I could begin at the beginning, like Tristram Shandy, with the moment of my conception; or with my face pressed up against the pages of George’s Marvellous Medicine or Matilda. I could begin in the middle, with an awakening; with my discovery of cinema, eyes wide open in the dark, the aching melodrama of Iñárritu’s 21 Grams playing out before me. Or I could begin here, in the present, as my thoughts are consumed by stories themselves.
Storytelling involves many choices. It is both art and science; creativity and formula. It is exploring and understanding these choices that fascinates me as a writer, reader and film-goer.
Stories distill who we are as human beings. They have helped us to communicate and explore traditions, to grapple with cultural values and morals. Through them we articulate and explore the human experience – our very consciousness – and we come to know each other better. By taking us inside its characters, the novel “is arguably man’s most successful effort to describe the experience of individual human beings moving through space and time,” says author and critic David Lodge.
Storytelling, it seems, is in our DNA. In 700 BC the epic narrative poem Gilgamesh was inscribed on clay tablets in Iraq but the story itself emerged almost a thousand years earlier when it was communicated by word of mouth. Even prehistoric man articulated their lives and customs in symbolic cave drawings and imagery, the earliest of which are approximately 40,000 years old. Some of these murals depict a series of events, the very basis of story. And the placement of these images in acoustic ‘hotspots’ suggests they might have accompanied oral storytelling too. Here are the origins of the campfire yarn and the very earliest traces of cinema.
The three basic modes of human communication – oral, visual and written – have evolved with us into five complex art forms each with their own rules or principles, strengths and limitations: the visual arts (such as still photography and sculpture), music, theatre, literature and film. Arguably the richest means by which we tell stories, film borrows from the other arts, combining these tools with its own. Film is spatial and simultaneous, able to communicate many different things at once.
The cultural and personal value of stories explains our desire to recycle and re-tell them at different times and in different ways. Film has given us a wealth of original stories but, as a relatively new art form, it has also been a popular vehicle for the retelling of literary stories, translating the written word into its own audio-visual language. The best stories evolve naturally over time – see how fairy tales have transformed – but ’adaptation’ is a conscious process involving many deliberate choices.
It is to this process that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman turns in the 2002 film Adaptation. An insightful and sarcastic work of meta-cinema, the film sees the neurotic Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, for the big screen. Crafting stories is always a difficult business but Kaufman’s screenplay (directed by Spike Jonze) sheds light on the particular demands of taking a story told in one art form and re-imagining it in another. His dry comedy skewers the formulaic, plot driven storytelling of Hollywood cinema while reluctantly accepting it is somewhat inevitable. But for all of Kaufman’s procrastination and anxiety, he succeeds in dramatising what is often viewed as inherently literary: ideas and consciousness.
There is one scene adapted from a novel that stands out for me in particular. It is a small moment cinematically but one that shows just how effectively the novel’s figurative language can be made cinematic. It comes from Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. The childhood Heathcliff pushes Cathy down into the wet moorland soil. He spreads a fistful of mud across her face. Cathy laughs. It’s a game. Heathcliff pins her down, they become entangled and Cathy squelches further into the dirt. Her leg begins to ooze thick, dark blood. As the camera lingers on Cathy as she relaxes into the pain, accepting defeat, the atmosphere becomes strange and unfamiliar. Both the carnal and the metaphysical aspects of the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff emerge from this uncomfortably intimate scene. The film, very literally, roots their love affair in the moorland and in the ‘eternal rocks’ of Emily Bronte’s poetic dialogue:
‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!’
Spoken aloud, these words often feel unnatural and melodramatic on screen (Wuthering Heights had already received three major film adaptations and innumerable television series). But Arnold wraps them up in a single visual moment; one that uses cinema’s physical realism – its sense of place – both literally and metaphorically.
With this my journey through cinema and film adaptations began in earnest. Cinematic storytelling presents an opportunity. It is vivid and immediate. It has the capacity to provoke intellectual, emotional and physical responses: an elevated heart rate, a flinch, or a tear. It is sensual and immersive. And it feels real.
Welcome to The Film Version.
I share my ongoing film journey in the series Filmmaker Focus, taking a closer look at filmmakers and the stylistic techniques that bring their movies to life. And a new regular feature, The A-Z of Adaptations, investigates how filmmakers translate literary stories into cinematic ones, exploring their choices and breaking down important ideas and concepts.
But sometimes we make connections that were perhaps unintended by the filmmaker. Their work reminds us of an earlier film, or of ideas, themes or messages explored elsewhere in other stories in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger. These connections are explored in my new series, Companion Pieces.
I hope that you enjoy your time here at The Film Version. I love hearing from my readers so please share your thoughts in the comments, I’m looking forward to starting a conversation with you.