Freelance film writer
Natalie is a freelance film and literature writer for her website, The Film Version and key film publications. Her critical insights into film adaptation always provide a gateway to a new way of looking at a story. It was a huge delight to talk to Natalie about her work in this interview.
I first came across your blogs in a post for the LFF last year on adaptations, but can you tell us more about your writing journey into film blogging and your passion for adaptation?
I grew up in the mid 90s, a boom time for TV adaptations of classic novels. I was twelve when Simon Langton and Andrew Davies’ six part adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, hit British TV screens. It was a phenomenon that sparked an intense moment of national Darcy-mania. But it was the 1997 ITV production of Jane Eyre, with Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds, that kicked off my curiosity about adaptation. I rushed out to buy a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s book, read and re-read it, and got my hands on every version of the story I could find. I remember poring over the fine details – what was cut, what was added, and how the different actors interpreted their roles. There’s a scene in the book, where Rochester dresses up as a fortune teller to trick Jane into confessing her feelings, that is absent from most screen versions. It doesn’t work visually – it’s too easy for us to see through his disguise. That was probably my first lesson in the art of adaptation as a process of necessary change. My interest in adaptation has grown ever since and I began blogging and writing about film almost a decade ago.
Where does your process for writing about a film typically begin, and what does it look like? Last year you wrote about the allure of the lighthouse across literary forms from poetry to filmmaking, adolescent ghetto violence and the music in Dunkirk (amongst others) What usually sparks your inspiration?
No genre has been left untouched by adaptation, so my watch list is naturally pretty eclectic. But I also enjoy reading and watching around the subject, exploring connections between the books and films I’m writing about and earlier versions or connected works. I end up going down some unexpected rabbit holes, but I think an interest in how story works underpins much of my writing. I’m always thinking about the mechanics of story – the devices used to convey characters, themes and ideas. Films communicate with us using stylistic patterns, but I’m always open to finding connections between texts too – whether those are deliberate connections signalled by the filmmaker or author, or thematic connections between seemingly unconnected works. Adaptation is perhaps the ultimate expression of intertextuality but I’m also fascinated by the personal web of textual experiences we each bring to our interpretations of literature and film.
Screenwriters often hear about the power of existing IP in the commissioning process. Is adaptation a more significant landscape than most people realise? Putting aside the franchise industry are more new films made from adaptations?
I think adaptation has become a keystone of storytelling in our global, digital age. Today we are able to access digital media from almost anywhere and intellectual property owners are capitalising on our ability to shift effortlessly between film, television, gaming and social media applications by adapting and extending stories across multiple platforms. The act of adaptation – no matter how large or small – has become so engrained in our storytelling culture that theorist Linda Hutcheon has even asked, “What is not an adaptation?”
Films in particular have a very small window in which to make their profits – box office returns during opening weekend define how many screens the film will play in during the next – so ready access to a pre-existing global audience is becoming increasingly valuable. Even the most straightforward book-to-film adaptations reveal the mutual dependency of the publishing and film industries. The recent adaptation of Just Mercy provided the market for film tie in editions of both the original memoir by Brian Stevenson and its young adult version. And a recent study for the Publisher’s Association found that, in the ten years between 2007 and 2016, 43% of top UK films were based on a book – staggering figures considering they reflect only a portion of total film adaptations which also include those based on comics, plays, video games and TV. In the same period, book-to-film adaptations earned 44% more revenue in the UK and 53% more globally than original screenplays. So I think it’s inevitable that the commercial appetite for adaptation will continue to grow and not just in one direction. Take Parasite, it began life as an original screenplay but a television adaptation is already in the works at HBO.
I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter recently to see how the novel compared to the series, and it struck me that story is the king in something that is adapted. More so than language or structure or other elements of writing. What do you think are the crucial ingredients for a successful adaptation?
I think you’re right to draw attention to story. Not only does storytelling work differently in different mediums – the novel uses written language, film communicates visually and aurally – but the process and psychology of consuming stories differs by art form too. I think the best storytellers recognise this and play to strengths of their own medium, even if this means making significant changes to the content or structure of the plot. The mode of storytelling should definitely be King.
I also think it’s important for us to think carefully about what we mean by “success” in adaptation. An adaptation that reflects our personal idea of the source material may look quite different to one that is popular, critically acclaimed or award winning. Often filmmakers talk about the importance of staying true to the “spirit” of the novel. But this idea is loose and subjective. Who can say what the spirit of the novel really is when every reader’s interpretation is different?
