A Question of Adaptation

Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823) Lachlan Robertson muses about the difficulties of adapting one form of narrative medium into another and postulates about a way to truly breathe new life into preexisting inspiration without falling short of preconceived audience expectations.  A verbalized idea often bandied about after a book meets success on the open markets is this: ‘Will it be made into a film?’ It is a conversation inevitably passed around in the wake of any fruitful novel’s initial run. Similarly so, many a favorite novel is brought to the stage. I understand the urge felt by directors and producers, wanting to bring a beloved story to the flesh, but I believe, at times, this desire is misguided. After a novel to play or novel to film adaptation, we often hear another statement: ‘I really do think the book was better.’Whilst many readers anticipate the coming of a screen of stage adaptation of their favorite novel with optimism, it is extremely rare to leave a show satisfied. I find it incredibly hard to be convinced by the realisation of a novel or story to the stage or screen. It may be the actors. It may be the set design. Or the costume. Or even the lighting. Despite a director’s best efforts, I am usually left disappointed.I feel that this boils down to a matter of the proximity between novels and short stories, plays and film. It puts me in mind of the notion of the ‘Uncanny Valley.’ In computer generated animation, the Uncanny Valley is the discomforting zone where an animated character blurs between being clearly stylistic and naturalistic. If the animation falls in this zone, it may seem jarring, unnatural, and even disturbing to the viewer. The adaptation of a novel or short story faces a similar conundrum. I feel that, as plays, novels, and short stories generally share a similar narrative structure, adaptations between the mediums can become problematic. Whilst a play adaptation of The Great Gatsby might share the same story and dialogue as the novel, capturing the mood of the work is a careful balancing act. It is easy for an audience to be disappointed. What I wonder is this: why not adapt works that do not readily conform to a narrative structure? Why not, say, create a play based around the music of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Why not write a script based on the famous Black Paintings by Francisco Goya? The playwright works from a much loved body of material, something that an audience may well be familiar with, but he or she is not faced by the problem of shifting an pre-formed story from one medium to another. Not only does this free the audience from expectations of having their own understanding of a novel or story realized, removing unrealistic expectations, but the playwright also gains a greater sense of freedom in their work. Widening the gulf between art-forms would show an adapter’s confidence with their medium. Narrative is a crutch for writers and audiences alike. Bringing a novel or story to the stage, to me, can be as much a sign of the playwright’s laziness as much as their love of their inspiration.  Lachlan Robertson Photo Credits: Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son