Cartmell, Hunter, Kaye and Whelehan (eds.)

Classics in Film and Fiction

Deborah Cartmell, I.Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan (eds.), Classics in Film and Fiction. London: Pluto Press, 2000. Pp. x, 240. Hb. £40. ISBN 0 7453 1593 3. Pb £13.99. ISBN 0 7453 1588 7.


Reviewed by Stacy Gillis, University of Exeter in Symbiosis 5.1 (April 2001)


There are, of course, motifs and sections in many novels and plays that could serve as the basis for an authentic film, but the producers make no effort to disassemble the literary originals into their cinematically usable elements in order to then build something new out of them. Instead they translate the original work scene for scene, changing only the story line (if they change anything at all) to please the audience. The resulting film is thus the uninterrupted illustration of a text foreign to it, whereas the film itself ought to be the text that is read.

—Siegfried Kracauer


Thus Kracauer in ‘Film 1928’ (The Mass Ornament, 1929), recognising the contentious relationship between film and fiction and gesturing towards the particular problems of production and aesthetics that surround the literary adaptation. The eleven essays collected in this volume all examine the relationship between the historical discourses of consumption and aesthetics, attempting to locate, as Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan’s Introduction points out, ‘what happens when a classic text is adapted for a new and commercial medium’ (1–2). Acknowledging that the ‘classic’ novel has value because of the implicit elitism of the ideological criteria which sustain the canon, the collection seeks to interrogate the terms of the debate surrounding high and low cultures. The term ‘classic’ is ultimately located as historically and culturally mutable, a political rather than aesthetic position.

Although the collection is not formally divided, the essays fall into two categories. Yes, the collection is concerned with the relationship between film and fiction but some of the pieces take this directive too literally and become mired in detailing the changes between the novel and the film. Lisa Hopkins’s discussion of the film adaptations of Jane Eyre in the 1990s claims that the adaptations owe a ‘considerable amount to texts and discourses other than the original novels’ (54) without locating the films’ alternatives to the problem that Kracauer identified (although she does provide an interesting discussion of the circulating economy of actors within the heritage film industry). Nick Peim’s paired reading of André Gide’s La Symphonie Pastorale and Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), while offering an interesting discussion of pedagogical practices within the institutionalised practices of English, ends up mired in plot details. The same occurs in Sergio Rizzo’s essay on the film versions of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible. A more penetrating discussion of the politics of adaptation is Sara Martin’s psychoanalytic discussion of The Forbidden Planet (Wilcox, 1956) and Prospero’s Books (Greenaway, 1991). Addressing the critics of these adaptations of The Tempest, she interestingly foregrounds the difference between the intertextual and the textual adaptation in which Shakespeare is a dynamic influence on a new media rather than a static literary icon. Deborah Ross’s essay on the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland is largely taken up with the difference between the two texts but does add to the debate surrounding Disney’s post-World War Two production methods. The problematic status of theory in some schools of film studies is reflected in the struggles these essays have in attempting to theorise film adaptation.

The second unofficial group of essays presents a more dialectical approach that uses the instance of the adaptation to expand upon the discourses of aesthetics and consumption. As Foucault reminds us, ‘the problem’s not the hero, but the struggle. Can you make a film about a struggle without going through the traditional process of creating heroes? It’s a new form of an old problem’ (‘Film and Popular Memory,’ 125). There are some gems in this collection, which reflect on the new forms of this old problem without falling back on the somewhat tired argument about the differences between novels and their adaptations. Martin Halliwell provides a persuasive reading of recent adaptations of Henry James’s novels, including The Portrait of a Lady (Campion, 1996), The Wings of the Dove (Softley, 1997) and The American (Unwin, 1998). Halliwell identifies the ways in which Jamesian transcultural aesthetics are negotiated via postmodern instability. Lesley Higgins and Marie-Christine Leps’s piece on the particular problems facing the film adaptation of the modernist text in their discussion of Orlando (Potter, 1992) and Mrs. Dalloway (Gorris, 1998) moves beyond listing the difference between the novels and films to conclude convincingly that ‘Woolf’s novels are not the stuff that blockbusters are made of’ (129). Kay Young uses another modernist text, Ulysses, to make a fascinating argument about cultural geography in Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). Other essays include Paul Malone on Kafka adaptations, Paul Wells on the shifting paradigms of the non-fiction docu-drama and Stuart Burrows on Death in Venice (Visconti, 1971).

Those new to the field might find more useful material in Cartmell and Whelehan’s collection Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text (1999) although Classics in Film and Fiction is still a solid contribution to the literature of literary adaptations. A more rigorous discussion of the often too-easily-defined relationship between ‘high’ and popular cultures could have proven beneficial to the lines of the argument. And perhaps the collection does not quite live up to its ambitions— on historical and theoretical grounds, it seems disappointing that it does not do more to challenge the rhetoric surrounding the sometimes ambiguous relationship between English, Film and Cultural Studies. The lack of communication between a now very distinct literary studies and film studies too often results in this kind of scholarship. However, Classics in Film and Fiction is a useful collection of essays which, although lacking the radical edge that Kracauer was arguing for in 1929, will serve to stimulate further discussion in the fields of popular fiction, adaptations and film studies.

© Symbiosis, 2001