The Distilled Adaptation

Shortening

The translation of a story from book to stage or screen always involves some degree of change.  The two arts are different; what works to communicate a story in one medium may not work in another.

A book can accommodate relatively long sequences of events, because we read a book in segments on our own schedule.  But a stage play or movie has to be geared to the limitations of the human body.  Watching a full-scale version of The Wheel of Time, say, at one sitting would require both an IV and a catheter—and a “pause” button for sleep.

Tom Bombadil (from card game)Thus, the live-action rendition of a novel generally has to leave things out, and the ability to condense the story smoothly is vital.  For example, the three-film Lord of the Rings omits the book’s entire side trip through the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-Downs.  Even with three long films, something had to be cut.  (This omission, incidentally, was a good choice and well-executed.)

The limitations of time have eased a bit with the introduction of multi-episode and bingeworthy screen formats, along with viewers’ increasing willingness to follow long-running stories (a curious counterpoint to the frequent suggestion that our attention span is eroding).  An eight-season Game of Thrones video production can cover much of what occurs in a very long book series.  But the writer or director must still gauge what can be included and what can be omitted.

Reorienting

Sometimes, when condensing a book for the theatre, the writers may take the opportunity to narrow the focus of the original story—particularly when the novel is a broad, rambling, discursive sort of tale.  In the process, they may also convey a meaning (what we might cautiously call the “moral of the story”) that’s different from that of the original.  Depending on what the rewrite chooses to emphasize, the new version may point in a different, or more definite, direction than the old.

Reorienting a tale this way can improve it—depending on what the new direction is.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha posterWe recently looked at the staging of the 1965 play Man of La Mancha; and a couple of years back we talked about what it says to us.  When I first saw the show back in 1970, its basic theme fit right in with what had become a widespread idea back in the 1960s:  that we are too prone to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, and that becomes a self-fulfilling handicap.

To recap:  The fantasy-ridden Don Quixote finds his ideal lady Dulcinea in a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  Aldonza despises herself as well as the men who use her.  She is at first baffled, and then enraged, by Quixote’s persistent attempts to idolize her and praise her ladylike virtues.  She feels she has no virtues; he is refusing to see her as she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

Against her will, under Quixote’s gentle persistent courtesy, she begins to believe she can be better than the way she’s always thought of herself.  She is promptly and brutally disillusioned when the muleteers attack her.  The play pulls no punches:  being “nice” or showing generosity is no guarantee against mistreatment.  Yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Quixote continues to treat her as a noble lady.

Dulcinea, at Don Quixote's deathbedAt the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), after Quixote’s death, she finally accepts that she is more than a nobody, “born on a dungheap”:  she will honor Quixote’s memory by living his impossible dream.  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”

I'm Lovable buttonMan of La Mancha forcefully illustrates what in the ’60s became a truism.  We must see what is potentially lovable in someone before it is evident; and sometimes that premature faith and hope can help the person realize they are lovable—and free them to love.  This is more than the mere psychology of self-esteem; it’s an insight about how human beings work that is still worth recognizing.

Yet this isn’t exactly what Cervantes had in mind.  It’s been a long time since I read his immense rambling novel, but I don’t recall that this theme of convincing people they are lovable was evident there.  The novel speaks to a lot of other issues, such as the interplay of realism and idealism, but it isn’t focused on this.  Rather, the authors of the play selected and adapted material from Cervantes to address a theme characteristic of their own time.

One might complain that the modern playwrights have hijacked an existing story for a purpose the novel’s author never had in mind.  But as I see it, the concentrated, powerful Man of La Mancha is a great deal more interesting than the long and diffuse original.  The adapting writers have distilled a potent new wine from familiar grapes.

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is also a massive novel, covering many years’ time and an array of main characters.  It’s also prone to digression, including among other side trips a chapter on the history of the Paris sewer system (part 5, Book Second, chapter II).  When I read the book, I made myself a whole list of sections that could be skipped, without loss, on a second reading.

Les Miserables (opera) logo

By Source, fair use (Wikipedia)

Obviously, this discursive work can’t be transformed directly into a play or a movie.  Nonetheless, there are quite a few film or stage versions.  The one I find most powerful is the opera Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, with English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer (1980).  It’s a long show, just under three hours, but of course it can’t begin to reproduce the entire book.

Thus, again, the playwrights are selective.  The novel tells the story of a group of people caught up in the Paris revolt of 1832, extending backward as far as 1815 to depict the backstory of Jean Valjean, the central character.  The play starts almost as far back.  After being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is overcome by the mercy of God when a kind bishop refuses to turn him in for a new theft, and resolves to make a better man of himself.  He adopts the orphaned girl Cosette and raises her in secret, avoiding public notice so as not to be imprisoned again.  The grown-up Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young student involved in the short-lived and futile revolt.  To save Cosette’s beloved, Valjean joins the rebels and, as the barricade falls, rescues the fallen Marius.  At the end, with Cosette and Marius married, Valjean dies at peace, received into heaven by the spirits of Fantine, Cosette’s mother, and Eponine, a reformed girl who also loved Marius and died on the barricades.

