Which is better the film or the book?
The debate over the superiority of literature over film or vice versa seems to rear its head every time a major piece of literary work is adapted. Even unbridled success stories such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have dissident voices unhappy with his changes and omissions. However changes and omissions are absolutely necessary when adapting hundreds of pages of prose into a couple of hours of film. This essay will look at how narrative is adapted and retold in two films; Mrs Dalloway (Marleen Gorris, 1997) and The Color Purple. (Steven Spielberg, 1985)
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Mrs Dalloway is not a conventionally narrated novel. Over the course of a day it follows the eponymous protagonist through her preparations to host a party and how the unexpected arrival of am old suitor makes her reminisce about her youth. At the same time we see how Mrs Dalloway and her associates lives intersect with that of a shell-shocked solider. What is produced is a type of mosaic narrative, which is then left for the reader to interpret and discern meaning.
In the beginning of the film as she walks about London on her way to collect the flowers for her party we are allowed to view moments of her youth in flashback. These flashbacks are generally triggered by something in the present. For example a meeting with Hugh reminds her of how Peter Walsh ‘never to this day forgiven her for liking him.’ (Woolf, p 8) These are transitioned in and out of aurally, as she hears voices of people she knew in her head and the visual waits a beat before transitioning back as well. This replicates the mosaic narrative style of the book.
There is however one major difference between the beginning of the book and the beginning of the film. The character of Septimus (Rupert Graves) is much more quickly established as a major character within the film. In the book he is introduced as a car backfires and he is shocked rigid by it although no immediate reason is given why. Over the course of the novel we learn more about his experiences at war and the lasting effect upon him. Mrs Dalloway and Septimus never meet in the novel, yet we are led to discern they are connected thematically through the mosaic narrative.
The Film version of Mrs Dalloway opens with a brief sequence of Septimus (Rupert Graves) in the trenches of world war one. The shot is thick with smoke and is filmed in slow motion to give the sense of a dream sequence although the title Italy 1918 suggests that this is a flashback. The camera slowly zooms into Septimus face singling him out as the protagonist of this sequence. We see his reaction to a friend being blown up by an explosion and as he sinks into despair the smoke fills the screen fading it to white and softening focus. This soft white backdrop then becomes the drapes in the bedroom of Mrs. Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave).
These two environments could not be more different; however the transition is not jarring or unsettling; we are taken from the horror trenches into the gentile and elegant world of a Whitehall socialite with the greatest of ease. The transition leaves the viewer with the impression that the two people’s lives are somehow connected, but perhaps is not as subtle and gently persuasive as the book.
The Color Purple tells the story of a young black woman in the Deep South. It is about the oppression and abuse she suffers in a racist sexist world and the bonds of friendship she finds with other women. The climactic emotional moment of the novel is the sequence ion which Celia tells her husband that she is leaving him and moving to Memphis. The dialogue form the scene in the film is taken almost word for word from the book. It is a moment of great personal emancipation for Celia, and a moment of fantastic performance from the unusually restrained Whoopi Goldberg. She has been abused and sub-serviant all her life and she finally has enough sense of self worth to speak up load and powerfully. “You’re a lowdown dog is what’s wrong, I say. It’s time to leave you and enter into the creation.” (Walker, p180)
First of all the scene is set in Mr.____’s (Danny Glover) House as opposed to Harpo’s (Willard Pugh) in the book; this is significant because it has been Celia’s prison for several years; a place where she has been continuously abused. This adds extra dramatic tension to the scene and focuses it on Celia. However this does to some extent detract from the arcs of the other characters such as Squeak (Rea Dawn Chong) and Sofia. (Oprah Winfrey) In the novel there are continuous references to Squeak being Harpo’s mistress and mother of his child. This is less prominent in the film and as such leaves Squeak’s departure with much less dramatic weight. Also the film omits the visit of Eleanor Jane and reference to Sofia’s probation. In the novel Sofia is denied her emancipation by the legalities she is still embroiled with, the film instead reinstates Sofia as a dominant force at the dinner table.
What is clear from this scene is that although as the stories protagonist Celia’s narrative arc has remained intact, omissions have had to have been made on behalf of other characters within the novel due to the narrative constraints of time.
Film can strive to imitate the stylistic form of literature successfully as in the case of Mrs Dalloway or unsuccessfully as in the case of The Bonfire of the Vanities (De Palma, 1990) In certain cases such as The Godfather (Coppola 1972) and Jaws (Spielberg 1975) the film adaptation can surpass the source material. Although argument other which form is better may be mere sound and fury; direct comparison of the two different narrative forms can lead to a better understanding of narration itself.
- Bordwell and Thompson. (2001) Film Art: An Introduction, New York: McGraw Hill.
- Kawin, B (1992) How Movies Work, London: University of California press.
- Thompson, K (1999) Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding classical Narrative Technique. London: Harvard
- Walker, A (2004) The Color Prurple, London: Pheonix.
- Woolf, V (1996) Mrs Dalloway, London: Penguin popular classics.
- Bonfire of the Vanities (Dir Brian De Palma, 1990, US)
- Color Purple, The (Dir Steven Spielberg, 1985 US)
- Godfather, The (Dir Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, US)
- Jaws (Dir Steven Spielberg, 1975, US)
- Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The (Dir Peter Jackson, 2002, US, New Zealand, Germany)
- Mrs. Dalloway (Dir Marleen Gorris, 1997, UK)
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