The words “Inspired by a true story,” “Adapted from the novel by” or “Based on the short stories of” in a film’s opening credits immediately raise questions about that film’s authorship in the mind of the viewer. These words draw attention to the fact that the film text originated in the form of the written word, perhaps even more explicitly than if the film had begun as a wholly original screenplay. The adaptation of a written text to a film text therefore engenders certain unique challenges for both the filmmaker and the spectator.

Film theorist Edward Branigan writes in his book Narrative Comprehension and Film, “When consciousness is represented in pictures rather than in words, the indirect object which is inappropriate [in the text] becomes the observer who is ineffective [in the film]: a diegetic observer at the scene would be limited to external cues and could not know the character’s experience.”

Therefore, because the viewer, like the other characters in the film, cannot read a character’s inner thoughts or intentions as they might on the page, the film must present the same information in a different mode. As Branigan points out, “Narrative texts contain special and private spaces for a reader’s personal involvement with the story beyond what may be communicated.” Issues of narration, point of view and fidelity combine in adaptations in a more complex manner than in other fictional narratives.

In an essay simply titled “Adaptation,” film theorist Dudley Andrew writes, “The making of a film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself. Well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals – though by no means all of these originals are revered or respected.”

In the following essay, I will explain the ways in which the adaptation of a written text to a film text impacts what Branigan refers to as “levels of narration” and “focalization.” I will cite examples from films such as GoodFellas, Poison and Short Cuts to show the various ways in which written words can be adapted for a different, visual medium. The different modes of adaptation, as defined by film theorists Dudley Andrew and Seymour Chatman, will also be outlined and discussed to gather a greater understanding of their broad impact on cinema.

Branigan uses a cognitive theory of narration to develop a theory of focalization, or character experience within film, as well as to identify the eight levels of narration – ranging “top-down” from historical author to diegetic or nondiegetic narrator to internal focalization and identification. Using this model, any written or filmed narrative text implicitly creates the presence of a narrator of some sort. The first four levels in Branigan’s hierarchy of narrations make explicit use of narrators – the historical author, the extra-fictional narrator, the nondiegetic narrator and the diegetic narrator. The last four levels of narration – character, external focalization, surface internal focalization and depth of internal focalization, or identification – “recognize that characters also provide us with information about the story world, but in ways quite different from narrators,” Branigan says. He continues:

A character who acts, speaks, observes or has thoughts is not strictly telling or presenting anything to us for the reason that spectators, or readers, are not characters in that world. Characters may “tell” the story to us in a broad sense, but only through “living in” their world and speaking to other characters.

These eight levels of narration draw the reader or viewer of a narrative from the text itself to their own perceptions and thoughts. The viewer then becomes an active participant in the construction of meaning during the viewing of a film, according to Branigan.

Focalization, Branigan explains, “involves a character neither speaking (narrating, reporting, communicating) nor acting (focusing, focused by), but rather actually experiencing something through seeing or hearing it.” The concept of focalization allows us to understand that a character in a narrative film may be the focus of the action, but he may also be “the source of our knowledge” of that action. “The character may become either a (higher level) narrator or a (lower level) focalizer,” he says, corresponding with the hierarchy of the levels of narration.

One method of adapting a written text to the screen is to include an omniscient, unseen narrator who introduces and/or explains the diegesis. But Branigan also notes that “if a narrator is given a body and a personality, then he or she may focalize events, but only because he or she has thereby become a ‘character’ of sorts.” In the case of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, which is a fictionalized adaptation of the non-fiction memoir Wise Guy (whose author, Nicholas Pileggi, also co-wrote the screenplay), Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) is both the main character and the narrator. This allows the character to be a point of focalization, because he is the center of the “causal chain” of events and we see his actions and experiences within the world of the film. At the same time, though, the character of Henry Hill has a dual role as the film’s nondiegetic narrator. Therefore, Scorsese’s gangster epic mixes multiple levels of narration within the same narrative. Branigan notes that this is not uncommon, and that several narrative levels often work together within a film to create the whole. He writes:

Focalization through a character depends upon other, higher levels of narration that, for example, define and ground the character who is to have an experience. These other narrations are always superimposed in a film; occasionally several may be relatively explicit, and may even be in conflict with one another. That situation may produce unusual representations of character subjectivity.

