Fidelity and Producer Power: Splice Volune 5 Issue 2 Spring 2011
Born Free (dir. James Hill, 1966) was the first adaptation I ever saw. It was 1966 or 67 and I was eightish, just back from Tanzania. My Nana took me to see it and I got very involved at the end. The images of the lioness battling it out for her wild identity were captivating. The film embodied both my memories and my idyllic view of the continent I had just left. However, I also remember the vague sense of disappointment I had when, a few years later, I first read the books Joy Adamson had written (Born Free, Living Free, Forever Free). Elsa herself, of course, was not a disappointment, spread out on the camp bed with her paws in the air, but Joy was not the sylph like blonde that Virginia McKenna had represented. She was a buxom, curly headed woman, older looking than her Hollywood counterpart. Even now, I feel slightly offended when pictures of her as the real Joy are presented. I still want her to be Virginia McKenna. Bill Travers bore more of a resemblance to George, only bigger, and at least they filmed on location, that I could tell, having been there, so recently. Even at that age I lost patience with the Mojave Desert or the Hollywood lot pretending to be African. The books were a little turgid for a pre-teen, but I persevered and Joy Adamson had written an account that largely reflected the content of the film and the movie captured, if not the spirit of the age, then the spirit of the audience.
The film represented a loving married couple in an age of colonial innocence. It represented imperialism in the way we liked to be represented, as benign, paternalistic empire builders, who were now dismantling our empire and returning it to its re-educated (for the better obviously) owners. Elsa was a metaphor for that very letting go, just as she went back to her freedom, African countries went back to independence. Elsa maintained a civilised relationship with her former owners to her death. Elsa, after all, had a moral compass, which, as it turned out, eluded her real life owners. In fact, what Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers represented on screen was not only that benign spirit, but their own marriage and not the dysfunctional and unhappy relationship that the real George and Joy shared. Virginia and Bill were that heady combination of real life romantic chemistry, a true story with animals, dangerous but cute animals, on the set. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers made such a successful adaptation of the story, that they became entangled with it, their Born Free Foundation, now led by their son, carries out serious wildlife conservation. Their own love of Africa and its animals gradually became their own story.
Born Free was made in a time when the producers had power over the adaptation. True life and true looks were subordinated to the spirit of the story, in this case the spirit of Elsa and the call of the wild. In 1957, just as Virginia was marrying Bill, another George, this time George Bluestone, published the seminal work of adaptation studies Novels Into Film. In this work, Bluestone sited canonical literature as an appropriate source for transformation into film and he discussed what he coined the “mutational process”, a process that involved infidelity to the original text.
“With Bluestone as their intellectual progenitor, many contemporary scholars in adaptation studies likewise claim to reject “fidelity” as a marker of an adaptation’s success, but more often than not perpetuate a dedication to the literary values underlying “adaptation”. P12
Fidelity is an interesting word to choose, an argument over fidelity to the text has kept Adaptation Studies in the foothills of academia for decades. Textual analysis has been confined to discussions of accuracy and faithfulness, words normally associated with marriage. These concepts are applied to the transformation of the text and the idea of being true to the “essence” of a text has been considered appropriate, to its transformation, although not a good excuse in marriage. However, either a rigorous loyalty to, or an understanding of the essence of the text in its original form is not necessarily a marker of success, neither is the previous success of the text. Bluestone pointed out that, often producers would talk of “faithful” or “unfaithful” productions of books, when what they actually meant was “successful” or “unsuccessful”, and success meant money and audience. The filmmaker, must consider: star power; costs and the relentless happy ending. Cavalier messing with the text has always been legitimate, in the context of cultural influences and contemporary hegemony. Thus George and Joy were represented as a clearly happily married couple just like Ginny and Bill.
Between 1995 and 2008 no less than 8 Oscars were given to adaptations. All of them used a novel, a book or another film; basically somebody else had done the research for the screenplay writer. The current film The Social Network (dir. David Fincher) nominated in several categories at this year’s Oscars and winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay for Aaron Sorkin, is similar in its attempt to represent real life events and capture, again successfully, it seems, the spirit of the age.
