3 The adaptation technique
Due to the different characteristics of the written and visual media, adapting literary works for the cinema poses many theoretical as well as technical problems. The most obvious evidence of this fact is the frequency of complaints about unsuccessful adaptations. In this short introduction, I will outline some of the problems concerning the adaptation of prose works and stage plays for the screen.
One of the most basic problems of adaptation is the necessity to leave out parts of the literary material and, on the other hand, to fill the gaps that the author has left to the reader's imagination. Since commercial films rarely exceed the limit of two-and-a-half hours, it becomes necessary to leave out scenes or whole subplots when the literary work is very long. Here, the films East of Eden and Gone with the Wind, based on novels by John Steinbeck and Margaret Mitchell respectively, may serve as examples. Very often screenwriters leave out secondary parts, because introducing too many characters in a film may lead to confusion. In a novel, the author always has time and space to explain any points that might be unclear or vague, because he is not restricted by temporal and financial limits like a film director. In the cinema, it is often better to leave out some elements completely than to introduce them without any subsequent development.
Only on the surface does it seem that the adaptation of stage plays is easier than that of novels. It is true that the time extensions of a stage play and a film are roughly the same today (as opposed to the first silent films, which lasted no more than ten to twenty minutes), but there are other factors that make the task of adapting plays a difficult one. One of those factors is the static point of view of the theatre spectator. The action usually takes place in a very restricted area; in the theatre, it is difficult to show a journey or a landscape, or the opposite -- a detail, especially the hands and faces of the actors. The theatre director has no means of focussing the audience's attention on a chosen element on stage, although to a certain degree this can be achieved with lighting effects. Film, on the other hand, has the capacity to overcome the confines of the proscenium and eliminate the constancy of distance between performer and spectator. Thus, the film director is virtually compelled to move the camera, and use different angles and distances; otherwise, the film would make a dull and artificial, "theatrical" impression. Very often, especially in the case of classic or celebrated plays, too great a reverence for the literary material has led to the production of dull and heavily theatrical films.
Moreover, on screen there is a need to concretise every detail of the setting. In a play, the stage directions may speak of "chairs and benches" (Play, 35) that are to represent an opera house, and the audience will be able and willing to imagine an eighteenth-century theatre. In a film, the director would either need a real theatre or an expensive studio set, because the cinematic conventions would not allow him a bare, symbolic representation of it. In this case, the screenwriter (and/or production designer) has to decide upon a number of issues, for example: how big is the theatre? how is it built? how many people are sitting in the auditorium? what kind of people are they? what are they wearing? how is the theatre lit? and so on. Consequently, the success of an adaptation depends significantly on "the degree of realism in the source drama and the resulting picture" (Gianakaris 1985, 86).
Furthermore, the film medium requires a fundamental transition from verbal to visual effects and a much greater economy on the textual level. Thus, the text of the drama often has to be reduced in amount as well as in expressiveness. The result is a gap that must be filled with visual means of expression; it is not at all sufficient to concretise the setting. It is here that many adaptations fail to convey the play's essence due to a slavish fidelity to the dramatic text. A good screenwriter should not hesitate to reduce a long monologue to one fierce look, or a dialogue to an emotional gesture, if the conveyed message remains unchanged. A very good example of this technique is the final scene of Act I of Amadeus. On stage, Salieri recites a long monologue in which he curses God and makes an oath to destroy Mozart. In the film, his speech is much shortened, but while he is swearing revenge, he looks up at the wooden cross on the wall, then takes it off, and throws it into the fireplace where it lies burning brightly. This is a powerful image, and it manages to replace the original monologue more than adequately. In other cases, it is often difficult to convey the thoughts or feelings of the characters without words, using only visual means of expression. But after all, this difficulty is a challenge for the ambitious screenwriter or director and therein lies the particular attraction of film adaptations.
An important consideration to make concerning the adaptation of stage plays for the screen is their commercial aspect. Since the cost of producing a film is enormous -- the cost of filming Amadeus amounted to 18 million US dollars (cf. Plunka, 26) -- the producer works under strong financial pressure. He has to ensure that the film is successful with the audience and makes a profit, or that it at least covers its costs. Therefore, the director must consider that the cinema audience is much larger and, as a rule, less sophisticated than theatregoers. Consequently, commercial films are often adapted according to the current taste of the mass audience. For example, many early films had to have a happy ending or could not show nudity. Today, special effects and action scenes are often expected. Of course, this does not apply to all adaptations, but it is the general tendency of commercial cinema.
In summary, one can say that the adaptation of theatre works for the screen is a difficult task, because "motion pictures are primarily [...] a visual medium; theatre is primarily [...] verbal, hence largely metaphoric" (Gianakaris 1985, 85f). Still, with a mixture of talent, experience, and the courage to depart from the original text it is possible to create outstanding works that convey the same message as the original play. In this way, cinema becomes the modern extension of theatre.