The role of fidelity in cinematic literary adaptations

Essay, 2020

8 Pages, Grade: A


Fidelity Discourse Analysis

“Just as any text can generate an infinity of readings, so any novel can generate any number of adaptations.” Robert Stam puts it exceptionally accurately in “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation, ” that one can differ, in what s/he perceives, from the other. Whether it is reading a text or watching a movie, one is deemed to differ, in one way or the other, in her/his interpretation of what s/he reads or sees. Contrary to this idea, there is a fidelity discourse in literary adaptation theories which argues that there are certain central ideas in the text – which are apparently visible to everyone – and while producing the text's cinematic adaptation, these core ideas should always be taken into consideration in order to produce an authentic on-screen adaptation. This fidelity discourse in reference to literary adaptations is a restricted interpellated idea (as Althusser emphasizes) that places the cinematic adaptation on an inferior ground when compared with the source text, majorly because of pre-existing assumptions of seniority, logophilia and iconophobia. Despite source texts being seen as static by nature, in my opinion, they can always be (re)interpreted in different ways incorporating differing perspectives. In this essay, I will discuss the idea of fidelity; advancing with my exposition that fidelity, certainly, can never be achieved and hence, is a popular misconception. Furthermore, I will approach the topic of literary adaptations with a post-structuralist view and will attempt to show how cinematic adaptations are sui-generis.

Supporters of the fidelity discourse believe, as mentioned above, that while considering to produce a film based on a literary text, the filmmaker must keep in mind the central elements of the source text and strictly stick to them for the adaptation to be authentic. Fidelity for them refers to the “notion that purportedly measures the extent to which a work of literature has been accurately rendered (or not) as a movie” (- The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan). Advocates of fidelity feel that the on-screen adaptation should showcase only what the author emphasized in the text and also in a similar manner the author did.

However, they forget how narrow this view is to be held. Use of fidelity method for assessing the merit of a literary adaptation is a constricted approach altogether as this discourse expects the film to be justifiably faithful to its source text, which is literally next to impossible. If one looks at a text, it is apparent that it has an array of different elements that make the text alive. For instance, it has a structure, tone, narrative technique, spatio-temporal dynamic, characters, plot, themes, intention, messages to convey and a plethora of other aspects piled down with the help of the imaginative faculty of the author. Considering this, the argument that the supporters of fidelity discourse produce proves ill-founded because they themselves do not specify as to what all elements should be faithfully preserved in order to prove fidelity to the source text. As, at any given cost, it is clearly out of question to (re)produce each and every aspect of the source text in its cinematographic version. It is supposed to be set in criterion as to what should be taken seriously and what not while adapting the text. Are certain elements more significant in comparison to the others is a question that needs to be answered before having a discourse on fidelity. In this direction, Stam also located his argument and asks, “Fidelity to what?” (plot, intention, character, style, narrative technique so on so forth). So, the central argument of the fidelity discourse itself lays on an imbalanced pedestal as the criterion for judging fidelity must be clearly defined first.

Having said that, I would like to add on to the argument that fidelity is undoable while producing a literary adaptation for there is a great shift in media and viewpoints of the original author and the filmmaker. Even if the filmmaker attempts to pay allegiance to the author’s work, both of them can never have strictly the same approaches and interpretations. Robin Swicord, in this regard, points out that despite the wish to do so the director’s and the author's views can never be the same. Films and texts are two separate mediums. Going from one form to another incorporates a great deal of complexity and is, in totality, a composite journey. While texts have written material on paper and a series of signifier-signified content inhabiting those pages, films have a huge variety of artworks included in themselves ranging from music, art, writing, acting to dancing which, in turn, contribute to its complexity as well as an impossibility to merely represent the text written on the pieces of paper just as it is. Cinema and Literature, because of a variety of reasons including crucial differences in medium, can never go hand in hand. What they are capable of doing, however, is maybe an attempt at presenting or suggesting a vaguely similar mental image to the people as writing and cinema are both mediums that elicit aesthetic experiences. Bruce Morrissette, in his book Novel and Film: Essays in two Genres, puts forth his views with respect to this idea, says:

“…there exists beyond the word on page and beyond the images on the screen as well, a common field of imagination in which the work of art, visual, auditory or verbal, takes on its effective aesthetic form and meaning.”

