Infidelity & Adaptation

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Violet Myers

How does Infidelity to the Original Text Impact Film Adaptation?

Violet Myers Year 3, BA (Hons) Scriptwriting, 2013


This dissertation will focus on the positive and negative impacts that fidelity to the original text has on film adaptation. This question has been chosen because of the recent surge in very popular books being adapted into films in the past few years. And while some have been considered successful, a lot of film adaptations are met with the same pattern of criticism that it: wasn’t like the book or wasn’t as good as the book. So the question was raised whether a film’s fidelity to the book that it is based has any effect on its success, or if it impacts the film in other ways. This dissertation’s purpose is to uncover how important fidelity is to create a successful film adaptation. It is also to see what other aspects of the film it impacts, be it audience, critical acclaim or other factors.

My personal hypothesis is that infidelity has many negative impacts on film adaptation; that straying away from the novel will disappoint and alienate the audience. Therefore, the prediction for the outcome of this dissertation will be: films that stray from their original source not only disappoint book fan bases but also receive negative reviews. There may be positive impacts also, but the majority will be negative.

There is a lot of material on the question of fidelity regarding film adaptation. However, it seems to be a subject that is often overlooked or deemed unimportant, usually mentioned very briefly regarding other adaptation subjects. A lot of film criticism deems it a plagued questionin adaptation studies. Therefore, this research will provide a wide overview of the positive and negative impacts of fidelity. Some of the material could also be considered biased, as the writer comes from either a film or literature background, whereas in this dissertation the approach is to view the subject from an objective point of view, taking neither side.

A mix of sources have been used to investigate this question, the majority of which are books. The British Film Institute library was an important resource for this dissertation, as they hold a large  selection of quality books on adaptation criticism. A sample of these include: Robert Stam’s Beyond Fidelity, Brian Macfarlane’s Novel to Film and Linda Secer’s The Art of Adaptation. Internet sources will also be used, which will include film blogs, fan sites and online newspaper articles. Sites such as Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes are relied on heavily for film overviews, audience ratings and fast reliable information. Due to a lot of the research being audience based, film blogs and fan sites are important resources. For primary research an interview with a working scriptwriter called Will Jewel about his experience and views on adapting a novel into a film script is referenced. Furthermore, information from a British Film Institute lecture, including Peter Staughan, writer of the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy talking about his experiences in film adaptation, is used in this, as Staughan answers questions regarding the subject of fidelity in film adaptation. Results from an audience survey is also used, in which members of an audience were questioned about their opinions on past film adaptations they have viewed. This data as been used to get a concise view of how important fidelity is to the average film viewer.

The limitations to this study are that a lot of the books on this subject consider the fidelity debate an unimportant issue when discussing film adaptation, resulting in quite basic and impatient discussion within the books. However, by gathering information from a large and varied collection of resources extensive information is present.


Chapter One – Background

In this opening chapter the focus will be on giving a brief introduction into the background of film adaptation. It is important to this dissertation to point out the sheer quantity of film adaptations being made in the film industry, as a large quantity of audience members are not always aware they are watching an adapted film. It is also important to see that filmmakers have been adapting from novels since the very beginning of film. Some background is included into how the question of fidelity has been discussed in adaptation studies, highlighting the limitations of the question. It is important to know that when discussing fidelity in regards to film adaptation there are different levels to consider. For the most part, films that have the same story and characters will be considered faithful adaptations and films that stray from these details will be considered unfaithful. However, at times there will be references to loose adaptations; films in which the details may differ but the theme and spirit of the novel stay the same. Film adaptations take up an entire third of Hollywood’s annual output with most of the highest earning blockbusters being adapted from novels. It is often screenplays adapted from previous material that take home the majority of Oscars at the Academy Awards and gross highest at the box office (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, pp. 1-9). The final part of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has grossed $381,011,219 alone, making it not only one of the highest grossing adaptations, but one of the highest grossing films of all time ( Other popular film adaptations include: Lord of the Rings, The Twilight Series and more recently The Hunger Games. A film adaptation can often be so high grossing and so successful that it entirely eclipses the novel it was based upon, leaving audiences ignorant to the film’s original source. For example Nothing Lasts Forever, the book that the extremely popular 1980s classic Die Hard is based upon is not very well known, with audiences much more likely to recognise the film over the book. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick’s widely popular Full Metal Jacket was adapted from a novel called the The Short Timers, which is now out of print (

Adapting novels into film is not a modern phenomenon, but is nearly as old as film itself. Films such as Frankenstein and Dracula haunted the pages far before they terrified a film audience. The very first time Alice and Wonderland appeared on screen was in Cecil Hepworth’s 1903 silent film ( Film makers seem drawn to literature for new material, perhaps for more complex stories and ideas (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, pp. 1 – 9), or maybe to try to tap into the novel’s original audience. If box office figures are anything to go by a film can merely share a title as a bestselling / popular novel to bring in a large audience.