In the case of GoodFellas, Hill’s nondiegetic narration is written in the past tense, so that the character, as narrator, knows more than the character who is the point of focalization on screen, in the present tense of the film.

Andrew separates adaptation into three separate modes: borrowing, intersection, and fidelity of transformation. Borrowing implies that the narrative has its roots in some earlier archetypal or mythic source material, one that has probably appeared throughout our cultural history in multiple forms. Medieval paintings based on Bible stories; the many types of Shakespearean adaptations; and other adaptations from literature to music, opera or theater are all cited as examples of borrowing.

Intersection, as defined by Andrew, is in effect the opposite of borrowing. “Here the uniqueness of the original text is preserved to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation,” he writes. A film that, for example, includes nondiegetic narration or shows intertitles or pages of written text on the screen, in order to maintain the original source material’s words and voice, could be a primarily “intersecting” adaptation.

The third element of adaptation deals with its fidelity to the original. Andrew writes:

Unquestionably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation (and of film and literature relations as well) concerns fidelity and transformation. Here it is assumed that the task of adaptation is the reproduction in cinema of something essential about the original text.

Fidelity is discussed in terms of an adaptation’s faithfulness to both the “letter” and the “spirit” of the original text. The letter of the text can easily be recreated mechanically, Andrew argues. He writes, “The skeleton of the original can, more or less thoroughly, become the skeleton of the film.” But fidelity to the spirit of a text means fidelity to its tone, values, imagery, and rhythm, and it is often more difficult to transform these intangibles into their filmic equivalents.

GoodFellas may be seen as a primarily “intersecting” form of adaptation, due to its use of nondiegetic voice-over narration and the fact that the author of the original work also has an authorial role in his book’s adaptation to the screen. This connection between the adaptation and the original contributes to its strong fidelity to both the letter and the spirit of the text, as well.

Todd Haynes’ Poison offers another example of the complex relationship between adaptation and Branigan’s theories of narration and focalization. Poison tells three disparate stories – all inspired by novels by French writer Jean Genet – in three greatly varied filmic styles. One story, titled “Hero,” is told as a documentary; the second, called “Horror,” is reminiscent of an American “B” movie from the 1950s; and the last, “Homo,” is a dark but more straightforward “arthouse” style narrative. The three stories are told simultaneously, with the film constantly cutting from one storyline to the other as each gradually progresses. In this way, Haynes has crafted an adaptation that is faithful to the spirit of Genet’s original text, if not the letter, and his film tends to borrow rather than intersect the author’s work.



Haynes’ adaptation also transforms Genet’s figurative, metaphorical writing into a more literal visual representation. When the reader imagines a certain scene as he reads it on the page, for example, a group of schoolboys spit repeatedly at a shamed boy in the center of their circle. The boy tries to imagine that their spit is actually falling flower petals, so that he can enjoy the humiliation without shame. Haynes takes this scene and inserts it into the narrative as a flashback; he also includes actual flower petals falling from the sky in the diegesis, so that a homoerotic dreamlike scenario is created on film and the boy’s humiliation and joy can both be shown simultaneously. The boy becomes a source of internal focalization, as Branigan explains:

In internal focalization, story world and screen are meant to collapse into each other, forming a perfect identity in the name of a character…The spectator’s task is to identify the story world with the mental understanding of a specific character… Focalization represents the fact of character perception, even if we may discover later that the character misperceived and even if our misperception about the character turns out to have other consequences in our ongoing experience of the story.

Haynes keeps Genet’s three original text sources separate in the film, so that none of the three narratives affects the others. The final example of adaptation, however, adapts its source materials by blending them in a more intricate and exciting way.

Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a film based on a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. These (previously) individual stories are combined to create a new loosely-knit narrative. The film is certainly faithful to the spirit of Carver’s writing, with its depictions of ordinary people living out their mundane lives. But Short Cuts bears almost no fidelity to the letter of Carver’s stories, because Carver wrote them as separate, self-contained episodes – rather than a conglomeration in which characters from different stories meet and interact with each other, often unaware of their tenuous connections, as Altman’s film portrays them. (Altman’s film also moves the action of the short stories from Oregon to Los Angeles.)

The fluidity between the source text and the film generates a new meaning for the text. Although the spirit of the text remains largely intact, the combination of several narratives into one is emblematic of another of Branigan’s theories. “A ‘text’ is more than the material of an artifact,” he writes, “and more than the symbols materialized; a text is always subject to change according to a social consensus about the nature of the symbols that have been materialized.” Thus Altman has given new life to these disparate narratives through his filmic adaptation.

