Jersey Reflections: Literary Adaptations

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Fitting characters and plot into a newer or different era has been done with varying degrees of success.

Universality, that literary tradition of capturing the traits, foibles and exploits of people in storytelling without directly pointing a finger at any specific individual, certainly has its ups and downs. Its most flattering feature is the ability to transcend its time period and serve future generations of readers and playgoers. Its flaw is that it invites those who adapt it to fit its characters and situations into the current political and social climate with varying degrees of success.

There’s a reason why universal works are written that way—they are meant to present a timeless representation of humanity using the era in which each is created as a platform to inform, educate and elicit thought and debate. Writers engaging in this form have been careful not to confront current issues but to examine how those issues have precedent in history.

Shakespeare used English history to study the British monarchy and reworked existing literature to dissect the human condition. He didn’t launch an assault on Queen Elizabeth or her successor James I, partly because, as the old adage has it, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, but also because there was plenty of material, both fictional and historical, that paralleled any concerns he may have had with those rulers.

The list of examples is long. The 20th-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht used historical settings to convey his political outlooks. Norway’s dramatist Henrik Ibsen saw fit to tackle corruption, women’s rights and other matters that were not exclusive to his country during the 19th century. The ancient Greek scribes posed serious questions about life through well-known tales and characters. And so on.

But what happens when later writers and directors desire to make a work specific to their time? The resulting adaptation, whether it succeeds or fails, tends to neutralize the very universality that allowed for the adaptation.

For instance, take Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and its study of the events leading to the title character’s assassination and its aftermath. In the original, the drama can be seen as a meditation on conscience and power. But, beginning in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it has become commonplace to use the play to depict a real-life figure of the time. According to Professor A.J. Hartley, Shakespeare Studies Chair at the University of Carolina at Charlotte, the reason for this is “to create a recognizable political world within the production. And often people in the title role itself look like or feel like somebody either in recent or current politics.”

A New York staging of the play in 1937 by Orson Welles depicted ancient Rome as a modern-day fascist regime that more than hinted at Nazi Germany. Welles costumed his cast in an array of black outfits, gold buttons, and fedoras to produce what his biographer Frank Brady calls a “gangster-like” effect. But recent productions of Julius Caesar have become more specific and hit closer to home by casting the title character to represent Presidents Obama and Trump.

Time will determine the historical import of these recent presentations, but if previous renderings of Shakespeare can be used to gauge the likelihood of their longevity (the forgotten MacBird, a 1960s take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth that focused on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, comes to mind), these renditions don’t have a chance.

If making things recognizable is a primary concern in adaptation, the lifespan of what results from it will be limited. We need look no further than to the related field of cinema and the short-lived colorization fad that infiltrated it during the 1980s. Media mogul Ted Turner’s mission to colorize the early black-and-white theatrical films that made up his extensive library was, in essence, an attempt at adaptation, its purpose to provide moviegoers of the late 20th century with what they were used to—color films. (Historical implications aside, there are a different set of aesthetics in shooting black-and-white movies that colorizing destroys.)

Turner eventually relented, stopping short of blasphemy by discarding plans to colorize Citizen Kane. His doctored films have disappeared, but the process still lurks. The recent Peter Jackson documentary about World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old, colorizes historical footage of the period to render the material more palatable for modern audiences. And like those universal works of old, it will no doubt elicit plenty of debate.

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