What a Study of Novel into Film Adaptations can tell us about Story

By Mike Smith


There is a long established and still growing genre of books about the process of making films out of novels. Adaptation is beginning to be accepted as a legitimate area of academic study. Yet it remains, perhaps not surprisingly, an area explored predominantly by those with an interest in film making rather than in writing. In Novel to Film, an Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Brian McFarlane (OUP,1996) cites three reasons for the study of adaptation being ‘inhibited and blurred’. They are, ‘the issue of fidelity’, a dependence on ‘individual, impressionistic sense (of the) text’, and the sense of ‘the novel’s supremacy’. I don’t these issues are particularly significant to this study. I am interested in the undeniable fact that when a story is being retold, it is in the retelling that the act of changing must take place.

My feeling is that there is value to be had from a writer’s perspective in the study of adaptations. The seed of this idea was sown many years ago when I noticed that the David Morell novel First Blood and the short story Roller Blade Murder had both been adapted for films in ways that seemed to hijack or subvert the apparent intentions of the originals. The comparison of the two tellings of the same story shed light on, clarified if you like, what was the essence of each version, of each telling.

Not every film-novel adaptation may do this, but I have selected pairings that I believe do, and which, in each pairing reveal a particular type of change. As my title suggests, these changes are all to do with the passing of time and the changing of viewpoints; the changing of the contexts in which the stories are told, and in which they will be received. Many stories are changed in adaptation for technical and economic reasons. Casts have to be shrunk, stories have to be simplified, and until the era of CGI some scenes were simply too difficult to shoot. Curiously, there is one example in my selection where a major character has been added, rather than subtracted. While not ignoring those issues, this study will concentrate on the changes that seem to have been made for other reasons; for reasons to do with what the significance or message of the story seems to be, and how those messages are changed by the re-tellers of the story. Marshall Macluhan warned us many years ago now, that the ‘Media is the Message’, and perhaps these pairings are, if nothing more, examples of that.

In the case of First Blood the film promotes a viewpoint that may not even have existed, and certainly was not mainstream when the novel was being written. Winifred Watson’s 1938 romp, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (Persephone, 2008), reminiscent of the Thorne Smith’s novels and the era of the Screwball comedies, was filmed seventy years later, when what would have been taken for granted at the writing had been forgotten, and what was coming soon after the publication of the novel could not be ignored. A different intrusion of hindsight will be found in the adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party (Penguin,2007), set in 1913, first published in 1980, and filmed shortly afterwards. This last example is of an adaptation that sought to be faithful to a recently published work, yet in which changes of emphasis reveal a subtle change of intent. In Chocolat (Black Swan,2007) the film version transfers the role of antagonist to a secular Mayor, whose repression is purely personal, from a Priest who cannot help but represent the religion whose mouthpiece he is. Author Joanne Harris’s anti-clericalism, presumably, would cause sales-resistance in the global movie market.

There are issues too around the way in which novels and short stories, and films are received and experienced, and these must impact on the way they are produced. Traditionally films were watched communally, by an audience aware of itself, and of its reactions to what was being shown. Books on the other hand were traditionally read in silent isolation, without the influence of other readers’ reactions, except retrospectively. Perhaps book clubs, on TV and radio, and in village halls and private houses, are turning reading into a more communal activity. The onset of home entertainment, TV, DVD, and ipod, is certainly turning the watching of film into a more solitary activity. Another effect of changing technologies, is that whereas traditionally films had to be received in full, and uninterrupted, unless you walked out, or the projector broke down, and in the linear order they were intended to be, books could be dipped into, re-read and skipped, and pages could be turned back or taken slowly where the language was difficult. Now, the rewind button, and the freeze frame give a similar flexibility to film, and the provision of interviews, cast commentaries, and ‘the making of’ special features on DVDs encourages us to be more self-consciously reflective about what we view as well as what we read.

A distinction remains though, that to read and to be read to are both language based, but to view is to watch and listen, to see and hear. Language alone demands our imagination. Moving pictures demand observation. The one tilts towards the creative, the other towards the analytical.

I intend to concentrate on the apparent purposes of stories, of what we come away from them feeling we have been brought to believe, or to question, whatever the medium through which they have been told.

It is with the ‘faithful’ adaptation of The Shooting Party, that I shall begin.


1 The Shooting Party – a faithful adaptation

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. (Penguin Classics, 2007 [1980])

The Shooting Party, Alan Bridges (dir.) Geoff Reeves films, 1985, restored 2006 DVD.

A comparison of novels and their adaptations into other media can help clarify our understanding of what are the intentions and achievements of both versions.

The Shooting Party, a novel by Isabel Colegate, begins with two long paragraphs. The first locates the story in time and ambience, with a description of the people as if they were in a painting, and of the action in relation to the Great War. The second locates the story more precisely in the English landscape, across which we move to end at Nettleby Park: ‘an estate which belonged in 1913 to Sir Randolph Nettleby, Baronet, a country gentleman.’

The third paragraph begins with the actual words that Sir Ralph is recording in his Game Book, a fact made plain to us by the eventual interjection of his granddaughter. ‘Why are you always writing in that big black notebook, Grandpa?’