The notion of fidelity in regard to film adaptation is a long, much discussed subject. The importance of staying faithful to the original text in which the film is based, divides theorists and critics. While some, usually those from a literary background, believe that straying away from the text is a great betrayal of the work, especially dealing with a novel that is considered a ‘classic’ novel (Paget in: Cartmell, 1999, p.131). There is some worry that filming a well-loved piece of literature will “dumb down” the work or not preserve the heritage of the novel. However, a growing population of theorists, often from a film background feel that the question of fidelity is simply banal and unimportant, that too much focus is put upon whether a film stays faithful to the original text and not on the other aspects of adaptation studies.

The issue is not whether the adapted film is faithful to its source, but rather how the choice of a specific source and how the approach to that source serve the film’s ideology

(McFarlane, 1996, p.22)


There are problems when discussing fidelity in film adaptation, as Robert Stam correctly points out: ‘fidelity to what?’ (Stam, 2000, p. 57). A novel can cover years, span an entire lifetime. A filmmaker is limited by theatrical conventions to give the films a comfortable running time for the audience, or else films would go on for days. Will Jewel, a scriptwriter, who is currently adapting a crime novel, had difficulty staying faithful to the original text and running time.

The challenge in how you cover this 40 year period in a 90 min film. Staying true to the text was a big issue as there was enough material for a 6 hour HBO series. My first draft was 180 pages long and I tried to stay true to the story but there was so much in there it just felt bitty and couldn’t put down roots in any one period or get under the character’s skin enough.

So from the above, I realised staying true to the book and making this work as a 90-120 min film couldn’t both exist. I’ve never been a big fan of the Hollywood-isation of real life stories but got an understanding of why it happens as I had to cut & merge characters and events and truncate timescales to make the script work 

( Jewel, 2012)

The need for fidelity does not consider the process and struggles of making a film. While a novel is written by a single writer, a high budget film can employ thousands. Although the promotion and distribution of a novel can be costly, the actual process of writing it is not affected by finance, by contrast filmmaking is a very expensive business, so creativity and ideas are restrained by cost (Stam, 2000, p. 56). For example, a novelist may write a beautiful passage about a battle, it may be a great moment in the novel, but it could mean employing a hundred more extras, trying to locate a large enough location, employing a special effects team and consequently doubling the budget of the film. Hence, as Kranz and Mellerski explain, ‘The film business shapes film content’ (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, p. 9).

The conversion from one medium to another is a difficult process. The filmmaker must realise the differences of the written page and the silver screen. Both media have their limitations and both have their qualities. Adaptation insists upon change, there must be a process of transition, usually of re-structuring, or perhaps shifting the focus; instead of focusing on a wide subject that covers a long period of time an adaptation can concentrate on one section of the book (Jewel, 2012). The demand for fidelity does not take into account practicalities like length and budget. Filmmaker’s must cut and choose as ‘adaptation demands choice’ (Secer, 1992, p.8). Not all characters from the novel will make it into the film adaptation. Similar characters are condensed while some are cut altogether (Secer, 1992, pp. 2-3). This is why when discussing the fidelity debate regarding film adaptation, it is better to disregard the notion of perfect fidelity and consider phrases likeloose or spiritual fidelity; films that stay true in story or theme but takes liberties to confine to film conventions.

In conclusion, film adaptations are a huge part of the film industry and filmmakers will continue to adapt from novels. This may be due to the interesting and entertaining stories that novels present, but more likely is influenced by the audience they bring in. From a marketing perspective film adaptations are much less of a gamble as they already have an existing audience, this opens up new questions; should a film stay true to the original audience’s expectations? Or should it change, and offer something new? The practical limitations of film adaptation have also been discussed, how infidelity is not always a creative choice but a necessity for budget and theatrical conventions. This is important to consider, as during this dissertation there will be discussion of whether a film should stay true to its original text, but there is a need to question whether it physically can.


Chapter Two – A Positive Impact of Infidelity

The word infidelity is often considered a negative term; it suggests betrayal. However, when discussing film adaptation infidelity can be a good thing. This chapter will look at how infidelity from the original text can have a positive, welcomed effect on the film. These include the effect on the audience, how updating and changing an outdated story to comply with modern values can open the material to new audiences. It also includes “correcting” a novel’s content to comply with audience values and offering a further exploration into a writer’s original ideas. In some cases unfaithful adaptation can offer a comment or deconstruction of the original text, which can offer some very interesting results.