In my own experience, writing backwards from screenplay to novelisation, my research uncovered the contraction of the truth to perpetuate the story. I wrote the novelisation of the screenplay by William Nicholson, to a TV movie called New World (dir. Norman Stone, 1986) that retold the story of the first settlers in America, who stepped off the Mayflower to live in the new continent. In the film, the Native Americans who kidnapped a child to use as a bargaining chip with the settlers were represented as quick to take that course of action. The conflict, and the resolution, between the two sides needed to be represented in short hand, and the victims of the short cut were the Native American tribe, who, while they did kidnap a child, did not leap quickly to that action in the real life event. In fact the military wing of the Mayflower framed them for stealing, in order to provide a pretext to persuade Governor Bradford to authorise their intimidation.
In the same way there is a whole society that will claim Richard III was trounced by Shakespeare and in the film Zulu (dir. Cy Endfield, 1964), Private Hook’s family (character played by James Booth) complained to the film company for portraying the hapless Hook as an unpleasant alcoholic and a coward but the film needed a dissenting voice, a source for internal conflict not addressed by the action in the film and it turned out to be him, not so in real life. If the critical observer wants to take that further, no doubt Captain Bligh had his reasons and the Sherriff of Nottingham was a sweetie – who knew?
Economic With the Truth
Often, the advantage for the filmmaker is that the audience, even George Bluestone, cannot really know what fidelity actually is, they cannot know the author’s position, the historical truth of an event or narrative. The process of transmission of a text is the process of language, in Stuart Hall’s terms the process of encoding and decoding.
The author encodes the piece (in this case the author can be the speaker, the writer, the filmmaker) according to their intention and their influences. The audience hears, reads, or views that piece and decodes it according to their cultural environment and preferences. The representation then may not be universally interpreted but it may have universal appeal. In the recent film Monsters (not an adaptation) made by Gareth Edwards, he used a camera, a laptop and a pretty girl in Mexico and made a film about space monsters. Edwards readily concedes that he had in mind, some kind of encoding that included the idea of utilitarianism, the question to what lengths must we go in order to protect ourselves against a threat? In his encoding of the film, he represented a terrorist threat, and posed the question how many innocent lives can be sacrificed justifiably in the face of the war on terror? This was his theme and his intention. However because he had set the film in Mexico and featured two American citizens trying to get home, an American audience decoded that, not only as a comment on the war on terror, but as a comment on the relationship that the US has with Mexico, with the “aliens” that live the other side of the border, with the sense of threat they felt about being invaded by, or lost in Mexico. Edwards had no problem in accepting that interpretation as valid, the audience chose to decode his text differently, but they were not necessarily faithful to his choice of meaning.
The fact that no one does really know the truth of history, is why all adaptations can only be viewed within their contemporary cultural context, their success or failure is a negotiated reading. However, until recently the filmmaker has had the veto and the audience has, unlike Bluestone, had to accept the idea that the essence of the story can be the truth of a representation.
“I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.” Umberto Eco
In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins sites Umberto Eco, defining the transformation of a text as the dislocation of it from the original. Such a dislocation means that the audience can remember only parts of it without respect to its relationship to the whole: the bravery of the men at Rourke’s Drift, the freedom of the lioness, the battle for good over evil, whatever it is, the adaptation distils the truth and applies it to the culture. The box office honours the spirit of the age and the audience is part of that. If the producers have read the audience correctly then the audience rewards them with praise and with money, the negotiation is successful even if that reading is not quite what was encoded, as in the case of Monsters.
A fundamental requirement of this process was distance from the text, literally not being able to refer to it easily, remember it and apply it directly. The problem for producers in adapting some works, either of real life or fiction has been the knowledge of the audience. Private Hook, may only be one example, but anyone who has ever ventured their knowledge in public will be aware, that someone with detailed knowledge and no distance from the text can tell you that such and such an interpretation is not accurate. Essential to the production of many an adaptation has been precisely the distance that the filmmaker has had from both the audience and the text, but all that has changed.