The subsequent chapter moves about between general descriptions of Nettleby, and the other characters to be introduced, but the crucial introduction has been to Sir Randolph, for he is the character to whom we turn for the ambient response of the novel to all of the other characters, to their doings and motivations, and to the wider world in which the story is set.  At the end of the book, after similar varied paragraphs ‘finishing off’ the life stories of all the characters we have met, the final paragraph is reserved for Sir Randolph. Again, we are offered the world, this time the post story world, which pushes against the boundaries of our own, through his eyes, and in such a way, that allows us to leave him, and the story, behind, as if he were, in the words of that opening paragraph, ‘from a long time ago’. In the last words of the book:  ‘…the Twenties, a period of which Sir Randolph, despite his deep affection for his grandson, entirely disapproved.’

The film begins and ends with a different scene, shown from a different point of view. At the beginning and the end, with potent ambiguity, we see the shooting party, formed up like a company of infantry, marching out across green fields, the suggestion of officers and NCOs unmistakeable in the formation. Voice-overs, elegiac to begin with, and paralleling the introductory paragraphs of the novel, become specifically focussed on the Great War, as in Lionel’s voice, the letters referred to in the post-story tying up of the book are realised. Paralleling those closing paragraphs, in which we are told what became of everyone, a series of brief notices, telling where each has died in the conflict, is shown, but the image, of the shooting party setting out is used as the background.

Though this is undoubtedly poignant, it does shift the focus, away from Sir Randolph, and towards Lionel, whose love story, though important, is not as central, in my opinion, to the book, as Sir Randolph’s commentary. It is a minor point, and I wouldn’t try to exaggerate it. The film, beginning with the shooting party returning to the house, and introducing the narrative element of Lionel giving the Ruskin book to Olivia, also subtly reduces the importance of Sir Randolph, whose Game Book scene, though faithfully reproduced, follows later.

If there is a triangle, of Character-Action-Thought, then this adaptation moves the apex from Thought (expressed through Sir Randolph), to Action (expressed through Lionel’s love affair with Olivia; a not unexpected transition when moving from words and imagination, to motion picture and observation. It by no means banishes Thought, however. The question we must ask is does this reflect an intention to change the story, or the purposes of the story, or does it reflect the opposite: a desire to be faithful to the story within a different medium. In this case, I feel the latter is more likely (and viewing the ‘specials’ on the DVD edition, the producers claim that).

The issue of the Great War is interesting, because for both novel and film the Great War was already in the past, and is referred to at the beginning of both. The emphasis is slightly greater in the film I feel. The march of the Shooting Party, the movement of the beaters into place, Lionel’s voice over from the trenches, and the brief obituaries, at the end, all tend to make it so. The actual shoot too, is filmed with a heavier emphasis on the volleying of the guns than in the novel. Yet none of these elements is entirely new. In the novel though, the parallels are not so visual. The beaters do manoeuvre. The war deaths are referred to, and so is the war service of the ladies, and of course Lionel’s letters are all of him that survive, but the novel gives us other endings too. Gilbert and Aline, and Randolph’s grandson Osbert, and Dan Glass all go on to other fates. Cornelius Cardew too, is developed more in the novel, and he becomes no war casualty. Perhaps a difference here is that novels gain in richness from developing more broadly, whereas films, which until the video/DVD era, had to be taken in at a sitting, and could not easily be reviewed by the turning back of a page, gained in impact by concentrating on a narrower front.

With the Lionel-Olivia thread of story, as with the Great War comparison, what is interesting, is that those particular threads should be given emphasis over other possible ones. Of course, we love a love story, and when Chou-en-Lai, China’s Foreign Minister in the nineteen seventies, was asked about the significance of the Great War, he famously replied that it was ‘too soon to say’, highlighting the significance of that event in contemporary minds. We have just, in 2009, celebrated the life of the last surviving ‘Tommies’.

If Sir Randolph’s part is slightly played down in the film, Cornelius Cardew’s is severely restricted, yet, by casting John Gielgud in the role, the producers must have been asserting its importance. Cardew is a fully developed character in the novel, but arguably a one dimensional one in the film. In the novel we have extensive back story, and forward story, and his actual presence within the action is more complex and time consuming. This is most noticeable in the scene where Tom Harker dies. In the novel Cardew is present, and offers a commentary that is judged, by our touchstone, Sir Randolph, to be unhelpful. ‘I cannot think that a helpful observation,’ said Sir Randolph. ‘No,’ said Cornelius, wringing his hands and retreating step by step across the grass. ‘No, it is not helpful.’

In the novel, Isabel Colegate is as interested in exploring Cardew’s character, motivation, and his view of the world, as she is in exploring those of other members of the cast. He brings a peculiar, outsider’s viewpoint of the Country House set, to the story, and makes an interesting comparison with Sir Reuben, and with Count Rakassyi. The distinctions here are fine, and not at all obvious. Rakassyi is foreign, but unlike Reuben, the Jew, is of the European aristocracy, and therefore an insider. Yet culturally he is an outsider, misunderstanding Cicely’s response to Harker’s death: ‘He was only a peasant.’ To which Cicely replies with a devastating rebuke. ‘But we all knew him, you see.’ He does not see though, and has to have it spelt out for him, at the end of the main narrative: ‘Oh I think I shall never visit you in Hungary.’