Being unfaithful to the original text can have a positive impact on the resulting film, for example the effect on audience. By straying from the novel, the filmmaker is able to take material from the past and update it to relate to modern audiences. For example, Amy Heckerling’s 1995Clueless, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (first published in 1816), set in modern day Beverly Hills. Clueless follows the same basic plot of Emma. Cher is a wealthy young woman with a love of gossip and matchmaking, who takes it upon herself to makeover the new girl in school, in hopes of finding her a boyfriend (Sonnet in: Cartmell, 1999, p.51), while Emma follows a wealthy young woman trying to create a love match for her new friend. (Austen 1816). However, Heckerling has cleverly swapped carriages for convertibles, and balls for homecoming dances, making Clueless a ‘portrait of contemporary youth culture’ (Sonnet in: Cartmell, 1999, p. 51). Due to this update,Clueless was marketed to teenage girls and was a ‘sleeper hit’, making Paramount $54million (Sonnet in: Cartmell, 1999, p.51). By updating the material in this way, Heckerling has opened Austen’s work to a new generation and has taken the book from ‘An esoteric object to an object of mass consumption’ (Cartmell, 1999, p.7). However, Heckerling has taken so many liberties in adapting the novel that the teen audience may have been somewhat unconscious to the knowledge they were viewing a literary classic, but the story of Emma lives on, with the spirit of the book very much alive in Clueless (Dole in: Troost, 2001, p.136). Some critics feel that this kind of loose adaptation, with the filmmaker making creative changes is betraying the novel and not preserving the heritage of the original material, that this move from “classic novel” to teen movie is a departure from high culture to low culture. However, below the surface Clueless is a satirical film disguised as a teen flick. Commenting on important themes like the role of women in society, it successfully translates Emma into a Californian high school (Ferriss, 2001, p.8). Suzanne Ferris even goes so far as to suggest that more faithful adaptations of Austen’s Emma, such as Douglas McGrath’s 1996 Emma, a traditional costume drama, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, are in fact more modern. This is due to their enlightened, empowered female characters, whereas Clueless shows women in a role very similar to those of a 19th century household; their time wholly taken up by trivial pursuits of matchmaking and flirtations (Ferriss, 2001, pp.8-9).

Some critics argue that films that are too faithful to their original source can be creatively stifling, and that the filmmakers who favour creating faithful transitional adaptations over unfaithful interpretations fail to bring a novel “to life”; ‘The intention to include everything compromises the process of adaptation’ (Cartmell and Whelehan, 2005, pp.37 – 48). Cartmell and Whelehan discuss Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in their essay Harry Potter and the Great Fidelity Debate, they believe that due to the writing style of the book, the very faithful adaptation falls short. The book is written with a cinematic structure; like a Hollywood film the plot is character driven, follows genre conventions and is morally unambiguous (Cartmell and Whelehan, 2005, pp.37 – 48). Therefore the book is already cinematic, written with mainstream cinema values in mind. This makes the comparison between book and film even greater. The film does not stand a chance; the film can never live up to the reading experience, as ‘it doesn’t live up to the cinematic potential of the book’ (Cartmell and Whelehan, 2005, p.40). Cartmell and Whelehan argue that the film fails because it tries to be the book, without realising the consequences of such fidelity. Faithful adaptations encourage direct comparisons, books will always end up on top and film adaptations always disappoint. This is due to the reader’s imagination painting a greater picture than any cinematographer could ever create (Stam, 2000, p.54). Therefore, adaptations must offer the audience something new, choosing to interpret rather than re-create.

