The Process of Adaptation

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A fine pickle
A film director once told Salman Rushdie that all movies made from novels are rubbish. With so many screenplays based on books triumphing at the Oscars this week and Slumdog Millionaire stealing the show, he asks is there such a thing as a good adaptation Scene from Slumdog Millionaire

Adaptation, the process by which one thing develops into another thing, by which one shape or form changes into a different form, is a commonplace artistic activity. Books are turned into plays and films all the time, plays are turned into movies and also sometimes into musicals, movies are turned into Broadway shows and even, by the ugly method known as "novelisation", into books as well. We live in a world of such transformations and metamorphoses. Good movies - Lolita, The Pink Panther - are remade as bad movies; bad movies - The Incredible Hulk, Deep Throat - are remade as even worse movies; British TV comedy series are turned into American TV comedy series, so that The Office becomes a different The Office, and Ricky Gervais turns into Steve Carell, just as, long ago, the British working-class racist Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part turned into the American blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker in All In the Family. British reality programmes are adapted to suit American audiences as well; Pop Idol becomes American Idol when it crosses the Atlantic, Strictly Come Dancing becomes Dancing With the Stars - a programme which, it may interest you to know, invited me to appear on it last season, an invitation I declined. Songs by great artists are covered by lesser artists; on inauguration day this year, Beyoncé performed her version of Etta James's classic "At Last" to the considerable irritation of Etta James herself (but then, James seemed even more irritated by the election of Barack Obama, so perhaps she was just in a bad mood). All of these are examples of the myriad variations of adaptation, an insatiable process which can sometimes seem voracious, world-swallowing, as if we now live in a culture that endlessly cannibalises itself, so that, eventually, it will have eaten itself up completely. Anyone can make a list of the many catastrophic adaptations they have seen - my personal favourites being David Lean's ridiculous film of A Passage to India, in which Alec Guinness as a Hindu wise man dangles his feet blasphemously in the waters of a sacred water tank; and the Merchant Ivory emasculation of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, in which Ishiguro's guilty-as-hell British Nazi aristocrat is portrayed as a lovable, misguided, deceived old bugger more deserving of our sympathy than our scorn. But adaptation can be a creative as well as a destructive force. Rod Stewart singing "Downtown Train" is almost the equal of Tom Waits, and Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends" achieves the rare feat of singing a Beatles song better than the Beatles did, which is less impressive when you remember that the original singer was Ringo Starr. I'm currently teaching a course that highlights some of the instances in which fine books have been adapted into fine films - Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence mutated into Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence; Giuseppe di Lampedusa's portrait of Sicily in 1860, The Leopard, turned into Luchino Visconti's greatest film; Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood became a wonderful John Huston movie; and, in his film of Great Expectations, Lean produced a classic that can stand alongside the Dickens novel without any sense of inferiority, a film that allows this film-goer, at least, to forgive him for the later blunders of A Passage to India. There are many other examples of successful adaptation. Few people these days read Jan Potocki's 19th-century Franco-Polish masterpiece The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, but I urge you to discover it for its playfulness and bizarrerie, its surreal, supernatural, gothic, picaresque world of Gypsies, thieves, hallucinations, inquisitions and a pair...
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