If you’ve visited the Astor recently you might have seen a promotional short that we’ve become particularly enamoured with. It’s an original 1940 trailer for The Grapes of Wrath and it’s a bizarre Frankenstein of stylistic elements: old-fashioned news bulletin, corporate advertisement and (lastly) traditional movie trailer. A bellowing, transatlantic voice talks about the national fervour for John Steinbeck’s novel, evidenced by short fictionalised scenes of harried librarians and booksellers, who insist they “can’t supply the demand!”. The narrator then takes a Variety magazine style detour, offering an apparent peak behind the Hollywood curtain as “producers vie for the motion picture rights,” and rumours spread that no studio will have the guts to make it. By the time we get to the end of his grand narrative the narrator tells us that “at last The Grapes of Wrath is ready for the screen, as the motion picture captures all the drama, suspense, action, tears and laughter of the story that stirred a nation.”
It’s an ad more concerned with The Grapes of Wrath as a literary phenomenon than the story that “stirred a nation”. The word “adapt” is never once used, nor is any other word that might suggest that the movie will exist as a separate entity from the book. Instead we’re told that it’s 20th Century Fox who has the guts to “capture” the novel in film form. It’s a simultaneously romantic and reductive view of adaptation, one that assumes it to be a two step process:
One: Cast the right actors “to make John Steinbeck’s characters come to life.”
Two: Point the camera at them as they perform the book.
In fact adaptation is a complex artistic endeavour that forces filmmakers to stand uncomfortably at the nexus of authorial intent, audience expectations and personal artistic vision. It’s a weird crossroads where the directors of the Harry Potter series were picked up for every minor deviation from canon, whereas Stanley Kubrick’s beloved version of The Shining played so fast and loose with its source novel that Stephen King remade it as a much more faithful (and far less beloved) miniseries.
Some directors use the novel as a jumping off point, like Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Under the Skin, which seemed to use the bestselling book’s blurb and little else to craft one of the most singular science fiction films in recent years. Staying in the arthouse-director-adaptating-modern-literature zone, Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly felt so attached to the source material for Inherent Vice that he wrote out the entire novel in screenplay form, before arduously whittling it down to feature film size.
Each form has its strengths and weaknesses. A good adaption uses the strength of its medium to tell the story. Whether it be the sensual score of Drive or the unusual casting of Cloud Atlas, there are tools that directors have at their disposal that novelists don’t.
Peter Jackson used his considerable talent to create a Middle Earth that was rich with vivid details familiar to J.R.R. Tolkien readers. The Lord of the Rings’ success was grounded in the respectful and considered use of Tolkien’s original work. But to believe that it’s the adaptation’s role to slavishly imitate its source material is to wish to live in a world without Gene Wilder’s Pure Imagination.
Which, let’s be honest, is unimaginable.
The Astor Theatre will be playing The Grapes of Wrath in a double bill with How Green Was My Valley on Sunday 17th April.