Monday, December 13, 2010

Literary Adaptation - Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

When we recognize that an adaptation has been "unfaithful" to the original, the term commonly generates an expression of disappointment we feel as an audience when we recognize that the film adaptation has failed to grasp the narrative, thematic and aesthetic elements of the original literary source. Differing levels of enthusiasm, critical response and debate have emerged when we question the idea of literal 'fidelity' and whether a film can taint the original literary source. To question a strict sense of 'fidelity' can be argued as being almost impossible with the likelihood of an adaptation being automatically different die to the change of medium (of a source novel to film). In this analysis I will be using this observation as origin to discuss the problems and advantages of translating from one medium to another, utilizing Spike Jonze's 2002 film, Adaptation and Stanley Kubrick's 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange. 
As Robert Stam recognizes in his essay, 'The Theory and Practice of Adaptation', "the words of a novel...have a virtual, symbolic meaning; we as readers, or as directors, have to fill in their paradigmatic indeterminances." It is with this idea in mind that I will first begin examining the idea presented in Charlie Kaufman's screenplay of Adaptation. Charlie (Nicholas Cage), in his meeting with Valerie (Tilda Swinton) early in the film about the project of adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchard Thief, stresses he wishes to remain true to the material of the novel and not delve into a plot that is artificially Hollywood driven. Valerie has the idea that Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Laroche (Chris Cooper) could fall in love, already constraining Kaufman's ideas and posing limitations upon Charlie's ability to value his screenwriting as a moral craft. Charlie responds by saying, "I don't want to cram in sex, guns, lovers getting back together in the end...the book isn't like that." Stam further argues that "there is no transferable core" and Kaufman falls into the trap of assuming that an underlying truth can be extracted from the novel, and must reconsider his approach to his adaptation. The romance between Orlean and Laroche is the key turning point in the film that leads to a plot centered on drugs and guns in the dramatic third act, only inserted by Charlie after he seeks the help of his twin brother Donald (the alternate side of Charlie's screenwriting deliberation) and through his inability to find the 'transferable core' and maintain cinematic 'fidelity'. The filmmaker bent on 'faithful' adaptation must, as a basis for such an enterprise, seek to preserve the major cardinal functions. However, indices (the means by which character information atmosphere and location are presented) on the other hand, require adaptation since their verbal and cinematic depiction requires a different means of representation.

Common negativity towards the process of adaptation is also analyzed in Jonze's film. Laroche speaks in Adaptation of a giant flower parasite that devours and kills the host tree, much as critics speak of adaptations as overwhelming and devouring their sources. As quoted by Stam, "film offends through its inescapable materiality, its incarnated, fleshly enacted characters, its real locales and palpable props, its carnality and visceral shocks to the nervous system." The screenwriter (Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange) makes the changes necessary for dramatic effect in the alternate medium, those required to conform to the producer's personal fantasies and his/her notions of what the public wants and tailored to the screen personalities of the actors assuming the roles (Malcolm Macdowell as an example).
The Frank McKee seminar is another important sequence in Adaptation as he explains the principles of screenwriting to a class of eager screenwriters, informing them not to include voice-over in their screenplays to explain the thoughts of a character. In a film such as A Clockwork Orange where there is a first person narrator, voice-over is almost essential to the role of the narrator for the film because film rarely restricts its vision solely to what one person sees, first person narration is much more difficult to convey on screen. Much of Burgess' beautiful language and the creation of Nadsat can be found in Alex's voice-over. McKee is also influenced by Hollywood, encouraging Kaufman to create a hit film by 'wowing' the audience in the end but not to the extent of including a deus ex machina, even if this ultimately removes the possibility of complete cinematic 'fidelity'.

Utilizing a quote from Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" we can further examine the idea of authorship and ownership of a changing text. "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author" informs us that when the text is 'read' and interpreted by someone else (a screenwriter, director), the text as the original author wrote it, is dead. It will forever be adapted 'differently' and forever impossible to re-create a novel exactly into a screenplay and hence a film. To link this idea to Adaptation and The Orchard Thief, Orlean's voice is essentially dead and it will be Kaufman's screenplay that audiences will now associate with. When Valerie is talking with Susan Orlean, we get the sense that Orlean is disappointed that she is not considered for the role of screenwriter; that task is given to someone else (Kaufman). Taking this further, do we recognize Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman as the true auteur of Adaptation? As both have become recognizable figures in the industry with their distinctive style, their partnership for this film I read as a collaboration between the auteurs.

Adaptation tackles the craft of screenwriting and the difficulty in maintaining a 'fidelity' to the literary source, but an examination of A Clockwork Orange must also examine the work of the director, in this case the late Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick's acclaimed yet controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess' famous 1962 novel questions the idea of the desirability of literal 'fidelity'. According to Andre Bazin "the very principle of cinematic adaptation is to simplify and condense a work from which it basically wishes to retain only the main characters and situations." Arguably, Kubrick's goal is to faithfully adapt the novel, making small but forgivable changes while utilizing the presence of music, the skill of the actor's performance and a distinct visual/conceptual style in presenting the acts of sex and violence to further the experience of the novel. Now, when we think of A Clockwork Orange, do we think of Burgess' novel or Kubrick's film? The theme of Burgess' novel is that it preserves the possibility of redemption and moral growth while Kubrick's film claims that freedom entails possibility of choosing the bad necessity of choice to be fully human. Kubrick has made some key changes to Burgess' novel t create his own visionary experience on the natural senses; the performance of the rape scene at the Alexander's house by Alex is to the song, 'Singing in the Rain', creating one of the most confronting sequences in cinema history. Robert Stam argues "that although film characters in adaptations lose some of the slowly evolving textured verbal complexity developed in the novel they gain a 'thickness' on screen through bodily presence, dress and facial expression." This sequence was a feature discussed by Kubrick and MacDowell to make the it seem less bland. There is also a very curios absence of Alexander's novel "A Clockwork Orange" in the film, a feature that is especially important in the novel in defining Alex's state of being and justifying the title of the novel. In the film, there is no existence of this novel and we are unaware, if we were not familiar with novel, why the film assumes it's name.
The notion of 'ultra violence' is diminished slightly for the film audience. This is represented in the scene where Alex takes two young girls back to his house after meeting them in a record store. The scene is made more palatable by the fact that the girls are older than they appear in the novel. While it can be argued that the girls are consenting in this scene, Alex's action of continually removing their clothes is still an explicit action, from which we can conclude that he is dominating their consent. The quickened pace of the scene and the musical accompaniment do soften the impact of the image. Kubrick also includes a scene that is not present within the novel; when Alex if first condemned to prison and has all of his personal items entered into an inventory. It is a humorous sequence, but it is unknown why it was included. The officer that runs this procedure appears often later in the film so this is an introduction to his character, while also revealing a little more about Alex's humanity, as this is the first time that we see him dressed as a 'normal' teenager (suit and tie).

