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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff, Laurence! Yes, "radical" seems to be another of those ... radically contested critical terms. What, exactly, does it signify? It's in the eye of the beholder, yes? Like "fidelity" (as Stam says, "fidelity to what?"), and original. I think it's really interesting that some of your examples of "radical" adaptations would also score high on certain metrics for fidelity. For example, Luhrmann's R + J maintains (if abridges) Shakespeare's dialogue. Or what about another version of Gatsby--the play Gatz--which is a 6-hour reading of Fitzgerald's novel. Can't get more faithful (or, perhaps radical and original) than that! As you point out these terms all begin to collapse and morph when they're brought into contact with each other. While that can be troubling for critics with fixed ideas about them, adaptation studies, when practiced ... "right," forces us to confront such conceptual complexity, slippage and play.