Paper vs. celluloid - Dealing with passing and race in "The Human Stain"

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Story Tellers: General Issues with Book to Screen Adaptations
2.1 Structure Length
2.2 Narration Focalization
2.3 Plausibility Creditability

3 Coleman Silk does not Like the Movies: Dealing with Passing, Race, and the Roots of Coleman Silk in THE HUMAN STAIN..

4 Conclusion

He thought the same useless thoughts - useless to a man of no great talent like himself, if not to Sophocles: how accidentally a fate is made . . . or how accidental it all may seem when it is inescapable.

(Roth 2000: 127)

1 Introduction :“The Occasional Fantasy Literature Blockbuster”

Cinematic adaptations of literary originals have always played a major part in film history. Over the last years it has become more and more en vogue to promote contemporary motion pictures with their literary roots. Since the second1 theatrical installment of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (Tolkien 1954 1955) beginning with THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in December 2001 (directed and co-written by Peter Jackson), there has been the occasional fantasy literature blockbuster which was brought to theater screens on christmas on an annual basis (except in 2004).2 In the holiday season of 2002 and 2003 we saw J.R.R Tolkien's THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING followed by THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (Lewis 1950) in 2005, ERAGON (Paolini 2003) in 2006, and with THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Pullman 1995) in 2007, the first part of the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy (1995, 1997 2000) by Philip Pullman.

However, in many cases most of large-scale advertising for filmic adaptations is limited to multi-million dollar productions, such as those named above, and/or to films based on novels by well-known authors, and therefore, a rather high amount of adaptations have never received much publicity. An example, which fits this criteria, would be the adaptation of LITTLE CHILDREN (Perotta 2004). Even though the theatrical version of Tom Perotta's novel, who also co-wrote the script with director Todd Field, was acclaimed by critics and nominated for various awards, including three Academy Awards, only grossed approximately 15,000,000 US$ worldwide (Little Children [Box Office]).3 The origin of the story is, in some cases, not even mentioned anywhere except in the end credits - an ironic idea, if one thinks about that most of the so-called creative staff of the movie did not have anything (or hardly anything) to do with developing the story, which is supposed to be the foundation of every feature film. In general, novels often just serve the purpose of delivering a (good) story in the cinematic world, sometimes wholly blacking out that literature is a completely different kind of media than film and cannot be turned into a screen- or teleplay without proper knowledge of the subject matter. In addition, the more a novel focuses on internal focalization, the harder it becomes to translate the story line into such a highly visual media as film - it is extremely difficult to express thoughts or feelings in motion pictures without using dialogue or any other form of verbal transmission.

This term paper will deal with one of these novels that fit both of the aforementioned criteria - it is hard to translate into a screen play and the filmic version did not receive much attention at the box-office with a tanking of only 5,000,000 US$ in the United States (The Human Stain [Box Office]).4 The subject under discussion is the contemporary novel THE HUMAN STAIN written by Philip Roth and first published in 2000. The novel tells the story of a former college professor, Coleman Silk, who resigns from his position after being misleadingly accused of racism. After the death of his wife he is willed to write a book about his life. At this point, the reader does not know that Coleman Silk is black himself but has been passing for white for over four decades, which tragically turns the whole situation of racial harassment into irony.

In the year 2003, thus only three years after the novel had been published, the filmic version was released - an incredibly short period of time for the development, shooting and postproduction of a movie. Was it maybe too short?

This term paper primarily focusses upon the passing strand of THE HUMAN STAIN, and, therefore, its adaptation to the big screen. Is it even possible to deliver an appropriate intermedia translation of such a highly complex plot as it is to be found in Philip Roth's novel from 2000? How did the author use race to express the actions and especially the misery of the main character Coleman Silk? In what way did Robert Benton depict Anthony Hopkin's character of the passing figure in the cinematic version? And most importantly, does the translation from book to script, and then finally, to film succeed in the end?

2 Story Tellers: General Issues with Book to Screen Adaptations

Now, as mentioned before, the written word differs extremely from the blend of audio and video that is to be found in film. As a starting position they have in common that they both possess the feature of performing incredibly well in delivering stories (as well as feelings) to the readers or to the viewers. How good or bad these stories turn out most likely depends on the author or the director. Therefore, stories can be the same in film and literature. It is important to keep an eye on how they are dealt with in different kinds of media. The story can stay the same, but its form has to change to fully survive the transformation and to not get harmed in the process of being changed into something else. This does not only apply to the course of literary adaptation, but also to any other kind of adaptation. Be it radio play to TV show, TV show to graphic novel, graphic novel to play and play to anything else. The story or the single strand itself is universal and, if handled with care, convertible to almost everything imaginable.

