Alice Roberts shares with us an evaluation of directorial artistic license in the modern age of “adaptation cinema”. 

The technical capabilities of modern cinema have made film adaptations of novels possible, which in the past, directors could have only dreamt of. Digital animation has made it such that anything can appear on the screen – however outrageous and extravagant- and recent filmmaking trend has leant further towards this extravagance. Put simply, cinema has now caught up with the imagination of novelists, but that does not necessarily mean that films can retain a novel’s subtlety. As with all change, the developments in cinema have sparked controversy, and opinions on this are largely divided. However, the main issue facing modern film directors is a battle with sensationalism: since so many images are available, which should be chosen, and which left out? Should entertainment supersede plot?

Alice in wonderland2 by gracewells533, on Flickr
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Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has most recently raised the issue of post-modern creative license. The onslaught of images: dazzling parties, beautiful sea views, opulent mansions and costumes, has a combined effect of awe and almost completely overwhelm the senses. Certain liberties have been taken with Fitzgerald’s original novel, such as downplaying the ambiguity of the final phone call (whether Gatsby is waiting for Daisy to call, or one of his gangsters – Luhrmann obviously chooses Daisy for the sake of romantic drama), overplaying the sexuality of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship (which in the novel remains of courtly love), and the introduction of almost exclusively modern music. Whether these are positive or negative is a matter of personal opinion, but it is certain that Luhrmann is pushing the boundaries of creative license to their limits.

A similar example can be found in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. With multiple plot changes and the infusion of Burton’s signature style throughout, Lewis Carroll’s original story is stretched even further than Fitzgerald’s. The choice to have a nineteen-year-old Alice and turn the story into a fantasy-drama with battles, a tyrannous Red Queen, and a feminist agenda (Alice being the opposite of a stereotypical Victorian Lady) changed the plot almost completely. Undoubtedly this was in part for the inclusion of certain visuals, such as the fight with the Jabberwocky on the chessboard, and the display the creativity of Burton’s famed imagination.

Just ten years ago, this was rift from the original novel was not as marked – Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was faithful to the book in almost all important aspects, and used visuals to manifest rather than elaborate on Tolkien’s original ideas. Although graphics were almost as advanced as they are today, the trend of extensive and elaborate adaptation was not quite as pronounced. Perhaps this is because huge crowd scenes were significantly more difficult to create than nowadays, or perhaps it is just down to Jackson’s intentions in creating the films.


Regardless, some would agree that Jackson had reached the limit of adaptation. He used modern technology to create a faithful adaptation. Others would be on the side of those pushing the boundaries between adaptation and transformation. Whatever you believe, the complexity created by the recent ability of film-makers to manifest the most elaborate reaches of their imagination is one of the most interesting advances in cinema today.


Alice Roberts