Page to Screen Adaptation: Fidelity or Liberty?

Guest blogger, Jaimee Cachia

Why is it that written texts adapted for the silver screen so often fall short of the expectations set by the magic of the page?

The most basic answer can be found in the understanding that film, which shows things, and literature, which tells them, ultimately speak different languages. Where a written tale conveys its meaning internally, a film must do so externally. Therein lies the letdown: this difference in transmission techniques can lead to difficulties in communicating certain aspects of a story—perhaps those that occur inside a character’s head—and often results in the omission of those sublime details that can only take place in that liminal space between the page and the reader’s own imagination.

First-person narration, for instance, can pose significant challenges for any adaptation; losing that immediate channel between reader and writer could strip a film of the unique voice that pervaded the original work. It is therefore unsurprising that so many successful adaptations of iconic literary works turn to the narrative voiceover, whether it be in small portions at crucial moments (e.g. Stand By Me) or as an extensive framing device (The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club). In order to pull this off, these filmmakers do not simply employ the narration as a convenient expositionary device, but rather rely on its contingency with the fictional world in which they are working. The narration in The Shawshank Redemption is so successful because Morgan Freeman’s solemn diction of Stephen King’s words simply feels true to the time. Edward Norton’s wry narration as the unnamed narrator in Fight Club melds naturally into the comic cruelty of the universe David Fincher built from Chuck Palahniuk’s genius.

Fight Club 1999

But are such verbal cues always necessary to convey a story meaningfully? Perhaps not; one could argue that the purpose of an adaptation is not to dictate the original written word, but to interpret it – albeit in a very different art form.

Communicating something visually needn’t cost the piece its essence, even without a disembodied voice to provide consistent guidance. Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s wildly popular adaptation of Stephen King’s lesser-known novella The Body, indeed features occasional narrative commentary from grown-up Gordie – though it is strikingly sparse considering the primacy of his first-person narration in the original text. The success of this choice proves that it is wholly possible for a film to embody a specific tone first embedded on the page, even if it does stray structurally from its source material. The film’s soundtrack of Buddy Holly and the Chordettes coupled with the nostalgic set design offer meticulous period detail, creating a mood faithful to the novella. The original text stood as a character study of the four 12-year-old boys; though the film differs from the original in that it revolves around the progression of Gordie alone, it retains King’s essential purpose: to examine the journey from childhood towards adolescence, and how the erosion of innocence that this entails can erode one’s friendships.

Stand By Me 1986

Literature and cinema, as two different forms of media, have different rules and expectations. The fidelity of an adaptation to its original text therefore needn’t be the measure of its artistic merit – as such filmmakers as David Fincher and Rob Reiner have shown us, it is entirely possible to insert one’s own creative vision into an existing story, to replicate an essential message without word-for-word literalism.

Jaimee Cachia

‘Jaimee Cachia is a Sydney-based writer of proses both critical and creative. She is currently undertaking her Honours year in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney, whose premier publication Vertigo Magazine has routinely been host to her non-fiction work. Throughout her degree in both Creative Writing and Social & Political Sciences, she has written zealously in the interests of social justice and has previously sub-edited the academic journal NEW: Emerging Scholars in Australian Indigenous Studies.’