Audiences: censorship, screen tests & crowd-pleasing in film adaptation
Posted on August 10, 2019
How does the target audience change the content of film adaptations? In this post I explore how film marketing is used to ‘bait’ novel readers and how the desire for mass-market appeal influences the style and content of film adaptations through censorship and screen tests.
PART TWO: THE RULE OF THE MOB
‘To leverage book equity and have a successful opening for a book-based movie,’ say Amit Joshi and Huifang Mao in Adapting To Succeed, producers should ‘select recent best-selling books and make films of close adaptation”. But, by their own admission, their research had one conspicuous gap: it did’t differentiate between viewers who had read the book and those who hadn’t.
There is evidence to suggest that some viewers prepare for their film experience by seeking out the novel in advance. Film tie-in copies of My Cousin Rachel, for instance, saw the novel’s sales increase immediately before the film opened. This trend was born out in a short poll I ran recently on Twitter. Yet exit polls for film adaptations of Brick Lane, We Need To Talk About Kevin and even the literary phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which hit 2 million UK book sales and 15 million US sales in the year of its film release), revealed that readers make up only a limited portion of the audience (31%, 39% and 43% of viewers respectively). Filmmakers often talk about their desire to remain faithful to the spirit of their source material, but only a small portion of their audience are likely to have a clear idea of this material in the first place.
It is more likely that the financial demands of the industry requires filmmakers to appeal to different markets than that of the novel; in other words, to appeal to mass-markets. And often this means changing the novel’s content. As George Bluestone said in 1973, ‘Movies are simply too expensive to provide the kind of variety that the novel allows’. It seems little has changed.
The Impact of Censorship on Film Adaptations
Most recently, the debate about the impact of ‘catering to the tastes of a mass audience’ has landed on the erosion of sex scenes in cinema. ‘Today, films need only to get bums on seats, not to cater for them once comfy’, says Catherine Shoard, film editor for The Guardian, ‘This means there is studio pressure to sanitise and so secure as low a certification as possible – particularly in the US, where most English-language films sink or swim, and where an NC-17 rating (meaning you have to be 18 or over) is a cold shower for your commercial prospects.’ Last year in the UK, certificate 18 films made up a mere 4.8% of total releases. They took home a disproportionate 2.6% of the total box office.
‘The summer begins with a new crop of sexually explicit, mostly European movies set off from Cannes to the festival circuit and eventually to brief art-house runs, while Hollywood churns out its chief export of gun-happy escapism and wholesome kid stuff,’ says Ann Hornaday for The Washington Post, ‘Between those two channels the classic sex scene – once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies – has been largely forgotten and ignored’.
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name fell into this chasm in 2017. The rich, fevered, sensual novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, is told in the first person from the perspective of seventeen year old Elio. His frank and vivid descriptions of complicated desire – including his first sexual experience with a man – are the very essence of the novel. Take the complex emotions in this passage:
Two versions of James Ivory’s screenplay (you can read the scenes by downloading the pdf below) reveal a gradual erosion of the love scene’s realism on screen. Even the descriptive language is softened into cliché – ‘make love’ – as Elio’s consent is made clear. In an interview with The Guardian, screenwriter James Ivory was disdainful about the film’s treatment of sex, ‘When people are wandering around before or after making love, and they’re decorously covered with sheets, it’s always seemed phoney to me’.
In the final cut, Guadagnino pans across from the lovers and out of the window. It’s a cheesy device that cheats the viewer of a sincere human connection. ‘The sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real,’ says Hornaday, ‘You know what happens next, the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?’.
Guadagnino’s treatment of the scene was controversial. Hornaday notes how movies like Milk and Brokeback Mountain, that ‘broke ground in representing gay protagonists’, have often ‘shied away from depicting the most intimate mechanics of men having sex, to the consternation of viewers who wanted to see their sexuality represented and normalized’. Others, like Vox contributor Alex Abad-Santos, were baffled ‘that anyone could adapt a novel whose greatest strength is that it shows the thrill, madness, eroticism, and regret of sex, and decide to minimize those feelings and emotions’. His words reveal how the use of the novel as bait in the film’s marketing can actually lead to disappointment: we have come to expect that the film will be a close approximation of the novel. Both Shoard and Abad-Santos go on to speculate about the role of awards season posturing in the tone of the scene.