One of the most debated topics about A Clockwork Orange is the elimination of the 21st Chapter by Kubrick, which is present in the British version of Burgess' novel. Can we assume that Kubrick didn't know about the 21st Chapter, having read the American version and believing that the novel consisted of only 20 chapters. There remains an altered conclusion with the film ending with the protagonist seemingly 'cured' from the Ludovicho technique but seemingly without hope of a moral redemption. The 21st chapter, which alludes to a moral changing of Alex at the age of 18, had it been included, would have likely made the film available in the UK, where is has been banned for a large part of its existence.
The two elements of Kubrick's film that are important in this examination are his use of music and his distinctive visual style. Kubrick, through his careful use of musical accompaniments, is able to portray the violence of the film in a highly stylized manner while retaining the potency of their depictions in the novel. Alex's love of Beethoven, seemingly absent in the novel although his love of music is expressed, is utilized during the Ludovicho treatment to make Alex feel sick about his past crimes. Further than this, it is used by Alexander as a form of torture that leads to Alex's attempted suicide. 'Singing in the Rain', sung by Alex during his attack on the couple in the first act, is re-introduced by Alex as he sings it in the bathtub and allows Alexander to recognize his past attacker. The method of his discovery is done through subtle hints given by Alex in the novel, as opposed to the use of music. Kubrick's vision, which uses bright colors and abstract art present in many of the scenes, is another important element. The stylized violence, in particular, is used to great effect to intensify/soften scenes depicted in the novel. The use of slow motion to capture Alex's attack on his droogs by the water is a feature adopted by Kubrick. It seems unlikely that Burgess envisioned this sequence to be filmed in such a way when he wrote the novel. Much like the very first shot of the film, Alex is staring intently into the heart of the camera, and the image is moving in slow motion and almost unexpectedly Alex's violent movement is orchestrated to the music. We see a 'close-up' of Alex pulling the knife from his cane and then cutting Dim across the hand, all continuing the trend of the slow motion adopted by Kubrick. This all accurately captures the imagery of the novel but Kubrick places the scene by the water to heighten the impact of Alex's violent attack on his colleagues.

While many of the scenes include the conventions of long takes and long exchanges of dialogue that reads like a novel and maintains 'fidelity', it is the presence of these scenes of stylistic violence that takes it beyond the novel in many aspects. Drawing from Andre Bazin's essay, What is Cinema? we can question the influence of theatre on Kubrick's film and the aesthetic qualities that cinema draws from theatre and whether this can be applied successfully. Many of the sequences appear to be almost theatrical and Kubrick seems to have an awareness of the history of theatre. From Bazin, "costume, mask or make up, the style of language, the footlights, all contribute to this distinction, but the clearest sign of all is the stage..." Alex's fight with Billy Boy and his Droogs takes place in an abandoned theatre in Kubrick's film, not near a power plant, as in Burgess' novel. Alex and his Droogs, in the first half of the film are dressed in 'costume', wear make-up and make use of masks throughout their evenings.
"While novels have a single entity - the character - film adaptations have both character performer." This is identified in Malcolm Macdowell's charismatic performance and the role of the theatre and how these elements combine during the film. Alex performs Singing in the Rain wearing a mask and parades around the house as though on a stage. Billy-Boy and his Droogs were attempting to rape a young woman upon a stage, almost as though they were performing, before Alex turns up. The ensuing fight scene, in the abandoned theatre, is portrayed as stylized and almost balletic, as bodies are thrown through the air to the backing score of Beethoven. The source novel can be seen as a situated utterance, produced in one medium and in one historical and social context, and later transformed into another equally situated utterance, but produced in a different context and relayed through a different medium.
Charlie Kaufman's failed attempts to adapt The Orchard Thief are proof that being desirably faithful to the source material limits the creative space of the screenwriter, and rejects the probability of inevitable alterations required to accommodate the change in medium. The source text forms an informational network, a series of verbal clues which the adopting film text can then selectively make up, amplifty, ignore, subvert and transform - all necessary actions in the process of adaptation, but essentially making 'fidelity' an undesirable and almost impossible notion.

My Ratings: Adaptation - 5 Stars, A Clockwork Orange - 5 Stars


  1. Adaptation has one of the best performances from a comedic actor ever! Nicolas Cage really is that amazing in this role, and proves why all the crap he does, is for a reason. Good Review!

  2. Absolutely. I loved Nicholas Cage in this role. Adaptation is one of my favorite films of all time. Another brilliant Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaboration!