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October 30, 2003

TT: Classics and commercials

I've been enjoying OGIC's posts on Henry James. (I wonder if she remembers that we saw The Wings of the Dove together?) And while I have nothing much to add to what she has so beautifully said, I do want to mention another "theatrical" version of James whose Jamesianness seems to me altogether exemplary, Benjamin Britten's opera of The Turn of the Screw. Like all good adaptations, it is fairly free in its approach to the original, and it is precisely because of that freedom that Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, were able to create a fully independent art object. You don't go see The Turn of the Screw to be reminded of James' story--you see it for its own sake. As far as I'm concerned, that's the only way to successfully translate a classic from one medium to another. Otherwise, why bother?

I mentioned yesterday that I just saw the press preview of Wicked (about which more tomorrow), a new Broadway musical based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire. I brought with me a friend who is a huge Maguire fan, and who bristled visibly at every departure from the original. Not having read the novel, I wasn't bothered by the differences, even after my friend told me how extensively the authors of the show had altered what Maguire wrote. But I knew how she felt. If you're going to make a stage or screen adaptation of a familiar work of art, you really only have two viable alternatives: try to reproduce the original as closely as possible, or go your own way. Anything in between is doomed to failure.

I'll be grappling with the same dilemma when Master and Commander, the new Patrick O'Brian film, is released in a few weeks. I know the O'Brian novels extremely well, and I have my own very strong ideas about what Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sound and look like. If the film fails to match up with my preconceptions, I'll be jolted. The good news is that I've seen the trailer, and Russell Crowe meshes quite nicely with the Aubrey of my imagination. Still, I'm sure I won't be any easier to please than my friend was by Wicked.

A moment ago I asked: why bother adapting the classics? Of course we all know the real answer. Producers and directors adapt movies from well-known originals in order to piggyback on their success. The Harry Potter movies (which I didn't much like) had a huge pre-sold audience going in. Which reminds me of what Edwin Denby, the greatest dance critic of the 20th century, wrote about Seventh Symphony, a ballet choreographed by Leonide Massine to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, one of several well-known classics that Massine staged, by most accounts unsuccessfully:

[Massine] can get away with murder. If one took him seriously, he would be guilty of murdering the Beethoven Seventh...There is of course no reason for taking Massine seriously; he doesn't mean to be, he doesn't mean to murder. Like a cigarette company, he is using famous names to advertise his wares. But I cannot help resenting it, because they are names of famous things I have loved. It is hardest to bear in the case of his Seventh, where the orchestra is constantly reminding me of the Beethoven original.

Does that perhaps sum up some of your distress with the Wings of the Dove film, dear OGIC?

Posted October 30, 2003 10:12 AM

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