Sir Reuben, on the other hand is an outsider, by virtue of his race, yet is so deeply embedded in the society, that he can dream of adopting a surrogate son, to cement his sense of belonging. Cornelius Cardew is an insider by race, yet his ideas isolate him from both the shooting party guests, and the rural population dependent on them. Only Sir Randolph manages to communicate with him, as a fellow pamphleteer, but there is a degree of asymmetry in their conversation. Cardew craves the approval of Sir Randolph, but receives only the common decencies from him.

Which brings me back to Sir Randolph’s commentating role, applied to all the other characters, even-handedly, and with humanity. In rebuking Cardew he is asserting, as the guiding opinion of the story, his own view of rural England, against that of the man from Hindhead. His rebuke of Cardew is perhaps his strongest statement, apart from one. That is the reply to Gilbert Hartlip, perhaps the most vehement statement in the novel, and given equal power in the film. ‘You were not shooting like a gentleman, Gilbert.’

In the novel this statement stands at the heart of what the story is about. In the film it has to share that heart with the love affair of Lionel and Olivia and the glowering presence of the Great War. In fact the film uses the two narrative threads of Lionel-Olivia, and Lionel-Gilbert to draw us along, with the lesser narratives, of Osbert and his duck, Count Rakassyi and Cicely, John and Ellen, and Minnie and Sir Reuben in relation to Aline, in support. As in the book, Sir Randolph comments on all these, but they are definitely lesser concerns. Lionel has been elevated to a more central role in this telling. There have been compressions: the restriction of Cardew’s role, and the replacement of Charles Farquhar by Sir Reuben as Aline’s lover. Perhaps the differences are driven by the film’s need to concentrate on story, and the two obvious threads of story, are Lionel’s love for Olivia, and his unintentional rivalry with Gilbert, which drives on the death of Tom Harker, itself a metaphor for the destruction of the whole rural edifice by the dog-eat-dog world that Sir Randolph sees ahead. The film makes these threads the point of the story. The novel barely elevates them above the other threads.

Constraints of time may often seem to explain what is cut out of a novel in the retelling by a film maker, but there are additions too. These may be to clarify, or to change some of the narrative threads, or perhaps to make up time, where a story is simple, and may be quickly told. In The Shooting Party there is such an addition. You will not find the ‘fancy dress competition’ in the book, but there it is, fitting seamlessly into the film, and being used like the other scenes, to reveal the characters, in their various pairings. As the prize giver and master of ceremonies, Sir Randolph’s role, in book and film, is neatly emphasised and revealed.  The children get to award the prizes, but Sir Randolph makes sure that we see his house guests for who they are, by what they do, or do not do, by what they attempt to be, and the grace, or lack of it, with which they behave.

Much of the detail in the book is replicated faithfully, for its function, like the scene above, to reveal the characters and what drives them in this fading world, is the same. Bob Lilburne worries about his lost cuff-links, and fails to imagine people ‘we don’t know’, and believes that he doesn’t ‘think I would want to know such people.’ Tom Harker cries ‘God Save the British Empire’ as he expires. Sir Randolph fantasises about taking to the hills.

The novel is much more even handed in dealing with all the couples and trios that are offered than is the film. It sets them against each other, and filters them all through Sir Randolph’s gaze. Isabel Colegate uses Nettleby Park as a sort of Prospero’s Isle, in which Sir Randolph, with his Game Book, takes the Prospero role. All the other characters are put through their paces and weighed by him, and the narrative thread, of Gilbert and Lionel, and all the other threads make up a tapestry which is itself the object of the book. Unlike in the film, the individual storylines do not support a central storyline, but with it, make up a whole picture, of rural England on the verge of change. The Great War, undoubtedly hovering in the wings, is not there to throw a particular light on the events, but is an explanation of the end of the world being described. We are being shown a picture; the one described in that first paragraph, and Sir Randolph Nettleby has acted as our guide to and interpreter of it. The film uses that tapestry as the background to the story of the characters within it. There is a subtle difference here, in what has been done, and in the implications of what were the intentions of the storytellers, each in their own medium. Isabel Colegate is showing us a world from which our world sprang. The film is telling us a story set in that world.

2: First Blood – Changing the Agenda

 First Blood, by David Morrell, Pan, 1973 (1st ed.Barrie & Jenkins 1972)

First Blood, Ted Kotcheff (dir) Studio Canal 1982.

We make presumptions about the intentions behind the stories that are told to us. We base these as much upon our attitudes to life as we do upon what we find in the stories, yet without those presumptions the stories would have no meaning. It is through the lens of what we know that we interpret what we think we are being told. Insiders will find faults that outsiders are oblivious too. Outsiders may find unnatural, and therefore unconvincing, what insiders know to be true.