The Impact of Screen Tests on Film Adaptations
In 2009, the desire for a PG-13 rating moulded the content of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones (2009). The novel explores the consequences of the rape and murder of a teenage girl but ‘we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch,’ said Jackson in conversation with SYFI Wire, adding ‘there are a lot of positive aspects of this film… So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all’. But at the film’s screen test, audiences demanded more violence, not during the girl’s murder but at the film’s resolution: they wanted to see the killer suffer.
The authority of the screen-test has shaped the content of numerous film adaptations. The story behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is, by now, renowned: production was defined by discord between screenwriter and director, loss of financial backing and micro-management by its new funders. In this environment the screen testers had considerable power. A loose adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film’s voiceover narration and uncharacteristic, happy ending resulted from screen-test feedback. On its release in 1982 it was commercial flop. Even the 1992 Director’s Cut paid ‘lip service to the director’s design’ while actually resulting from ‘commercial imperatives,’ says Sean Redmond in Studying Blade Runner. But what this second release revealed was just how wrong the screen-test audience had got it. This version reinstated Scott’s bleak ending and added further ambiguity: it became a ‘mainstream commercial success’.
Spielberg’s Jaws offers a more positive spin on the screen-test. At its early screenings, Jaws created such a huge response (including one man running to the bathroom to vomit) that the filmmakers ‘set about calibrating the mysterious alchemy that seemed to have sprung up between Jaws and its audience,’ says Tom Shone in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Spielberg was overjoyed that his film had one big scream and set out to create another, much earlier in the movie. But this new surprise altered the film’s dynamic: from this moment on, his audience became ‘defensive’, always ‘looking for something something to pop out’. The second, original, scream arrived once again but, this time, it was ‘only half as intense’. ‘Spielberg had gone for two screams, and got them,’ says Shone, ‘but somehow they didn’t top the one scream he started out with’. In all three of these examples – The Lovely Bones, Blade Runner, Jaws – crucial decisions about content had very little to do with the novel at all.
The Value of Crowd-Pleasing Adaptations
The content of adaptations is shaped, in part, by the particular demands of the film industry and by the desires of audiences who are different from readers – both demographically and in their relationship with the source material. Yet evidence shows that baiting audiences with references to the novel in a film’s marketing does work, particularly in the case of well known classics. More than half of people surveyed after watching Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights said their awareness of Emily Brontë’s novel contributed to their decision to see the film.
It is easy to get frustrated with industry business models that favour 12A certificates and crowd pleasing subject matter, shying away from literary content that is potentially challenging. Yet it is important not to undervalue financially successful, mass-market adaptations. In the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes research just 5% of audiences stated that they watched independent films with smaller budgets ‘most often’, identifying a ‘distinct sub-current of thought that art film was by its very nature serious, avant-garde and hard to understand’. This reputation buys independent filmmakers and their films a certain degree of freedom, their small but loyal fanbases often empowering them to make bold decisions about the treatment of their source material. Arnold, for instance, embraced the cruelest and most violent elements of Brontë’s novel, even depicting Heathcliff’s grief-induced necrophilia.
That there remains a strong desire to make films like this is evident in the sheer number of dramas made from novels and short stories in 2018 (a whopping 46%). Many of these low budget features made a bigger profit, in percentage terms, than their big budget counterparts. Yet they also remain a significant risk, with limited earning potential in real terms. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, with rising star Saoirse Ronan, made just $3.4 million at the worldwide box office; the lauded You Were Never Really here just $7.4 million. Clio Barnard’s excellent Dark River made just $200,000. It is the profits made from mass-market, high-grossing films that enable distributors to take these risks. We would not have a film industry without them.
* You can find more posts in my A-Z of Adaptations series here. Let me know your thoughts in the comments…