Fans, Fetishes and Followers
There’s a moment in The West Wing (NBC, 2001), when a new office worker arrives in the Whitehouse and she is a Trekkie. Her obsession for Star Trek extends to a Star Trek pin, her boss (Josh) asks her to take the pin off, she protests, claiming that she is a fan and that she cares. He engages her in conversation, saying that he too is a fan. However, he tells her what he does not do as a fan, he makes no lists, has no merchandise, cannot tell her his least favourite or most favourite episode or speculate as to who should marry who in the series. “That’s not being a fan” he says, “that’s a fetish”
While Josh Lynam might call such fandom a fetish, Henry Jenkins defines the difference between those concepts as that of the difference between a fan (Josh) and the Trekkie who is a follower. In short a follower is a fan whose fandom goes beyond the knowledge of the text and applies it to lifestyle and communal identity. That communal identity has been fed and facilitated in recent years by the advent of social media and the Internet.
It is the nature of fandom (or followership) that it has already changed and continues to change the mechanism of negotiated readings and audience/producer distance, both from each other and the text and that process, in itself, has begun to have an impact on modern adaptations of epic cultural texts.
Lord of The Rings
Whilst the Internet is a huge part of the new negotiation that is not to say that there were no fans, or no interaction with fans of texts, before the use of the Internet. Trekkies, after all, predate social network technology, as do fans of the much lauded, much fetishised Lord of the Rings.
Published in 1954/55, the trilogy won the Fantasy Award at 15th World Science Fiction Convention in 1957. In 1960 The Fellowship of the Ring was formed and was the first known North American fan group. In the UK in 1961 Nazgul’s Bane was published, the first British fanzine based on the books, in 1965 Richard Polttz founded the first formal Tolkien fan association, The Tolkien Society of the Americas and organised a conference on Middle Earth (on it rather than in it) by 1966 (after a gap) Tolkien was recognised by the Royal Society of Literature and he was awarded the Benson Medal. That same year Time ran a story entitled the “The Hobbit Habit”. In1967 came Mythopoeic and in 1969 The Tolkien Society opened its doors, and then things settled down a bit to pubs and conferences until the Internet came along.
That brief (and no doubt incomplete) account of the development of the fan community surrounding the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, presented director Peter Jackson, and the fans, with a problem. The distance that had once been an assumed, if not an essential part of the construction of an adapted text, now looked much more like an intimacy, an intimacy that might inhibit the construction of a good text.
In early discussions of fandom, the suggestion, perhaps somewhat imbued with prejudice, has been that in order to be a good fan, the fan must also be media literate, the converse of that statement being that possibly being a fan and being media literate are somehow mutually exclusive. There is a suggestion by David Buckingham that if the audience enjoys a text too much it is unable to assess its virtues or otherwise, critically, that crucial distance is lost. He argues that four key areas need to be understood by a media literate audience: production, language, representation, and audience. This rather patronising approach, was researched by Judith E. Rosenbaum in the chapter This is What it Must Look Like: The Lord or the Rings Fandom and Media Literacy.  On the whole the idea that fans could not judge a film without the use of distance was disproved. In fact on occasion the fan’s acuity was greater, their knowledge of the text meant that they could identify those aspects of the film that had altered the construction of the text in order to attract an audience, most notably the use of romance in the films, to draw in a female audience, that might otherwise associate LOTR with a male fanbase. That tendency to throw the original text at the filmmakers is part of the nightmare for the producers who encode the text, often by dislocating it and reconstructing it without reference to its context and target audience. It is worth saying here, that Peter Jackson’s credentials as a LOTR geek enabled him to gain the trust of the fans and followers such that the films’ reception by both the subjective and objective audience was clearly successful.
It seemed therefore, to Peter Jackson at least, that fans do have some media literate contribution to make and the presence of an online fan community in the 1990s who regarded him with some credibility became a tool, if occasionally a two-edged sword, for Jackson to employ. Speculation on the Net in the late 1990s included suggesting Sean Connery for Gandalf and Bo Derek for Galadriel. Anxieties were expressed by those faithful to the book, that Jackson might play fast and loose with characters and plot in order to attract a wider and younger audience. Concern was expressed about the character of Arwen (not Sophie Marceau, as the fans suggested) that Jackson decided to extend.
