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Do Adaptations Show Us Extra Meanings?

A screen shot from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice showing Bingley, Jane, Darcy, and Elizabeth at the altar

Screen shot from Pride And Prejudice, copyright © 1995 BBC.

In an article about the art of adaptation, which focused on Brooklyn, writer Shastri Akella said that adaptations that are very different to their source material can make us look at other meanings that might be found in the text. This she wondered after having thought over the concept of bringing to visual life characters from literature.

I found this an interesting idea. My initial thought was to wonder how seeing other meanings in a book thanks to a visual production would work – is it possible? I was too caught up in the idea that films can never be as good as the book. Away from that, I think Akella is on to something, however today I’m going to look at adaptations as a whole rather than adaptations that are necessarily different – I’m not against differences, but I do gravitate towards adaptations that stay close to the books.

An adaptation is a single person’s (or multiple people depending on where the idea to adapt originates and goes) idea about a book. The film or television series (radio series as well?) is thus a detailed explanation and interpretation of someone’s reaction, their own visualisations of characters, location, and meanings that make up the book. It is as valid, in an objective, general, sense, as anyone else’s reactions and interpretations (supposing the director or whoever it is has read the book, of course), it’s just that putting it on screen for all to see is going to suggest, if unintentionally, that it’s a fairly definitive interpretation and a correct one, a valid one, an informed one. It is valid – in essence it’s an interpretation as good or clever, and so on, as any other, the difference is simply in the ability to put it on screen.

So, due to this, it gives the viewer (who I’m considering has read the book) an easily accessible way to discover another’s thoughts on the story, albeit that screen time is not always enough to provide the full picture. So is an adaptation that seems or is, objectively, very different to the source material useful? Unless there are reasons for the difference that move away from interpretation – say those times when directors modify aspects of the story for their own reasons (the recent Sanditon was sexed up) then the adaptation is going to fulfill Akella’s idea of this purpose of providing other meanings.

In her forthcoming book about Darcy (disclaimer – I’m reading it for review), Gabrielle Malcolm notes the 1995 BBC production of Pride And Prejudice wherein Darcy narratives the letter he sends Elizabeth about his history with Wickham against a backdrop of visual flashbacks that enable the viewer to put visuals to the letter’s content. This, Malcolm notes, was done to better infer to viewers Darcy’s better side. Austen doesn’t include the background itself – the words are all there is; whilst the choice of the production team doesn’t move in a wholly different direction to the book, it does include things that aren’t in the book (the ‘wet shirt’ scene is, of course, another) that perhaps provide slightly different insights about Darcy that you don’t get from Austen, making Darcy more accessible to the 20th century viewers, watching the series almost 200 years after the book was published.

Staying on the subject of Austen’s book – it’s in my head at the moment – the 2005 film better showed me why debate surrounds the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet, the changes in dialogue and chance to see characters in reality making a difference. On one side of the debate are those who believe Mr Bennet treats, and has likely always treated, Mrs Bennet poorly, enough that she was always going to become a bit over the top. On the other side are those that see Mrs Bennet as the problem – over dramatic, overbearing – and Mr Bennet the product of having it in his life so many years as to be resigned to it. I’m not sure I have an outright opinion on this – Donald Sutherland’s acting leads me to ponder the second side but that’s his influence, not Austen’s, so I’m not inclined to draw a line in the sand. I’m also not sure that Austen had thoughts either way; I think she was thinking more about what would be funny. Mrs Bennet is only a little more dramatic than the characters she is thought to be inspired by – certainly Maria Edgeworth’s Lady Delacour from Belinda, who is less ‘nervous’ but actively neglectful and deceptive struck me, upon reading about her, as a likely influence for Austen, with Mrs Bennet being inspired by Lady Delacour but ultimately being a lot nicer and unaware rather than deliberately dramatic.

There are numerous other possible influences, too, with melodrama being ‘in’ around that time. Austen was responding to her culture, to the overblown stereotypes of those who wrote a little before her time. But add a couple of hundred years to her publications and understandably a changed society questions her characters. There are far fewer limitations on what we can say and who is ‘allowed’ to have an opinion.

I do think adaptations – the ‘right’ adaptations? – can help us understand the source material better. They can definitely make us appreciate it more and they create debate, discussion. They keep our love for the work alive. It can take some getting used to when it comes to changes made or, more often, it takes some time getting used to another reader’s imagination if it differs enough from yours, but they can be useful.

What are your thoughts on the values of adaptation?


Jenny @ Reading the End

November 16, 2019, 12:59 pm

I’m all for them! I think it’s really neat to see how a new version of a story can highlight different elements that are already there — for instance, I do think the source material is critical of Mr. Bennet, and it was cool to see that played up in the 2005 version. Rightly! Mr. Bennet sucks!

(A friend is reading P&P for the first time, and they keep texting me “MR BENNET SUCKS.”)

Of course it’s always SO tricky to get the balance right of being true to the source material while also adding enough new stuff that it makes sense for them to have done a different version of the thing. I think the Harry Potter movies really struggled with this, in part because the books don’t lend themselves to a two- or even a three-hour movie. A series would have been better! And so some of those movies felt really really lifeless, and they were often at their best when adding new material that wasn’t in the books but felt true to the books. So that’s another thing adaptations can do well (but often do badly).

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

November 20, 2019, 12:26 pm

I love adaptations, but prefer to read the book first. In this way you can form your own opinion. An adaption though, can add to the interpretation I think.


November 25, 2019, 2:49 pm

Jenny: You saying the source material is critical of Mr Bennet – I’m going to have to think more on that! I think there’s a blog post in those text messages ;)

A Harry Potter series would have been wonderful. Yes, when it’s true to the books, in their spirit, it works.

Lisbeth: Yes, forming your opinion is a very good point. (I like book before adaptation too.) Yes, it can definitely help, particularly when it aligns more with your imagination.



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