trend toward the vastness of a work as a primary indication of its status of filmability, be it in sheer scope or number of characters and their associated plotlines. While this is an entirely understandable assertion of the difficulty of the adaptive process, no measure of difficulty alone – especially considering the pace of technological advancement – can feasibly condemn a work to the dregs of impossible depiction. (Historically, difficulties of scale certainly presented a much larger degree of impossibility, admittedly.)
This ultimate fallacy of logic can produce a torturous bevy of criticism of adapted works reduced to a mathematical tally; a run-on list of what percentage of the original content was preserved in the conversion process. This attitude treats adaptation as if it were translation. While certain interstitial mediums have appeared allowing for a more translation-like approach to adaptation (inherently visual mediums such as comic books, interactive games, etc.), the process of adapting a piece of textual prose into an effective cinematic narrative would scarcely benefit from a literal translation.
Rather, the true measure of a work’s cinematic incompatibility should rest on its voice. It’s point of view. It’s narrative style. It’s thematic treatment. Cinema is a medium of visual depiction. Of ideas not spoken, but implied through action, not unlike its theatrical predecessor, but all the less talky. (Despite the chronology of its development, in which its purist iteration may indeed have been its first: silent.)
Whether or not a text is fundamentally adaptable rests on the degree to which its drama is played out on the actions of its characters. Setting can be enhanced for the visual pallet. The actions themselves rearranged for optimal effectiveness. However, if the core themes and movements of the text’s drama lie in an internalized rumination rather than the physical setting of the story, adaption will have to take on an active role in externalizing the conflict for the sake of cinematic depiction.
This means a “favorite scene” might not make the “cut.” The term “cut” itself is almost objectionable considering the artistry with which a story must be repainted in adaptation. Having a laundry list of desired elements is no way to walk into any experience. Assess what is there, not what is absent.
Be open to a radical new form of the story you love, and you may find that what you see on screen is truer to the heart of the author’s intent than the words themselves were able to convey. For in the author’s death post-publication, the work is the world’s and will be reshaped in their image.