The music is extraordinarily powerful.  I’ve seen the play twice.  Each time was an intensely moving experience.  The opera was finally made into a movie in 2012, with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.

One Day More, from Les MiserablesA political motif is essential to the story—the tragic plight of the poor of France and the injustice that drove them so often to rebellion.  And as a political drama, it’s a bitter tale.  The student activists, confident that the people of Paris will rally to their side, put themselves on the line.  And no one comes to join them.  The revolt is snuffed out at once, barely a footnote in history.  The only triumph that can be found is a visionary one in the indefinite future:

 

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!    (Finale)

 

Les Miserables - To love another person is to see the face of GodThen why is the play so uplifting?  We don’t care so much about the revolt’s failure because the characters transcend their miseries.  Cosette and Marius marry; they’ve earned their happy ending.  Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine die, but they ascend to eternal bliss.  The revolt accomplishes nothing, but the heroism and love of the principal characters makes that detail seem irrelevant.

The theme of the opera might be summarized as:  ‘Politics comes and goes, but people are forever.’  How we treat other people is vastly more important, in the long run, than the rise and fall of political regimes.  Of course, the two are not unrelated:  the purpose of a sound political regime is to make it possible for people to live good lives.  But this particular story places all its weight on the personal side.

I’m not sure that that’s what Hugo had in mind.  He might have; he certainly does emphasize the heroic compassion of Valjean and contrasts the ironies of the abortive revolution.  But it seems to me Hugo’s novel had considerably more of a political axe to grind than the opera does.  It’s a matter of degree, but I don’t know that Hugo would have sympathized entirely with the adaptation’s relative downplaying of the political.

Conclusion

In both these cases, it seems to me the adaptation has taken a particular thread from a very large original and woven it into a much more condensed, more focused story.  In doing so, the adapters have chosen to bring out themes that may be different from the bent of the original tale.

When it’s successful, such an adaptation gives us a derivative work drawing on untapped potentials in the original.  The relationship is not unlike what I’ve called the “malleability of myth.”  A root story can be reinterpreted in many ways—and some of them may be greater than the original.

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Star Trek vs. Star Wars

Hatfields and McCoys, Marvel and DC, Star Trek and Star Wars.  One never knows how seriously to take these deadly rivalries.  Personally, I like both of the science-fiction series, so I see the Trek-Wars wars more as a difference in tastes.  Sometimes you feel like a hamburger, sometimes a pizza.

The particular difference I see in SW and ST has to do with their atmospheres or sensibilities.

Good Order

Star Trek TOS bridge crewThe Star Trek universe—I’m focusing especially on the original series (“TOS”) and movies here—is civilized.  There are plenty of things that go wrong, and going where no one has gone before frequently brings us into situations of conflict.  But the Federation itself is organized and mostly decent.  There’s an actual chain of command.  Authority figures are typically respected.

That’s the first approximation.  To be sure, Captain Kirk and his successors don’t mind defying Starfleet orders now and then.  But when Our Heroes turn out to be right, they’re back on amicable terms with their superiors in short order.  At the end of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, Admiral Kirk, after stealing and destroying the Enterprise (among other things), is demoted to Captain again as his “punishment.”  But everyone understands this as simply restoring him to the role he prefers and serves so well.

There’s enough divergence among Starfleet personnel to make the stories interesting, but actual villains in the corps are relatively rare.  Starfleet and the Federation are the orderly defenders of liberty and individual (in our parochial world we say “human”) rights.  That Gene Roddenberry optimism is embedded in the show’s DNA.

Fruitful Disorder

In Star Wars, it’s the villainous Vader who wants to “bring order to the galaxy” (as he says around 1:38 in this clip), and it’s the motley, disorganized rebels who fight for freedom.  Our Heroes are rebels who defy the authorities.  Their chain of command is informal, and pretty much anyone, even the carefree Han Solo, can become a general.

Though the swashbuckling, colorful Star Wars universe may seem lighthearted, it’s actually a rather distressing place.  The nearest outpost of civilization to Luke’s uncle and aunt’s farm is Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  Slavery has flourished on Tatooine from a generation ago (little Anakin) to Luke’s era (Jabba’s servitors)—and apparently neither the Empire nor the old Republic did anything to stop it.  Intelligent droids are second-class citizens.  In the latter days of the Republic, trade combines were permitted to conduct outright warfare against whole planets (Phantom Menace), with no more than tardy, ineffective intervention by the Jedi Knights.  It seems a much less comfortable universe to live in than Star Trek’s Federation.  Both have their flaws, but the Star Wars ’verse seems much more unstable—if colorfully so.

