A judicious, critical management of documentary evidence allows history to get as close as possible to the facts of the past; then as it was then.
Radio in the Movies : A History and Filmography, 1926-2010
Memory is the past remembered and reconstructed through the lens of the present and its building blocks. They must entertain the sensibilities of the present. Anachronism is their delight and pleasure. Memory is their very breath. So history inevitably gets short-changed in movies—with some notable exceptions. Third, with regard to the history of ideas, one distinguishes between an older meaning of literature as literacy and the cultivation of reading dominant through the eighteenth century and a newer reality and reference to literature as a body of writing which contrasts with erudition and which emphasizes wit, talent, and taste which begins to dominate the older meaning by the end of the eighteenth century.
Thus the movie-history relation is more a connection rather than a similarity, an association rather than nearness. The difference is subtle but meaningful. The viewer can expect a movie to be like literature. But can you expect a movie to be history? Two exceptions of note which prove the rule with regard to movies and history are documentary cinema and raw footage.
Documentary cinema has a closer relation to history. Though documentary is relied upon as objective fact, as proven support for something, it can easily be a constructed, subjective artifact and be synonymous with social persuasion or propaganda. This is not a problem, but an asset for documentary, and a point to which this essay shall return. One outstanding case of stock shot would be the Zapruder Film. This was the only live movie made of the John F. Kennedy assassination of November 22, by amateur cameraman and garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder of Dallas, Texas.
The vitality of adaptation and influence evolved in Western culture through various epochs down to the European Age of the Enlightenment, when the proprietary concept of plagiarism came into common play. Prior to that, new versions of old tales, such as European medieval romances, were considered to refurbish and refit stories that had been told before and would be told again and again. There was once a much stronger sense of the common property of culture. The change that came about during the European Enlightenment had to do with owning painting and art criticism, literature, natural philosophy, history, and music.
The originality, stylistic authority and proprietary rights of a composer and a composition became a major factor in the production, adaptation, and consumption of culture. This was capped by a new sense of individualism, a term and concept which did not come into common use in the English language until the early s.
The Augustan poet, satirist, and translator Alexander Pope — was the first outstanding Anglo-American example of this. Precedents for plagiarism existed. Which, in turn, was followed in the newly minted United States by the first U. Copyright Act of The concept and practice of adaptation as a break from the original creation, and not as a refitting flourished once copyright and plagiarism were written into the granite of the law.
Final introductory note: This essay about adapting history and literature into film is a cultural history approach to the question of cinematographic adaptation. It highlights concern for cultural translation, with how the culture and language of the past has been transformed into the present. Culture is not handed on like a baton in a relay race from one generation to another or from one nation to another. As it evolves, culture has to be reproduced. My a priori assumption is that all knowledge is gained and perpetuated by the close association between the human mind, spirit, and body conditioned by the environment of its time.
Man is his own maker. The ancient art and craft of adaptive communication means recreation. Beneath the surface of a story refurbished over the ages and updated by different media lies a heritage of useful knowledge which adds to well-being in proportion as it is communicated. The genesis of the forms themselves can now help us to figure out the relationship of literature to film, the written word to the visual image. But movies do more. Movies are distinct from both literature and history because a movie has to move on multiple tracks, combine two or more types of media.
As the German American film theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim — noted in , a movie is a composite work of art which:. History has also assimilated different genres. But, more importantly, it has traditionally been considered to be of two sorts: the biographies of great people or the story of ordinary folk. This began as the long-standing distinction in history between the work of Thucydides and that of Herodotus.
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Thucydides wrote heroic political history which emphasized the interrelations of the highly privileged. Thucydides reserved the moral drama of historical tragedy for an elite as did literature until the modern, industrial age. His tone was colloquial rather than terse, his narrative was far more about people than abstractions. It is not the past of the books,. The American playwright, movie director and screenwriter David Mamet — has put the matter more succinctly in basic building terms. The protean blends of history and cinema match nicely in the epic spectacular.
