Terry Teachout recently put up a provocative post on the adaptation of fiction into film in which he raises at least two very interesting issues. The first has to do with the critic's responsibilities in reviewing films adapted from fiction:
. . .full-time film reviewers. . .rarely have sufficient time to do the research that would allow them to intelligently compare film adaptations to their sources. The classics, yes—we all at least pretend to have read them—and it’s also taken for granted that film-to-source comparisons will be made in the case of Gone With the Wind-type blockbusters, if only because the first thing everybody wants to know about such films is how faithful the screen version is to the original book. But when it comes to old movies adapted from obscure novels, who bothers?
Terry seems to conclude that finally it isn't necessary to read the book from which a film has been adapted, affirming the principle more or less accepted ever since George Bluestone's Novels Into Film (1957) that fiction and film are separate media embodying separate artististic ambitions that need to be judged by critical standards appropriate to each. And as Lance Mannion points out in a response to Terry's post, "it's generally agreed around Hollywood that the best movies are made from the worst novels." In other words, the artistic goals of the two media are so disinctive that, by and large, good novels almost never make good films (they were not written to be films in the first place), whereas bad or pulpy novels, which often borrow heavily from movie conventions and are usually so focused on plot or punchy dialogue they can be adapted fairly directly, often make great ones. They were movie-friendly to begin with.
But Terry draws another conclusion from this that strikes me as rather peculiar. "Most of us prose-oriented types," he writes, "have a sneaking suspicion that film is by definition a lesser art form than the novel. We like the idea that every word of a novel is personally written by the person who signs it (even though we also know that an anonymous editor may well have played a more or less substantial part in its creation). . . ." Although he accepts that "[i]t’s the work that matters, not the attribution," still "there’s a difference between knowing that to be true and feeling it in your bones. It takes a special kind of confidence to buy an unsigned painting without a provenance, based solely on the evidence of your eye. Most of us aren't nearly so sure of ourselves. We like to see that signature in the lower right-hand corner." Speaking as a "prose-oriented type" myself, I don't believe that "film is by definition a lesser art form than the novel," just that it's different, and different in ways that are important to remember. What's most peculiar in this passage, however, is the apparently Romantic preference (I wouldn't have expected Terry Teachout to express such a preference) for the "signature," the assurance that the work in question is the product of individual vision. Would Terry think less of Shakepeare's plays if it were discovered that not just one or two of them had been written in collaboration with other playwrights, but several of them, even some of the best ones? I would not, but if he really believes what he says here, one would have to conclude that Terry Teachout would have second thoughts about them.
The second issue has to do with the so-called "auteur theory." Writes Teachout: "Film, after all, is a radically collaborative process in which creative responsibility can only be assigned tentatively and on a case-by-case basis. This is something that all but the most rabid auteuristes accept as a given. . . ." And later: "In short, most of us stubbornly persist in believing in aesthetic heroes, a belief which I think goes a long way toward explaining why the auteur theory caught on. It goes against human nature to accept the attributional ambiguity inherent in the process of making films, in the same way that you’d think less of, say, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony were some musicologist to discover that it had been orchestrated by a student of the composer." Terry thinks the auteur theory goes too far in assigning "authorship" of films to the director, that it doesn't sufficiently account for the "radically collaborative process" of making films. The "radically" here is telling. Plenty of art forms are collaborative: classical music (where would the composer be without the orchestra?), dance, theater, etc. Why is film "radically collaborative"? Is it more collaborative than opera?
I understand that the word "auteur" has been horribly abused by those who, if they've read the Cahiers du Cinema critics or their American followers at all, have interpreted the notion of the cinematic "auteur" in the most simplistic and reductive ways. However, it is worth remembering that the auteur critics were responding precisely to the collaborative nature of filmmaking and were attempting to rescue, specifically, American cinema from the assumption that this sort of collaboration meant films could not be accomplished works of art. If movies were in effect assembled rather than made, if creative responsibility was too dispersed for the result to be considered artful in any meaningful way, why were so many films from the 1930s and 40s (or from the silent era, for that matter) so good? The auteurists posited that directors were in the best position to provide a film with its signature style and outlook, and that the best directors (not all directors) did just that, as any careful analysis of the body of work of a John Ford or an Alfred Hitchcock would manifestly show. Can anyone really examine the careers of directors like these and deny that their films are of a piece, products of an artistic vision as coherent as any other artist's, and this despite the fact that the screenplays of their films were mostly written by other and diverse hands?
For people like Truffaut and Godard--later Andrew Sarris--directors like these were indeed "aesthetic heroes." (Although perhaps Sarris could be charged with diluting the strength of the auteur theory in his book The American Cinema by in effect spreading it too thin, celebrating too many truly minor directors at the expense of obviously accomplished writer-directors such as Billy Wilder. Still, The American Cinema remains one of the most consequential books I've ever read, having literally changed the way I watch movies.) Perhaps Terry is only explaining why movies do still appeal to us as works of art, challenge us to account for this effect by identifying the "artistry" involved. In this sense, something like the auteur theory was inevitable. It has resulted in its share of excess in its application, and any number of hack directors have illegitimately claimed its favors, but it did indeed save many great movies from unwarranted neglect.
Since TEV has worked as a screenwriter, I'd be very interested in his views on this subject.