Star Trek composite posterThere’s nothing wrong with this as a story setting.  A varied world full of dangers makes for more exciting stories than a placid utopia.  But the Star Wars setting calls out to a different kind of fan than that of the Trekkies.

Vader’s desire for order actually has good character-based reasons—one of the things the prequel trilogy got right.  In a world where you’ve been held as a slave, your mother has been tortured to death by barbarians, and your beloved is menaced by assassins at every turn, a desire for law and order is extremely understandable.  But it’s the lively Rebels with whom the viewer’s sympathies lie.  In this democratic milieu, quirky individuals and inspired improvisation flourish.

Both the SW and ST approaches represent ’60s sensibilities, but one is slightly later than the other.  Roddenberry’s Star Trek expresses the firm American optimism of the Kennedy era (1960-1963); it isn’t accidental that in the follow-up movies, Roddenberry kept wanting to tell a story about time-traveling to meet JFK.  Star Wars, on the other hand, evokes the counterculture of the late ’60s, which distrusted authority and prized rebellion—not to mention colorful chaos.

The Abrams Factor

It’s instructive to see how J.J. Abrams handled the two, since he has had the opportunity to reboot both Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.  My sense is that he’s handled SW much better than ST.  Abrams’ Star Trek movies show us a distinctly grittier, more chaotic world than Roddenberry’s.  It is, in fact, more like the Star Wars universe.  And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that, entertaining as Abrams’ ST movies may be, he doesn’t quite “get” what Star Trek is about.  His Star Wars continuation, The Force Awakens, however, is to my mind an excellent (if not flawless) extension of the SW universe.

In other words, making Star Wars more like Star Wars is a good thing, right up to the point where it begins to get slightly repetitious.  Making Star Trek more like Star Wars runs the risk of losing the very things that makes Roddenberry’s creation distinctive.  Both are good things; but they’re not good in quite the same way.

Alignment

One of the interesting things about the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game system is the notion of alignment.  D&D is built on ideas from a whole range of fantasy stories.  Many of those stories involve a conflict between good and evil.  Some, however, make the central conflict one of law vs. chaos.  D&D’s creators took the surprising step of adopting both oppositions, but keeping them distinct.  The result is a three-by-three, nine-cell matrix.  A character’s personality and ethical stance can be lawful good or chaotic good, or straddle the two as neutral good.  The being can also be lawful or chaotic evil—the evil of 1984 or of Beowulf, let’s say—or an intermediate neutral evil.  Finally, someone can be lawful neutral (think an OCD personality), chaotic neutral (low impulse control), or “true neutral” double-neutral (an unprincipled pragmatist, perhaps).  The range of combinations allows for shorthand expression of quite an array of character types.Nine alignments example, F&SF

I wouldn’t necessarily buy into this particular classification of famous fictional characters . . . but it gives us an idea how the alignment scheme works in practice.

The alignment chart also yields a neat way to encapsulate the ST/SW difference we’re examining.  Star Trek honors the lawful good:  the interstellar police force, the scientific explorer, the careful defender.  Star Wars admires the chaotic good:  the lovable rogue, the solitary guru, the loosely organized band of allies.

Political theory

Pournelle political axes chartHere’s yet another way to put it.  Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, whose doctorate is in political science, laid out in 1963 a map of political “alignments” with two axes, producing a far more useful classification of positions than the usual left-right continuum.  (Pournelle’s 1986 essay provides a detailed explanation.)  The two dimensions in Pournelle’s scheme are “attitude toward the state” (from state as evil to state worship), and “attitude toward planned social progress” (from rationalism to irrationalism).

If we think of these axes as applying to the character of a culture, not necessarily to politics per se, we can express the ST/SW divide in Pournellean terms.  I’d put TOS-era Star Trek somewhere around 3/4’ or 3.5/4’ on the chart, believing pretty strongly in reason and ambivalent about state power.  Star Wars, by contrast, seems to live in the 2/2’ region, not far from the “American ‘Counter Culture’” to which I compared its ambiance above.  Each milieu will tend to attract viewers who are sympathetic to the points of view expressed in its neighborhood on the grid.

Civilization

What it comes down to, I think, is whether we see the best conditions for free and fruitful lives primarily in order or in disorder.  Both are arguably necessary.  But is what’s best for people a basically orderly society with a healthy modicum of chaos; or a wild-and-crazy culture with just enough organization to hang together?

The Star Trek/Star Wars contrast thus leads us up to the question of what makes for a good society, a true civilization.  There’s a good deal more to be said about this, and I’ll take another crack at it next time.