Morrissette seems to believe that both the mediums have a similar end goal of transmitting mental images leading to aesthetic experiences in the mind. Judging and comparing those images, however, is a baseless activity as both the mediums do the best in their capacities within their particular fields.

Texts and Cinema are just like Source Language and Target Language (taking from Translation Studies) respectively, where none is subordinate to the other and none is superior – both are valuable in their inhabited areas. They both have elements typical to their fields and do work best in their own spheres. What a four hundred and eighty pages book says can not possibly be showcased in a two-three hour long movie, hence abridging is considered inevitable. Filmmaker and the author both have a good knowledge of what works best in their particular fields as a result. David Mitchell, in regard to the film Cloud Atlas (2012), says that:

“Adaptation is a form of translation and all acts of translation have to deal with untranslatable spots. Sometimes late at night I’ll get an email from a translator asking for permission to change a pun in one of my novels or to substitute an idiomatic phrase with something plainer. My response is usually the same: You are the one with knowledge of the ‘into’ language, so do what works. When asked whether I mind the changes made during the adaptation of Cloud Atlas, my response is similar: The filmmakers speak fluent film language, and they’ve done what works.”

To which Stam's argument may compliment that: “the shift from a single-track, uniquely verbal medium such as the novel…to a multi-track medium such as film”—makes gross fidelity virtually impossible to attain.

In the binary struggle (verbal/visual), verbal is usually claimed superior alienating the cinematographic merit. A major reason people criticize is because they do not appreciate the cinematic autonomy or even acknowledge cinema has an identity and history of its own (i.e approximately over 150years). Critics fail in treating the on-screen motion picture as media detached from the novel and hence, all of its complexities and merits stand cancelled in the eyes of these critics. A large part of the problem has to do with the fact that while analyzing the adaptation, critics often forget what they think about the source novel is just their own opinion and if they have the right to interpret a novel then so does the filmmaker. The problem arises when one thinks her/his highly subjective ideas are supposed to be universally applicable. Barbara Tepa Lupack in Take Two: Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film, pours light on the aforementioned argument and says:

“when we assess an adaptation we are not really comparing book to film but rather interpretation to interpretation – the novels that we ourselves have recreated in our imaginations out of which we have constructed our own ‘movie’ and the novel on which the filmmaker has worked is a parallel transformation.”

Fidelity, then, becomes connected to one’s point of view rather that to the book itself. Relocating us back to the point Stam raised that every book is open to different interpretations and different people will take home different experiences after having read the book. When one reads, s/he frames an idea in her/his mind and tries to look for it in the interpretation that the filmmaker projects on screen and when the adaptation fails to deliver her/his expected view (which is inevitable because not everyone, including the filmmaker, perceives things in the exact same manner, just as Monaco emphasizes, “one person's image is not another's) one feels the adaptation is inauthentic because according to her/him fidelity has not been maintained. Not realizing that one can never be loyal to another person's viewpoint under any circumstances. Therefore, condemning a film because it doesn’t match one's individual expectations is a silly move to make which fails one's understanding of the cinematic art form altogether. The need is to not hinder the autonomous space of cinematography and to not judge a film adaptation on the basis of the relationship it shares with (or does not share with) the source text. Enjoying both the book and the film as separate pieces of art is the desired solution.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


The role of fidelity in cinematic literary adaptations
University of Delhi  (Sri Venkateswara College)
English, Cinematic Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Literature and Cinema, Fidelity discourse, Cinematic adaptation, Analysing Cinema
Quote paper
Khushboo Prabhakar (Author), 2020, The role of fidelity in cinematic literary adaptations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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