The art of movie adaptation is a tricky one; though Hollywood has scoured literature for material since moving pictures were invented, it's awfully easy for the process to go unspeakably awry. For every scintillating Jane Eyre, there are half a dozen also-rans. For every Blade Runner that illuminates, hones, and immortalizes its source material, there is an I, Robot that mugs its source material in a dark alley.
However, between slavish faithfulness and total botching, there is a more peculiar and interstitial breed of adaptation, one that doesn't present a direct interpretation of the text so much as engage in a dialogue with it. By combining the source material with social context both current and contemporary, and altering the narrative perspective, these movies offer a higher form of adaptation. They occupy a liminal space between embodiment of and commentary on the source, and their lasting value hinges more often on the latter than the former.
Though it's rarely a go-to approach, there have been recent attempts to achieve this level of meta-narrative with a novel-to-film project (such as the suitably named Adaptation, whose cinematic merits are unfortunately negated by default because of the presence of Nicholas Cage). However, two films in this stable particularly highlight this adaptive style: 1981's The French Lieutenant's Woman, and 1999's Mansfield Park.
John Foyle's The French Lieutenant's Woman was a novel that seemed to defy adaptation; it often pulled back from the narrative to discuss its willful characters, evolution, and the difficulty of constructing a narrative. (It took this last seriously—the book had two endings, one that parted its tortured lovers and one that offered them reunion, and invited the reader to choose either one, as they were equally likely.) Already self-aware, this work would be difficult to engage.
But Harold Pinter was on the case, and crafted a movie telling simultaneous stories about both its source text, and about the power of narrative. Anna and Mike are the lead actors in a film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman who are conducting an adulterous affair on set. The movie they're making traces the love story of scientist Charles and the mysterious fallen woman, Sarah, with whom he becomes obsessed. As the film gets nearer to the final scene, Mike and Anna's relationship starts to fall apart.
From the film's first shot (the setup and full take of the first shot of The French Lieutenant's Woman—they don't waste time with meta in this one), the interplay of texts and the cross-contamination of boundaries is obvious. The parallel endings are thus neatly dispatched—Charles and Sarah find happiness onscreen, and Anna spurns Mike at the wrap party. But the behind-the-scenes story does more than provide a way to double the denouement. In researching their parts, Mike and Anna examine Victorian politics through a 20th-century lens and condone or dismiss their counterparts' actions; casual rehearsals give way seamlessly to pivotal in-character narratives, illuminating their characters' motivations (and their actors' human foibles). In a particularly illustrative scene, Mike and Anna hit the rocks at a cast party, while around them their costars (whose characters never meet) catch up like old friends; for some, the line between reality and fantasy is clearer than for others.
Just as the book was a dialogue with both traditional Victorian novels, and novels as a whole, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a cinematic adaptation that challenges both its source material and its own medium; it's that rare film about film that illuminates both sides of the camera. Even more so, it takes the novel's central love story and creates an argument about the essential artifice of the love story itself; whether fictional or real, a love story is a construction, and all players can drop character—or become one—at any moment.
Speaking of things that drop character at any moment: In 1999, Patricia Rozema wrote and directed an adaptation of Mansfield Park that caused as much controversy as Jane Austen can be expected to do.
There seems to be a particular circle of cinema hell reserved for adaptations of classic works that try to be liberal with the material and end up simply mangling it, as anyone can tell you who has ever seen the terrifying credits, Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter: Freely Adapted from the Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (They haunt you. They haunt you forever.) However, a novel's immediate social context recedes with time like a bad hairline, and offers prime opportunities for the right kind of adaptation.
Unlike Jane Austen's more sparkling satires, Mansfield Park follows unabashedly dull Fanny Price, the poor relation in an estate of despicable family members and one kind but oblivious cousin. As they indulge in a series of debauches (staging a play, flirting while engaged, flirting somebody's cousin right out of the clergy), the morality is laid on thick, Fanny's misery is dwelt on, and piety-as-conflict-resolution is invoked.
In Austen's canon, the book seems a wallflower, and previous faithful adaptations tended to the dull. Patricia Rozema, however, took the bones of the novel, examined its greater historical context, and borrowed from Jane Austen's own life and letters in order to create an adaptation that would illuminate the text. The result is an imperfect but ambitious work that provided a sharp-edged frame around the picture.
Rozema transported Austen herself into Fanny more or less intact, making her a feminist and writer whose insights and temperament are stifled by Regency expectations for young women—especially young women who live off the charity of their social superiors in that nebulous space between family member and paid companion. Fanny's sharp asides are instead directed to her writings, her cousin Edmund, and the camera itself.
As with most film adaptations, the romantic subplots are highlighted by movie stars making eyes at each other in good lighting. Rozema again invokes Austen herself by having Fanny accept, then swiftly rescind, a suitor's proposal—a radical departure from the text, but framed in a practical sense by the poverty of Fanny's birth family, and the choice faced by many of Austen's contemporaries. But the film comments on and examines its source further still. The interactions between Fanny and Mary Crawford are some of the novel's most fraught, as Fanny struggles with whether to countenance a friendship with her too-charming neighbor. In response, Fanny and Mary's cinematic relationship is supplanted by outright seduction, whether rehearsing love scenes for a play or helping Fanny out of those wet clothes (actually happens).
In a less successful engagement, Rozema widens the political scope by making explicit what Austen's readers might have inferred—that Thomas Bertram's fortune in Antigua is built on slavery. In the novel, the practice is mentioned in passing but never tackled. In the film, there is a glimpse of slavery in the opening scene, Fanny argues with Sir Thomas (!) about it, and his dissolute oldest son comes back from the plantation disgusted by his father's practices. In a particularly Gothic scene, a horrified Fanny comes across a sketchbook filled with drawings of Sir Thomas's moral transgressions.
Unfortunately, it's here the film seems to lose something in translation. The fact that slavery is even acknowledged sets this film apart from previous adaptations; however, it's presented as an opportunity for Fanny to demonstrate a moral compass rather than as a subject to be seriously examined. In Fanny's closing voiceover (in which characters pause obligingly in tableaux, another nod to the construction of the original novel and of narrative itself), she mentions that Sir Thomas withdrew from Antigua to "pursue some exciting new opportunities in tobacco." It's a dry but subsumed commentary on both text and source that leaves an important conversation unfinished.
However, a conversation unfinished is at least a conversation that can continue. In a cinema landscape that's becoming ever more crowded with reboots and remakes (from which not even Ridley Scott, rumored to be spearheading a Blade Runner remake, is immune), we could use a few more movies that interrogate their sources in the vein of The French Lieutenant's Woman and Mansfield Park. It would at least bring some texture to movies that otherwise threaten to become Blade Runner: Son of Deckard (he's the meanest kid in his kindergarten class), and add to the worthy canon of films that examine their subjects and engage in dialogue with text, context, and even themselves.