            When stories are changed we may feel that it is because the intentions behind the telling have changed. It seems to me that the changes between the book and the film of First Blood offer an example of this.

            The UK edition of David Morrell’s novel was first published in 1972. The Ted Kotcheff film was released ten years later. Attitudes to the Vietnam War had changed considerably during that decade, or to be more precise, the dominant public attitude had changed. In 1972 doubts about the wisdom of the war were present, and the anti-war movement was strong, but the ‘official’ public perception was that it could, and would be won, and that it was fundamentally a ‘good’ war. By 1982 not only had the war been lost, but the belief had grown that the loss had been avoidable, and had been the result of incompetence by the US Government.  Public revulsion at the war was often expressed in negative reactions to Vietnam Vets, and in turn this led to a backlash on their behalf. First Blood the novel predated this whole cycle. First Blood, the film, rode its crest.  In The War Film (Barnes & Co, NY1974, p44) Ivan Butler makes the point that ‘past wars were damnable, disgraceful, and unnecessary, but the contemporary one is always just.’ In the case of First Blood this truism is given a curious twist.

            One might imagine that a comparison between book and film would be a matter of following the parallel stories until they diverged. Here it is a matter of following until they converge. The differences are present right from the beginning, and set up different trajectories on their way to different targets.

            First Blood the book begins with the main character, Rambo, waiting for a lift at a petrol station. The opening sentence locates the story in time and space, and sets out an agenda:

‘His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.’

            Neil Jackson, in his chapter ‘Rambo’s Rampage’ (ch.10, in Search & Destroy, ed J.Hunter, Creation Books, 2003.) cites this description as one from which Rambo quickly moves on in the film series. Jackson’s essay picks up some of the comparisons with the novel, but is more interested in tracing the development of Rambo, and the political views he represents, through the series of movies, and in relation to other Vietnam movies.

            There’s a good deal of information about the story in this opening sentence. ‘Kentucky’ gives us the backwoods setting. ‘kid’, and ‘gas station’ give a clue to the period. More importantly ‘for all anybody knew’ alerts us to the fact that Rambo is not ‘just some nothing kid’. Morrell goes on to describe him, for it is what he looks like that precipitates the action, in film and book. ‘He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears’. He wears a buckskin jacket; significantly different from the combat jacket, with flag, that he wears in the film. A few lines down we are reminded he is ‘ragged and dusty’, and the theme of the book is re-iterated: ‘you could never have figured the kind of kid Rambo was’.

            The next paragraph is explicit. ‘Rambo knew there was going to be trouble’, it begins. ‘Then the police car pulled out of traffic towards him and he recognised the start of the pattern again’ it continues, and it ends on his statement of intent: ‘This time I won’t be pushed.’

            When you consider that we have already been told that, ‘by Thursday he would be running from the Kentucky National Guard and the police of six counties and a good many private citizens who liked to shoot’ you realise that this is not a story about what happens next, but about how, and why it happens.

            The third paragraph of the novel introduces Teasle, his main antagonist. We see Rambo through Teasle’s eyes: ‘mud-crusted boots, the rumpled jeans ripped at the cuffs and patched on one thigh, the blue sweat shirt speckled with what looked like dry blood, the buckskin jacket.’ It is Teasle’s impression of Rambo, what his looks mean about what sort of person he is, that precipitates the action. Teasle’s prejudices kick off this story. ‘He lingered over the beard and long hair. No, that’s not what was bothering him. It was something else.’ This series of seemingly simple sentences contains a lot of information. I read them as meaning that Teasle would have been bothered by the appearance, but that he senses there is something else too, and it is that ‘not just some nothing kid’ quality that we have already been alerted to. Teasle invites Rambo to ‘hop in’, but Morrell tells us, ‘Rambo did not move.’

            It is at this point that the two tellings converge, but the film arrives here by a very different route.

            The film begins as the opening credits, initially shown over a black screen, draw to their conclusion. We see a rural track, curving around a run down shack in heavily wooded country. Into sight, in the distance, striding down that road towards us is a figure. If we know who it is, it is because of the film’s promotional material, not because of the storytelling. Rambo, coming into close shot, pauses and looks down at what we realise, as the camera pans, is a homestead by a lake, with mountains in the background. He is not heavily bearded, merely unshaven. He is long haired, but not ‘ragged and dusty.’ He is wearing jeans, but they are not ripped, and instead of buckskin, he is wearing a military style combat jacket upon which the stars and stripes is prominently displayed. The camera swings to follow him as he goes down to the homestead, running, as if eager. As we get closer, we see it is the home of a black family. A woman is hanging out washing. She greets him in an unfriendly way. He asks for Delmar Barry, and ‘proves’ he is a friend of his, by showing a photograph from Vietnam, naming the members of his unit. The woman tells him that Delmar has died. He is shocked, and asks how. ‘Cancer. Brought it back from Nam. All that orange stuff they spreaded around’ she tells him.

            He turns away, leaving the photograph with her, and we cut to him walking along a highway, being passed by trucks. He does not try to get a lift. We see him pass beneath the sign welcoming us to ‘Hope, gateway to holidayland’.

