Tag Archives: book

Popular Adaptation – relax, it’s ok

While I can see big problems with films like Troy, 300 and Gladiator, I can’t honestly say that historical or mythological accuracy is one of them. Those who scorn such films usually have exactly the same argument: Troy is nothing like the Iliad, and 300 and Gladiator are full of historical inaccuracies – everything from the exact events to the military techniques used and the ordering of Maximus’ three names. I’ve met people who studied classics at university and have to make all kinds of excuses to themselves before going to see such films. I honestly don’t think these inaccuracies are a problem.

Troy is a film in its own right. There are a lot of problems with it, many of them in the form of Orlando Bloom, but its vast differences from the Iliad are unimportant. The Iliad has a lot of stylistic features that make an accurate film adaptation a near impossibility. Practically nothing happens during books 2-15 and much of what they are there for – giving a gruesome impression of the slaughter of the Trojan Wars – is achieved by several short battle sequences in the film. The Iliad is a two-layered story in which the events of the Trojan Wars are merely the playground setting for the puppeteering of the gods – all the major events of the Iliad are fated to happen and the main characters are aware of this before they occur. This quite simply wouldn’t work in a modern film. We live with the legacy of centuries of humanism that completely contradicts such a deterministic, entirely god-focussed viewpoint. Modern narratives often depend on the viewer/reader not knowing what happens at the end, and modern writers take huge interest in playing out and demonstrating the vast consequences of small decisions made (with free will) by their characters. Fate-based narratives would not please modern cinema-goers. It’s difficult enough to read the Iliad even with a fair understanding of pre-humanistic thought and the conventions of ancient writing – to a modern mind, the fact that the whole plot is predetermined removes half the appeal, and, to be brutally honest, makes it difficult to care. Modern film cannot be expected to accurately recreate this, absolutely central, aspect of the Iliad. Being “true to the original” would in the Iliad’s case be artistically and commercially suicidal.

Being true to the original not only is impractical in some cases but has little history of overwhelming artistic success. What those who sneer at popular adaptation of old stories seem to forget is that arguably the two most important writers of western history, Ovid and Shakespeare, were masters of exactly the same craft. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the source of huge numbers of the Greek myths and legends we know today. He did not invent them, he adapted them and put them together in weird and wonderful ways: he was the first to join the stories of Echo and Narcissus together for example. The result was a fifteen-book work of unidentifiable genre and style that became a handbook of mythology and the source of almost every retelling since. It is in the nature of these stories that they change over time. Look at a copy of Robert Graves’ complete Greek Myths and you’ll find that each story has several different versions, and the footnotes to each story are enormously complex due to the maze of different sources for each one. The great writers of history were not creators, they were adapters.

The same holds true of Shakespeare. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays, including all his best known works – Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream etc. – are based on earlier versions of the same stories. They differ hugely from their originals, for example Hamlet is a tale about a man struggling to commit murder because of the lack of proof and the enormous philosophical questions involved in such an act, rather than because he’s too young to do it (the point of the original Danish story). Shakespeare changed stories so that he could make them about what ideas he wanted to explore. This was a large part of his genius. Like Ovid’s, Shakespeare’s versions of the stories are the ones we remember, because they are the best and most influential retellings. Shakespeare was an innovator not of stories, but of style – he wrote plays in a way that had never been done before, and he told old stories in a way they had never been told before.

The question of “popular” writing also comes up here. Critics of such films as Troy point to the popular focus of the films, identifying literary classics as the real deal, but scorning such films as unintellectual and made for the common people, not the intelligent viewer. Again, it must be pointed out that Ovid and Shakespeare were popular writers. The common man read and enjoyed Ovid’s tales because they were fun, entertaining, and subversive. The upright, intellectual, proper people read Virgil, who’s Aeneid, while famous, has never had the same cultural impact as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day (in a time when theatre was enormously popular in London, the equivalent of film) and his success is down to him writing to please, rather than writing to satisfy the intellectual needs of the elite.

I am not saying that Troy is the new Shakespeare. There are a lot of stylistic issues with it as I have said, ones that would make Shakespeare spin in his grave. What I am saying is that where films like these need to improve is in their writing, in their acting, and in other stylistic areas, and to criticise them for their lack of truth to the original legend or their lack of historical accuracy is not constructive and goes against the truth of literary history. My problem with the sudden arrival of biologically impossible fantasy creatures in 300 is the sudden and awkward change of genre it caused in what had up till then been a simple historical epic with no fantasy element, not the fact that there is no record of such creatures in Xerxes’ army. My problem with the vast changes to the character of Agamemnon in Troy is that I personally think it makes the relationship between him and Achilles less interesting, not the fact that it is different to the original myth. We call them adaptations for a reason. I have no problem with criticising an adaptation for stylistic reasons, but it does not matter if Hollywood has a different take on a very old story that has in any case changed beyond recognition since it’s original telling.