“The broader notion of the process of adaptation has much in common with interpretation theory, for in a strong sense adaptation is the appropriation of a meaning from a prior text,” Andrew writes. In Short Cuts, Altman has maintained the themes and characters of Carver’s original text, but he has also introduced new characters and, by allowing Carver’s characters to interact, he has also subtly augmented each of the original short stories. In addition, traits that Carver attributed to one character might be present in a different character in Altman’s adaptation, and events in the film narrative occasionally occur in a different order or to different characters than Carver wrote.

Unlike GoodFellas, Short Cuts has no external narration. And unlike Poison, Short Cuts includes no flashbacks. Instead, the narrative shifts rapidly from one story element to another, allowing events to unfold naturally. Without flashback or a nondiegetic narrator, the spectator of the film is assumed to have a greater knowledge of the causal chain than any of the characters within the world of film do.

Whereas Genet’s writing is ornate and laden with imagery (and therefore much of the original content is understandably lost in the transfer from the written word to the silver screen), Carver’s is sparse, so that the character’s actions and thoughts principally drive the narrative. This allows Altman more freedom in his adaptation, because he can be faithful to the text without having to bend the film’s visuals to fit a particular mental image.

Seymour Chatman contends in his article “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (And Vice Versa)” that the dominant mode of writing is assertive, while the dominant mode of the cinema is presentational. This is because, as Chatman argues, it is nearly impossible to halt the movement of the narrative of a film, while a written text might be able to pause for a paragraph of description. This is one of the greatest challenges of any adaptation from literature to film: even a close-up or freeze frame can still only show an image; the film cannot speak directly to the viewer to tell him what he is seeing.

“That the camera depicts but does not describe seems confirmed by a term often used by literary critics to characterize neutral, ‘non-narrated’ Heminwayesque fiction – the camera eye style,” Chatman writes. Robert Altman’s films typically employ a “fly-on-the-wall” approach, jumping between several different storylines and observing characters who seem to act completely naturally. Short Cuts is exemplary of this style of filmmaking, creating a more intimate feel that is closely evocative of Carver’s original text.

Short Cuts, Poison and GoodFellas, as well as other filmic adaptations, all raise the issue of reflexivity in the process of adapting words to film. Reflexivity, in terms of the cinema, can be loosely defined as the elements that self-consciously draw attention to the filmmaking process and to the fact that the film viewer is, in fact, watching a film. All of the above examples feature elements of reflexivity.

As I mentioned at the outset of this essay, the very presence of a film’s opening credits – especially in the case of a film adapted from an earlier text – draws attention to the fact that it has been constructed into its current form for the viewer to enjoy. However, each of the films that have been cited above as examples of adaptations is reflexive for a wider variety of reasons.

GoodFellas utilizes voice-over narration to speak directly to the audience. This method of storytelling cannot be duplicated in reality, and thus is uniquely cinematic. Additionally, the narrative is condensed so that time passes much more quickly than would be possible outside of the cinema.

In Poison, three distinct narratives unfold simultaneously, in a way that highlights the editing of the film. More importantly, however, are the stylistic differences among the separate parts. The documentary section assumes a familiarity with and understanding of non-fiction film, and thus tries to achieve realism in a highly stylized way. Similarly, the portions of the film that replicate a Cold War-era, black and white horror film rely on the audience’s basic knowledge of American film history to as the foundation of recognition and amusement at the homage.

Short Cuts is similar to Poison in that it tells multiple stories at once, but these combine to form one cohesive narrative. Editing is essential to the film’s successful execution. But because it takes place in L.A., the film is also reflexive in that some characters work in the entertainment industry, one is learning to be a makeup artist, one is a news anchor, and another winds up as a sort of “man on the street” on the local news broadcast. This draws attention to the television medium, which also serves to remind the audience of the cinema, in a way.

Any discussion of film adaptations cannot be limited to the above examples, but at the same time, these recent films offer, both separately and together, a wide cross section of the possibilities of the leap from literature to film. The works of film theorists Edward Branigan, Dudley Andrew and Seymour Chatman further explicate the varied relevance of adaptations to other elements of cinema studies.

This essay was written Dec. 2006 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “Film Theory.”