How many times have you compared a movie to a book on which it was based and concluded that the book was better than the movie? And how many times did you think that is a typically modern question, one that we take for granted and think it’s an obvious question to ask? In fact, when a movie is based on a book, the comparison between the two seems inevitable. But why should it be? Why should we ask the question at all? The questions we ask are based on the assumptions we make, like the movies made after the books that inspired them.
It seems to me that the assumption behind the comparison between movies and the books they are based on goes to the heart of the modern project, that is the desire for precision and the impulse towards objectification. Loose connections are not welcome, nor are vagueness and plasticity mainstream virtues. The modern mind wants things clear, lines straight and the object of scrutiny conveniently lifted from the maelstrom of accidents in which it happens to be. When it comes to movies based on books, we need to see the correspondences clearly, to follow the book in the movie, and the measure of such a film’s success is the faithfulness to the book it is based on. What we call faithfulness (and how many times have you heard the question: is the movie faithful to the book?) is in fact the result of our expectation that works of art may have value outside their own materiality only insofar as they are transpositions in other media. In other words, we don’t much care about the kind of adaptation and reception on which pre-modern literature and art is based, whereby the links between the objects, inspirer and inspired, may be extremely loose and imaginative. We appreciate intertextuality, but only when it’s clearly expressed. When it’s not, we either don’t notice it, or we feel something’s not right.
Pre-modern literature was based on loose correspondences, allegorical reformulations and a myriad of subtle links expanding in all directions. Ancient literature is a fractal landscape, patterns, motifs, themes and facets spawning new ones, echoing each other ad infinitum. Modernity did away with all that by sacralising the artwork, putting it on a pedestal which lifts it from the organic soil where it may have bred other specimens, allowing it to become myth.