To make Arwen a rebellious, barely post-teen warrior princess goes far beyond stretching credibility……..this fact alone doesn’t mean the movies will be bad. They’ll simply have NOTHING to do with Tolkien Chris (Forum Contribution) (Feb 22 2000)
Other fans discussed and dissected the representation of Faramir, his relationship with Eowyn was neglected and he appeared to them, more morose than depicted by Tolkien.
Once the films were released the nature of fandom itself came under discussion on the fan forums. It remains a matter for debate as to whether a fan of only the films and a participant of the community created and advanced by the films, is truly a fan of Lord of The Rings. The films spawned a whole new community of lovers of Tolkien’s world who had never read the books and never intended to read the books, is this true fandom? The franchise, of course, like any genre also generated a school of equivalent films, most notably the dramatisation of Narnia written by Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling, CS Lewis.
On April 7 2000 Jackson released a teaser trailer, it broke all records to that date. Conscious that previous films had had limited success and mindful of the fans role in that, New Line set up an official site on January 12 2001, along with a teaser trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring and Jackson made the crucial decision to invite fans to participate in the community. This might seem to be an obvious decision to make, but the “Nazgul” of copyright, ownership and control, often interrupt and prevent fan participation, after all every picture has an owner and every owner of a film still could charge at least £300 pounds for the use of each individual image, or so the film companies would have it, not so for Lord of the Rings, any search for LOTR these days will manifest millions of hits, all sites largely made by fans, who create, manipulate and reinvent content.
What Jackson facilitated through the LOTR Internet presence was an idea whose time had come and that idea was the concept of participatory culture. The days when a producer could take a book, decide on the cast, construct the text, with only their wisdom and the market in mind and then present it to the audience to take it or leave it were gone. The cute little lion cub of book fans, that met in pubs and living rooms to discuss each other’s essays and speculate on allegorical meanings (an aspect to the trilogy that Tolkien himself thoroughly eschewed) were gone. Peter Jackson had set the fan free to hunt and survive on the Internet, a new form of negotiated reading had been created: participatory culture. In addition in a garage, in Illinois, another trilogy was at work, three former Paypal employees invented Youtube.
Question: How do you handle that swing of emotions, from 75,000 signatures to being on the cover of EW?
Robert Pattinson: It’s the same thing either way. I prefer sticking with the people who said they hated me. At least you’ve got to fight for something then. My dad said success and failure were both impostors. That’s the best way to go about acting, especially when everything is so extreme. Little girls saying, “I want to have your babies!” And it’s “Like, you don’t. Seriously.” I don’t even want to have my babies. Interview with Robert Pattinson, by Larry Leramie 2008
It must be unnerving to learn than that 75,000 people signed a petition against you being cast in a film. The initial response from fans of Stephanie Meyer’s books in the Twilight series was that Robert Pattinson was not their guy. However, as unnerving as it must have been for him it was probably even more so for Catherine Hardwicke, the director, on whom the success or failure of the franchise depended. It was not that she deliberately ignored the requirements of the fans, on the contrary, like Peter Jackson, she was very aware of the participatory nature of the fans in the Twilight series. By the time she came to make the Twilight film, Youtube was up and running and on it were any number of fan made trailers, sourcing their imaginations from the books and creating images both of cast and mise-en-scene that were to influence Hardwicke’s choices as she constructed the film. Gone were the days of Gone With The Wind, when the director Victor Fleming, had more-or-less to read the mind of the audience in order to cast Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and successful though that may have been, that was probably largely due to the descriptive powers of Margaret Mitchell, plus I never thought that Vivien Leigh got the accent and I always imagined that Rhett Butler was younger. Born Free, had real life counterparts to “improve” upon, but Twilight was a work of the imagination until the fans put it online, mess with them if you dare! The Stephanie Meyer books were a new phenomenon, unlike LOTR, they had not had time to gather a consistent and loyal fan base, only avid teenage fans that could quickly outgrow their enthusiasm.
