Thursday, July 10, 2014

Not So Great Adaptations

We've been reading about a number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, have seen one and now read one. Are the ones we are reading great? I think they're pretty good. And their stand-alone merit gives us a lot to talk about in terms of the idea of adaptation and fidelity.

But I always find it extremely entertaining to examine terrible adaptations and think about what made them come into existence. For instance, the newest Romeo and Juliet with Douglas Booth is pretty bad, but my students loved to hate it (and some of them just loved it––Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence "was throwin' more shade than a gazebo" according to one student). 

Brown talks about directors who long for "pageantry and place setting and hoopskirts" (85). Why? How does our nostalgia for a fabricated past manifest itself today? I want to look at some not great adaptations, just briefly enough to entertain myself and question their origins.

So what not-so-great adaptations have you seen? What are your thoughts on them?

Last night, I watched a snippet of the Kelsey Grammer Christmas Carol. I couldn't have said it better myself, TheSoulMan8 (or is it TheSoleMan8?!):

wow, this film is awful, but in a very enjoyable sort of way


  1. There's something that feels right in the essential concept of a _Christmas Carol_ musical. Dickens's novel calls itself a carol, after all. And to the extent that the originary text established many of what we now consider the essential components of Christmas (including the troupes of "ye olde Victorian/Dickensian" carolers who perform annually at the local strip mall), fitting the novel to a musical form seems a move that is organic (if not to the letter of the originary text then to the spirit of its culture text).

    And the filmed musical (I won't talk about it's stage predecessor) does some very interesting things in its first few minutes. The titles sequence offers us the now standard views of Victorian London that serve not only as a visual means of time travel (transporting us back to those quaint old days for which we nostalgically long and, indeed, recreate via the Dickensian villages we purchase at the local craft store) but also "authenticate" this film's setting (though it is very much a fantasy cityscape of the modern imagination). The film's title is printed on what might be either a billboard (highlighting the commercial energies that drive the adaptive enterprise) or the wooden double doors of a warehouse (also suggestive of the originary text's status as a commodity). About a minute and a half into the film, _Oliver Twist_ invades the scene, in the form of young street urchins who pick a man's pockets and then transfer their catch to an adult minder. These children aren't in _ACC_ but they are in another Dickens novel, and this makes them authentically Dickensian (from another textual world but the same authorial universe) and they, in turn, authenticate the film by (1) being "actual" Dickensian figures and (2) confirming that this film is set in the "real" "Dickensian" London, a city we "know" to be a place of criminal activity of the quaintest sort. Then follows a shot of the large flight of stairs leading up the the bank doors. At the bottom of the stairs stands an old woman (tuppence a bag, anyone? Will this Marley also save Mr. Banks?) Here is another visual non-textual confirmation that reassures us that we are in an "authentic" period piece. This is a common move in adaptations and is part of the adaptive paradox: the representation of the originary is authenticated through the introduction of elements that aren't in the originary text but are necessary to reassure us that what we are seeing (or reading) is "the real deal." Forays into the frontiers of infidelity can, deployed strategically) reinforce the adaptation's claims to fidelity (to text as we remember it and to historical period as we popularly imagine it).

    There are no doubt even more interpretively rich moments in this film but, alas, I cannot manage to watch beyond the musical atrocity that is the Marley Alexander "Link by Link" song and dance. The lyrics aren't good, and the dancing fluctuates between amateur and awkward. The film is--for me--not a pleasure to watch. But as a reader and scholar of Dickens, I can see that it is doing quite interesting things with its source material (Dickens's text and its constitutive culture text). The film illustrates that nostalgic longing that shapes such adaptive enterprises, and it's a great example of how such adaptations contribute to the culture text that is _ACC_. We might also see this as a film/play that wants to become a Christmas tradition in its own right, a privileged point of access to Dickens for its families of fans.

  2. I have mixed feelings about the 2009 CGI adaptation of _ACC_. It does some interesting things, and even though it's all CGI, I think it represents a pretty compelling imagination of Victorian London as a setting, including a brief study of some of the elements of commodity culture that Marty alludes to in his above comment, particularly in terms of some of the Christmas-y street food in the opening sequence (and, if any adaptation of the book is going to get anywhere close to the anthropomorphic nuts and onions of the Christmas market in _ACC_, it makes since that it would be a Disney version!). If I remember correctly, it was Leitch that used the term "Disneyfication" in his article--not sure where or when that phrase was coined--and without fail, the 2009 _ACC_ indeed "Disneyfied" plenty. For me, the most annoying example of this is the presence of at least 2 rather elongated action sequences in the movie. Now, I would have to agree with Marty--though a bit begrudgingly, because even though I am a lover of music and also the son of a music professor, I have only seen 3 or 4 musicals in my life that didn't make me want to vomit--as I do think many aspects of _ACC_ are indeed conducive to a strong musical presence, if not the potential of rendering it a full-on musical. But I am hard pressed to see where elongated action sequences are consistent with the world of the book, save Bob Cratchit taking several turns on the ice slide on Cornhill on his way home from work on Christmas Eve.