            There is a cut here to Sheriff Teasle coming out of the door of the sheriff’s office. He belches, and hoists his trousers, then passing across the street, greets several people by name. He gets into his patrol car and pulls out into the traffic, making a personal remark to another passer by. We cut back to Rambo, still walking into town.

            It is now that Teasle encounters him. ‘Morning’, he says. ‘Are you visiting somebody around here?’

            The obvious difference in our journey to this point is that we have travelled a lot further in the film. There has been an encounter between Rambo and the black woman in which several issues have been subtly introduced. The issue of Agent Orange and its possible effects has been raised. The issue of the treatment of Vietnam Vets has also, by this same fact, been raised. The fact that Rambo is a Vietnam Vet has been made explicit, and reinforces the flag on his jacket. The point has been made, both by the reference to Delmar, and by the naming of other members of the ‘team’, that the effects of the war touch all the ethnic strands of American society.

            In the book, Rambo encounters only the petrol station attendant, who laughs at him, and an unnamed car driver who nearly runs over his foot. The film lets us hear Rambo speak, politely and respectfully, and shows him looking for an old army buddy. This humanises him, and makes him less of a loner than the book.

            The introduction of the sheriff too is handled differently, and with a similar effect, showing him as friendly to the point of being over familiar, and also as a bit of a rough diamond. His greeting to Rambo, though interrogative is not immediately negative. It soon becomes so however. He points out that Rambo is risking ‘trouble’, ‘wearing that flag and that jacket’. This is a critical difference with the book, and bears comparison with another scene, further into the story.

            In the scene where Rambo is washed down in the cells the deputy Shingleton exclaims, ‘Good God! Where did you get all the scars on your back?’ Rambo answers, ‘In the war.’ The response is ‘Oh sure. Sure you did. In which army?’

            This exchange is important for what it tells us about the deputy’s attitude to the war, and to soldiers. In the film Teasle, and Galt show disrespect to Rambo because they know he is a soldier. In the book they disrespect him because they think he is not. My guess is that when the book was written it would have been unconvincing to show members of the establishment being disrespectful to an ex-soldier, even if he was living as a hippy. For the situation to get out of hand the way it does, they have to be unaware of this until it is too late. In the book, Rambo actually kills one of the deputies, in the cells, and cripples others.

            In the film, Galt in particular, but Teasle too to some extent, is mistreating his prisoner because he is associated with Vietnam. The point is driven home by Rambo wearing the jacket, wearing his dog tag, and being addressed as ‘soldier-boy’. Galt’s ‘old Harry here’s a soldier’, also quoted in Jackson (p167), derides him for what the deputies in the novel would have respected. The scars are in film and novel, but whereas the novel’s Shingleton cannot believe someone who looks like a hippy could have been in an army, the film’s Galt, already knowing that Rambo was, says ‘who gives a shit?’

            In the book Rambo uses the razor with which they are attempting to shave him to kill a deputy during his escape. In the film he kills no-one, and this is a pattern of divergence that continues throughout the two tellings of the story. The pursuit by the sheriff’s posse in the book turns into a massacre, as Rambo lures them into an ambush, and kills them one by one. This leads to a pursuit of Teasle which loses Rambo his best chance of almost certain escape. In the film he demonstrates that he could have killed the posse, but chooses not to. There is also a scene, not in the book, where he shows himself to the posse, and says he wants no more killing, if they will let him go. Galt, falling from the helicopter, dies by his own folly, rather than by Rambo’s design. This also enables Rambo to get hold of a weapon, without the need for the illicit whisky still scene from the book.

            The book tells the story of two war veterans, of different generations, of different wars, who fight a battle of wills. They are both aware of what they are doing, and examine their own motives, as they weigh each other up. The trajectory of the book’s story ends with both of them dying, Rambo shortly before Teasle, both having come to an understanding of themselves and of each other.

            The film has a different destination. Rambo survives. Teasle does not. Is Rambo intended to represent the Vietnam Veterans’ case, and Teasle that of the ‘citizens’? Certainly, at the climax of the film, after Teasle’s death, and as he plans to make his last stand, in a confrontation with Trautman, his one time trainer and mentor (and who, in the book, kills him), Rambo, makes the great statement of the film, about how the war was fought, why it was lost, and who is to blame. There is nothing remotely like this anywhere in the book. The effect on Rambo of the war, in the book, is one of having turned him into a killer. The effect, in the film, is to have turned him into a victim, but a victim who has finally managed to take some kind of revenge.

            The words put into Rambo’s mouth in the film, and into his head, in the novel, at this climactic moment neatly encapsulate the different areas that the two tellings of his story wish to focus our attention on, the message that they carry to us.

                        ‘Nothing is over! Nothing is over! You just don’t turn it off…….

I did what I had to do to win but somebody wouldn’t let us win……in the field we had a code of honour……..back there…..I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold down a job’

(Kotcheff, quoted in Jackson, p169)

‘but this way,, the only proper way, in the last of the fight, trying his best to kill Teasle…….And at least then I’ll have died trying…..the gun went off unintended. So careless and sloppy. He cursed himself. Not the real fight he had hoped for.’