The choice for Catherine Hardwicke then was either to go the Bluestone route and decide that fans cannot be media literate because of their lack of distance from the text, or to accept that their imaginings and the out workings of their own texts, as demonstrated on Youtube and elsewhere were a source to support her own construction of the text. She states in an interview with The Film Programme in December 2008 that from the moment she knew she was to direct the films she went online to check out the fan base, she found the trailers, the Fan Fiction, the suggestions of casting and a huge number of fans improving their skills by filming, photo-shopping, animating and uploading their wares. This fan base, may, of course, have had an approach to the text that lacked distance, but there were also a massive number of them and they were her target audience, to annoy them would be to lose money at the box office, maybe even risk a flop. Therefore, she did investigate the suggestions for casting, to see if the proposed actors were available, the right age, the right shape or the right price. None of the suggestions worked out, or so she says, so she cast unknowns and got that initial howl of protest directly from her target audience. It might be easy to write off Bluestone’s suggestion that fans may not be media literate by pointing to the thousands if not millions of texts that fans have constructed in honour of their text. These do demonstrate an understanding of the grammar of filming. Their own adaptations of the texts use angles, steady camera work and appropriate editing, a good number of them are competent. They feature mise-en-scene and lighting and there are clearly common elements in the visualisation of Twilight in the fan trailers and the final product constructed by Catherine Hardwicke (largely filmed in Portland Oregon where they have twenty-eight days of cloud a month, necessary for the filming of vampires who glitter in the sun).
The fans, therefore, can construct a meaningful text, but their response to the casting of Robert Pattinson is, perhaps, an example of their lack of media literacy. They found a photo of him in another role (Giselher) where he played a long haired, blondish, Viking and, in his words looked like he had been beaten on the face with a frying pan, and posted this photo in disgust. They called him “revolting” and were appalled that he should be picked to play their beloved Edward Cullen. The fans mistake was to be unable to imagine that with make up, hair dye, style, camera work and acting Robert Pattinson could become the vampire they so adored. However this opposition to the choice in the adaptation, was short lived as Catherine Hardwicke set about winning them over, not by accusing them of ignorance and a lack of distance, but by participating in their participatory culture. Like Peter Jackson before her, she put out teaser trailers, and images, that represented the actors in their new roles to allow them to weigh those images against their own suggestions, and see how close she was getting to being able to construct their dream adaptation.
“There is an attention to detail and sense of self-awareness that will keep the built-in fanbase, also known as the Twilighters, engaged throughout. Director Catherine Hardwicke’s faithfulness to the source material and her affection for the fans is so deep, however, that it might leave the casual onlooker feeling like someone sitting amidst a crowd of hundreds, all of whom are part of some inside joke.” Neil Miller
It seems that Catherine Hardwicke was successful in wooing the fans of the books, but the jury is out on whether she extended that success to an audience that was not a fan of Twilight in the first, place, indeed may never have heard of it. Whereas Peter Jackson succeeded in extending the reach of Lord of the Rings to a huge audience, such that it became almost an annual pilgrimage over the three years for everybody to go and see the next film, Twilight still only appeals to its Twihards as they are sometimes known and to the target audience that any romantic drama appeals to: the female teen. It has not drawn, either a more general audience, of more dedicated fans of other vampire fiction. Although this may not be an indictment on the films, perhaps it is an indication of the quality of that fiction in the first place.
This may go some way to explaining why Catherine Hardwicke was fired from the making the sequels, despite its $70 million debut on a budget of $30million and reviews that suggested that it was the best upgrade of a book to a movie since The Bridges of Madison County, (dir. Clint Eastwood) she was removed from the project. Granted her successor, Chris Weitz, made $142 million on the opening weekend of New Moon and David Slade came in with $83 for Eclipse the third one in the trilogy. Even so the trilogy, whilst very lucrative, did not quite match the income generated by the lord of the box office: on an overall budget of $281,000,000 the Lord of the Rings trilogy made $2,915,155,189; on an overall budget of $155,000,000 the Twilight trilogy made $1,792,300,241.
Amateur Adaptations – Fan Fiction and Infidelity
“What are the requirements for transforming a book or a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world…” Umberto Eco
It may be that adaptations end at the box office. The director moves on, or is moved on, the stars try to find another role and the authors look for another genre or content themselves with their royalties, fandom, however, does not seem to end there. The stories live on in the imaginations and communities of the fan networks. Stories are re-written, back-stories created, characters given romances, temperaments, and interaction that neither the original author nor the filmmakers had planned or imagined. The film conglomerates, image-makers, and money wranglers must live in a paradoxical relationship with the fans, managing the poaching of their resources alongside the continued opportunities for profit that the fans provide.
