“What is cinema’s utility if it comes after literature?” Jean-Luc Godard
In celebration of World Book Day and in an attempt to answer Godard’s purposely irritating question (above), I wanted to draw a list of diverse links that bind together literature and film.
World Book Day is a UNESCO worldwide recognised celebration of books and literature, and at Raindance every day is a celebration of film and cinema. Therefore, it’s the perfect occasion to draw a parallel between these two deeply interconnected art forms that keep inspiring each other and opening their audiences to an endless imaginary world.
You may not reckon the number of great films or truly bad movies which were adapted from books, from literature classics like Dangerous Liaisons (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos adapted by Stephen Frears in 1988 or minor short stories like The Birds (1952) by Daphné du Maurier adapted by Hitchcock in 1963. The Oscars has even created an award for Best Adapted Screenplay, showing evidence of a wide film production based on literature.
However, literature on-screen is not only about adapting existing books. Some movies are creating their own kind of literary style by focusing on a famous author’s life or by adopting specific cinematographies, directions, dialogues or edits to create a literary or poetic aesthetic.
Here are 5 examples of how cinema and literature create an imaginary world out of words or actual images. In fact, when cinema matches literature, we visualise, imagine and dream much more!
1 The trouble with adaptations
When told about cinema and literature, the first thing that comes to mind is the issue of adaptation. It is quite a dangerous exercise, especially when adapting a literature classic faithfully loved by its readers.
In 1897, in the preface of his novel The Nigger of the Narcissus, author, Joseph Conrad states: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see”. In fact, while reading, we imagine a fantasy world made up of our own ideas and interpretations, and when a director transcribes their own vision of a book into a movie, it will not precisely match ours. Here comes the disappointment… or the surprise!
Jules and Jim (1962) by François Truffaut: a literary style on screen
Some adaptations have been recognised as bringing the reader’s mental image of the book to life. For instance, Jules and Jim’s French New Wave cinematic style suits Henri-Pierre Roché’s literary style. It is sharp, made of short sentences, dynamically swinging and expresses the character’s freedom of love and singular lifestyle. To that extent, the movie matches the book’s style through uses mismatches, fast changes of scenes and an unusual way of shooting which alternates between pan, reverse and long take shot.
Jules and Jim is a story of friendship between the two protagonists, but it also tells their love story with Kate (Catherine in the movie, starring Jeanne Moreau). In the extract, Catherine is already in a relationship with Jules. She meets Jim, dresses up as a man, and they start their menage a trois by a symbolic run over a Parisian bridge. Truffaut worked in adapting Roché’s words and mainly transcribed the impression the reader could get out of it. In this particular case, the cinematic language of the movie corresponds to the literary language of the book, which makes Jules and Jim an everlasting classic.
The Great Gatsby (2013) by Baz Luhrmann: when the movie is distant from the book
Is it really worth it to compare a book to its adaptation? Of course, a few supposedly unadaptable books may best be kept away from investors, because we love them badly enough not to see real pictures upon it. Nevertheless, one could consider an adaptation as an individual artwork. As an example, let’s quote Now You See It video’s ‘Film vs. Novel: What Makes Them Different?’ starting from 2min46sec when the narrator compares Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ scene from the original one in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s book.
In the extract, the main character Gatsby is going to meet Daisy for the first time years after their separation and love idyll. In the film, he hires gardeners, buys hundreds of flowers and the decorations occupy the whole space and apartment. In addition to DiCaprio’s acting, the visuals are a way to embody Gatsby’s anxiety. However in the novel, there is only one servant who comes along, no flowers are brought and only Gatsby’s fear of meeting his ex-lover again is described in a sharp but meaningful sentence: ‘Gatsby, pale as death, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes’.
In that particular case, time and space are dealt with differently from the book but convey the same intention and meaning. Even though the movie may not follow Fitzgerald’s style, Baz Luhrmann creates a whole new universe and interpretation of Gatsby’s life and character. To that extent, the main singular cinematic choice made by Baz Luhrmann is the use contemporary music for the soundtrack. This anachronism distances the movie from the book, but it also gives a truly original dimension to the movie.