It means there isn’t really a science or formula for a successful adaptation. Take the films of Wuthering Heights by William Wyler (1939) and Andrea Arnold (2011). Both offer radically different approaches to the source material – one is a gothic romance, the other a dark, realist drama – but both are equally valid interpretations of the novel and works of cinema in their own right.
It seems to me that the most memorable adaptations are those with a strong creative vision. Those that bring something new and unexpected. Or those that find something hidden in the text – an emotion maybe, or an idea – and bring it to the surface. Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a great example of this. The film’s plot diverges so significantly from Michel Faber’s original novel that it’s almost unrecognisable and yet it ranks among the most atmospheric films of its decade.
I upset a table of Shakespeare purists once by telling them I never wanted to see another traditional telling of a Shakespeare play. How much allegiance do you think an adaptation owes to its source material? Is it obliged to stay close to the original story or free to make significant changes?
I think it’s worth asking, “what is the value of an artistic product that seeks only to replicate another?” The idea that an adaptation should be “traditional” or faithful to the source material seems to miss the Darwinian nature of the adaptation process itself: that adaptations are new and fresh, the result of an evolution that reflects changes in context and artists.
I believe the quest for fidelity is a flawed one – the subjectivity of our experiences make it impossible for an adaptation to live up to our diverse interpretations of the source material. Yet decades after theorists ditched fidelity as a red herring, it continues to play a huge part in our everyday conversations. Now the digital age has mobilised fans, not only to share and debate, but to vocalise their dissatisfaction with change. The demand for fan service – and therefore faithfulness to the source material – is actually growing.
It’s this awkward position that adaptions occupy in our artistic landscape – being both the same and different to their source material – that makes them so fascinating to us. Time and again, it’s the differences that we’re drawn to, that we debate and quarrel about. It’s the differences that keep us curious. It seems to me then that the creative vision of the adapter, and their willingness to take risks with the source material, is immensely valuable. I was talking on Twitter recently about the question of cinema’s fidelity to historical facts. A friend said a work of art owed only as much fidelity as it needed, or as much as the filmmaker wanted to give. I think the same is true here.
What’s your favourite adaptation of late? Across any form and did it stay close to the original material?
I’m in awe of Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History Of David Copperfield. Charles Dickens’ novel is immense, not only in its sheer size (which extends to more than 800 pages), but in its vast array of characters and its shifting tone, sincere in one moment and comedic the next. Iannucci manages to condense this novel into a coherent two hour feature with a complex formula that includes shrewd omissions, conflations and truncated character arcs. All the time, he is sharpening what remains most relevant in Dickens’ writing, from homelessness and debt, to public school privilege. Colourblind casting, with the magnificent Dev Patel in lead, reflects modern society. This isn’t a stuffy costume drama but a vibrant and witty adaptation that speaks to us about our own experiences: that reflects what matters now.
What’s the boldest or most off the wall adaptation you’ve seen and do you think they pulled it off?
This year, Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit offered a pretty bold take on Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies. Billed as “an anti-hate satire,” it mutates Leunens’ bleak and troubling depiction of Nazi indoctrination and prejudice into zany comedy. The film’s plot is very different, cutting the story short when the main character chooses a different, higher moral path. Leunens’ complex moral questions about power, control and bigotry become a simple choice between love and hate. And the film’s depiction of its Jewish, female character, locked in the attic in Anne Frank’s image, has justifiably attracted criticism. But despite these significant issues, the film has a dynamic and thought-provoking relationship with the novel. Leunens’ Nazi protagonist, Johannes, is an adult when he chooses the wrong moral path; Waititi’s JoJo is just ten years old when he chooses the right one. Together this produces an interesting thematic story. Caging Skies might be pessimistic about the challenges of shaking engrained prejudice; but JoJo Rabbit offers hope that young minds can be rescued from bigotry and hate.
Bold adaptations don’t always work but they do offer us new ways of seeing the source material and, sometimes, things that were never really there. I always recommend Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock And Bull Story which turns an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy into a meditation on the process of adaptation itself. Charlie Kaufman does something equally radical with Adaptation (an off the wall version of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief) to expose the ubiquity and perils of the three act structure. Both are ambitious, idea driven adaptations that reveal the challenges of a process we too often take for granted.
Thanks for reading.