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The writing's on the screen

Robin Buss marks a season of events about the relationship between film and books with a look at this uneasy marriage

Almost from the start, the cinema was first and foremost a narrative medium, long before the arrival of sound made it plausible as a vehicle for filmed theatre. In theory, at least, there were other possibilities: as well as using it for documentaries and newsreels, some of the earliest pioneers saw the camera as a scientific tool and at intervals "moving pictures" have been enrolled among the plastic arts: this is how the Surrealists used them and animators such as Norman McLaren.

No doubt, one could find other examples, but you would have to search for them, which only serves to underline how emphatically, from its inception, cinema was destined to tell stories. And, almost before the turn of the century, it had embarked on a career of theatrical and literary adaptation, with Clement Maurice's film of Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet (1900) and Meli s' Robinson Crusoe (1902). What is probably the earliest version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables dates from 1911.

Of course, these pioneering efforts were illustrations to the text, rather than adaptations of it; but they served what has always been a major function of literature for cinema, which is to lend it prestige. When movies aspire to being "art cinema", their makers think of literary classics. The idea of possessing great books was an obsession with Hollywood producers just after the coming of sound. By the mid-1930s, Darryl Zanuck (with another version of Les Miserables), Irving Thalberg (Romeo and Juliet), Samuel Goldwyn (The Brothers Karamazov) and David O Selznick (managing to knock off David Copperfield, Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities in a single year, 1935), had staked their claim to the literary heritage of the Western world.

In the main, they got on much better with dead writers than living ones. In Europe, writers have sometimes had fruitful relationships with film-makers: in Italy, Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote the inter-titles for the silent epic Cabiria; in France (until the New Wave turned directors into authors and the camera, preferably hand-held, into a pen), Jacques Prevert, Jean Giono and Jean Cocteau were major figures in cinema as well as in literature; in Britain, Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Robert Bolt and others have had more or less satisfactory encounters with the movies.

The relationship in Hollywood, during the era of the great studios, was more problematic. The critic Philip French, speaking last month in the first of a series of lectures under the title "Writing in Light", on London's South Bank, argued that the exodus of writers to Hollywood may not have been as disastrous for American literature as is sometimes supposed, but added that few recruits to the Dream Factory remained "unbruised" by the experience: he quoted the joke about the starlet who was "so dumb she slept with the scriptwriter", to show the low esteem in which the profession was held.

Hollywood producers wanted chiefly to buy names, so Adolph Zukor took on Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham, while Sam Goldwyn created "Eminent Authors", in order "to secure the greatest creative brains from the world's literati", and signed up Nobel prizewinner Maurice Maeterlinck, author of The Life of the Bee. But the moguls remained convinced that when it came to judging the needs of the public, they knew better than any damned literati. "I have never had much success," Selznick remarked, "with leaving a writer alone to do a script" - making an exception only for Ben Hecht. "My God, the hero is a bee!" Goldwyn yelled when he got Maeterlinck's first script.

The adaptations of silent cinema had maintained a respectful distance from literary classics, but sound allowed a film to aspire to being the "definitive screen version", with a status almost equal to that of the original work (and usually a far greater audience). The more they heard the word "classic", the more the moguls lusted after big books: Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, The Bible. Experience was to show, however, that something essential got lost in the transfer from page to screen, despite the presence of Garbo or Olivier, and that "definitive" versions were only to be made of more ephemeral literary works. The film of Gone With the Wind is definitive.

Moreover, while all of Western literature is there for the taking, not all works lend themselves to adaptation. The cinema has created its own literary canon, giving preferential status (for obvious reasons) to drama and the novel. Even within those criteria, some writers are more favoured than others.

Shakespeare is eminently adaptable: new versions of Othello and Richard III are soon to be released here. Other dramatists (Racine, Aeschylus, Ibsen) have fared less well. The school syllabus may serve as an argument to convince cost-conscious executives, but it can have an inhibiting effect, and not only because a film may have to bowdlerise to achieve the right certificate for a school audience.

Other literary classics are subject to fashion, Jane Austen currently being top of the list, with television versions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion enjoying exceptional cinema releases and the film of Sense and Sensibility due out this month. To advertise its "educational" function, a screen adaptation must not take too many liberties with the text. More respectful and respectable films, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, are taking the place of the earlier screen versions which owed their inspiration to Victorian melodramas rather than the original work.

