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Novel into Film: A Critical Study

NOVELS INTO FILM, by George Bluestone. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1957. $5.00.

By Gerald E. Bunker

Novels into Film is an important and impressive critical work that goes a good deal beyond the limited and scholarly study suggested by the title.

Mr. Bluestone presents a radical analysis of the limitations, techniques, and potentialities of both novel and film by applying the useful touchstone of the changes made when the former is translated into the terms of the latter. In addition to a theoretical analysis, he examines in detail the metamorphosis of six novels into film.

This investigation is particularly a propos in the light of the current cinema, which keeps demanding more and more material and naturally had taken to converting fiction. The Production Code Board estimates that something over 50 percent of the movies which they examined in 1955 were adapted from novels. Moreover, of the top ten all-time money-making films, five were adaptations. The record of critical successes is comparable.

Mr. Bluestone's central thesis is that the adapter "looks not to the organic novel whose language is inseparable from its theme, but to characters and incidents which somehow have detached themselves from language, and like the heroes of folk legends, have assumed a mythical life of their own." He is a little extreme in saying that a novel cannot be compared on much the same critical level to the film into which it was made, for the rape of a great novel is not particularly excused by the differences in media.

Fundamental Precept

Yet his fundamental precept seems unassailable. As he says at length and somewhat abstrusely, the novel, especially the modern novel, characteristically deals with time and the complexities of inner motivation; the film, on the other hand, basically unequipped to render these effectively, finds its forte in rendering motion and action. Both its external quality and the unfortunate compression required by a maximum viewing time limit the film. A novel, for example, can take forty hours to be read, and can indulge in the luxury of leisurely expression, whereas the film is at the mercy of the speeding celluloid that cannot turn back, dwell or diverge. The novel can give pages to the description of minutes and skip over years in a sentence; but while a film can dismiss time, it cannot expand it or hold it back to examine it in many facets. "A novel has three tenses, a film has only one." Perhaps the most important part of the book is the highly compact and abstruse discussion of the nature of time in the two media, and the difference between "psychological" and "chronological" time.

Most obviously, the resources of literary style and expression utilizing metaphor analogy--which may evoke not the form but the essence of a person, mood, or thing--must be abandoned; the most significant loss in the transfer from novel to film, however, is the fact that thought cannot be directly expressed. Dialogue and music, Bluestone claims, are peripheral elements; the picture dominates. Even if dialogue is accepted as an external expression of thought, once spoken it is no longer a thought. The film must compensate for this by having a very graphic plot and by nuances of acting, particularly "microphysiognomy" or intricacies of facial expression.

On the other hand, the film has a certain unity of expression that the discrete quality of language--subject, verb, object--denies to the novel. And furthermore, language cannot of course convey non-verbal experience. There are times when a picture is worth ten thousand words.

Objective Camera

The camera is not, however, essentially connotative, for the most part it is blindly objective, not rendering the particular subjective and meaningful vision, but merely variations in the intensity and color of light. Thus, heavily symbolic or metaphysical language must be abandoned because elaborate symbols seem absurd when taken literally as they appear on the screen. Even with the resources of dialogue, music, and the dance--which the film envelops--there is still a vast internal world beyond that of a pageantry that must be indicated. How to indicate reality simultaneously with one or more particular images of it, that is what makes photography and art.

Aside from these technical considerations, there is the influence on the film of maker and market. The film is a group project--plots, dialogue and all the rest of the details are discussed and determined in council--in comparison with the lonely and individual efforts of the novelist. Therefore the film is a far less personal creation. The film as industry--a big business requiring large capital--leaves its mark as well. With the exception of The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, most labor films, (even the excellent On the Water-front) depict labor disorders as being caused by personal animosities and ambitions.

Most important is the molding effect of the audience/customer. The novelist writes for a small audience with whom he can assume a certain rapport. The contemporary Hollywood film is aimed at everyone--young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate, Americans and foreigners. Hence, in addition to the inevitable "lowest common denominator," is the pressure to dilute material so that it will not offend the tender-minded of any persuasion. The voluntary Production Code which is "not of this world" is the most obvious instance, contributing in part to the idealization of life which has in the past characterized American films. Not to be overlooked are the various other minority pressure groups, such as the Legion of Decency.

But the most insidious element in the denaturalization of the American films stems from the nature of the market. Studies have shown, Bluestone points out, that the habitual movie-goer (particularly female) depends on the weekly movie for an escape from the tedium of daily life. And of course, everything must turn out for the best and true love triumph in the end. Hence, too, the "star" system in which the viewer identifies himself with a particular actor and the actor with a particular role. The popular film is thus required to create and sell folk myths which are satisfying and reassuring to its audience. The American film industry "threatens to replace reality with illusion outside the movie theatre."

The author's erudition never ceases to be impressive. He demonstrates a familiarity with almost everything written on his particular topic and a wide knowledge of general criticism. In the particular examples he chooses to analyse at length, he seems to have made a careful study of the original text and related critical and biographical material as well as of the shooting scripts and the final prints. In addition, he has investigated the feelings of the individual adapters and directors.

Six Films Chosen

His criticism of the novels involved is both incisive and original. The films chosen are The Informer, which he classifies as a mediocre novel made into a superlative film; Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath and The Ox Bow Incident, excellent novels resulting in excellent films; and Madame Bovary, a classic that was butchered in adaptation.

It is high time that the full resources of criticism should be turned on the cinema, which after all is the most influential of all the arts (how many more people see a movie a week than read a book a week?) and yet which is still not intellectually respectable. Surely, the American film is our greatest single cultural influence on the world today.

Bluestone has written a fascinating and provocative book that should be of interest to all who view the future of the film with optimism--or pessimism--and to all who are interested in both these prime vehicles for cultural expression.

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