If a novel is thought to contain offensive or discriminatory content, an unfaithful adaptation that strays from the novel can have a positive impact on the film. For example, in Brian de Palma’s 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Morgan Freeman was cast to play Judge Leonard White, originally a white character. Presumably, this was a creative decision to side step any accusations of racism levelled against the novel (Stam, 2000, p.71). By being “unfaithful” to the novel, the film “corrects” ideological overtones that might be considered outdated and offensive to a mainstream cinema audience, giving it contemporary relevance and adding mainstream values (Stam, 2000, p.72). Similarly American Psycho, a novel by Bret Easton Ellis follows a young business man as he embarks on a psychotic killing spree in the 1980s. The novel is a stream of consciousness narrative focusing on the lead character’s descent into madness. The book received powerful reviews, one critic going as far to call it ‘Pornographic’ and ‘One of the most loathed and least read novels in recent memory’ (Harvey, 2000, The novel contained extremely violent and sadistic content, which caused controversy before it was even released to the public, with the publishers Simon and Schuster boycotting the novel and refusing to publish it (Jordinson, 2010, So when a film version of the book was made, director Mary Harron took many liberties adapting the novel. Harron’sAmerican Psycho, which was released in 2000 and starred Christian Bale, takes Ellis’ novel and reframes it as a satire. The tone is changed to a dark comedy and the violence and sadism is restrained, with most of it appearing off screen (Harvey, 2000, The critics and the audiences were impressed. The film received a 67% positive critic rating and an 83% positive audience rating on popular movie site Rotten Tomatoes ( One said that the filmmakers had: ‘Come up with an ingenious adaptation, minimising the book’s shortcomings and maximising its intermittent panache’ (Rayns in Vincendeau, 2000, p. 266). By being “unfaithful” to Ellis’s novel, Harron has minimised the offensive material of the book and changed the tone. She has taken a questionable novel with a niche audience and created a satirical, multi genre film, which pleased both critics and a mass audience.

While some believe that filmmakers so often turn to literature for more complex stories and ideas than the ones existing in cinema (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, pp. 1 – 9.), sometimes a film can add much needed depth to the novel’s original material, using the novel as a ‘jumping off point’ from which to expand and improve upon (Secer, 1992 P.8). Therefore, unfaithful adaptations can often result in very successful films. For example, The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel by Patrica Highsmith, is a popular crime novel first published in 1955. It follows a low-born New York charmer, Tom Ripley as he is dispatched by a rich father to bring his playboy son, Dickie, back to America (Phillip, 2000, The book is popular, receiving four out of five stars on popular literary website Good Reads ( The novel was adapted for the screen in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, and although Minghella is mostly faithful to the original story, a lot has been changed. Highsmith explores homosexuality in the novel, with the lead character Tom Ripley expressing: ‘I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women’ (Highsmith, 1955, p.71). However, being published in the 1950s, with homosexuality still thought of as a disease and a disorder (Winterson, 2009, the sexuality of Mr Ripley is ambiguous and merely suggestion. Minghella brings the subject out from ambiguity and makes it a key aspect of the film, making it Tom Ripley’s motivation. In the novel Ripley is a complicated, mysterious character; his motives are ambiguous. He kills Dickie in cold blood; the murder is calculated. However, Minghella’s Ripley is not a psychopath but more a victim of the class divide (Phillip, 2000, Ripley is obviously shown as being in love with Dickie and although he does kill him, it is unpremeditated and more a crime of passion (Haysom, 2010, By straying from the original novel, Minghella has shifted the focus of the protagonist and made him a sympathetic character (O’Sullivan in:Vincendeau 1999, p. 263). By putting more focus on the sexuality of Ripley, Minghella has created a character with incredibly complicated, human motives which goes against conventions of the crime genre (Haysom, 2010, ). The film was critically acclaimed and was nominated for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ at the Academy Awards 2000. (

Of course, The Talented Mr Ripley is very different from the novel in which it was based, but it is still recognisable as the same story. It is argued that the only impossible adaptations are the ones where the filmmakers have no creative license and that the best are when filmmakers take liberties ( Secer 1992 P.8). Enter, Adaptation a film made in 2002, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. It is based on a novel entitled The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, but is a very different kind of adaptation. The novel is about a woman’s relationship with an orchid thief and includes a brief history of orchid collection, although no narrative links these passages together, with the main character vanishing from long sections of the book (Connover, 1999, Where this kind of writing is popular with novelists, novels can be discursive and lack real narrative, films are structured and constrained by the need for drama (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, pp. 1 – 9). Adaptation’s main narrative follows Charlie Kaufman as he struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief into a Hollywood movie. Kaufman adds new characters, subplots, changes the ending, the relationships of the characters and their motivations. However, the film was met with fantastic reviews, calling it ‘fiercely original’, ‘inventive’ (Pierce, 2002, and ‘close to genius’ ( It received a 91% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes ( and was nominated for four academy awards. It was because of Kaufman’s original desire to be ‘faithful’ to Orlean’s book that leads him down the route of this unconventional type of adaptation (Weiss, 2010, The fictionalised Kaufman in the film states:

I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end, you know. I mean… The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that. You know, it just isn’t. And… I feel very strongly about this.

