Novels into Film

George Bluestone,
Novels into Film.
Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press. Paperback edition. 2003. (first published Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore Maryland, 1957)
ISBN: 0 80187 386 X
US$25 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by John Hopkins University Press)

There can be many reasons for re-publishing a book. It may be so popular that it acquires new readers in every generation, all clamouring for the right to possess their own copy. An author may wish to revise a work of non-fiction, to take new debates into account. Or a work may have been so ground-breaking that it remains a core text – still essential to the on-going debate, whether later work transcends or even invalidates it. So, why re-publish this particular volume, after nearly fifty years?

First, it is not a fiction, and it circulates through second-hand bookshops in one of the several printings, so there is unlikely to be a huge pent-up demand from either researchers or enthusiastic collectors. Second, it is simply a reprint, a re-issue of the original text rather than a revision of it. The only alteration I could identify was in the omission of the sub-title of the book – it is now just Novels into Film, rather than Novels into Film: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema. There is also the addition of a few stills from the films – evocative, reminding the reader of a film that they might not have seen for a while, but not really extending the argument profitably. So, the judgment of it will depend upon how well the original text has stood the passage of time, and whether it still has something to say in the present.

The first third of the book is a chapter on “The limits of the novel and the limits of the film”, comparing and contrasting the two as story-telling media. Bluestone starts from the premise that the novel is primarily a verbal medium, and the film primarily a visual one, and he subordinates all other aspects of the film (including the soundtrack) to the visual. He also insists that film has a closer relationship to the reality it represents than has fiction, and draws a contrast between “the novel as a conceptual and discursive form, the film as a perceptual and presentational form” (ix). In this section, the sources are the classics of early film theory (Erwin Panofsky, Rudolf Arnheim, Vachel Lindsay, Roger Manvell, Sergei Eisenstein) and literary and cultural theory of a comparable period (E.M.Forster, Henry James, Susan Sonntag, Jean-Paul Sartre). Immediately, the limitations of this discussion become obvious: in both areas, these authors are often insightful and occasionally brilliantly prescient, but debates have progressed so far, both past them and in directions that they never imagined, that conclusions drawn from them now have little more than archival value. It is, for instance, hard to remember that Bluestone is writing before the (now common) distinction was made between story and discourse.

On the other hand, he does make that distinction, albeit without using those terms. He claims autonomy for the two forms, and demands that aesthetic judgments should not be made on the basis of how well (or ill) a film “captures the essence” of a book. He considers that the novelist draws on “raw materials” from reality, which are equally available to the film maker, who uses them to produce a different form. Each should then be judged on its own merits – a fiction on literary grounds, a film in filmic terms.

In all this he is using distinctions similar to those described by Seymour Chatman (Story and Discourse) – not only between the story (the wide range of basic elements, potentially available for selection) and the discourse (the actual elements chosen for this telling of the story in this form), but also between the various voices which control the telling (the real reader, the implied reader, and the narrator). Again, he does not use these terms, and his prose is rather frustratingly convoluted in the effort to explain what he means. A modern reader may also judge as naive Bluestone’s insistence that film, unlike the novel, does not have the capacity for a narrator separate from the camera.

He is, however, ahead of his time in acknowledging the importance of the audience/reader, in the making of meaning. And his research method is still valuable, even intriguing:

The method calls for viewing the film with a shooting-script at hand. During the viewing, notations of any final changes in the editing were entered on the script. After the script had become an accurate account of the movie’s final print, it was then superimposed on the novel. Passages in the book which in no way appear on the screen were deleted; descriptive scenes which show up in the film were bracketed. Dialogue which carried over into the film was underlined, added characters noted in the margin, and so on. Before each critical evaluation, I was able to hold before me an accurate and reasonably objective record of how the film differed from its model. (p.xi)

This is a sensible compromise between the rigours of the scientific method (required of any serious scholar of the 1950s), and the exigencies of reading cultural texts, recognised in later analysis.

This first section, then, is thoroughly dated: the Hollywood studio film which Bluestone has accepted as his model for analysis, and the audience for which it was designed, have both metamorphosed, leaving the argument largely stranded. However, at the same time, the book is surprisingly up-to-date in its insistence that film and novel must be judged in their own terms. So it remains a valuable entry for the novice to the topic, provided the reader understands how this work fits into the larger picture of more recent film theoretical debates. And for the historian of film or literary theory it is still a foundation text.

The rest of the book is a series of chapters on individual films: The Informer (USA, 1935), Wuthering Heights (USA, 1939), Pride and Prejudice (USA, 1940), The Grapes of Wrath (USA, 1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (USA, 1943), and Madame Bovary (USA, 1949). These were selected for practical reasons of availability of the film and the shooting-script, but (perhaps as a result of the influence of this book) they have become standard texts for discussion of the process of adaptation. Each one addresses a particular problem – the successful film from a mediocre book, the unsuccessful film adaptation of a highly-praised book, multiple film versions from the same book, etc. The method described above is applied scrupulously, and it works. The discussion demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of both the film and the book, though this also leads inevitably to a preference for one above the other (for instance, the judgment that the film of The Informer is superior to the book), even when the original text is given no particular special rights over the material.

The author admits that his examples are drawn from a very limited list of titles – from a narrow time period (1935-1949): he is less aware of the constricted range of writing and film styles exemplified here. This selection does not address many current problems of adaptation – and indeed it is probably not capable of doing so. How, for instance, could this method be applied to modernist fictions, such as Ulysses? or to a complex text such as The Hours (USA, 2002) built upon an earlier novel?

The individual essays are all very readable – beautifully-written and carefully argued: my personal favourite is the chapter on Pride and Prejudice. However, I am left still slightly puzzled at where the market for this reprint will come from. I am uncomfortably suspicious that it may be from American college students, in courses where the lecturer has lost patience with the extremes of current film theory and is looking for something more straightforward and easy to read. Even then, this book could be the start of a serious exploration of the topic – but if it is a substitute for that serious exploration then the students are being short-changed.

Ina Bertrand
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →