Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era

Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era

by Guerric DeBona Osb

In this exceptional contribution to literary adaptation studies, Guerric DeBona shifts the focus away from determining a film's allegiance to the original source and redirects the conversation to the industrial choices, audience responses, and socio-cultural factors that contribute to the construction of the cinematic text.

Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio


In this exceptional contribution to literary adaptation studies, Guerric DeBona shifts the focus away from determining a film's allegiance to the original source and redirects the conversation to the industrial choices, audience responses, and socio-cultural factors that contribute to the construction of the cinematic text.

Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era analyzes the intertextuality, cultural value, and authorship of four films from the 1920s to the 1950s based on canonical British and American novels. This unique methodological alternative to formalist "fidelity" approaches to literary adaptations blends archival research with DeBona's own deft and culturally rich interpretations of David Copperfield (1935), Heart of Darkness (1939), The Long Voyage Home (1940), and The Red Badge of Courage (1951).

Emphasizing the historical and cultural contexts as well as political and economic filmmaking decisions, DeBona reveals how high-minded source material from literary luminaries Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Eugene O'Neill, and Stephen Crane did not necessarily translate to prestigious or credible films during the studio era. He also considers how such films led to a new set of industry standards and audience expectations in film after World War II. Through this hermeneutic and historical approach, DeBona argues that the films are examples of what French film critic André Bazin termed "mixed cinema," and not solely the transformation of one work of art to another medium.

Building on the work of mid-twentieth-century French auteurs from Cahiers du Cinéma and incorporating contemporary film criticism, DeBona presents a fully realized methodological alternative to the formalist approach of "fidelity critics" and conclusively demonstrates the importance of historical context to adaptation studies.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Guerric DeBona's new book makes a powerful case that film adaptations are shaped as much by contextual forces as by their literary forbears. Once it is as widely read as it deserves to be, adaptation studies will never be the same.”—Thomas Leitch, author of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ


Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era



Copyright © 2010 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07737-1

Chapter One

Is There a Novel in This Film? or The Cultural Politics of Film Adaptation

Fidelity is here the temperamental affinity between film-maker and novelist, a deeply sympathetic understanding. instead of presenting itself as a substitute, the film is intended to take its place along side the book—to make a pair with it, like twin stars. This assumption, applicable only where there is genius, does not exclude the possibility that the film is a greater achievement than its literary model, as is the case of Renoir's The River. —André Bazin, "the Stylistics of robert Bresson," in What is Cinema? Volume 1

Readers of this book will quickly observe that over the last dozen years or so, adaptation studies has traversed a deep sea of formalist literary critics—or what Thomas Leitch has called "the backwaters of the academy"— and landed on the brighter shores of a discipline informed by cultural studies, reception theory, and film history. As Leitch points out, the pioneering work of critics such as Brian McFarlane, James Naremore, and Robert Stam has laid the groundwork for a shift from a field previously dominated by "fidelity criticism," but that now gestures toward a new generation of investigations of films and their literary precursor texts. Adaptation studies, previously referred to as "novel into film" and originating from George Bluestone's 1957 monograph on the topic, have a long legacy in the academy and, for a variety of reasons, will undoubtedly persist in some form both inside and outside the academy. The current study, however, desires to enter more deeply into the new geography of literary adaptation by exploring this territory through the lens of cultural politics; it will do so by interrogating Hollywood's use of canonical British and American fiction during the studio era.

As I will discuss shortly, my work continues an evolving conversation on adaptation that has emerged in the last dozen years or so. This newer writing on the fate of the "novel into film," or what might be called revisionist adaptation studies, specifically concerns itself with industrial choices, audience reception, and the sociocultural environment contributing to the construction of the cinematic text. At the same time, the present investigation proceeds through case studies, historicizing the particular details of the film as a culture-text, a coordinate that is often absent even from recent adaptation literature. Indeed, we know that for the first decade of the sound era, Hollywood was an intrepid user of classical literary texts, due to numerous factors. But these industry interests would soon be displaced by a different set of audience expectations and material circumstances occurring after the Second World War. My investigation of MGM's nostalgic version of David Copperfield during the Great Depression, Orson Welles's use of a high-modernist author, Joseph Conrad, at the end of the 1930s for his first screenplay, John Ford's retexting of Eugene O'Neill's sea plays as a kind of middle-class art cinema, and John Huston's reinvention of Stephen Crane as an anti–cold war narrative in the midst of the American involvement in Korea begin to suggest what I will call "the politics of redeployment," or what André Bazin envisioned more than fifty years ago as adaptation as "mixed cinema."

For the nascent field of film adaptation studies emerging from English departments in American universities in the 1950s2 and often ancillary to the close reading of texts already practiced by the New Critics after the Second World War, the answer to the question "Is there a novel in this film?" was this: "Yes; and we are going to find what's left of its essential literary character after the adaptation." Adaptation critics in those days must have viewed themselves as something like rescue workers sifting through what was left of a museum after it was hit by a great roaring tempest of mass culture: they had to sort through and pick up the well-known fragments in an effort to salvage what was left of precious cultural artifacts—the canonical author, the established text, the essential meaning of the literary source. As Linda Hutcheon has recently remarked, most of the discourse on adaptation is framed "in negative terms of loss." Not surprisingly, such salvage sifting seems to go nowhere. Fidelity criticism—which Dudley Andrew has referred to as "the most frequent and tiresome discussion of adaptation"—has had its variants, ranging from art historian E. H. Gombrich's discussion of the possibility of "matching" texts to narratologist Keith Cohen's semiotics of exchange. 4 Indeed, studies that "are organized around the question of whether or not a given film is better than the book on which it is based or whether its changes were dictated by concessions to a mass audience or expressions of changing cultural mores may be accomplished and persuasive in advancing their claims about the adaptation at hand, but they are unlikely to play a leading role in advancing adaptation studies as it struggles to emerge from the disciplinary umbrella of film studies and the still more tenacious grip of literary studies."

Much of the present conversation about "novel into film" may be traced to the ivy-covered walls of American literary academia on the one hand, and mid-twentieth-century Paris and the brash editorial desks of the auteurists at Cahiers du Cinéma on the other. In his influential essay assessing the current state of writing on adaptation, James Naremore says that the discussion tends to move back and forth between two groups, both guided by a dominant metaphor. "The Bluestone approach relies on an implicit metaphor of translation, which governs all investigations of how codes move across sign systems. Writing in this category usually deals with the concept of literary versus cinematic form, and it pays close attention to the problem of textual fidelity in order to identify the specific formal capabilities of the media." Fidelity would become the litmus test of establishing a transparent translation between novel and film, or, more to the point, collapsing film into a literary category, a touchstone that would galvanize the interest of the academy's literati from the first glimmer of interest in the newly emerging writing on film adaptation. When discussing the adaptation of Madame Bovary, for instance, Bluestone says that the film "falters because it fails to pick up an author's obvious use of spatial elements, fails to rethink the novel in plastic form." Based on this premise, the adaptation is only successful insofar as the film mirrors the literary quality of the source text. Bluestone's favorite metaphor is that the adaptive (filmic) text is "parasitic" on the (literary) source text. "As long as the cinema remains as omnivorous as it is for story material," Bluestone writes in his closing chapter, "its dependence on literature will continue." Not coincidentally, Bluestone's analysis of film adaptation praises works that approach a literary cinema, when he adapts the "organic novel" into "a kind of paraphrase of the novel." For Bluestone, visual and technical (and performance) innovations in film, such as Cinemascope, together with what he refers to as "depth-illusion" are simply accidental to the formal, literary properties of the cinematic; these advancements "will take its place with sound and color as an additional but not primary line in film structure."

There have been any number of assaults on Bluestone and his legacy over the last decade, but few proposals for an actual methodology for historicizing literary adaptation out of its formalist stranglehold. It is my contention that the French auteurists grant contemporary adaptation studies a cultural and sociological perspective because they "were more apt to consider such things as audiences, historical situations, and cultural politics." Where the fidelity critics rely on metaphors of translation or organic derivations of such analogies, the auteurists preferred the metaphor of performance. "It, too, involves questions of textual fidelity, but it emphasizes difference rather than similarities, individual styles rather than formal systems." If the French auteurists, especially André Bazin, Alexandre Astruc, and François Truffaut, count heavily on a performative metaphor, then they also help us to reimagine adaptation in the present day. Indeed, Truffaut's famously strident iconoclastic essay "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema" (1954) was precisely a manifesto against literary stuffiness, even as Astruc and others would argue for a filmic language that showcased the mise-en-scène and la caméra stylo. In a certain sense, the French New Wave was founded on a reassessment of film adaptation; it is perhaps not coincidental that much of what Bazin has to say about film language, montage, and la politique des auteurs appears through his seminal analysis of adaptation in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma and elsewhere. As Robert Stam has pointed out, La Nouvelle Vague formulated its aesthetic principles around what came to be called "querelle de l'adaptation." The French auteurists would welcome the dissemination of the literary into something like a de-bourgeoisification of the arts through mass cultural performance. Indeed, Bazin argued in his essay "In Defense of Mixed Cinema" that adaptation was itself an instrument not for division, but for equalizing the audience. After an adaptation of a literary work, the field of reading is broadened and democratized; for Bazin, therefore, "there is no competition or substitution ... rather the adding of a new dimension that the arts had gradually lost ... namely a public." Undoubtedly, the public had been sustained for years by Hollywood studios marketing the adaptation of a popular source text for the screen, schooling the moviegoing audience in a kind of popular film criticism that compared novel to film and required no tutelage except for a scant acquaintance with the literary source. Adaptation was destined for popular commercial interest, as Bazin would say. As John Ellis puts it, "adaptation trades upon memory of the novel, a memory that can derive from actual reading, or, as is more likely with a classic of literature, a generally circulated cultural memory. The adaptation consumes this memory, aiming to efface it with the presence of its own image."

I am suggesting, then, that the French auteurists provide a window into at least three different areas that might advance our discussion of literary adaptation. As I will indicate shortly, all three of these critical practices have been applied to some extent to adaptation studies, but bringing these perspectives together under one volume provides a much-needed and necessary strategic angle in this field of inquiry. First, as I will show later in this chapter, Bazin's interest in a "mixed cinema" suggests the importance of renegotiating a (formalist) binary arrangement in adaptation criticism into an intertextual space, particularly from the point of view of a Bakhtinian intertextuality, or what Robert Stam has called "the dialogics of adaptation." After all, long before Bluestone and the formalist critics attached themselves to the trope "novel into film," adaptation was not even a discipline, but a kind of popular form of "criticism" practiced by moviegoers that advanced Hollywood box office interests. In discussing adaptation, Bazin imagined that the end of adaptation was a "digest" made for an audience, asking us to think of film adaptation "in relation to commercialism, industrial modernity and democracy, and to compare it with an engraving or digest that makes the so-called original 'readily acceptable to all.'" In terms of "digest," Bazin writes that "one could also understand it as a literature that has been made more accessible through cinematic adaptation, not so much because of the oversimplification that such adaptation entails ... but rather because of the of the mode of expression itself, as if the aesthetic fat, differently emulsified were better tolerated by the consumer's mind." Such commercialized strategies became part of redeploying classic texts in Hollywood during the studio period, using intertextual collaborators to shape the audience.

The second perspective, concerning the cultural power of the text itself, also helped to shape Bazin's thinking in those early years, but is not far from Truffaut's intuitive reaction to adaptation in the 1950s: what about the implications for the literary canon in adapting "novels into film?" As Naremore and others have pointed out, at precisely the moment that Truffaut was railing against bourgeois literary adaptation, Bluestone was establishing a methodology that tends "to confirm the intellectual priority and formal superiority of canonical novels, which provide the films he discusses with their sources and with a standard of value against which their success or failure is measured." Truffaut's essay is often (rightly) viewed as a manifesto of a young Turk railing against established literary conventions, but his seminal statement suggests a reassessment of the cultural value of the "literary" and its function in cinema culture. Third, if the auteurists famously lionized the director, then what about the status of the literary author of the antecedent source text and his or her relationship with the director of the filmic text? The issue of who becomes the "author" of the adapted text or, even more interestingly, how the literary author is promulgated as a discourse inside and outside the filmic text becomes yet another fascinating lens with which to examine literary adaptation.

My argument throughout this book is that the use of intertextuality, the function of cultural value, and the aura of authorship provide a significant angle with which to engage the adaptation process. I must point out that although I have been inspired by the metaphor of performance of the auteurists, this is not a sustained argument for the origins of these three strategies in the French New Wave. Nor am I claiming in any systematic way that the auteurists touched on every aspect of these three categories that I am proposing for a kind of methodological matrix for studying adaptation. But the interests of the French New Wave and the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma were extroverted, political, and sociological, while maintaining an interest in the cinematic text as a performance site. Bazin's overwhelming interest in the performative dynamics of the adaptive text as a "mixed cinema"—a site of commercial interest—points us in the direction of how and under what conditions texts were negotiated in Hollywood for an audience. I think that this performance metaphor necessarily offers a viable alternative to prevailing static, formalist criticism in adaptation studies. It is my hope that the present book helps to raise questions that further the advancement of the discipline by historicizing case studies within the studio period of classic Hollywood.

That said, the method I have chosen is to take four instances where American film culture has redeployed the "literary" and placed them under the lenses of intertextuality, cultural/textual power, and authorship, using them as coordinates inside a specific period in Hollywood history. In discussing George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935), Orson Welles's unproduced film script Heart of Darkness (1939), John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940), and John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951), I am proposing a paradigm that takes seriously Naremore's suggestion "that what we need instead is a broader definition of adaptation and a sociology that takes into account the commercial apparatus, the audience, and the academic culture industry." In this regard, I believe that I am responding most recently to Simone Murray's proposal for materializing the adaptation industry. For Murray, adaptation is not "an exercise in comparative textual analysis of individual books and their screen versions, but a material phenomenon produced by a system of institutional interests and actors." I am interested in questions such as: how did the film industry make use of certain texts during the studio era?


Excerpted from Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era by GUERRIC DEBONA Copyright © 2010 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Guerric DeBona, O.S.B, is a professor of homiletics and communication at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He is the coauthor of Savior on the Silver Screen.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews