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From cover to camera: Adapting to literary classics the right way

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a sudden uptick in the number of films adapting famous novels. This is not at all new, of course. Literary adaptations have been a staple of the silver screen since the very beginning. But two from the latest crop – Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield – stood out as some of the most original films of the past year, despite being based on novels that have both been adapted many times before. Even stranger, these films track remarkably similar themes and add similar twists to their source materials. Taken together, Little Women and The Personal History of David Copperfield provide some useful insights into the problems of adapting literary classics; its efficacy, its purpose and its value.

Before we get properly into it, I’d really like to stress just how good both of these films are. They’re animated by a physicality that completely breaks with the sort of dusty seriousness that usually comes with adaptations of 19th-century novels. In this, I think both films consider themselves to be more faithful than their drier siblings. Neither Dickens nor Alcott were writers enamoured by the rigidities of the upper classes and neither would be too pleased to have seen the ways in which said classes have obstructed and contained the vitality of their work for so long. But Iannucci and Gerwig give full reign to the energetic qualities of these novels and the result is a sort of breathless filmmaking, an exhilarating and genuinely feel-good experience. No cliché, they actually are feel-good films. I felt good. Twice. Anyway, you only have a little more time to catch them both in theatres so put Parasite on hold for the moment and see these films before it’s too late.

In fact, this energetic aspect is a good place to start with regard to what these films tell us about adapting literary classics. Remarking on this energy, many reviews of both films have characterised them as ‘modern’ retellings and praised them for this. The problem with this is that it implies that Gerwig and Iannucci radically changed the source material in some way – an update rather than an adaptation.

These films provide some useful insights into the problems of adapting literary classics

Of course, there many ways in which this label is correct. In the case of Iannucci’s film, the casting is deliberately diverse, toying with our expectations as to who we are ‘supposed to’ see on screen in this type of film and forcing us to imagine characters from minority backgrounds in ways that we are not used to doing at the cinema. The conceit is that, in this world, race genuinely does not matter – whereas class and gender definitely do. The fact that race is simultaneously absent as a determining factor in the world of the film and yet remains to us a striking presence, a relative rarity in contemporary cinema, seems entirely the point. What changes if David Copperfield is played by a Briton of Indian descent? Well, nothing has to.

Now, this also gets at some of the problems with the idea that The Personal History of David Copperfield is a radical break with the original. Consider this: what are some of the most prominent themes of the novel? Maybe we could say that one might be the façade of status and identity. For example, the issue of David Copperfield’s name – a symbol of ‘who he is’ – is constantly placed under stress within the novel as he is given different names by different people which pertain to the different roles he must play in relation to them. Yes, he is always David Copperfield and struggles to retain this identity, but he is also David Trotwood, Daisy Trotwood, Trotwood Davidson, etc. Similarly, David’s literary skill consists in his ability to imitate, to enter into the minds of others and let himself be inspired by their turns of phrase – in other words, his skill of adapting.

All of this, already present within the source material, point towards a rather modern notion of externally-constructed identity and its resultant fluidity. Therefore, colour-blind casting appears as a totally faithful choice in adapting this novel. The novel is proposing the idea that what constitutes us as people – as identities – are our relations to others and if these relations could have nothing to do with race, then race can assume its proper place as a somewhat accidental, irrelevant feature of a person – present but entirely absent. Whilst it’s obviously true that colour-blind casting is a modern idea, its application here highlights what was already modern within the text.

If the film and its novel are about fluid identities, we realise Iannucci is expanding upon this theme and talking about self-authorship

The same is true for Little Women. Gerwig’s much-praised decision to revise the ending – which turns Jo into the author of the novel on which the film is based – is another example of drawing out what is latent within the source material using modern techniques. In fact, one of the striking coincidences between these two films is that they both turn out to be totally conscious of their role as adaptations. Iannucci’s film accentuates the first-person perspective of the novel by staging the film as a live performance. It begins and ends with Copperfield entering and exiting the stage. Throughout the film, we are also given chapter headings and the narrative changes on the spot as characters are written in and out of the story in real time in order to convey the form of the original piece. Gerwig’s use of Jo partly serves a similar function of reminding us of the film’s nature as an adaptation but it also does something else.

If Jo turns out to be the author of Little Women, the novel about the maturation of the girls that we thought we had been watching for the last two hours, then the division between the timelines is altered from youth vs. adulthood to fantasy vs. reality. We might have been watching Jo’s fictionalised version of her youth all along, hence that golden hue which alerts us to its difference from the colder vistas of maturity. This ramification is not explored or confirmed, it is just left to linger. In my opinion, this is the most interesting aspect of Gerwig’s twist but it doesn’t seem to get much airtime.

The fact that race is simultaneously absent as a determining factor in the world of the film and yet remains to us a striking presence seems entirely the point

The same is true of The Personal of History of David Copperfield. Like I said, the film takes on the character of a story being told and, within that, of a story being written as it is being told. If the film and its novel are about fluid identities, we realise Iannucci is expanding upon this theme and talking about self-authorship.

Strangely, both Little Women and David Copperfield– the novels, that is – are semi-autobiographical narratives and critics speculate that the main characters in both are stand-ins for their authors. Knowing this, we are once again struck by the ability of these films to expand upon elements in the novels which were present but side-lined. Little Women and The Personal History of David Copperfield prove to be so original because they use their form, their nature as adaptations, to talk about the most primary form of adaptation, that of adapting reality – even one’s own life.

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