Leslie Wilson’s post on War and Peace last month set me thinking about adaptations and the historical connections between film and the novel. I think several contributors to this blog write or have written in different media, and I wonder if they, like me, have gained insights about one medium through working in another. I’ve heard Helen Dunmore talk about how poetry has helped her pace her novels and the poet Kate Clanchy has spoken of her short stories benefiting from the dialogue skills she gained in writing radio drama. As for me, I have attended many scriptwriting courses, but have often found what I learned relevant and highly valuable in relation to novel-writing. As a consequence, I am very drawn to the relationship between film and the novel.
Of course, the history of film has been linked to the novel from the start, even though, as renowned ‘script doctor’ Linda Seger points out, literature tends to resist film during the adaptation process. Likewise, George Bluestone (I love his name) – an early writer on adaptation – talked about “the fitful relationship” between the word and the image, and memorably declared the film and the novel to be “overtly compatible” but “secretly hostile.”
Writing novels, clearly, is a one-person cottage industry, whereas film is collaborative and produced on an industrial scale. Even in the 1930s Erwin Panovsky was likening the process of making a film to that of building a medieval cathedral. But what links them is stories. Once the film-going public got used to seeing moving pictures (early audiences were perfectly happy to watch depictions of galloping horses or railway engines or simple street scenes), and once film’s potential as a story-telling vehicle became evident, the search for narratives began in earnest.
And where did they look for their stories? To the novel, of course. Virginia Woolf was a regular cinema-goer, and was scathing about the manner in which cinema had appropriated narratives from, predominantly, the nineteenth-century novel. She wrote (Woolf did scathing terribly well): “The cinema fell upon is prey with immense rapacity and to this moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim.”
Unsurprisingly, the work of Dickens, in particular, was seized upon as suitable material: around one hundred different adaptations of his novels were produced in the era of silent film. And not only did Dickens’s stories inspire the early filmmakers, his writerly techniques, too, were influential. As any film students will tell you, Sergei Eisenstein, in a seminal essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” describes how Dickens’s prose fiction was the inspiration behind early director D. W. Griffith’s attempts to create the basics of a film grammar: parallel montage, the close-up, the dissolve, the panning shot, and so on.
Virginia Woolf remained distinctly underwhelmed by the early language of film and compared it to the subtle poetic imagery at the novelist’s disposal. In film, she complained, “A smashed chair is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse.’ Other aspects of cinema, though, clearly attracted her. “The most fantastic contrasts,” she wrote, “could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain.” And, after labouring all week on writing an action scene that would take fifteen seconds to watch on film and (dare I say it?) would probably be more effective in that medium (though obviously the novel trumps film in many other respects), I have to agree. I’ve also seen it argued, at least, that Woolf’s own experimental writing might have been influenced by cinema – montage and the shifting of camera angles and distances.
Coming back to Leslie’s post on War and Peace, I was fascinated to come across Leo Tolstoy’s 1908 take on cinema. He is impressively positive and forward-looking about the birth of a rival art form:
“[…] it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is its greatness.”
Some great novelists have turned to the cinema to make a living in at various points: F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, did a stint Hollywood, though not very successfully; William Faulkner fared better and worked with Howard Hawks on The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. Graham Greene famously wrote the screenplay for the The Third Man. Nowadays, with cinema an established, if not dominant, art form, few novelists would be trusted to put their inky fingers on a screenplay, and it is most likely to be through buying the film rights that the film industry pays for the novelist’s bacon (if she’s lucky!). Although there are exceptions: Deborah Moggach springs to mind, and William Boyd. But I should have loved to have seen what innovative thing Virginia Woolf might have come with up for the big screen. Art house cinema without a doubt. And as for Leo Tolstoy – what might the author of War and Peace have done with a long-running political drama for television? Such a shame you can’t commission dead writers. Now there’s an idea for a movie...