In blurring the textual boundaries between print and film, adaptations must confront preconceived notions of authorship and improvisation. [...] While Dudley Andrew and other adaptation theorists tentatively offer alternatives to the explicit privileging of the written word over the cinematic experience, they do not suggest the possibility of considering a film adaptation as an "edition" or "version" of a text [...]. (Decker 2007: 142-143)

Thus, especially in the case of turning literary originals into motion pictures, what is there that has to be taken care of? What differentiates literature from film, or film from literature? In particular, what does change in the form how the story or the strand is received by the reader or the viewer - or how it is told by narrator or screenwriter and director?

2.1 Structure and Length

Concluding from the above there are several things that have to be considered. It has to be regarded that the structure of written narratives can be far more complex than those of narratives in film. Complex movies can end up rather confusing to the viewer if they are not narrated in a well-regulated manner. However, sometimes a confusing narration in motion pictures can be utilized as a stylistic device for creating a certain kind of mood or effect. This is the case in some of David Lynch's films, for example LOST HIGHWAY (Lynch 1997), MULHOLLAND DRIVE (Lynch 2001) or his newest film INLAND EMPIRE (Lynch 2006). Lynch for example uses those kinds of stylistic devices to create the effect of uncomfortableness and unpleasantness or to make the viewer feel lost.

In literature, if we assume that it is not the author's intention to make the reader feel lost, it is easier to avoid the effect of confusion simply due to the factor of length. The restriction of length in literature is far less important than it is in motion pictures. Movies are designed to be watched in one sitting, and therefore, should not run longer than the amount of time which a person is willing to sit through a picture. Novels, on the contrary, do not have this kind of limitation. Novels can be put down and then afterwards be picked up, and therefore, have not to be read in one sitting. The reader is free to stop and continue reading at almost any time.

If one looks at this while considering the coherence of cinematic adaptations, one must come to the conclusion that adaptations of overly exceeding novels and their adaptations are contra-dictionary in some way. They simply cannot be transformed into a story-wise equitable movie without having to take several strands out of the plot. However, cutting out strands in the story with the intention of delivering a coherent film is probably better than trying to keep everything as it was, and in the end, having to watch a written novel on the screen. Then the adaptation process failed.

This was the problem with THE DA VINCI CODE (Howard 2006). What the makers of the movie failed at, was that they hardly changed anything to make a fair adaption of the book. It felt like Dan Brown's original was simply put on the copy machine, like the screen writer Akiva Goldsman did not really try to bother with the novels content. Only few things were left out and the structure itself remained the same. The result was an above-average-paced movie that keeps running from location to location for approximately two-and-a-half hours. And exactly this is the problem: due to the lack of slow-paced scenes, the viewers becomes accustomed to that steady speed which the film offers - and as a result of this the viewer get bored. This structure successfully worked in the book because with every sitting the readers were able to enjoy a small and entertaining climax.

Philip Roth's THE HUMAN STAIN also shows the usage of a rather unique and multilayered narrative and structure - and those structures in Roth's book, which, as a matter of course, are far more literary than cinematic,5 have been adapted in a more applicable way to allow for the effective and efficient construction of the theatrical version, which will later be the subject under discussion.

2.2 Narration and Focalization

There are still some other difficulties in the novel to script process. Literature is far more variable in its narration and focalization. Whereas novels, or stories in general, can rely on first, second or third person narration, movies have the restriction that some of them are extremely hard to accomplish while having to use a camera as the transmitter of choice.


1 The first adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS was a hybrid between animated feature and live-action movie directed by Ralph Bakshi and released in the year of 1978. Due to lack of success the whole story had never been finished - the 132-minute film only consisted of the first book THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and parts of the second book THE TWO TOWERS. (For further information see

2 Even though there was one of these “occasional fantasy literature blockbusters” with HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN in 2004, it was not during holiday season, but in summer.

3 In comparison, THE RETURN OF THE KING grossed over one billion US dollars worldwide. For further information on grosses see

4 Approximately 25,000,000 US$ worldwide.

5 Yet, there are novels which are written in a cinematic way. Their writing style is very similar to those of screenplays: direct thoughts, feelings, etc, are most likely not to be found anywhere besides in dialogue. An example for this kind of style would be the Portuguese novel VERONICA DECIDES TO DIE (Original Portuguese title: “Veronica Decide Morrer”) (Coelho 2000).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Paper vs. celluloid - Dealing with passing and race in "The Human Stain"
University of Mannheim
Narratives of passing in American Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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Paper, Dealing, Human, Stain, Narratives, American, Literature
Quote paper
Kevin Maier (Author), 2008, Paper vs. celluloid - Dealing with passing and race in "The Human Stain", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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