The fictionalised Kaufman and the real Kaufman both tried to stay faithful to the book, trying to resist the need to add drama and mainstream values. Fictionalised Kaufman goes on a self-loathing journey, full of false starts and artistic struggles (Adaptation, 2002, Jonze), the real Kaufman struggled from bad writer’s block (Murrau and Topel, and ended up taking many artistic liberties, which resulted in Adaptation – a satirical comment on the process of Hollywood filmmaking / film adaptation (Weiss, 2010, Kaufman includes a faithful retelling of The Orchid Thief within Adaptation, including several lines of dialogue taken straight from the book. He also keeps the theme of obsession, showing a link between art of screenwriting and orchid hunting (Weiss, 2010, But it is the changes that he makes; the inclusion of himself, the multi-layered storytelling and the sexed up Hollywood ending which won Kaufman such critical acclaim and positive reviews. It is when Kaufman let go of his desire to make a faithful adaptation, that he created something truly original. It is the departures from literal adaptation that offers a commentary or a deconstruction of the original material (McFarlane, 1996, p.22)

In conclusion, being unfaithful from the original text can result in interesting, critically acclaimed films. The book Emma has been successfully updated into the film Clueless, letting the story live on for another generation, reaching more people than it ever would with just the written word. It has also offered a comment and comparison of gender roles in modern society. Patricia Highsmith’s original ideas and characters have been expanded on and explored in the film The Talented Mr Ripley, addressing the issues she hinted at in her novel head on, creating a widely celebrated film. Charlie Kaufman has created a piece of film genius, that will be remembered and celebrated for years, due to his barrier breaking, very unfaithful film adaptation. It seems that when a filmmaker takes liberties with a novel the possibilities are endless of what they can achieve. When they are not tied down by the need for fidelity they are able to create very interesting films.


Chapter Three – The Negative Impact

This chapter will explore the negative impact of infidelity on film adaptation. The psychology of reading a book and how unfaithful adaptations can affect the original audience will be investigated. This chapter will also deal with what it means to open a story up to a wide audience, how the original story may suffer and how the writer’s original intent may not be represented in film adaptation, including the lack of the novel’s themes. There will also be an exploration into the issue of censorship, how a book’s politics may change to adhere to mainstream values. The heritage and how a film can eclipse a novel, taking away the original memory of the book will also be explored.

When a filmmaker adapts a book into a film and is unfaithful from the original text, a negative impact can be caused. One negative impact of infidelity is the adding of mainstream values, usually at request from a producer. Values that past audiences are familiar with are added to the film, so as not to alienate them, for example, having the film end with a happy ending. This means that the original story is changed and sculpted to entertain a large audience and adhere to mainstream expectations. If a novel is read by five million people it is considered a great success and is probably a bestseller, however, the same number of people see a film and it is considered a failure, while novels have niche, select audiences, films must cater to the masses (Secer, 1992, p. 5.). This means that the film adaptation must attract an audience who have not read the book, it must become commercial and reflect the average film goers expectations (Secer ,1992 p7). An example of mainstream values being added to a film adaptation is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella by Truman Capote, adapted for the screen by Blake Edwards and George Axelrod. Capote’s novella is set just after the Second World War; it follows a nameless writer’s platonic friendship with a glamorous woman, Holly Golightly. The book deals with very un-Hollywood issues, including child molestation, when Holly dismisses her past sexual experiences ‘Anything that happened before I was 13, because, after all, that just doesn’t count’ (Capote, 1958, p. 92). Also, both the narrator and Holly are suggested to have a bi-curious nature, with Holly referring to a lesbian relationship she had (Capote, 1958, p23).

It is also implied that Holly takes money for sex with much older men. Breakfast at Tiffany’s the movie was released in 1961. It stars Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and became one of her most iconic roles (Churchwell, 2009, The film was very popular, being nominated for five Oscars and winning two ( However, a lot was changed from Capote’s original story, most importantly the two main character’ relationship. Instead of a platonic friendship between two sexually ambiguous characters the film’s focus is on two heterosexual people’s romantic relationship. The nameless narrator is changed to George Peppard, a man in love with the elusive Holly Golightly (Tibbets and Welsh, 1998, p.43). George Axelrod, the film’s script writer has commented on his troubles adapting the novella: ‘It was not really a story for pictures, what we had to do was devise a story, get a central romantic relationship, and makes the hero a red-blooded heterosexual’ (Tibbets and Welsh, 1998, p.43).

Breakfast at Tiffany’s the novella ends with uncertainty; the narrator and the reader are unsure what has happened to Holly, and they are left wondering, it’s an open ended ending, which is neither happy or sad, but more a reflection of real life (Capote, 1958,). By contrast Breakfast at Tiffany’s the film ends with a memorable ‘Hollywood cinch’; George and Holly kissing in rain (Tibbets and Welsh, 1998, p.43). Both characters having discovered the errors of their ways, everything is wrapped up neatly and the characters are rewarded with a taste of romance. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is considered one of the most loved romance films of our time, however, compared to the book it is a crass, over simplified reflection, that is not brave enough to deal with the important issues in the book. Hollywood takes Capote’s morally ambiguous, sometimes dark novel and adds a conventional love story, where the characters learn the error of their ways and emerge richer from the experience. The characters, themes and story are simplified and clarified in order to make it commercially viable, there are added mainstream values in order to please a wide audience (Secer 1992 p.7).