This new humility suggests an increased awareness of the limitations of film adaptation: students may look to screen versions for help in understanding Shakespeare or Austen, but no contemporary director or producer, surely, would pretend to offer anything other than a single "version" of the adapted work, and only a very naive spectator would nowadays say: "but I've seen the film." Finely though Emma Thompson has scripted it, the new Sense and Sensibility is not Jane Austen's: what is missing is, precisely, Austen's authorial voice, and its absence will be clear to any reader of the novel. Similarly, adaptations of Dumas and Hugo omit everything that sets those writers apart from lesser producers in the genre of historical romance: Dumas' classical references, for example, or Hugo's lengthy digression on the disposal of sewage - try selling that to Sam Goldwyn.

If the cinema and television have failed as definitive substitutes for literature - their failure confirmed by the success of both media as a means of marketing the books they adapt - so has film not realised the hopes of some critics and film-makers (for example, Marcel Pagnol) that it would act as a preserver of plays. In some cases, a film of a performance seems to kill the living drama: is it possible to play Cesar, in Pagnol's "Marseille Trilogy", after seeing Raimu in the part; or Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Earnest, without hearing Edith Evans exclaim: "A handbag!"? Moments that might have lived, and lived differently, in the memory of spectators at a succession of live performances, are fixed on film, to be repeated on demand, without variation. Films, in fact, are resistant to remakes or transfers to other media, something which, by all accounts, is being confirmed by the current attempt to make a Royal Shakespeare Company stage version of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert's Les Enfants du Paradis.

Perhaps straightforward, innocent literary adaptation has become impossible, in a postmodern world. When I met Claude Lelouch, director of the latest version of Les Miserables, at last year's London Film Festival, he told me that he had originally meant "to remain very faithful to Hugo". It proved impossible. Instead, he dramatised a few crucial scenes from the novel and wove them into the story of a modern Jean Valjean, a simple, uneducated man caught up in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, who encounters Hugo's novel by hearing it read to him, and comes to identify with its hero. The result is an attempt to explore the lasting relevance of the novel, not an adaptation. But, I protested to Lelouch, you've added a happy ending, whereas in Hugo's novel, Valjean dies in the end. "Ah, but when Valjean dies," he replied, "it's not a sad death . In fact, the novel ends very well. " Betrayal, cop-out - or critique?

However it chooses to deal with the text, cinema cannot avoid some dependence on a written narrative: all feature films are preceded by a script, or what was very early described as a "photoplay" (see Anita Loos' book, How to Write Photoplays, 1916). And, given that cinema and television are the dominant narrative forms of our time, imaginative literature can hardly fail to take them into account. Philip French recalled some appearances of cinema in fiction, including what must surely be the first significant mentions, in Frank Norris's McTeague (1899) and Kipling's short story Mrs Bathurst (1904).

The influence of film techniques on prose style is more difficult to analyse, though obvious in writers like John Dos Passos (USA) who tried overtly to use the cinema's novel viewpoint on the world. The unacknowledged effects have been more pernicious. One is the use of the historic present, in an attempt to make writing more vivid and immediate, which makes written language (or spoken commentary) subject to the great weakness of film narrative, namely its inability to employ any tense except the present, except through recourse to awkward devices such as flashback.

Another effect has been the existence of a whole category of novels which seem to prefigure their own future screen adaptations. Popular film has created a visual language which, for most spectators, is "transparent": they are aware of the narrative, without being aware of the means by which it is expressed. The language of the "airport novel" aspires to a similar transparency - the airport novel is, after all, intended as a substitute for the in-flight movie - in prose that is flatly functional and cliche-ridden: linguistic cliches are an economical way to evoke mental images in the reader, and go with stereotypical characters. The eminently filmable John Grisham, author of the legal thrillers The Firm and The Client, is typical.

He writes little except action and dialogue. His characters are described chiefly by what they wear: "Avery walked to the balcony in a pair of brilliant orange-and-yellow flowered shorts ."; "He didn't shave, wore jeans, an old button-down, no socks and Bass loafers ."; "She wore a white terry-cloth bathrobe, one of his, and nothing else ." The clothes often have labels or price-tags attached: faded Levis, red-and-white Reeboks, twelve-hundred dollar tailored suits. The worst of such writing inhabits a purgatory, between the author's word processor and its final destiny, as a blockbusting movie.

In the early days, cinema did not have the means to challenge literature as a narrative medium; so when it got that power, with sound and colour, it seemed that nothing was beyond its reach. Gradually, we have learnt better: that one narrative form is not like another and that works are not easily transferable from page to screen. The association between the two media is unavoidable and sometimes productive; but it has been far from solely beneficial to either side; and, after a century, it may still be too early to celebrate the match.

The "Writing in Light" season on the South Bank includes an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, as well as lectures and workshops. On February 22, for half term, there will be a special event in the Purcell Room to introduce children of seven and over to the imaginative world of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, with poems by John Hegley and Jo Shapcott. Tickets and details: 0171 960 4242

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