The Metamorphosis – a tragicomic masterpiece


To me, prose fiction is the documentation of fictional events. It is up to the author to find something worth documenting. The two most basic forms of this are ordinary and extraordinary: John Steinbeck chooses to write about a typical experience of a migrant worker in California, whereas the Sherlock Holmes stories document the experience of an extraordinary individual. Often it follows that ordinary stories are tales of failure, exposing the harsh reality of a situation, whereas extraordinary stories are worth telling because they are about the people who are extraordinary enough to win through. What Kafka has done in The Metamorphosis is to cross these two forms. Gregor’s transformation is unexplained: it does not form part of a wider fantasy world, it is a freak event, an extraordinary circumstance. The topic is extraordinary. Nevertheless, Kafka’s narrative is ordinary. It is a tragedy, a failure, and not even a dramatic one, a miserable wasting away. It is so easy to believe that this will be a story about how Gregor and his family deal with his transformation. It is not. It is a story about how they don’t deal with it. Their efforts are short-lived and, as the narrative makes clear, insufficient to ensure his survival. Kafka has given an impression of how this situation would typically pan out, despite the unique nature of the situation itself.

So if the circumstances are unique, but the results unimpressive, what’s the point? There are two. Firstly, it’s a breath of fresh air. There is absolutely nothing wrong or idealistic about documenting only the extraordinary cases with extraordinary results, but the expectation of another of those stories renders Gregor’s eventual passing, while a little surprising, even more flat  and listless. Secondly, Kafka’s story is an exercise in philosophy and ethics. Quite simply it is a fascinating exploration of what a family might do under extreme circumstances. The fact that the circumstances Kafka has chosen are so extreme as to be beyond possibility only gives a new coat of polish to the exercise. Just as arguments and thought experiments are more thought-provoking in fictional form, so the application of fantasy here makes the story still more interesting. Kafka doesn’t need to explain how the metamorphosis occurred: that’s not the point. The point is what the story shows about humanity.

What does it show about humanity? That the family model is not flawless; that dependency on one individual can under the wrong circumstances flip the world on its head; that the strongest love and the strongest hate are sometimes millimetres away from each other, can exist in the mind at the same time in equal measure and validity, can switch in an instant, are inextricably linked under some circumstances, one provoking the other. It is horrifying to think how similar Gregor’s story is to the typical breakup. I knew someone whose husband died of a heart attack, and eventually resolved to try and find someone new. She considered going to a communion of divorced people to do so. A friend of hers advised her against it on the grounds that “Your husband died, and it was the worst thing that ever happened to you. Most people in divorce communions want to kill their exes.” It’s terrible to think how quickly the strongest love can turn to the most violent hate. Herr Samsa’s attacks on his transformed son are all the more grotesque and horrifying for their motivation of love. Something inside him realises who the creature he sees is. He cannot bring himself to kill Gregor, as any other with the courage would if confronted with a six-foot verminous insect. Herr Samsa herds Gregor into his room instead, using a stick and a newspaper, and later throws a bowl of apples at him, one breaking through his back and rotting inside him for the rest of his days. The pain Herr Samsa causes his son is far worse than the death that finally meets him.

Gregor’s obstinately practical day-to-day lines of thinking in The Metamorphosis make it an overtly comical piece of prose, but the true nature of Kafka’s work is incredibly sinister. It is a very powerful and moving story.

Still She Haunts Me – thoroughly underrated

It’s always an alarm bell to me if I read about a book that sounds interesting, type its name into Amazon for reviews (and number of pages, I confess), and I discover that they don’t stock it. However, I must remind myself that some books are just tragically underrated and misunderstood, and that being stocked by Amazon is not a reliable measure of quality (I am reminded at this point of the fact that Amazon stock Fifty Shades of Grey).

I came across Still She Haunts Me, the story of Lewis Carroll’s suspected paedophilic attraction to Alice Liddell, on whom he based his famous books, while reading about Lewis Carroll, out of interest, and as I was reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at the time, I thought it would make an interesting comparison.

I confess, I actually prefer Still She Haunts Me. It seems odd that I feel I have to defend the less extreme of the two, but then again I cannot deny Nabokov has a way with words that Roiphe doesn’t compete with. Nevertheless, Roiphe’s work resonated far better with me. The character of Lolita feels unrealistic to me, and Humbert would never shut up about how handsome he was. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Caroll’s birth name) on the other hand, is an infinitely tragic character, whose far less extreme, but still morally questionable, behaviour is a relatively small blot on a likable record. In Alice, Dodgson finds a muse, a creative inspiration, one that turns every difficulty he has, his stutter, his communicative trouble, his social problems, into an advantage in his writing. She seems to connect with him such that, from where I’m sitting, everything he does is understandable. Nabokov’s book gives the impression that all paedophiles are predators, who require only the guts to do it once to overcome morality entirely and follow a lifetime of evil, who value looks alone, to the extent of never listening to their victims and forming almost entirely fabricated impressions of their personalities. Meanwhile the victim seems unrealistically hypersexual on her own account, and unaffected by her ordeal. Roiphe manages to capture a far more believable take on events in her narrative.