Brian McFarlane: Novel to Film

[Readings] (03.17.09, 3:24 pm)

McFarlane prefaces his book with noting that there is a prevalence of adaptations from novel to film. His stated aim is not to devise an elaborate analysis, but to understand how the novel is related to film in adaptations. What kinds of content may be transferred and what may not (these are narrative and enunciation respectively). The focus of adaptation is on realist novels. McFarlane is light on issues of authorship, and acknowledges this as a potential area of study.

In mainstream games, the role of adaptation is extremely important. Frequently there is a process of adaptation from a text (often in comic form) to film, and then into game. With many titles, the sequence is synergetic and sustained. For instance, the film and game are released simultaneously, and later, both have sequels, which in turn influence each other. It is important to look at the process of conventions and transformations as pertains to the respective media. This is similar to McFarlane’s exploration of the relationship between novel and film, and something may be gained from that analysis.

The book is organized into two parts. The first is relatively short and discusses the general theory that is used, and the latter is an analysis of case studies. I am focusing my analysis exclusively on the former.

Background, Issues, and a New Agenda

The affinity of novel to film adaptation can be supported by trends in the novel as a form, which emerged as a result of the realist movement. One of the first points of emphasis comes from Conrad’s famously stated intention of making the reader “see,” and this image oriented desire is continued in James. This desire makes the image a focus of fiction, and supports the idea that the image is used to understand, something that was picked up by Griffith. In the novel, the prevalence of the realist image denotes a different relationship between the author and the text than occurred previously. This was a shift from telling to showing, which was analyzed in detail by Booth.

Approaches to adaptation seem to exist midway between the poles of artistic reverence and capitalism. Film makers express a range of views of reverence, but nonetheless, both still tend to make conservative and literal transformations of the original novels. Very few film makers create transformative and bold takes on the adapted texts. Adaptations can be seen as concretizing the world of the novel visually.

McFarlane discusses elements of fidelity criticism, at some distance, without endorsing it. He discusses Beja, who asks what the relationship betwen the two works should be, and asks if fidelity is even possible. This question seems to be the crux of McFarlane’s investigation. The Beja quote cited is: “In asking whether there are ‘guiding principles for film-makers adapting literature, he asks: ‘What relationship should a film have to the original source? Should it be “faithful”? can it be? To what?'” (p. 9; Beja, Film and Literature, 80) Also relevant is McFarlane’s encapsulation of what fidelity criticism is about: “Fidelity criticism depends on a notion of the text as having and rendering up to the (intelligent) reader a single, correct ‘meaning’ which the film-maker has either adhered to or in some sense violated or tampered with. There will often be a distinction between being faithful to the ‘letter’, an approach which the more sophisticated writer may suggest is no way to ensure a ‘successful’ adaptation, and tot he ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ of the work.” Essentially, fidelity criticism depends on the existence and homogeneity of interpretations of a work’s meaning. McFarlane suggests that fidelity is a distraction, while the real goal should be intertextuality, where the original is used as a resource.

McFarlane makes a distinction between adaptation proper and transference. Transference is where elements from one medium can be carried over non-problematically into another. Adaptation proper requires finding different renditions of the work that might be equivalent in the new form. To address this problem, McFarlane invokes Barthes, looking at how a text is composed of narrative functions. There are two kinds of these: distributional and integrational, also known as functions proper and indices. The former are actions and events, and are horizontal in the sense of narrative time. The latter are the density of description and the discourse, which are vertical. The difference is between doing versus being. Indices are clearly more important in terms of adaptation for film, because they involve visual presentation, which is the entire content of film. However, functions proper are operational. As presented, functions proper are used to designate narrative events, but these could also be integrated into a perspective of the systematicity of the story world, and would be ideal for looking at for game adaptations.

Functions poper are divided into two categories: cardinal and catalysers (which Chatman calls satellites). Cardinal functions are the “risky” parts of narrative, where the outcome of the event could potentially be different. This is where there is room for discrete decision points in an interactive rendition of the story. The catalysers are extra details that support the reality of the world, and can be used to contextualize the cardinal functions. Indices may be divided into indices proper and informants. Indices proper are the atmospheric dimensions of a narrative, the characters and moods. Informants are the “facts” about the story world: names and places, ages and professions, and so on.

McFarlane gives a differentiation between narrative and enunciation, which roughly corresponds to story and discourse in Chatman’s terms. It is the narrative which can be transferred into film, whereas it is the enunciation that must be adapted. These are distinguished by the following definitions: (p. 20)

  1. those elements of the original novel which are transferrable because not tied to one or other semiotic system–that is, essentially, narrative, and
  2. those which invovle intricate processes of adaptation because their effects are closely tied to the semiotic system in which they are manifested–that is, enunciation.

It is the enunciation which must be adapted. However, for the systemic world of games, which are not narrative in the pure sense (games lack an authorial control over the sequence and linearity of the narrative), the narrative must be adapted as well! Because modern mainstream games share many of the features used by the visual semiotic language of cinema, much of the enunciation may be simply transferred into the game. This is a striking turn of structure. The adaptation process from novel to film is in essence the opposite of the process from film to game. Of course, this is not completely true, as it assumes a purely systemic and simulation oriented approach to the game and a straightforwardness of the visual language, but this is a point worth noting, nonetheless.

In the space of novel to film adaptation, the work of transference focuses on communicating the functions of the original. A surface level of “fidelity” could be taken as the extent to which the cardinal functions have been transferred. The transference requires making use of the mythic and psychological patterns found in the work. Adaptation proper in notvel to film requires working in between two isnifying systems. Moving textual cues into visual and iconic ones. This also requiers using codes, which must be interpreted by the viewer. This requires presenting instead of representing, and making operable the representation. The idea of making the work operable again is true and of importance in adaptation to games.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMcFarlane, Brian
TitleNovel to Film
Tagsadaptation, narrative, film, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.