Found in Translation

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The Playhouse Theatre in London.

If you ever want to provoke an English major to physical violence, express your opinion that an adaptation (whether in filmed or stage form) of a book is equal or even superior to the literary source material.  For most lovers of the written word, it is heresy to suggest that the intellectual meat of a work of fiction can do anything but suffer in the process of translation to another medium.

To some extent, this view is understandable.  In the majority of cases, one is simply able to pack more meaning into a narrative conveyed in written form, where the length of the work is determined by the content, as opposed to a movie or play that must keep its run-time below certain parameters.  But I fear that we lovers of literature may be too eager to dismiss all adaptations.  In a few rare cases, new adaptations of existing works have allowed the translators to use the original source material to explore new and artistically exciting themes and ideas.

Last May in London, I had the opportunity to see the Playhouse Theatre’s production of George Orwell’s 1984.  The Playhouse Theatre’s adaptation by and large keeps the dialogue and plot intact, but they have added in a few choice elements that I found to be phenomenally intelligent additions.  My favorite part ended up being the play’s closing scene, which is not found in Orwell’s original but is entirely the work of the playwrights.  After the Party finally breaks Winston’s spirit, the narrative jumps forward a hundred years to show a group of people discussing how Big Brother fell after Winston’s death.  The audience begins to think that maybe this play will end happily until one of the women wonders, “But, I mean, wouldn’t they. . . If the Party. . . How do we know the Party fell?  Wouldn’t it be in their interest to just structure the world in such a way that we believe that they were no longer. . .”  Just then, a child comes up to her, singing “The Bells of St. Clemens” (a symbol of impending doom in both the book and the play) and leads the woman off-stage.  It is a thought-provoking and phenomenally powerful way to end the play, and in my opinion it is just as intelligent and artistic as anything Orwell wrote.  By adding this scene, the playwrights touch on themes that the book does not.  They suggest that overt violence is not the only kind of oppression and offer a more nuanced reflection that is even more applicable to today’s post-PATRIOT world than Orwell’s original.

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The logo for Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The best other example I can recall of an adaptation substantially adding to a work in a way that enhances the final product is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, his masterful reimagining of Macbeth.  In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa moves the narrative from Scotland to medieval Japan.  Even beyond the setting change, Kurosawa makes a few choice alterations to the base story that allow the famed director to explore themes that are different from those in the original Macbeth, but that carry just as much intellectual weight as those in the Bard’s best work.  Several of the changes that Kurosawa makes serve to convey the director’s own pessimism about authority figures and the inescapable cycle of violence in which rulers are eternally trapped.

Whereas Shakespeare presents Macbeth and his cruelty as the exception rather than the rule, Kurosawa goes out of his way to stress that the brutal warlord Washizu, his Macbeth stand-in, is far from unique among would-be sovereigns.  In the Scottish play, Macbeth’s predecessor and eventual victim Duncan is a blameless ruler who “hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/ so clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/ The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.17-19).  In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa indicates that Washizu’s ruler, the Great Lord Tsuzuki, had come to power himself by murdering his own predecessor, thus making him guilty of the same crime as Washizu.  This detail may seem small but carries significant moral ramifications.  By placing Washizu’s treachery in a context where usurpation is the norm, Kurosawa expands the narrative’s focus from simply being the tale of one man’s madness into exploring the violence that rulers utilize to gain and maintain power.

The Bard’s Macbeth ends relatively happily, with the titular villain being slain by Macduff.  In contrast, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood climaxes with the murder of Washizu by his own archers, and closes with a scene of enemy troops approaching the castle as a thick fog falls—and when the cloud lifts, the entire castle is gone and an unseen chorus wails, “Look upon the ruins/ Of the castle of delusion.”  Shakespeare’s play ends with the restoration of the rightful order and the proper monarch, but Kurosawa does not seem to believe that the cycle of violence and treachery is escapable through any means but the release of death and total desolation.

I won’t go so far as to declare that any version, either original or adaptation, of 1984 or Macbeth is the superior work of art, but I do wonder if we are doing ourselves a disservice by taking it for granted that an adaptation must be an inferior product.  Rather, we should acknowledge that the changes that often come with the adaptation of a literary work into another medium are not necessarily a bad thing, but can, in the hands of capable artists, be an opportunity to take the story into new intellectual terrain.

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