Fidelity in Film Adaptation

The Situation

A new, highly anticipated feature film adaptation can cause much commotion from professional and self-proclaimed critics. This may be suitable for fodder and small, superficial conversation but in terms of scholastic discourse, fidelity is intrinsically multi-dimensional and delves deeper than trivialities. Many generally are critics and many have commentary about a film-based-on-the-book, naturally; these critiques can be particularly numerous if the book is at least generally well-known or popular. Whether the source novel or book of the film adaptation be canonical, such as Moby Dick or gained popularity solely as a best-seller, a natural tendency is to provide critique. But the wide range of components contributing to the finality of a film—beginning with the primordial contemplation of an idea for an adapted film to the screenplay based on a book, to the casting of talent, to editing, to the theatrical premiere and the expansive everything else in between, what will weigh most heavily is the film's fidelity to the book. In fact, the degree of faithfulness, for much of the movie-going public, will determine the purported quality of the film. Typically, fidelity is commonly judged by comparing the degree of similarity between novel and film yet fidelity defies this simplistic formula of book equals film.

The Term

An official definition of fidelity is appropriate for reasons beyond formalities; it is crucial to know what the word essentially means in order to understand it. According to Chambers 21st Century Dictionary, fidelity is defined as, “1. faithfulness; loyalty or devotion, 2. accuracy in reporting, describing or copying something, 3. precision in sound reproduction.” All three definitions are relevant in the context of film adaptation fidelity, however for the sake of simplifying the high complexities of filmic fidelity, the third definition is redundant since precise sound replication in, for instance a literary character’s Southern drawl in film, can be included in fidelity's second definition of accuracy. Also to note, adaptations to film can be translated from included in fi second definition of accuracy. To note, adaptations to film can also originate from literature other than novels, such as plays, short stories, graphic novels, comic books, and poetry. Conversely, no genre is exclusive to judgments of fidelity.

Great Expectations

As the word fidelity might have already conjured, fidelity undeniably analogous to the characteristics of commitment usual in romantic relationships. When applied to film adaptation, this same fidelity expected in relationships subjects film to rigidly high expectations; unrealistic, unfair and dysfunctional. The level of loyalty congruous in relationships is transfused to the film-based-on-the-book rendering constriction that limits the full fruition of a narrative related via the genre of film. Whether or not the book was read before seeing the film is trivial. The issue at hand is an erroneous similitude of literature and film united by art and separated by media; the presentation of a narration through the use of words surely will differ from the visual presentation of film. A comparison made of words and the materialized images of film maintains that in order to compare, the objects at hand must be different since there is no comparison if items are identical. Therefore, it is not conducive to expect different entities such as film and literature to be the same, hence the expectation for them to function the same is futile. Film and literature are separated by their intrinsic natures, exclusively visual and exclusively literal respectively.

Don’t Cry

Many gripe at film elements such as the choice of talent hired for a film. While an actress may “look” more the part, another actress with fitting talent needed to portray a character obviously trumps the look-alike, especially if the look-alike is only great at looking the part. Physical attributes loyal to the book are elusive since books generally don’t contain photographs or illustrations of characters and therefore do not explicitly define the character's physical attributes. Vehement criticism by some Twilight fans of the female protagonist’s physical looks in the film adaptation is not only vile and disturbing, but it is irrelevant due to the fact that it is impossible for an imagined literary character to become materialized from the imaginations of each Twilight fanatic. Of course, the imagination is guided by author description but one fan’s imagined Bella will certainly differ from another’s.

It is completely possible that a film adaptation be likeable while the book it is based from be also likeable (granted, likability is arbitrary). The filmic version is, rather than deviation, a sort of tribute-- some element in the literary work inspired reinterpretation. The many common conversations regarding books and their adapted movies fail at engaging in intellectual discourse. Fiercely defending why or how a movie was “worse than the book” because it was not faithful squanders the possibility of analyzing the art and aesthetics of the adaptation. Experiencing the retelling of a literary personal favorite in filmic form could very well be pleasant and amusing if fundamentalist faithfulness does not become the focus.

An Academic Take

In my essay, “The Realist Allegory of a Clansman, a Nation and a Gate“, I further explore the concept of fidelity with the help of an expert and attempt at explaining why fidelity is so passionate, awkward and misplaced:

"Robert Stam discusses the complexities and dissatisfactions associated with fidelity, but asks the question, 'fidelity to what' (Naremore, Film Adaptation 57). What from the plethora of possible themes, motives, and components of a film, even just the mere mise-en-scene, should be faithful? The concept of fidelity is a commitment akin to a committed relationship in which fidelity is expected—this is a logical explanation to why the word 'infidelity' is a label regularly used by some in the aftereffect of seeing a film adaptation. The intimacy felt from a book, a tangible inanimate object that has no choice in terms of whom it wants to open up to, is secured in a sort of sacred place in the mind, soul or heart due to the fondness and intimate attachment to the book. Once the adapted version, seen by the individual in love with the book, presents an alternative translation of the book, the reader cries blasphemy. The overt protection of an inanimate object reveals the power of the written word. This inanimate object is merely paper, easily ripped, burned, soiled but it represents such potential of attraction, that at times the attraction becomes obsessive (not fatal because the paradox of loving to hate the movie will not end and therefore the filmic life of the adaptation is not threatened) and does not welcome other ideas or translations of the book."

Fidelity is not just a malpractice committed by status quo. Dogmatically, the study of film adaptation and fidelity is relatively new. Scholars of literature have pondered the case of fidelity. As George Raitt notes in “Still Lusting After Fidelity?”, fidelity is still an issue for scholars-- “it is common too for commentators to be criticized for purporting to eschew fidelity as a criterion of value but implicitly adopting it as a concept underpinning their approaches to screen adaptation (see for example Van Parys's review [4] of the recent book by Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and Its Discontents). There are numerous manifestations of 'fidelity' in the discourse on screen adaptation. The questions I consider in this article are 'Why does 'fidelity' refuse to go away?' and 'Is there another factor, masked by 'fidelity,' that can usefully be studied?'" Here, the dynamics of fidelity are described in terms of it possessing a strong facade which underneath reveals a concept of adaptation. The clip below reveals decisions of pragmatic application theoretical thus far. Not scholarly theory but actual application and practice is briefly discussed by an author briefly elaborating upon choices made or foregone in a film adaptation.

In Conclusion

The material representation of a writer’s creation is the book while the equivalent in film is the screenwriter’s screenplay. Screenplays contain dialogue and direction for camera timing and movement, and are not the medium appropriate for capturing prototypical literary abstractions such as the inner thoughts of characters. Once the screenwriter has adapted the literature, the director further contributes their own individual vision and style that affects mise-en-scene, wardrobe, the duration of shots, proxemics and provides actors with perspective—this is all for the sake of creating a visual and aural version of a book that has been unpacked and artistically reinterpreted. To miss the artistry of film adaptation is to miss out on appreciating art already found within the existing art form of film; a sure treat for the senses and cultural proclivity. Coincidentally, this does not dismiss how much artistic expression is affected by cost and revenue, inevitably part of the artistic expression since without financiers, there will be no money to produce movies, yet this does not render film artistry inimical. With the significant amount of films translated from literature, adaptation will continue to be a major factor in movie making. Nonetheless, fidelity should take a symbolic back seat in the vehicle of adaptation to allow as much freedom of artistic impression and appreciation as possible.