My Gleanings

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Late (1958) Truffaut article on literary adaptation.

This article by François Truffaut for the book Cinéma et roman : éléments d'appréciation /[realised under the direction de Georges-Albert Astre ; with the co-operation of Claude Gautier and Michel Mourlet]. Paris 1958 is an interesting companion to A Certain Tendency of French Cinema.

Literary Adaptation to Cinema

To oppose fidelity to the letter against fidelity to the spirit seems to me to misstate the fundamental problem of adaptation. If, indeed, there is any problem.

No rule is possible; every case is particular. All knocks are permitted, save for the low blow; in other words, betrayal of the letter or of the spirit is tolerable if the filmmaker interests himself in on or the other and if he succeeds in doing
1) the same thing
2) the same thing, but better
3) something else, but better.
Not admissible are dulling down, shrinking down or sweetening down.

The most celebrated French adaptors are Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost whose every cinematic work ends in commercial success; their crime is simply one of transforming the adapted novels into theatrical pieces by the skillful ploy of "equivalent" situations, of the tightening of dramatic structure, and of excessive simplification. I am astounded that no theatrical producer has foreseen that he could make a fortune by confiding to Aurenche and Bost the adaptation of any spectacle mounted on stage, foreign plays or French, classical or modern, whatever, expressible by dialogue alone.

Film is something else: mise en scene.The only valid adaptation is adaptation of metteur en scene, that is to say based on the reconversion of literary ideas into terms of mise en scene.

The situation is somewhat different in America, for example, where the screenwriters, the adaptors and the dialogue writers are not failed novelists, but intellectuals at the service of the spectacle, that is to say, most adept at the exercise of the mind which allows them to think in images, visually.

Adapting East of Eden, Aurenche and Bost would have written 18 scenes while the film is comprised of six or seven very long scenes. They would have lost a quarter of the film introducing the characters, while Kazan establishes them for us in the middle of the action. they never would have given James Dean the opportunity to dance amid the nascent beans because it is a scene a) silent and b) useless.

Aurenche and Bost's worst adaptation is Le Diable au corps.At the beginning of the novel, Radiguet relates the memory which, on the eve of the war, struck him most deeply. The death of a madwoman who was on the roof of a house, her fall through a glass porch roof amidst a mob of the curious when firefighters attempted to seize her. "If I stress an incident such as this, it is that more than anything else, it explains that strange period of the war and how more than the picturesque, the poetry of things strikes me."
In their adaptation, Aurenche and Bost, forever make a sacrifice of the poetic for the picturesque; carving up the chronological recounting of Radiguet, they saddle us, between several flashbacks, with a grotesque burial, that of Martha, which, by a vicious revision, they have coincide with the celebrated November 11 armistice. Thus, the novel experiences a sham improvement, embroidery as scandalous as the truncated biographies in Paris-Match, for example, where, in order to "make well", the rewriteman employs himself in having the death of one genius coincide with the birth of another who twenty years to the day later will have a complimentary revelation to that which oriented the career of the first, while walking down a lane bordered by chestnut trees,exactly where Victor Hugo for the first time had had the idea for La Légende des Siècles at the precise moment when the dying great-grandmother of Minou Drouet saw the ghost of Socrates on the wall of her bedroom telling her: in life there is music.
In Radiguet's novel, François having become Martha's lover, cheats on her with one of his friends, a Swedish woman, whom he invites to lunch without telling her that Martha is out. Their follows on the part of François an act of date-rape and Radiguet ends, "I sensed how culpable my conduct was by moral standards. For, doubtless, the circumstances had made Svea seem so sterling. Other than in Martha's bedroom, would I have desired her so?"
Aurenche and Bost by eliminating this episode in their adaptation diminish the character of François by softening him; such that the woman in the audience identify with Martha, they would feel a certain humiliation watching this scene which their sympathy for François/Gérard Philipe will not withstand. From a certain point of view, their own, Aurenche and Bost were right: this scene, in the film that they wrote and that Claude Autant-Lara directed with great effect will film, will not "do". But why won't it do? Because their process is to transform a novel of morality, or to put it more exactly, the novel of a moralist into boulevard theater.
The novel is written in the first person, with the hindsight of a few years. "I am going to earn many reproaches, but what of it? Is it my fault that I was twelve years old when the war broke out?" It is this hindsight, this distance, which allows Radiguet to pass moral judgement on immoral deeds. By eliminating the "I" of the narrator, Aurenche and Bost, "objectify" the narration and rather than adapt a novel titled Le Diable au corps, they bring to the screen a recap of anecdotes and other minor events included in the novel. Radiguet and François are one. Aurenche and Bost coldly kill Radiguet off. substituting for him and, pulling with their own large hands the strings of, a puppet named François held upright. Le Diable au corps becomes some kind of tale of this adventure told by adults, which it might have been had it been written by the parents of François, the mother of Martha, the concierge or the nosy neighbors -- the listeners.

In reading Balzac or Stendhal, we become deeply moved by the unforeseen and unforeseeable behavior of such-and-such character who suddenly becomes sublime, rising to a grandness of soul which makes him seem superior to the narrator to the point that we forget that he was invented by Balzac or Stehdhal. There is no chance of this happening to us watching the films of Aurenche and Bost who can create in the best of cases Bouvard and Péchucet (La Traversée de Paris) but definitely never either Madame de Mortsauf or La Sanseverina.

In conclusion, the problem of adaptation is a false problem. No recipe or magic formula, only the success of the film counts which is tied exclusively to the personality of the director. Had Jean Seberg not been so admirably directed by Otto Preminger in Bonjour Tristesse, had the same script been filmed without changing a comma, with the same camera set-ups, by Jean Delannoy, with Annie Girardot or Annie Doat, it would have been correct to write that the adaptation was poor.

Thus, there are neither good nor bad adaptations - more there are neither good nor bad films. There are only auteurs of films and their politique which is necessarily irreproachable.