                                                                                    (Morrell, p236)

            It is his own performance that the novel’s Rambo is concerned with, in his personal contest with Teasle. In the book Teasle gets the final small chapter. It his thoughts we follow to the end of the story.

                        ‘He thought about Anna again, and she still did not interest him. He thought about his house he had fixed up in the hills, the cats there, and none of that interested him either. He thought about the kid, and flooded with love for him,’ (Morrell, p238)

            The book is rooted firmly in the personal contest between these two men, and in their obsession with their own performances in that contest. It has no wider horizons, and neither do its characters. The examination of Teasle’s motives and outlooks is also more extensive in the book, and highlighted early on, when he is trying to persuade Orval to pursue Rambo into the darkening evening (in order to be able to keep control of the pursuit). Orval asks a question that is not posed in the film.

                        ‘What did this kid do to you, Will?

‘He sliced one deputy nearly in half and beat another maybe blind.’

‘Yeah, Will,’ Orval said and struck the match, cupping it to light his cigarette. ‘But you didn’t answer me. What did this kid do to you?’

                                                                                                (Morrell, p62)

Had the film been made ten years earlier, it would have had to be more like the book. The ideas it expresses would not really have existed. Had the book been written ten years later, it would probably have been more like the film. The ideas that had developed by then could not have been ignored.

            The novel tells us a ‘worm turned’ sort of story, in which a backwoods sheriff makes an assumption about ‘a nothing kid’ who looks like a hippie, though the word is never used. As an ex-military man the novel’s Teasle, and his deputies do not expect John Rambo to be capable of resisting them. They learn differently. Teasle especially, as his last thoughts show, learns that he and Rambo have more in common than he expects. There is a reciprocal movement in Rambo too. Near to the end he recognises what has driven him: ‘he had also been proud and delighted to show them how good he was at fighting’. (Morrell, p232)

            There is no equivalent communication in the film version. Whereas in the book what Rambo is showing to the war veteran Teasle is that despite looking different, like a drop out hippie, he is the same, in the film he is showing that, though both of them wear the badge of the state, they are different. That difference is that one is a soldier, and the other is not: ‘In the field we had a code…….Back here there is nothing.’ (Kotcheff, Quoted in Jackson, p169)

            The comparison reveals not an issue of fidelity of film to book, but one of context, and throws light on the uses of story and the way in which those uses may be largely determined by what is considered significant, by both teller and receiver, at the time of the telling, rather than at the time of the originating of the story.


 3: Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day – A Matter of Hindsight.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. Persephone Classics, 2008.(1st edition Methuen, 1938).

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Bharat Nalluri (dir.), Focus Features, 2007.

This is essentially a simple story. An impoverished and unsuccessful governess in late nineteen thirties London, mistakenly gets a job with a young actress and girl-about-town. From a puritanical and repressed background, and having lost the love of her life in the First World War, she is plunged into a world of cocktails, clubs and multiple boyfriends. The life she has seen on the silver screen explodes around her.

Her down to earth wit and common sense, plus a deal of misunderstanding and luck, make her seem like a guardian angel to the actress, whom she guides through the pitfalls of the high life, to the shores of safety in marriage. Winifred Watson, apparently, was writing from her imagination, and had never been in a nightclub. The story has an innocence. The bad guys are not vicious, the drinking and smoking are not really harmful, and the promiscuity seems to hurt no-one. It was written at a time when people longed to escape the consequences of the Great Depression, were still moving away from the huge losses of the First World War, and when another war, though threatening, was not upon them. It was written before the advent of feminism, and the author, interviewed in the early years of the twenty-first century, spoke of having had a happy life, in reference to her successful marriage.

The film, though picking up these themes, and making few changes to the story, could not avoid some affects of hindsight. In the film war has broken out, and the party goers not only dash outside to see warplanes overhead, but later, are subjected to the terror of an air-raid warning. In the novel the pressure of time is not absent, but that hindsight has lent it much greater urgency. Another factor for the film, is that the shadow of the First World War has to be spelled out, to the modern audience. To Winifred Watson’s generation, the middle-aged widows and spinsters needed no explanation; no more did the solitary men, who had lost all their friends in the trenches. The fear that the past would be repeated was present, but the knowledge that it would, was not.

The other theme that hindsight could not overlook was that of the feminist agenda. The heroine of the book is not driven by a desire to succeed ‘in a man’s world’, but to survive. This book was written before the creation of the welfare state. Delysia is well aware that as an actress she is surviving in a man’s world, and she confesses as much, in film and novel, but the novelist does not show it as a victim’s strategy. Other social attitudes have changed since the writing. Joe Blomfield is a corset designer in the novel, sexed-up to a lingerie designer in the film, but when he becomes a partner for Miss Pettigrew, in the film, he has to declare that he will go back to making socks. Are there issues here of straight middle aged men designing women’s lingerie to appeal to, well, straight middle aged men? In both tellings though, the happy ending involves her settling with him.