“Fans are active producers of content, in addition to being consumers of Lord of the Rings. But while the franchise-driven products are marketed towards the mass audience and the fan base together, fan-authored products are explicitly for consumption by other fans, and are typically free.” Jennifer Brayton, P151
The fans “private sectarian world” does not just extend to polite writings of additional chapters, or animated or live action trailers for new films of books. Fan fiction is a rigorous world of peer review and web publishing, fan fiction writers beta test their work, to be read and commented on by others who have areas of expertise, from spelling to mythology. The website http://www.fanfiction.net/ looks more like a site for the reviewing of scientific papers than it does a resource and forum for the creation of new vampires tales for Twilight, or additional stories for a Buffy Beowulf crossover.
Moreover that world of adaptation in the private sectarian world does not end in the polite world of teenage romance, or philosophical discussions between Gandalf and Frodo. Slash Fiction revisits the style and the story, it overlays it with erotic interpretations, often reorienting the sexual preferences of the characters and speculating on how that adaptation alters the world of the characters and their readers. If Edward Cullen heterosexual does not do it for the audience, then there is fiction out there that will successfully revamp him to the appropriate taste.
Adaptations have come a long way from the world of polite reconstructions of classic novels such as Oliver Twist (1948) or A Passage to India (1984), both directed by David Lean, in the old fashioned way: that is as the director and writer ordering the structure to suit the medium and present a message that attempted to be faithful both to the spirit of the text and the times. The involvement of fans in participatory culture has become, what may be regarded in time, as the original two-edged sword, a source of inspiration and accuracy on the one hand, and, on the other hand an audience too disparate and opinionated to please all or any of the time.
Ed, Mathijs, Ernest and Pomerance, Murray, From Hobbits to Hollywoo: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings
Eco, Umberto Travels in Hyperreality Picador (1986)
Bluestone, George, Novels Into Films, The Johns Hopkins University Press (2003)
Cutchins, Dennis, Albrecht-Crane, Christa Adaptation Studies: New Approaches, Associated University Presses, 2010
Jenkins, Henry, Textual Poachers, Routledge (1992)
Jenkins, Henry, Tulloch, John, Beyond the Star Trek Phenomenon: Reconceptualizing the Science Fiction Audience, Routledge (1995)
Buckingham, David, Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture, Cambridge Polity Press (2003)
ed. Mathijs, Ernest, The Lord of the Rings Popular Culture In Global Context, Wallflower Press (2006)
TheOneRing.net, Tolkien-movies.com (forums)
 Pan Books
 The Johns Hopkins University Press (March 20 2003)
 Cutchins, Dennis, Albrecht-Crane, Christa Adaptation Studies: New Approaches, Associated University Presses, 2010
 New World, dir Norman Stone, 1986 – New World, Judith Gunn, Collins 1986
 Eco, Umberto Travels in Hyperreality Picador (1986)
 Jenkins, Henry , Textual Poachers, Routledge (1992)
 Henry Jenkins, John Tulloch, Beyond the Star Trek Phenomenon: Reconceptulizing the Science Fiction Audience, Routledge (1995)
 Buckingham, David, Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture, Cambridge Polity Press (2003)
 ed. Mathijs, Ernest, The Lord of the Rings Popular Culture In Global Context, Wallflower Press (2006)
 TheOneRing.net, Tolkien-movies.com (forums)
 Tolkien-movies.com Forum
 CS Lewis hosted meetings at his rooms in Magdalen College Oxford, where writers would meet and discuss work in progress, occasionally they would transfer to the Eagle and Child pub.
 The Curse of the Ring, dir Uli Edel, 2004
 Figures from Wikipedia, claiming Neilson as their source.
 Eco, Umberto Travels in Hyperreality Picador (1986)
 Ed Ernest Mathijs and Murray Pomerance, From Hobbits to Hollywood. Essay Fic Frodo Slash Frodo: Fandoms and The Lord of the Rings Jennifer Brayton
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2011