Like a documentary, an epic spectacular owes a great deal of its effectiveness to the coherence and apparent authenticity of all elements in the film. The set is a spine that must exist so the body of the movie can exist. The director must bring spine and body to life. And so history appears to be reborn in the epic movie.
Authentic setting both enhances the veracity of an epic movie and gives the popular audience a tantalizing insight into the people and places that helped to make history happen. Of course, this was a gross factual error. The creative point was not to achieve one hundred percent factual, historical accuracy, but to attain the emotional perspective of epic space.
In character terms, the late Charlton Heston was beautifully cast with his stern, hawk-like features, intense, stoic expression, and sinewy, athletic frame. The point being that historical accuracy in the movie context should be judged by different rules than the dialectical, academic context of history. Personal preferences exist, but each medium reaches the heights in its own way.
It means coherence. It means history recast into fresh dramatic form. It is a movie business formula that has produced hokum and rubbish, but also cinematic masterpieces and cutting-edge advances in narrative form and multimedia technology. In American cinema, it is a formula that has worked from D. One last point about the material and conceptual nature of literature, history, and movies. Literature and history must have the word— logos. The medium of movies needs images in motion which are conveyed by a projection on to a screen.
In all works of art there is a hierarchy of media. For movies the image, iconos , dominates. A movie gets to places literature and history do not. And then it delivers that place to its audience in a way literature and history cannot.
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The audience, in turn, must use their eyes for a movie to work. After all, are not literature and history forms of communication which are more available to a blind person? With literature and history the audience sees with their inner eye, not as much with their outer, physical eye. Cinema also needs electricity. Movies could never have existed without the necessary technology. Print advanced literature beyond the spoken word and the written page and allowed mass media. But technology midwifed movies into their very existence. Technological determinism has played a much greater part in the creation of movies.
From its modern inception, the technology also helps to distinguish the entertainment film from the documentary. In the American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison created the first film company to make and show movies to the public. The Edison Company filmed in a tar paper barn set on a swivel, in which the roof could be opened or closed so as to adjust to the sun. Thus Edison began with a vaudeville parade: dancers, jugglers, contortionists, magicians, strong men, boxers, cowboy rope twirlers. However, vigorous, mobile entertainment existed prior to the new technology—the street theater, the carnival, and the enthusiastic links of circus rings.
So it was not the technology alone that provided the creative genesis. The novel dates back at least to Heliodorus third century A. In the long run the novel is a far more formal genre and has been a more creative medium than film. Both novel and literature are preindustrial arts, but movies are an industrial art. The novel also has a lengthy record as a class-oriented medium. For centuries the novel relied on the upper and middle-class elitism of literacy. Cinema was born as mass and popular cultures bloomed in urban civilizations in modern times. As critics have noted about cinema since its pre-World War One days of Nickelodeon entertainment, it is the most popular and democratic of art forms although admission did not always cost only a nickel.
Movies fed on the placenta of the popular, the common coin, and not on the support of a superior class. This is part of the special process which, together with other characteristics, helps to define American culture. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story—a story that is basically without meaning or pattern. In its relatively short run compared to literature and history, the movie business has democratically catered to wider audience needs and market demands.
At the risk of arguing by list, note that the illustrated book has been around for a very long time. The written text has a huge history of visual relationships. Indeed, has the written text ever not been illustrated? These were each an emblem book—a work of moral and religious verse based on Bible quotations in which the word text was matched by allegorical illustrations. Which is to say that America was ever a nation with a strong preference for visual communication, long before the cinema.
The entertainment industry, with movies and TV in particular, are to the United States what wine is to France or oil is to Saudi Arabia. Once twentieth-century U. The greater part of storytelling moved to the new media. When adapting from literature to film, one begins with the raw stuff, the subject matter of a short story, novella, or novel, of a play, history, biography, or with a poem, song, or folk tale. It is all good because it is ready-made and market-tested. The characters and stories are already popular. Now they have to be mass-produced. Three types of adaptation follow: loose, faithful, or literal.