Significant changes are made to several of the characters. The Joe of the film seems much more upper class than the Joe of the book. In the book he comes over as a more down to earth, un-intellectual character, though well aware of his situation as a rich man clung to by younger gold-digging women. In the film he has been upped a class, I think, and is made more reflective about himself, and about the wider world. In both cases, he sees and values the genuineness of Miss Pettigrew.

The greater change is in the character of Miss Pettigrew, who in the book is downcast, almost defeated, and at her last throw of the dice. She has no handle on her life, but lives through the vicarious pleasures of the cinema, which she has to sneak in to. In the book she is much more assertive, as when she steals Miss la Fosse’s card from the employment agency, rather than being given it. The Miss Pettigrew of the book is dowdy, mousy, timid, and sexually un-awakened. She is shocked by the kisses of Miss La Fosse and her lovers; she is entranced by Miss La Fosse’s deshabillé. In the film she is surprised, but only mildly, by the erection that Phil kindly shows her from the bed.

Of course, both Miss Pettigrews are worthy heroes, and beneath the initial timidity of the book version a heroine is poised, but not an early twenty-first century one. For us to accept her as a heroine in a modern film, we have to have her as a modern heroine.

A similar case is Michael, who in the book is a rather bumptious, though sincere, man of private means. His role will be to take Miss La Fosse, marry her, give her financial security, and love her: not a bad thing perhaps, but it is not a twenty-first century woman’s ideal, nor of course what a twenty-first century man aspires to be (although I wouldn’t mind the private income). So, he is made into a musician, poor but talented; romantic, and with the potential to become rich and famous, an aspiration suited to the thirties and the noughties. Instead of offering her the chance to settle down in a nice house (with Miss Pettigrew as housekeeper, in the book) and raise a family, the film Michael offers her the adventure of leaving with him for America, where they will try for fame and fortune. Those who did leave for America at the time the film is set would not have looked so heroic perhaps, to an audience of the time the book was written.

The contexts in which the book and film were made are worth comparing: the former a world on the verge of one war, still smarting, and mourning, and poor, from the last. The latter a world with high levels of employment, income, affluence and peace (despite Iraq, Afghanistan, & the Credit Crunch). What seems attractive to the insecure is security, what to the secure: adventure. Interestingly, Michael the book, limits his offer by saying he’ll only make it this one last time (demanding a belief in constancy and determination to make it stick), whereas Michael the film, limits his by showing the tickets for New York, valid for the next day only! Perhaps we find contractual black and white more convincing than the word of a gentleman these days.

If the pressure of expiring tickets is greater than that of expressed will, then the pressure of an actual war must be greater than that of a feared one. It is amid the chaos of the air raid warning, which Winifred Watson did not have in her book, that Miss Pettigrew, in the film, urges Delysia to seize the day. Whereas Miss Pettigrew urges Michael to hit the bad guy in both book and film the significance of the fisticuffs is subtly different between the two, and I’ll leave that for you to spot.

The film is faithful to the book, though of course as a separate artwok there’s no reason why it should be. It tells of a middle aged woman finding true love, financial security, and herself, within the traditional framework of heterosexual monogamous marriage to an older, wealthier man. Her story is paralleled by that of the young society girl who also finds her man. The changes wrought by hindsight are subtle. The type of men they find have been changed to feel more comfortable to a twenty-first century audience, and so have the women. The men are less in control, less competent, less articulate, less empowered, and the women are the reverse. The strengths of the men in the book are shown to be in their characters, rather than in their wealth. In the film their weaknesses are individual. With the women, their strengths are shifted from their sexual attractiveness, especially in the case of Delysia, to their cunning, their intelligence, and their determination. Winifred Watson was an astute business woman, apparently having sold the rights to the book three times, twice to the same studios (!), and a successful writer. To settle down with a family though, would not have been recognised as anything other than a success by her. She did it successfully. Two generations on we would not see that as enough for a heroine, I suspect. In another generation, who knows which will seem the less convincing story?

 Where an adaptation seeks to be faithful, as with The Shooting Party also, the changes that are made are presumably those that are perceived to be essential,  to make the story both comprehensible and acceptable to the new audience. The next novel to film adaptation I shall look at will be Chocolat, where the issue of acceptability seems paramount.

4: Chocolat – A Permissible Villain 

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. (Black Swan,2007)

Chocolat directed by Lasse Halstrom (Miramax, 2000)

The story, in brief, recounts the arrival of a chocolateliere in a provincial French town. The sensuous indulgence of the chocolate is contrasted with the sullen repression of the townsfolk. In the novel the priest, and in the film the priest acting as agent of the Mayor, resist the influence of Vianne, the chocolate maker, to the point of harassment. A subplot involves the arrival of river gypsies, and the reaction of the townspeople to them, culminating in an arson attack on their boats. The novel ends with ambiguities, and Vianne moving on. The film opts for a tidier, more definitive conclusion, a happy ending to a love story, with Vianne settling down to a conventional family life.

