It is not often I have time to sit down and enjoy a movie. We don’t watch much television. It’s probably because I refuse to pay for streaming services and there’s very little worth watching on the free to air channels. So we read or occasionally watch one of the movies or tv shows we have on DVD.
However yesterday I sat down to watch the 2017 live action movie of Beauty and the Beast. Bec and I went to see it when it premiered here in the cinemas. It had special meaning for Bec as she was in the chorus when her school staged the Beauty and the Beast musical. It was quite interesting to sit in a cinema packed with adults to see a film about a Disney princess. And of course, we loved it.
This time though, I was required to watch the film for my studies this semester. What kind of course requires me to watch a Disney film, you might well ask. The best kind of course I would think. A course that studies texts and their various screen adaptations, such as Beauty and the Beast, Pride and Prejudice, Logan, and an Australian film you may not be so familiar with, Jindabyne.
Texts in Adaptation (that is indeed the title of the course) delves into the world of both literary and screen adaptations. As readers we all have opinions about much loved books being turned into movies, usually with the declaration – “It’s not as good as the book!” And until recently I would have said the same. However this course is challenging us to rethink the concept of an adaptation, to reject the idea of fidelity (faithfulness to the text) and to consider adaptations as texts in of themselves. The definition of text here also includes other media such as movies, tv and computer games.
It has prompted me to think about why we tend to think that the book is always better. Most often I think it is because we are readers first. We first experience the story and fall in love with it as a reader. The reading experience is completely different to the screen experience. Reading involves using our imagination to see the setting, the characters and the action unfold in our minds. We can choose the pace of the story, whether to read it slowly over a number of days or weeks, or to indulge in a binge read of a complete series. We can delight in the beauty of language as the authors creates worlds in our mind, arouses our sense, and taps into our emotions. We can reread parts or even skip ahead to the end. Our mind is actively engaged in making meaning from the text.
Watching a movie, on the other hand, is a very different experience. While it can be exciting to see a beloved text on the big screen, we lose the choice of how the characters are depicted. Scenes and characters can be added or deleted. The setting or time frame or even the ending can be completely changed. We can come away thrilled at the experience or disappointed that it does not live up to the text that lives in our imaginations.
Sometimes there are practical reasons for changes. Sometimes the director or producers have a completely different interpretation of the text or motivation for even making the adaptation in the first place. Every reader interacts with a text in a different and personal way so it is impossible for an adaptation to please every one. But I think that one of the main reasons that we believe the book is always better, is that it is the way we first interact with the story. It’s not to say that screen adaptations are necessarily inferior, (although some probably are) – they are just different. The book is our first love and no adaptation can ever really replace that.
The fidelity of an adaptation is often the thing that can get readers in a tizzy. We may love the text so much that any change is considered sacrilegious. But we might like to think a bit more about this idea of a text as original. Beauty and the Beast is a good example. Most people are probably familiar with the Disney version of this tale, however the origins of Beauty and the Beast date back to at least the second century CE with the story of Cupid and Psyche. There are numerous variations of the tale, including the one often considered as the original, de Beaumont’s version published in 1756. But as we know, fairy tales come from a long tradition of oral storytelling, so all these variations could be considered adaptations of adaptations…the original tale has been probably long lost. Do we really then have any right to be picky about screen adaptations? Aren’t they just another retelling in a long line of retellings which will continue as each successive generation retells the story for its own time?
It will be interesting to learn more about the business of adapting a text for the screen and the way that we can learn to appreciate an adaptation for what it brings to the story and the new meanings it may create, even when it may not be to our liking. I will still probably prefer the book, but that’s because I am a reader and the book will always be my first love.