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Literary Adaptation

British cinema's lifelong love affair with literature

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The first short one-shot films demonstrated by the Lumière brothers in 1895 were necessarily simple records of actual events. They were essentially moving photographs: a train arriving at a station, workers leaving a factory. But as filmmakers developed the process of linking shots together, it became evident that film had a great potential as a medium of storytelling. It was at that point that they began turning to literature and the theatre for subjects.

At first, there was little attempt to adapt in its entirety a work of fiction or drama. Thus, Biograph's adaptation of King John (1899), the first known screen Shakespeare, strung together a few unconnected scenes without developing a continuous narrative. The pleasure for the audience lay in witnessing a favourite scene from a popular work 'brought to life' (around the same time, 'living tableaux' - moving renditions of celebrated paintings - were briefly popular).

As the cinema matured, adaptations - of new and lesser-known works as well as popular or classic ones - remained a major source of film stories. In Britain, where a certain snobbery about the new medium proved harder to shake off than elsewhere, the screen has had a lifelong fascination with the page. Filmmakers are readers too, and a literary heritage that produced Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and so many others provides a great deal of inspiration.

Shakespeare has inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds of films over the years. Laurence Olivier's remarkable Henry V (1945) highlighted the play's propaganda value; he followed with adaptations of Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). More recently Henry V was revived by Kenneth Branagh (1989), who went on to international co-productions of Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996) and Love's Labour's Lost (1999).

With rare exceptions - Alex Cox's The Revenger's Tragedy (2003, from Middleton), Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991, from Marlowe) - interest in other playwrights from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras has been thin. 19th/20th century theatre has fared better, however. Pygmalion (1938) began a lengthy partnership between George Bernard Shaw and producer Gabriel Pascal. Terence Rattigan alternated between writing for the stage and the screen - chiefly with Anthony Asquith, who directed ten Rattigan works, including The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).

Oscar Wilde's plays have all been adapted - Fred Paul's silent Lady Windermere's Fan (1916) and Anthony Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) stand out, but in recent years young director Oliver Parker has offered adaptations of An Ideal Husband (1999) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002).

Foremost among numerous screen versions of Charles Dickens are David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948); other noteworthy attempts include Nicholas Nickleby (1947), A Tale of Two Cities (1958), A Christmas Carol (as Scrooge, 1951), Oliver! (1960) and a massive two-part Little Dorrit (1987).

Others writers have had a less enduring appeal. Hall Caine - at the turn of the 20th century considered 'Britain's greatest living novelist' and a worthy successor to Dickens - was widely adapted in the 1910s and '20s; marketing for Alfred Hitchcock's The Manxman (1929) featured Caine's name more prominently than Hitchcock's own. But interest in Caine's work dropped off abruptly in the 1930s, and he is all but forgotten today.

Of course, it's not just the classics which have been adapted. 'Penny dreadfuls' - cheap novels with sensational themes - have inspired dozens of B-movies and 'quota quickies', while popular genre fiction, with its pacy, exciting stories, has been particularly well-suited to the screen. Agatha Christie's has remained popular, particularly her detectives Miss Marple - memorably incarnated by Margaret Rutherford - and Hercule Poirot - brought to life by Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov (three times). Other favoured authors have included Ian Fleming, whose James Bond character has inspired no less than 20 films (outnumbering Fleming's own novels), Arthur Conan Doyle - countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations, including three silent serials (1921-23) - Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu character was the subject of two serials in the 1920s and was revived in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), and John Buchan, whose The 39 Steps was adapted three times, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock (1935).

Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) was based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, and Conrad's rich body of work has often been filmed, notably in Outcast of the Islands (1951), Lord Jim (1964), The Duellists (1977) and Victory (1997), although arguably more famous today is Apocalypse Now (US, 1979), a radical interpretation of Heart of Darkness.

Perhaps the most cinematic 20th Century writer has been Graham Greene, the source of Brighton Rock (1947), the masterly The Third Man (1949) and countless others. George Orwell, by contrast, has seen only three significant films of his work - an animated Animal Farm (1954) and two versions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1956 and, appropriately, 1984.

In the 1930s Alexander Korda adapted novels by Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Wallace and A.E.W. Mason for a series of films championing the British empire, all directed by his brother, Zoltan - Sanders of the River (1935), Elephant Boy (d. Robert Flaherty/Zoltan Korda, 1937), The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939). Much later, Zoltan, long embarrassed by these gung-ho celebrations, offered as an apology adaptation of Alan Paton's liberal attack on South Africa's apartheid regime, Cry, the Beloved Country (1952).

In the late 1950s and early '60s, the filmmakers of the British New Wave turned to the 'angry young men' (and women) of literature and the theatre - novelists like John Braine and Alan Sillitoe and playwrights like John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney - in their efforts to bring a fresher perspective to the screen, one that acknowledged modern working-class realities. The first two films to emerge from the partnership between Osborne and director Tony Richardson were adaptations of Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), but they also turned to classic literature, with an Oscar-winning version of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1967).

During the same period, Hammer studios revived interest in Britain's gothic tradition, with lively versions of Mary Shelley (The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957) and Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1958), each of which inspired sequels.

While Hammer, at least at first, brought new vigour to its adaptations, British filmmakers have often been accused of failing to do justice to the more passionate works from the literary canon, like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (adapted in 1920, 1970 and 1992). Arguably the most satisfying screen rendition of Thomas Hardy's fiction is Roman Polanski's Tess (France/UK, 1979), although Michael Winterbottom has directed a creditable adaptation of Jude the Obscure (Jude, 1996) and, in The Claim (2001), imaginatively transposed The Mayor of Casterbridge to 1890s California. Other efforts include John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). One director who couldn't be accused of lacking passion is Ken Russell, who has tackled D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1969), The Rainbow (1989) and, for television, Lady Chatterley's Lover (as Lady Chatterley, BBC, 1993), in versions that, to say the least, are not to all tastes.

In the 1980s and early '90s, the adaptation of classic novels became a virtual industry in itself, not least because it became clear that the films struck a chord with American audiences. At the forefront of this wave was the director/producer partnership of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, who, with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, dedicated themselves to a series of highly polished adaptations, notably of Henry James - The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984), The Golden Bowl (2000) - and E.M. Forster - A Room With a View (1986), Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992). David Lean kicked off the Forster boom with his A Passage to India (1984), and Charles Sturridge also contributed with Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991). Henry James remains a popular source for filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, with other British adaptations including The Wings of the Dove (1997)

The same period saw a wave of interest in Jane Austen, with every one of her novels adapted for either film or television - sometimes both - between 1983 and 1998. 1995 alone saw Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (US), as well as Clueless (US), an inventive Hollywood update of Emma, relocating the story in a modern California high school. A rather more faithful British adaptation (Emma) appeared the following year.

Classic adaptations remain popular today, although contemporary writers are also getting a look in. Among the most successful are Nick Hornby - Fever Pitch (1996), High Fidelity (US/UK, 2000) and About a Boy (US/UK, 2002) - Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones' Diary, 2001), and J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have become the predominant screen franchise of recent years.

Mark Duguid

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