Adaptation: plus and minus

That plus or minus in the title is a less controversial way of phrasing something that came up among friends recently.  Someone was asking why people make adaptations: meaning, the kind they dislike of course.

There is always going to be a part of the audience sitting there boiling over because they don’t like what you’ve done to “their” song (….or play or book).  Too bad.  One can’t write without putting some noses out of joint somewhere, especially when we’re talking about noses so high in the air as to always get wind of something foul.  I lament their misery, particularly because it brings me down.

Speaking of misery, the film of Les Miserables was bound to raise hackles.  Whenever a well-loved work is translated or adapted into a new medium –and we could be speaking of the translation of Hugo’s 1862 novel into English, the subsequent creation of a musical play for the stage in French (1980), then into English (1985), or the creation of the film that has just come out—there are trade-offs.  Without naming names, the hackles in question belong to music – theatre fundamentalists of my acquaintance rather than literary loyalists.

Look at these two examples, and consider what’s at work.  In most adaptations we’re looking at dimensions, questions of how big, how long, how wide, how deep.  When you go from one medium to another –say from stage to screen—you have to make trade-offs, usually sacrificing or losing something in the process.  Stages are inflexible places, where the people have to come in and fill the available acreage, and so we’ll get something that aims to be spacious and momentous, expected to hold our attention entirely.  On screen, we can sometimes be massive and court the infinite, and then be more intimate. Softness becomes a necessity when our screen stars are commodities who don’t have the vocal skills of their theatrical brethren.  How far does cuteness take you?

Let’s compare, and try not to judge, so much as to appreciate.  Each one has its advantages, its strengths.  First let’s look at something live.

Notice how this version from stage doesn’t really need to be sung, as speech and barking work just fine.  Given how much is often going on, it’s usually harder to understand the text in live theatre, even when the actor enunciates carefully, whereas in the cinema one can fix everything nice and neat and tidy (after the fact).

Sacha Baron Cohen is never as big or as extroverted as a stage performance, missing all that gnarly character we usually see in performances of this song. It’s all intimate & close, aka “cinematic”.  But of course Cohen’s fame can at least help sell the film.

Someday i’ll go see Les Mis in a movie theatre. The question comes to mind because just yesterday I was listening to and comparing versions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a very loose operatic handling of some of Vergil’s epic.  I can’t help noticing that loyalties depend on exposure. No one seems particularly concerned about the ways a classical poem was changed for the opera.  The concerns always seem to come up when someone who is attached to a particular version is somehow offended by a new rendition.

I am going to make a bunch of generalizations, loosely equating a large class of activities, not because they are really the same, so much as because the similarities open up possibilities.  I don’t believe anyone would object to the translation of a novel into a new language even if we lose some of the subtleties of the original when we render the prose into another language.  I read a part of Hugo’s novel long ago when I was in school.  I enjoyed it, but I was reading the novel in English translation.  Without the translation it’s unlikely I would have undertaken it in French: something I’ve only begun to do as an adult, and normally for scholarly purposes (eg essays and books about opera) rather than for pleasure.

We have laws in Ontario whereby technology is supposed to be adapted for those who are not readily able to access materials.  In changing the way a powerpoint presentation or a webpage is assembled, the content is made available to people who would otherwise be excluded.

Ferruccio Busoni

I believe adaptations can work the same way.  But please don’t view this through the pejorative lens of ability & disability, particularly when we all have sensory preferences.  Some of us are visual learners, some of us are more verbal (or verbose), and many other tendencies I could name.  Some of us can’t sit still, others are happiest cradling a book. For some people, a novel is the ideal, but for others, their cognitive style favours other ways of assembling the content.

Instead of looking at the adaptation of Hugo’s massive work in other large-scale works, let’s instead consider something smaller.  I’d like to look at two transcriptions of a work for solo violin, namely Bach’s Chaconne in D minor.  I don’t play the violin nor do I encounter solo violin music in concerts very often, although youtube has substantially changed those rules.  Here’s the original. 

I have encountered two very different piano transcriptions of Bach’s violin work.  One is as spare in its way as the original, namely Johannes Brahms’ transcription for the left hand.  It’s much harder than it looks. 

Another approach is to let the Bach composition be a kind of template for a transcription for solo piano that employs both hands and many more notes; that’s what you find in this other transcription by the virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni.

Each (Brahms and Busoni) are marvellous in their own way, as is Bach’s original.  I can’t decide which I prefer, only that I need all three compositions to exist, that each in its way enables my appreciation of the other.  It’s a lot of fun to play one after the other (usually Brahms first followed by Busoni)…i don’t play the violin.

No, not everyone is a Brahms or a Busoni. But everytime we look at the world we’re paraphrasing, trying to make sense of some portion of what we understand.  As you can probably tell, i believe adaptations-transcripions-paraphrases are quintessentially human behaviour.  You’ve heard that phrase “adapt or die”?  To adapt, to paraphrase, to re-assemble what you see is to be alive.

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