There are many changes, compressions and omissions in the transfer of this book to film, but I intend to concentrate on one element only. That is the creation of the character of the Mayor, and the reconstruction of the character of the village priest, for this surely must be one of the best examples of a story being altered in order not to offend.

The offence being avoided would be to those who could not accept the novel’s repressed, and repressive clergyman. The avoidance is by taking all his negative characteristics and bundling them into a new character, the Mayor. A further twist is added by making the residual clergyman young, and inexperienced, the Mayor, older and embittered. The priest can still be used as part of the campaign against Vianne, but we see him being used as a tool of the secular, and wicked Mayor, not as a man following what he believes to be the dictates of his religion. This enables, at the crisis of the story, the clergyman, throwing off the influences of the Mayor, to become the saviour of the situation, preaching a sermon that gives acceptance to Vianne, and reconciliation within the village.

The other effect of this bi-furcated character is to tip what is essentially a grim story of zenophobic parochialism towards the comic. The secular authority represented by the Mayor may be pilloried in fun. The Roman Catholic Church, presented in the novel, not by a comic coterie as in Father Ted, but as a monolithic power wielded by a damaged individual, is a much more serious matter. By making the priest young and inexperienced the film clothes him in an innocence through which his innate goodness will eventually appear, and the struggle between him and the Mayor is comic rather than epic. The Mayor’s own repressive tendencies do not represent the nature of secular power, it is made plain, but his own private issues. His wife has left him, and he is struggling already against the temptations of the flesh, represented at first by the offerings of his secretary, and later by Vianne’s chocolate. In the film it is he who succumbs to the orgiastic delights of Vianne’s shop window, and it is a comic, cathartic renaissance for him. In the book it is the priest who falls. The comedy is less apparent, and it leads to no re-birth. Where Mayor Reynaud gets to enjoy the delights of the Easter chocolate festival, Curé Reynaud ‘ran off into Les Marauds without a word.’ (Harris, p315)

There is another significant difference in the ‘telling’ of the story, for in the book there are two narrators. One is Vianne herself, and the other is the priest, Reynaud. The film, of course, is told from the ‘third person’ perspective of the camera.

Above all the pairings that I have looked at up to now this is the one that makes me question if the written word, playing upon our imagination, can afford to be more searching in its exploration of any theme, than the movie, playing upon our powers of observation. Of course, there are many serious films, and many serious adaptations of serious novels. This one though, is made of a lighter chocolate than the original.



Four novel to film pairings is not a statistically viable sample, but I have not been trying to make, or even to discover, some overarching statement about adaptation. Rather, I have been looking at specific, and different examples of how stories appear to have been changed in the process of retelling for reasons that are not obviously to do with economic or technological limitations.

            The purpose of this was not to make comparisons about the fidelity of the re-telling to the original, nor to pass judgement on the quality of either, nor to enter the debate about any inherent superiority of one medium over the other. It was to highlight, and to explore the different uses to which stories may be put, and to suggest reasons why they might be. Specifically I have been interested in the way the contexts in which stories are told, and retold, may throw up issues of changed agendas, and hindsight, that allow, encourage, and perhaps even demand, new tellings.

            The symbiotic relationship between novels and films, as Eisenstein shows in his 1944 essay, Dickens, Griffiths, and the Film Today (in Film Form, Essays in Film Theory, Harcourt, NY1977), dates from the earliest years of cinema. The pairings I have chosen are not peculiarly representative, but do, I hope, show some specific and clear types of changes. Other pairings would show other types, some equally clear, others not so. The books I have chosen are all rather short novels, in which the changes are perhaps more obvious, and more easily grasped and described than they would be in doorstep blockbusters. Longer books have been adapted, but would need longer analyses. Some have been re-written as screenplays by their original authors, often with significant plot changes, which are all the more interesting. My intention was to draw attention to the malleability of story, which I hope these few examples have been sufficient to do.

            So, what is that value that I said initially might lie in the study of adaptations? Does it help us as writers to know that out stories can be mucked about with, will be, if people think they are worth re-telling? We can’t stop that happening. We can’t even make it more difficult, I suspect, and perhaps we shouldn’t want to.

            What we can do, is be aware that behind the sequences of events, the amalgams of characters and the locations in time and space that we have created, there is a perceived or imagined purpose. This is the story. It is the answer to the question, what’s it about? It might be more or less discernible, more or less complex. It might be expressed in a single statement that a reader might make on being asked. It might need a paragraph or two, but it will be there, and I suspect that the degree to which it is may have some correlation to the degree to which the story is useful to the ‘average reader’.

            What I’m arguing is that whatever anyone else may use our stories for later, what we must do is have a use of our own for them. The alternative is to write a matrix upon which anyone may build any story of their own, where the story becomes whatever you, as reader, make it. A cartoon by Stephen Collins in the current Prospect (feb, 2011) neatly prophecies this, showing a contemporary e-book, with three simple page turning buttons, and a future one with a host of mood and narrative option buttons. I’m not convinced that most readers are really interested in this sort of story, though technicians may be. It may also be that stories change, and change with the people who want to experience them.