Another example of adding mainstream values to a film adaptation is Drive a film directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, originally a novel by James Sallis. Drive the film is a crime drama, with romantic overtones. The main character is motivated to commit crimes, so he can protect the woman and child he loves. He kills people, but the audience still like him because he does it out of love. However, in Drive the book, his actions are more ambiguous, his motivations are unclear. There is no romance in the plot of the novel, the main character kills out of revenge, and it is unclear where the reader’s support should lie. Mainstream values are added to the film, to bring in a wider audience, the impact is a more likable, relatable protagonist and perhaps more of a female audience. However, this also means a dilution of Sallis’s intention; his detached and often violent novel about self-preservation is transformed into a modern romance, with a sympathetic protagonist (Mulrooney, 2011, While it may be popular with modern audiences it fails to capture the novel’s spirit Drive like many novels of its genre explores complex themes and ideas. For example, all the way through the narrative, the segregation of Latin American and American culture is explored. There are constant comments on Latino culture, most importantly the segregation and the poverty. For example, the protagonist moves into an apartment block in a poor area, and comments that: ‘These days, sitting out on the plank-like balcony, one heard far more Spanish than English’ (Sallis, 2005, p. 61). However, this theme is not explored in the film adaptation; all of the focus is on the central relationships and character’s journey. This is because, while novels are theme driven, with the story serving the theme, by contrast films are story driven, using themes to reinforce the story (Secer, 1992, P.16). This impacts the film, as while a theme may be an important part of the novel, if it does not reinforce the story in the film it will not be included. This can be negative, as it over simplifies the novels message, resulting in a shallow interpretation of what the book is really about.

Some books chosen to be turned into films have not just been well read and loved, but critically acclaimed, and none more than John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. The winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, it is highly regarded in the world of literature. It was the best-selling book of 1939 and when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature it was referenced frequently ( But despite its critical acclaim and popularity the book was focus of public debate, copies were burned in public and the novel was banned from schools and county libraries. This was due to controversial political themes and ideas. Set during the Great Depression, the novel follows a family of workers during great hardship and oppression. Due to its criticism of government the novel encourages the philosophy of Socialism. The book was adapted into film in 1940 by John Ford and Nunnally Johnson. The film has always been highly regarded, winning two Oscars ( However, when the film was adapted for the screen, Twentieth Century Fox felt extremely uncomfortable about producing a film with such a controversial political message (Collins, During production thousands of letters were sent regarding the film; 99% of which accused the producers of cowardice, that the studio was too closely associated with “big business” to ever make the film. For these reasons the books political message is muted (Collins, The film eliminates almost all of the unfair business practises explored in the book, the religious satire is abandoned and the political radicalism is generalised (Tibbets and Welsh, 1998, p. 163). The film is very unfaithful to the novel in its message and themes, the toned down sexual savagery and in its ending; therefore the films end optimistically, offering a reassuring message (Collins, Although the film was very successful with both audiences and critics, the film’s infidelity from the original material has entirely changed the intent of the novel, censoring Steinbeck’s political message from the mass market of cinema.

Before television and film, novels were the most popular form of entertainment culture, with a larger percentage of the population reading. Now, with film and television being the largest forms of culture, reading has decreased. Some consider literature and theatre as high culture, while film and television are considered low culture. This means, as reading decreases classic literature considered to have high cultural impact can be missed by modern audiences, and even forgotten. However, the use of film adaptation can try to rectify this, taking classic literature to the mass market of cinema, opening them up to a modern audience. By transferring high culture to low culture, the material has a better chance of survival, or even immortality (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, p.2).However, if a film adaptation strays from the original material it endangers the novels preservation. By changing elements from the original the cultural heritage of the novel is lost, as the cinema’s audience is wider, meaning the memory of the material is more likely to immortalise by the filmmaker’s interpretation, with the original at the risk of being lost. For example, in James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein Boris Karloff plays a grunting, simple minded hideous beast. His head is squashed flat and large bolts stick out of his neck. However, Mary Shelley’s original 1818 Frankenstein depicts a very different monster:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips

 (Shelley, 1818, p. 57)

The contrast between Whale’s and Shelley’s monsters is great. Shelley paints an image of a beautiful creature, only made foul by his eyes and lips, while Whale’s monster is intentionally made to look inhuman; his skin is green and he towers over the other characters. But it is Whale’s interpretation that has become iconic, resulting in all future adaptations taking inspiration from this look. While the film’s monster has become iconic, with a majority of people associating the flattened head and bolted neck with Frankenstein, Shelley’s creation is forgotten. Shelley’s great work lives on in another medium thanks to Whale’s adaptation, reaching more people than it could ever do with just the printed word (Kranz and Mellerski, 2008, p.2), but the details of her creation have been altered so much that the true content is at risk of becoming obsolete.

