Hollywood and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hollywood and Literature

The advent of cinema in the early 1900s rapidly led to a link between film and literature, the confluence of both medium becoming especially significant during the early 1930s, a period that is often referred to as the classic cinematic period. These years saw the adaptation of several classic works of literature for film, including such titles as Anna Karenina (1875), Jane Eyre (1847), and Wuthering Heights (1847). Although the relationship between film and fiction has been largely beneficial, often resulting in increased recognition for novels that were previously unpopular, critical study of the convergence has frequently focused on the drawbacks of this adaptive and interpretive partnering. In recent years, the tie-in between literature and cinema has seen an intense and sustained revival, but discussion continues among critics and reviewers regarding the credibility of film adaptations from texts of fiction.

Studying the relationship between film and fiction, critics have noted the value and limitation of each medium. A major point of discussion among scholars is the ability of the written word to convey multiple layers of meaning and consciousness, in contrast to the usually linear progression of events portrayed in film. In fact, some theorize that because of the sheer depth and intensity of novel-length narratives, the novella or short story are more often the right length for adaptation to feature film. Yet, there are examples of several successful adaptations of epics to cinema, including such classics as Gone with the Wind (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Although controversy surrounds the adaptive methods employed by the screenwriters for both texts, there is consensus about the success of both the text and film versions of these works. In his essay discussing the relationship between works of literature and their adapted screenplays, John Orr notes that adaptations work best when the director and author share a historical framework of meaning, and also when they are part of the same culture.

Focusing in particular on Hollywood's efforts at adapting works of fiction for the screen, Mark Axelrod points out that audiences and readers most often compare character renditions and the progression of a realistic storyline. In order to ensure financial success, Axelrod notes, Hollywood has tended to stress and follow the traditional Aristotelian narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end to the stories told on screen. Therefore, linear narratives such as E. M. Forster's Howard's End (1910), have worked best for adaptation to film. Certain texts are periodically re-filmed for this reason alone, including several works by Charles Dickens. Axelrod also notes, as do others, that this propensity for linear narratives, often leads adaptations of works of literature to ignore the posture of the original text. For example, in a work like The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), what gets adapted more readily is the realistic narrative storyline, but not the stylistic essence of the work. This inability of film to translate all the nuances of the written narrative to screen has led many authors to disassociate themselves from the screenwriting of their own texts. This is especially true of authors with extremely popular works of fiction, who often find themselves unwilling to participate in the abridgement of a much-loved work of literature. A famous example of this reticence, explains Alan David Vertrees in his essay on the screenwriting process for the script of Gone with the Wind, was author Margaret Mitchell, who refused to participate in the venture until well after the motion picture was released.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding adaptations, cinema continues to adapt fiction for the screen. In recent years, the trend has grown especially strong, with modern-day interpretations of several Shakespearean classics, as well as the novels of Jane Austen becoming increasingly available. Many critics have noted the importance of technological advancements for the renewed interest and success of adaptive works on screen. For example, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield state that although Austen's works have always been popular candidates for adaptation on screen and stage, globalization of culture and the ease of cross-Atlantic marketing practices have made recent adaptations of the author's works much more accessible to audiences in the United States and England. Troost and Sayre also point out that the themes Austen explores in her works continue to be of interest to modern audiences while “the characters in her works present a realistic balance of recognizable types and individuals with complex motivations and idiosyncratic personalities.”

Born at the height of the industrial and social revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cinema became an early means of cheap entertainment for masses of people who were able to afford little else by way of leisure activity. This was especially true in the United States, where in addition to presenting idealized versions of reality, the movies also came to reflect the dreams, values, and fears of the American people. In that sense, films became significant not only as a commercial force and a new craft, but also as a powerful new medium that both reflected and affected social culture. Additionally, films also became a way for audiences to project themselves into a realm of sentiment and nostalgia that took them beyond the humdrum reality of their own lives. Early on, then, there was a split between such critically acclaimed film adaptations as The Grapes of Wrath, which received overwhelming critical preference, versus such nostalgic works as Gone with the Wind. Despite the intense debate about critical acclaim versus audience approval, Hollywood continues to adapt fiction that reflects both American dreams and ideals as well as themes of social and political concern. And despite the debate surrounding acceptable methods of adaptation, the relationship between films and fiction remains strong.