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.
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.
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
We 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.
At 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.”
Man 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.
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.
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.
A 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)
Then 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.
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.