WORDS BY GRACE JOHNSON
Time and time again, stories are retold and recast into new ones. Yet the meanings of the stories often remain the same, even centuries later. See: The Lion King, a 1994 adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1604 play, Hamlet. They’re not “film versions” of novels – they’re Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice becoming Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’ Diary or Emma becoming Clueless.
Film is the medium of rebirth: it is constantly acquainting itself with the universality of human themes, referencing and resurrecting the same characters, plots, and morals. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act II scene ii, Juliet asks: “What’s in a name?” Film asks: “What’s in a story?”
So, names are immaterial when considering the essence of a person. Likewise, the outer constructions of context in both mediums seem to be of little consequence when considering the ideas they put forward. Of course many themes and morals arise out of the contexts in which they were written in, but when I was reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I had a sense that it was about more than just the politics of the Spanish Civil War. I felt it retold what John Donne had written in 1624, “No man is an island entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
There are many films that reference classical literature—10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man are based on Shakespearean plays. - but they contextualise the storyline to better suit a modern audience and they follow the dramatic contour of the original, similar to what many claim Shakespeare did himself. This does make the original literature more accessible, it’s true, but many wouldn’t know or care that it was based on a seventeenth-century play. References often disappear under the guise of retelling.
What I find interesting is when films ‘openly’ allude to what they are based. I particularly enjoyed this in Will Gluck’s 2010 film Easy A, about a girl, Olive, who lies about losing her virginity and pretends to sleep with struggling boys in order to help their reputation. She becomes known as a “dirty skank.” Olive speaks to the camera and says, “Ironically, we were studying The Scarlet Letter, but isn’t that always the way? The books you read in class always seem to have a strong connection with whatever angsty adolescent drama is being recounted.” She decides to embrace her new image, sewing a red ‘A’ on provocative clothing. “Except for Huckleberry Finn,” she continues, “’cause I don’t know any teenage boys who have ever run away with a big, hulking black guy,” which does happen in the end, as another poke to the idea of life following literature.
As for the idea of film recasting literature, I’m yet to see a movie that integrates literary themes as well as Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 film, Blue is the Warmest Colour. The stages of the protagonist’s life, Adèle, follow the literature she studies in class, from La Vie de Marianne (The Life of Marianne) by Pierre de Marivaus, between 1731 and 1745, to Sophocles’ 441 BC play Antigone, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s twentieth-century essays. The film’s storyline is built from its intertextual intersections, connecting the ideas of longing, vice, tragedy, and existentialism from the literature, and recasting them as events and changing emotions in the life of the protagonist. The themes are not bound by time and context—they are universal. Even though it is listed as part of the LGBTQ category, the film is less about ‘lesbian love’ than it is about ‘just love.’
The quality of a film or work of literature is usually measured by its reach of universality—who are the characters, beneath the surface, what are the morals of the story, what are the themes, etc. Film contextualisations and adaptations are often the doorway to what was previously inaccessible literature. But the films themselves are testimony to the universality of many works of literature. Maybe it is time to reconsider the seemingly inaccessible nature of literature, no matter how highbrow it appears.