One of the biggest issues in the fidelity debate regarding film adaptation is the impact on the audience. When a film adaptation strays from the book on which it is based, it runs risk to disappointing, if not angering the original book’s fan base. Peter Staughan, screenwriter of How to Loose Friends and Alienate People and the Oscar winning film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has said that when he was adapting popular books into films he found the thought of disappointing the book’s fans daunting; that some fans were very guarded and fierce about their favourite novels being turned into Hollywood films, that they feared the books they loved would be turned into crass ‘Hollywoodised’ products (Staughan, 2012). And it is no wonder, with 90% of the contributors of my survey saying that they have been disappointed by a film adaptation they have watched. When asked why, 83% said it was due to the film not staying true to the book. Robert Stam, author ofBeyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation, thinks this is due to the film’s image lacking compared to the audience’s imagination, that the audience creates their own ‘mis-en-scene of the novel on the private stage of their mind’ and that when we see a film, we are subjected to someone else’s vision, that falls short to our own (Stam, 2000, p. 54). Reading is a very different experience to watching a film. A reader experiences the novel at their own pace, they have chance to reflect on the story they are being told, where with film the audience are very much lead by the filmmaker, the pace is set for them and often detail is set out more clearly (Secer, 1992, p.14). When an audience member has loved a book and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading said book, the director’s interpretation is unlikely to match the film that has been playing in the reader’s head. The film can never compete with the vivid images of the mind and the audience are left disappointed. In my survey, when asked what changes would be most disappointing when watching a film adaptation, 60% said the characters. Due to the confinements of budget, characters in film adaptation are often cut, or two similar characters, with the same dramatic function are condensed into one (Secer, 1992, pp 2-3), this helps the film stay simple to follow and avoids unnecessary costs. However, for an audience highly anticipating seeing a novel they love on screen, seeing a character they related too missing, could cause distress.



In conclusion, film adaptations that do not stay faithful to the texts they are based on, can turn out to be shallow interpretations of the novels, and do not represent the writer’s original intent. The Grapes of Wrath dilutes the original socialist message of the book, resulting in a censored crowd pleasing film, which does not open up the audience to all of Steinbeck’s ideas. However, it is important to remember thatThe Grapes of Wrath is considered a great film, which is widely celebrated, even though some of the original ideas may be missed out. Unfaithful adaptations also run the risk of eclipsing the novels they are based on, leaving the novel’s heritage at risk, like Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein. However, you could argue that if it were not for the many popular adaptations of the novel, the novel may already be long forgotten, that John Whale’s adaptation has in fact opened the novel up to a larger, newer audience. Infidelity to the novel can also affect the audience, by alienating and disappointing them. However, creating a film that will exactly match every audience member’s expectation is impossible and therefore should perhaps not be attempted, and instead the filmmaker should be encouraged to take risks and create an interpretation rather than an adaptation.

To conclude this dissertation referring to chapter one it is important to remember the importance of film adaptation in the film industry. Film adaptations take up a substantial portion of the films put out every year, with a large percentage going on to win critical acclaim and awards of the highest importance. The question of fidelity is a much discussed subject in regards to film adaptation, with some feeling fidelity must be kept and if not the film is a betrayal of the original text. However, others feel fidelity is in an unimportant issue, that the original texts and the films which are inspired by them should be viewed as separate products that too much concentration on a film’s faithfulness to the book distracts from the film’s creativity.

