Making for a Happy Medium

While it should be self-evident that different media allow for different kinds of storytelling and different forms of expression, it’s good to be reminded of this in enjoyable ways in this Age of Adaptation, where so many films, TV series, games are adaptations of material in other media. Last week I saw the London production of Gypsy, which was brilliant, startling – and a great example of a story that works best on stage. We’d previously seen the ’60s film version of Gypsy, which works well in its own right, but it’s on the stage that the story came truly alive.

Gypsy

A lot of this is due to the musical’s story and setting: Gypsy is about Rose Hovick, a mother pushing her daughters onto any podunk stage she can find so they can become the stars she desperately wanted to be herself. Throughout the performance, we, the audience, are doubled: we applaud the actors, but we’re also serving as the audience within the play, clapping as Baby June squeaks her way through a corny vaudeville number and squirming as Louise, the later Gypsy Rose Lee, is pushed onto a burlesque stage but is reborn in front of our eyes. Throughout the performance, the audience’s two roles usually overlap, though sometimes there’s an intriguing tension between them: we cheer for Imelda Staunton’s grandiose performance, while we also feel chills as Rose bullies the people around her, utterly unaware of what a monster she’s become.

That particular effect isn’t there in the film version, because we’re removed from the production. There aren’t any cracks in the fourth wall: the applause isn’t ours, June and Louise don’t perform for us but for an anonymous camera. The story still works, the performances are still good (if in a more mannered, ’60s way) but it lacks an extra dimension. It doesn’t have the blurred edges that intrigue and irritate us when we see Gypsy on stage. It’s not just that the story is set in the world of the stage, it’s that the musical cleverly plays with this. I don’t regret having seen the film, but Gypsy is essentially a work to be performed on the stage.

Atonement

A lot of movie adaptations may not have that problem, because they are based on works that, while ideally they may tell a story, aren’t particularly interested in what makes a novel essentially novelistic or how a comic book differs from other media. Obviously what makes for a good book doesn’t necessarily translate directly onto film, but this in itself is not the same as embracing the storytelling possibilities of a medium and making something that needs its chosen medium both structurally and thematically. Take something like Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, though: it’s a perfectly serviceable adaptation, well acted and filmed, and it was rightly praised for the craft that went into it – yet it is incomplete in a way that even the best craft couldn’t prevent. Atonement‘s story is fundamentally about writing fiction. Its central character, Briony, wants to be a writer, but she also sets about writing the lives of the people around her in more ways than one. The typewriter sound effects on the film’s soundtrack may remind us of this theme, but they are no substitute for a particular quality of the written word: written fiction is more subtly treacherous, its ontological status is never fully determined – and as we read fiction, we become the narrator’s accomplices, co-creating the world and characters of the story. When in the film version we realise that the second half has been Briony’s attempt at atonement, rewriting the fates of characters whose suffering she has caused, we feel that the film has lied to us, because we are shown events as facts. In the novel, we’ve been complicit in spinning the lie alongside Briony. (The Usual Suspects‘ plot is very different, but it presents a similar theme in a more specifically cinematic form.) The film does a perfectly okay job of representing these things on the screen, but it can’t help doing so less effectively than Briony’s chosen medium.

Watchmen

There are other examples where adaptations from one medium into another lose something in the process. Zack Snyder’s film version of Alan Moore’s Watchmen has its strengths and weaknesses, but it drops a lot that is specific to the comic format (and no, Zack, framing isn’t all a comic can do) and doesn’t replace it with a real cinematic equivalent. This doesn’t mean it’s a failure – if it is, it is so for other reasons – but it loses an entire dimension of the original that is due to the medium in which Moore chose to tell his story. Arguably this is also why so many film adaptations of video games are bland at best but more often downright terrible: one of the integral qualities of games is that they are interactive, and there is no equivalent to this in many other media. As such, the frequent calls (though less frequent these days, thank god) for video games’ Citizen Kane are fundamentally misguided: you may just as well call for the Tetris of movies.

I’d be very interested in hearing our readers’ views on stories in particular media that couldn’t exist in other media without losing something essential. Comments and discussion are welcome!

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