Film adaptation or movie adaptation has been a widespread practice in cinematic tradition around the world. Majority of such adaptations are made from fictions, primarily novels. Some of the other popular sources include autobiography, plays, scriptures and comic books. When a novel is adapted for movies, there are certain techniques deployed to give it a cinematic appeal. Inventing new characters and altering scenes fall into the category of primary adaptation techniques.
Sometimes it is also noticed that an insignificant character in the novel is given a prominent part to play in the film. Novels with exteriority and physically dynamic structures are most commonly adapted for filming. Thus, modern novels with their intricate literary devices (such as stream-of-consciousness, internal monologues, etc. ) are difficult to make fit for movies. While changes are mandatory due to time constraints and nature of the medium, extreme care must be taken so that the original essence of the novel is not compromised.
However, one school of thought argues that the director should treat the film separately from the novel as both are completely different works of art. Accurate arrangement of a novel at the time of filming is virtually impossible since both speak different literary languages. Contrary to this perspective, another school of thought steadfastly believes that the film must retain either the thematic or the aesthetic sense of its source. Changes should only be made wherever necessary. This doctrine lays more emphasis on the faithful reproduction of the source content.
This article is going to make a comparative analysis between Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and its cinematic adaptation of the same title directed by Douglas Sirk. One of the cardinal aspects of movie adaptation that every director must keep in mind involves the risk of taking the viewers away from the fiction: “It has been argued that these displays of technique and artifice make it difficult to respond affectively to art since they create distance between the fiction and the viewer. ” (Sirk et al.
207) Cinema is quintessentially a self-reflexive form of art having a vast scope of expression. This freedom, if used discreetly and masterfully, may make an ordinary source look splendid. The novel Imitation of Life focuses not just on the crude nature of racism in America in the beginning of the twentieth century, but also, and perhaps on a more serious note, holds in view the limitations of the new women. Peola, one of the main female characters in the novel, represents the tragic predicament of being “neither black nor white yet both”.
(Hurst et al. xxv) Her persistent struggle to live without black identity makes her suffer from the inconsolable loss of her mother. At the same time, Bea also gets entangled between career, romance and motherhood. She has to give up love and care for her daughter Jessie to pursue her career. The two sets of mother-daughter relationships portrayed in the novel, Bea-Jessie and Delilah-Peola, imply a subtle message which Hurst seeks to convey in the novel: a woman can’t “have it all”. (Hurst et al. xxv)
The movie by Douglas Sirk does not deviate from the main plot of the novel to a great extent. Characters and conclusions in both cases are same, but the background is changed in the movie to suit the nature of time it depicted. It might be noted that the novel was written in 1933 whereas the movie was released in 1959. The identities of Lora and Annie as widowed single mothers are kept intact in the sense that Bea and Delilah are also shown as widowed single mothers in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. The cinematic counterparts of Jessie and Peola are Suzie and Sarah respectively.
Lora’s fiance Steve is an adaptation of the character of Frank Flake in Imitation of Life. The movie Imitation of Life, as observed by Andrew Sarris in Film Culture, is characterized by an apparent notion of impossibility which Sarah wants to achieve – white skin. (Handzo 1997) If one attempts to make a comparative analysis between the movie and the novel, the element that comes to the fore is the introductory part. Sirk Douglas does without the elaborateness of Fannie Hurst in narrating the backdrop of Lora’s previous life when she was married.
In the beginning of the novel, Bea is shown as a spinster who marries Benjamin Pullman. The subsequent chains of events that lead to Bea’s struggle for survival with an infant daughter are excluded from the movie. It opens with Lora’s soaring ambition of becoming a Broadway star – a curtain raiser which is followed by three social scenes the filmmaker conjures: “women and work, race relations, star mythology”. (Sirk et al. 27) In this sense, the movie mirrors the content of the novel in a threefold manner. To quote Sirk, “The mirror is the imitation of life.
What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows you your own opposite. ” (Sirk et al. 3) As far as cinematic approach is concerned, the abrupt opening may be attributed to time constraints as well. However, the movie diverts from the novel in one critical aspect. While Bea pursues a successful career of businesswoman, Lora takes a different course altogether. Unlike the world of literature, the world of showbiz uniquely demands dynamism of action and hence, the characterization is justified per se.
Another argument that can be cited with regards to the altered career path of the main protagonist of the movie is the shifting social climate in the times it was released. It was difficult for the filmmaker to envision his heroine as the owner of pancake restaurants. Moreover, during that phase many Afro-American actors were striving to put behind the stereotyped roles of household attendants. So changes in the storyline are especially reflected in the characterization of Annie.
In addition to being a motherly figure of affection and care, she is also the source of wisdom in Lora’s household. (Richard 2008) Both the novel and the film adaptation share a striking resemblance in themes of romance. At the end of the novel, a triangular love develops between Bea, Flake and Jessie. Similarly, the movie also projects similar storyline where Suzie in her teenage is enamored by Steve who is Lora’s fiance. This modernist woman’s picture has been a source of much controversy in both the novel and the movie.
It has given rise to a lot of feminist speculations regarding the ordeals faced by single working mothers in male dominant societies. The melodramatic imagination of the filmmaker goes beyond the confines of the novel. The cinematic experience of Imitation of Life presents a spectrum of diverse interpretations which are not fully realized in the novel. It can be stated without an iota of doubt that the freedom of expression in any moving medium is utilized to its fullest potential by the director, all within the permissive limits of the reel world.
Works cited Hurst, Fannie, and Daniel Itzkovitz. Imitation of Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Sirk, Douglas, and Lucy Fischer. Imitation of Life: Douglas Sirk, Director. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 1991. Handzo, Stephen. “Intimations of Lifelessness. ” bright lights film journal 18 (1997) Richard, Cicely A. “Film Analysis: Imitation of Life. ” suite101. com. May 26, 2008. 7 March 2009 <http://classic-film-dramas. suite101. com/article. cfm/film_analysis_imitation_of_life>
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