Referring to chapter three there are apparent negative impacts of infidelity on film adaptation. These include; keeping the heritage of a novel alive, that by changing details of a novel to make a film can risk losing the memory of the novel. An example of this is Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein which received a makeover in its famous adaptation by James Whale. However, this can be compared to Amy Heckerling’sClueless, in which Jane Austen’s 1881 novel Emma received a cultural update in an unfaithful adaptation. In this film the spirit of Emma lives on, while being opened up to a new modern audience. These adaptations through infidelity have reached wider audience’s than they ever would through the written word. Other negatives discussed in chapter three include the issue of censorship. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrathwas told unfaithfully, with a lot of the political ideas muted due to the politics of the movie studio. Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s received the same treatment, due to its risqué content. However, it is important to remember that both these films were very successful and are remembered as great films. Considering this, perhaps it is better to view novels and their film adaptations as not retellings, but interpretations, or perhaps they should not be compared at all, and rather viewed as separate products. Considering Adaptation, American Psycho and The talented Mr Ripley are all unfaithful adaptations; they have all received critical acclaim and have been praised for their creativity. These films suggest that when a filmmaker uses a novel as a jumping off point, rather than a guide that must be followed, truly original and creative films can be made. As was discussed in chapter one, a reader’s relationship with a book is very different to an audience’s relationship with a film. A reader creates ‘their own mis-en-scene’, their own film, and any film adaptation cannot cater to the reader’s expectation. Therefore, trying to recreate this experience with film is impossible and rather than trying to do this, filmmaker’s should take film adaptation as a chance to offer something new to make the most of what a film can bring and a book cannot. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tried so hard to be the book it was based on, that instead of pleasing the audience it was met with disappointment.

One of the biggest issues when discussing film adaptation and fidelity is audience. The survey in chapter three suggests that audiences are disappointed by film adaptations if they stray from the original story. However, if audience’s were to view novels and films as separate products and accept their favourite books will be turned into film interpretations rather than adaptations they would avoid disappointment.

The conclusion to this dissertation is that although there are both negative and positive impacts caused by infidelity, the positive outweigh the negative.


Capote, Truman (1958) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, New York, Random House

Dole, M, Carole (2001) Jane Austen in Hollywood, Austen, Class and the American Market, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

Ferriss, Suzanne (2001) Jane Austen in Hollywood: Emma Becomes Clueless, Kentucky: the University Press of Kentucky.

Geraghty, Christine (2008) Now a Major Motion Picture, Plymouth: Rowan and Littlefield. Pp. 51-57

Kranz, L, David and Mellerski, C, Nancy (2008) In/Fidelity: Essays on Film Adaptation,  Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Mcfarlane, Brian (1996) Novel to Film, An Introduction to the Theory of Film Adaptation, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

O’Sullivan, Charlotte (1999) ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’. In: G. Vincendeau (1999) Film / Literature / Heritage, A Sight and Sound Reader, London: British Film Institute.

Paget, Derek (1999) Trainspotting: Speaking Out. In: D. Cartmell and I. Whelehan (1999) Adaptations from Text to Screen, Screen to Text, London: Routledge. Chapter 10, pp. 128 – 139.

Rayns, Tony (2000) ‘American Psycho’. In: G. Vincendeau (2000) Film / Literature / Heritage, A Sight and Sound Reader, London: British Film Institute, p. 266.

Sallis, James (2012) Drive, Harpeden, No Exit Press

Shelley, Mary (1818) Frankenstein, London, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones

Sonnet, Esther (1999) ‘From Emma to Clueless’. In: D. Cartmell and I. Whelehan (1999) Adaptations from Text to Screen, Screen to Text,London: Routledge. Chapter 5, pp. 51-62


Talks / interviews

Jewell, Will, screenwriter, 10.06.2012, working screenwriter.

Staughan, Peter, screenwriter, 25.10.2012, writer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Weaver, Lois (2012) Jen Harvie in conversation with Lois Weaver, Theatre and Adaptation, Lecture, 08 May 2012, Queen Mary University, London. Violet Myers

Internet sources

Adaptation (2002), Available here: (Accessed on 16.10.2012)

Alice and Wonderland (Accessed 12.10.12)

Awards for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Accessed on 22.10.2012)

‘Awards for The Talented Mr Ripley’ (Accessed 05.10.2012)

‘Box office / business for The Talented Mr Ripley’ (Accessed 05.10.2012)

‘Box Office Mojo’ (Accessed 12.10.12)

Churchwell, Sarah (2009) Breakfast at Tiffany’s: When Audrey Hepburn won Marilyn Monroe’s role. Available: (Accessed on 22.10.2012)

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Connover, Ted (1999) Flower Power, Availible here: (Accessed on 15.10.2012)

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Jordinson, Sam (2010) Guardian book club: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psych. Available: (Accessed on 14.10.2012)

Lambie, Ryan. (2012) 15 Novels Eclipsed by their Movie Adaptations [online] Available at: (Accessed 12.10.12)

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Winterson, Jeannette (2009) Patricia Highsmith, Hiding in Plain Sight. Available: (Accessed on 14.10.2012)


Illustration from Franz Helm’s 16th century manual. Ms. Codex 109. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries, USA.