SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

From screen to stage and page – what’s in an adaptation?  

Casablanca, by Rotterdam’s Scapino Ballet has been touring for some months. The tour culminates in The Hague and Amersfort at the end of February.

Casablanca is an adaptation of 1940’s Hollywood classic of the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Yet a peek at the preview of the Scapino version reveals very few initial similarities – quite the opposite in fact. Choreographer, Ed Wubbe, talks instead of their shared themes – passion, freedom and a longing for a better world.

Adaptations have a way of inviting controversy. They provide as with a precedent, against which to judge the new comer. This can and has caused many heated debates over just how far an adaptation should stray from the original before such a label becomes redundant. Or why one might choose to adapt a work of art from one medium to another? What is lost or gained in such a transition? In fact, there is a whole academic discipline within the Arts, typically known as adaptation studies that dedicates itself to exploring exactly these kinds of questions.

The fact is, adaptations are popular. As Philip Fisher of the British Theatre guide points out – producers have long known that the surest commercial successes usually come from adaptations. Nowadays the majority of new, large-scale productions borrow from other media. Take books, for example, yet another adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s famous Great Gatsby, this time by the UK’s Northern Ballet, premiers early next month. While last October saw the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada perform an adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

Not to be outdone, Manchester’s new €200 million arts venue, Factory International, designed by Dutch architect, Ellen van Loon, will open in October of this year. An adaptation of Matrix, a dance extravaganza, called Free Your Mind will be the opening production. Directed by Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame, this immersive experience will involve special visual effects, professional dancers and hundreds of Manchester participants coming together to recreate scenes from the Matrix.   

So what’s in an adaptation and why do we love them so? In the arts, a long-running debate questions whether content or form is more important. Naturally the ancient Greeks weighed in on this – Plato arguing for the beauty of truth of purpose (content) while others, calling themselves aesthetes sing the praises of form. Oscar Wilde was on the side of the latter.  In fact, his Picture of Dorian Gray addresses just this issue. The wisest among us know however that the very best art is a magic combination of both content and form. When these two parts fit together like hand in glove, few fail to be impressed.

So where does this leave the issue of adaptation? I think back to Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Venice Beach, California, with a set of young Hollywood stars – Leonardo Di Caprio, Clare Danes and Harold Perrineau. Add to this generous helpings of gang-based gun violence, iconic Catholic imagery, money and power and you have the ingredients for one of the most radically successful adaptations of modern times. Ironically, the script remained unchanged – Shakespearean language was used throughout and the result is seamless. Many works of art borrow from the creativity of others but the best adaptations combine old ingredients in new, exciting, sometimes breath-taking, ways. These adaptations are excellent works of art in their own right.

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