    The film is only 96 minutes, but I would guesstimate that those actions sequences take up at least 10-15 minutes of the film. Yes, I get it, kids today are evidently a bit short in the attention span department, but isn't it enough that the movie is all a borderline cartoon in CGI? Doesn't that constitute enough in the bells and whistles department to allow for a tad bit more medicine to be added to the heaping spoonfulls of sugar that the film is cramming down kids' throats as if they're trying to induce mass metaphorical juvenile diabetes? Maybe a little more focus on social justice and the positive messages of the book and a little less pandering to what some people THINK will be the only way to engage children like shallow action sequences? But of course, it IS Disney, so I get the feeling that my appeal would be falling on very deaf ears--or perhaps ears with Beats by Dre headphones jammed in them pumping Miley Cyrus on full blast. Anyway, I at least had to try...

    1. "Disneyfication," a term I wish I'd thought of myself, is the gift of Richard Schickel, who's had more influence on my thinking about Disney than anyone else. What really provokes me to reply, though, is your remark about how, even though you don't much like musicals, you can see that "many aspects of _ACC_ are indeed conducive to a strong musical presence and Marty's observation that _ACC_ is indeed a carol whose title is sometimes given as "A Christmas Carol in Five Staves," or stanzas, the designation that substitutes for "Chapters" in the story.

      I'd like to add two points. First, virtually all animated feature films are technically musicals because it's much easier to animate characters' movements, and to get audiences to accept the animation, if they're accompanied by music. (If you don't like cartoon musicals, blame "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which set the pattern for them all.)

      More generally, most movies are organized around some analogue to that strong musical presence you mention. Even though we may think we're watching movies for their linear narratives, most of us are watching them partly for the obligatory scenes promised by their genres: musical numbers in musicals, action sequences in action films, love scenes in romances, shootouts in Westerns and gangster films, showoffy effects sequences in CGI extravaganzas, sex scenes in pornography. Tom Gunning roots this tendency in what he calls "the cinema of attractions" in the earliest silent movies, which drew audiences not by promising to tell a story but by promising to show them some spectacle--eventually a series of spectacles--they wouldn't be likely to see anyplace else. I think that audiences' appetite for these essentially detachable "attractions" that films' stories are often designed to motivate (think of the continuity of musicals as an excuse for staging one splashy set piece after another) continues apace. So when I think about adaptations, one of the questions I ask myself is this: Once you've read the book or seen the play that's being adapted, what particular things do you actively look for in the adaptation? Conventional wisdom says that you look for the same narrative armature, but my recent viewings of Poe adaptations, which often jettison Poe's storylines while faithfully preserving their trademark scenes, has made me increasingly skeptical of that assumption.

      Thanks for giving me a spot to put my two cents. See you next week.

      Tom Leitch

    2. Yes, when creating an adaptation, there are just so many directions that you can take that I would also be skeptical of just relying upon the framework of the narrative as the main signal that an adaptation is indeed an adaptation. Even other basic elements can be effectively substituted I would think, like character construction, some sort of overarching moral that might be at stake, and even sometimes just more abstracted versions of recognizable themes. When we addressed the question in one of our early seminar meetings as to what might be required in order to label an _ACC_ adaptation AS an _ACC_ adaptation, one of the first things that came to my mind was the concept of a change of heart. Is a change of heart restricted to narrative structure? It is potentially too abstract of a concept to be limited in that way, I would argue. I think we, as a seminar group, could generate multiple examples of non-narrative elements that could conceivably make their way into an adaptation while still maintaining that work's status as an adaptation.

      In terms of the inevitability of animated feature films being created as de facto musicals, we need only to look as far as Disney's _Frozen_ (2013). I mean, good God! My 6-year-old nephew and even many of my high school students went crazy over that movie and that freaking "Let It Go" song. Please yes, let's let it go already (hey-oh!). So, I freely admit that I am on the margins in terms of my resistance to musicals. Maybe that makes me a Scrooge when it comes to musicals? I'll own it...