2 The author on screen
Bright Star (2009) by Jane Campion: John Keats the romantic
Authors are a recurring theme in films. In fact, when cinema deals with literature, it can illustrate what a writer lifestyle is or was like back in time. Some authors in films are imaginary, like the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), or actual writers, like Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2003).
Let’s take the example of Jane Campion’s Bright Star that exposes the poet John Keats’s impossible love with Fanny Brawne within a 19th English century background. Even though it is not an adaptation, the movie focuses on Keats’s last three years before his death. Keats meets Fanny Brawne, they fall in love but face social differences and difficulties to get together. As Keats gets sicker and sicker, he is first sent by friends to the British seacoast and then to Italy in order to cure. Despite the distance, the couple keeps writing to each other and professing their love, as you can see in this short extract.
They are both seated by a window while we hear Keats voice over whispering his own letter to Fanny. Even physically separated, they are brought back together by poetry and mise en scene. Then a superimposed fade over shows words written on paper and Keats contemplating the sea. One can think about Romanticism in painting but also in poetry: themes of love, suffering, distance, contemplation, nature are mixed up on screen. Finally, Fanny slowly and gracefully stretched out over a violet flower field, embodying Keat’s idea of living as a butterfly.
The tenderness of Keats poetry is symbolised by exquisite cinematography that was awarded ‘Best Cinematography’ at the British Independent Film Award in 2009. In fact, films can be tributes to literature and its protagonists.
3. Poetic realism: a new genre
Port of Shadow (1938) by Marcel Carné
In the 30-40’s, a new cinematographic genre was born in France: poetic realism. As the name mentions, the main point of this new genre is to link a poetic dialogue style with social reality insights and situations. In other words, poetic realism movie directors glorify the working class and struggling characters by having them speak in a lyric poetic way. As a matter of fact, the favourite dialogue writer of this area was the French poet Jacques Prévert. The dialogues play an important role in the genre as the following video highlights.
Jean, a deserter from World War I, arrives in Le Havre and plans to escape the country, but his plan changes when he meets a young girl, Nelly, with a heavy past and beautiful deep blue eyes. In the movie, he just arrived at Le Havre, goes in for a coffee and meets random people. The scenes are set up in a common and popular space, and the use of lighting is inspired by the expressionist cinematographic style. The dialogues are simple but moving, especially when the protagonists explain their vision of life or love. Poetic realism brings together lower class people weighed down by life who are encountering, sharing poetic bits of conversation.
Another link between cinema and literature is the ability to create, on screen, a new genre that uses literary devices such as poetry. In that regard, Children of Paradise (1945) by Marcel Carné again is another delightful example of poetic realism.
4. A poetic life on screen
Paterson (2016) by Jim Jarmusch
When cinema encounters literature, it is also to represent on screen what literature signifies to people, what it means for them on a daily basis. This is what Jim Jarmusch is dealing with in his recent feature Paterson (2016) where his main character Paterson, starring Adam Driver, is a poet who lives in Paterson, New Jersey and inspires himself with the famous poet William Carlos Williams. The film simply follows his weekly routine which whom he shares with his girlfriend played by Golshifteh Farahani, a painter, singer and cupcake baker aspirant.
The movie exposes a nonexistent plot where the ordinary ingeniously become a source of creativity. In the extract, Paterson is going through his daily tasks: he drives a bus while imagining poems. With the fade out technique, Jarmusch juxtaposes Paterson’s poems and his journey imagines. Every detail matters, such as twins that are dressed the same while way crossing the road or the waterfalls he admires every day before and after work. Paterson is not only a bus driver, he is a poet who looks at life, contemplates its details and lyrically transcribes it into poems. He is making art upon the little things of daily life. Paterson is an invitation to look at the world differently, with poetic eyes that have the ability to make little details exist, to have them live through our eyes without only being left apart.
While books need sentences, movies have to set up concrete imagery through the screen to make us feel and experience cinema. Cinema needs to show more than books do, even though they are telling the same tale. However, the relationship between these two art forms is boundless because they both directly deal with images and the world of possibilities. Adaptations are not the only way to connect books and films, and, as we exposed it before, movies can be a support and/or be tributes to literature through diverse stylistic and cinematographic devices.
What a good occasion to read/watch your classics again!