Thursday, May 19, 2016

Difficult Adaptations

Can We “Understand” Adaptations?

Sometimes we encounter moments that completely redefine the way we look at adaptation studies, irrespective of which theoretical standpoint we might embrace.  Whether we favor a Piagetian view (relating the self to the adaptation process); a text-based view; or a transmedial view; there are times when we realize that each one of these approaches have their shortcomings.
Such was the case for me during the last week.  I was fortunate enough to watch G. W. Pabst’s version of The Threepenny Opera (1931) on television.  Premiered in pre-Nazi Germany only three years previously,  the film contained three of the cast who had been involved in the stage version.  Evidently Brecht himself had been initially involved in the film version, but Pabst eventually dispensed with his services.  The finished product contains few of the original Brecht/ Weill songs, and some critics have noted that the lush recreations of the London underworld detract attention away from the musical’s political overtones.  Nonetheless Pabst’s vision does not shy away from the satiric material, with the actors (Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Fritz Rasp, and Lotte Lenya) singing the lyrics in deliberately discordant tones direct to camera.  They function as commentaries on the action, especially the overriding emphasis on self-interest that dominates the characters’ minds.  Sometimes the story seems slightly incoherent (we do not quite understand why Mackie Messer (Forster) is eventually reprieved from a death-sentence by hanging), but the film provides a valuable record of “Brechtian” drama as conceived during his time.
Three days later I watched the Berliner Ensemble perform the same work at ─░stanbul’s Zorlu Center, directed by the American Robert Wilson.  This time the group used the whole text with all of the songs.  Performed on a cavern-like and largely bare stage, Wilson used a variety of visual effects drawn from a cornucopia of traditions – commedia dell’arte, Japanese Noh theater, the circus, cabaret, the Theater of Cruelty, mime – to emphasize the play’s political material.  The effect was quite stunning: a set comprised of a series of metal bars, horizontally and vertically placed, could double up as Macheath’s lair, a prison, a courthouse, or whatever venue was required.  The actors’ use of mime recalled how much Brecht was indebted to early silent film in his drama.  Most of the lines were delivered at the front of the playing area direct to the audience, so as to sustain a Verfremdungseffekt, or a sense of alienation, preventing us from identifying with the characters in any way.  With a live orchestra performing the songs, and displaying a remarkable versatility in the process, the entire production not only challenged our concepts of what “drama” could encompass, but forced us to concentrate on the importance of the words – whether delivered in spoken or singing voices.
Some of the packed house of 2,000 did not like what they saw.  The first half lasted just over two hours without a break; when the interval finally arrived, several playgoers walked, complaining that they had been short-changed in their expectations from an organization as prestigious as the Berliner Ensemble.  I do not want to speculate too much on their opinions, but I venture to suggest that these playgoers had expected something more along the lines of a “well-made play,” with a beginning, middle and an end, and a story they could become emotionally involved with.

Throughout the evening, I felt exhausted, as if I had been blown away by an artistic tornado.  I could not judge whether I “liked” or “disliked” what I saw; perhaps it did not matter.  What I did understand, however, is how a performance – whether live on stage or filmed – is a highly complex text sending out a multiplicity of messages, both visual as verbal.  As spectators, we not only have to make sense of the sets and costumes, but we take into account the actors’ movements, the director’s management of space, the music, facial expressions and the use of silence.  And all this on top of trying to understand the words, stresses, intonations, verbal interactions, and so on …
What I am trying to say is that watching adaptations is difficult.  Our judgments are continually shaped and reshaped from moment to moment; in a revival like Wilson’s Threepenny Opera this process of development can become overwhelming, rendering us mentally exhausted.  I would venture to suggest that such interpretive issues arise while watching every adaptation, irrespective of the medium for which it has been conceived and/or performed.

I began by making distinctions between three types of standpoint – the textual, Piagetian and intermedial.  My experience of watching The Threepenny Opera prompts me to conclude that all three approaches play an intrinsic part in the experience of every adaptation.  This is what renders them such complex texts to decode and relate to our own experiences as audiences and/or critics.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Radical Adaptations

Ever since I became associated with adaptation studies, I have always been led to believe that ‘radical’ versions of a source-text are identified with something positive.  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) reinterprets Shakespeare for a ‘young’ audience; Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story (2005) uses a film-within-a-film structure to recapture the narrative flexibility of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; while Luhrmann has another go at rethinking an established classic with The Great Gatsby (2013).  A  course at the University of Minnesota devoted to “Teaching Film, Television, and Media” has a module devoted to adaptation, where the description quotes Louis Giannett’s Understanding Movies (2002), wherein adaptations are divided into a tripartite typology – literal, faithful, and loose (“Different Modes of Adaptation”).

“Radical” adaptations are good.  They help viewers and critics to “rethink” texts by offering new perspectives on familiar material.  They can expand the discourse of adaptation to encompass alternative modes of thinking, visual styles and/or cinematic narrative.  They invite us to re-examine our beliefs in terms such as “fidelity,” or “originality,” and the value-judgements associated with them.  Hence it is hardly surprising that “radical” filmmakers form the subjects for academic articles, books, and other materials produced by colleagues willing to advance the discipline of adaptation studies.

Yet it is frequently the case that “radicalism” is a critically contested term, especially if used in a cross-cultural context.  Peter Brook might have been considered innovative in British terms with his version of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (1967), based on his stage production of the same name, but the cinematic style is entirely in keeping with the French-inspired tradition of the Theatre of Cruelty.  Likewise Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby might not seem especially innovative to the connoisseur of Hollywood musicals of the classical period; many of the stylistic conventions owe a lot to Busby Berkeley’s and Vincente Minnelli’s example.

In light of a recent documentary on the life and work of composer Peter Maxwell Davies, recently broadcast on BBC Four in the United Kingdom, I was prompted to deconstruct that term “radicalism” even further.  In his early life as a composer and educator at Cirencester Grammar School, Maxwell Davies was perceived as something of a “radical” in his determination to question established conventions of musical appreciation.  He embodied the spirit of the Sixties in classical music, as he tossed aside notions of harmony that dated back to the eighteenth century and set about retraining listeners to appreciate more discordant forms.  Within three decades, however, Maxwell Davies had become an Establishment figure, whose work was regularly performed at the Proms, and who was regularly featured on BBC Television.  In 2004 he became Master of the Queen’s Music, the equivalent of the Poet Laureate.

His biography suggests that “radicalism” is a term identified with youth (as opposed to age); freshness (as opposed to staleness); and anti-establishment attitudes.  Like John Osborne in the theater, or Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz in British film history, Maxwell Davies underwent a kind of psychological metamorphosis; as they grew older they progressed inexorably towards membership of the Establishment, while younger talents assumed the radical mantle instead – Edward Bond, David Edgar (theater), and Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway (film).

While this is a very schematic mode of looking at media history, we are nonetheless made well aware that “radicalism” is a slippery term; one that might help career advancement during one’s early years but erodes over time.  Mid-career artists who retain that soubriquet are described as “aging radicals,” as if gray hairs and increasing waistlines should separate older from younger individuals.     

Yet perhaps we should not dismiss the term so easily.  The Maxwell Davies tribute program included an archive interview with the composer where he suggested that the inspiration for his so-called “radicalism” was not wholly provoked by the desire to challenge established values, but by a need to “push the notes” in different ways; to “get inside the music” and understand its ebb and flow.  He was as interested in past musical traditions as in contemporary music; he spent much of his life trying to synthesize the two in new ways.

The metaphor of “pushing the notes” is a suggestive one, implying that any creative artist – including adaptors and/or screenplay writers – should try to inhabit their source-texts; to become involved in their nonverbal as well as the verbal nuances and let their products be shaped by their instincts.  “Radicalism” in this formulation means discovering new ways of thinking and feeling, but not necessarily produced by the desire to challenge established conventions.  The past should not be rejected but embraced as a means of understanding the future.

In this formulation every one of us – artists, audiences, critics alike – are “radicals” insofar as we learn how to adapt to new material and new experiences; this process is a lifelong one, not restricted by age and/or reputation.  An understanding of this potential helped to render Maxwell Davies an accessible figure throughout his sixty-year career, and offers encouragement to us all.

Laurence Raw

May Day 2016.