The loose adaptation takes the raw stuff and reweaves it into a movie as the director, producer, or studio wishes and as the movie needs. Contemporary cultural norms are often a determining factor. One could easily imagine an effective and even momentarily pornographic adaptation of this steamy, laconic crime thriller at some point in the future.
Its eros and thanatos are deliciously extreme and invite loose play. One should wonder about action. Overall, are Americans and American cinema prone to loose adaptations because of an emphasis on action as an end in itself within the civilization? In American national tradition, a movie is a mover and a shaker, it tries to provide emotional satisfaction for it audience.
An Epic Picture! Oakie was the inveterate scene stealer with the charm of a big, friendly, flappy, hairy dog. Why not let Hoolihan-Oakie live? A traditional condition of action rather than reflection in American cinema was specially true through the s and s. Then something changed. By that time over five hundred art house or art theater halls flourished in the U. There was both an artistic and a market message here. The new generation of Baby Boomer U. At another level, the American need for action, star power, and contemporaneity which could justify loose adaptation remained.
The loose adaptation may add additional subplots and characters, change situation or setting. Some of the original, in spirit or in fact, still remains. Loose adaptation can also mean expanding only a few lines from an original text. The original Biblical story of David and Bathsheba—the approximately one thousand words of II Samuel 2—27, 1—24—is part of one of the oldest pieces of historiography in the Western world, II Samuel 9—20 and I Kings 11— As often happens with folklore or Biblical texts, star power and storyline changes heightened the interest and drama of the plot.
Their subsequent betrayal was an expression of mutual complicity. The vicarious interest of the s American women in the movie audience was heightened. Bathsheba was an agent, not just a victim. Like popular music and folk song, texts from the Bible, legends, or folklore have the nature of common property. Like popular song, the original text is anonymous or invented by an individual or group who yields it to the community.
The story or song is then modified or taken apart in performance. Arguably the most adapted source works are legends. Some film historians count the vampire legend as the single most adapted tale of all time. Could a legend be that tantalizing end point for history and beginning place for myth where all is possible? The faithful adaptation takes the literary or historical experience and tries to translate it as close as possible into the filmic experience.
Sometimes there are equivalents in film to the original way of saying or doing what happens in literature and history, and sometimes not. Faithful works from the inside out; loose works from the outside in. Loose has no problem with dismantling and reassembling, breaking up and remaking totally anew. Faithful wants to stay loyal to the intention of the original, to convey the heart and soul. The faithful adaptation has the thorny problem of the narrator and the general commentary.
The narrator is the good shepherd who guides the flock of meanings in the original, word-based text. How do you replace such an important figure without loosing direction? The movie Grapes of Wrath maintained a serious narrative tone. I believed my own story again. A strong expression of a literal adaptation is often a play performed as a movie. This includes movies filmed on stage and in performance as in the Broadway Theater Archive series A good example of an outstanding historical play literally adapted to film is Sunrise at Campobello , , adapted from the stage drama about Franklin Delano Roosevelt written by the politically engaged Dore Schary.
What happens to the play transferred to film? Well, a film has incredibly more space than a stage. A movie can literally take the scenic arrangement outside and the medium offers the director all sorts of tempting forms of physical and psychological expansion.
Film offers a variety of focused and sustained camera angles. It expands or contracts our experience by virtue of the absence of the space-time continuum. Shots in separate spaces are edited together. Different times can be spliced, joined, or blended. The everyday sequential chain of experience is removed, intensified, or rearranged.
The environment—the viewing filter of a dark theater or a quiet room—enhances the experience. This can make the literal adaptation of a visually contained text, like the rooms in Death of a Salesman , claustrophobic. Each version of Death of a Salesman is enhanced by cinematic techniques of expressionism. A movie can accordion a play up or down, enlarge it or reduce it.
The film Zoot Suit , the faithful adaptation of a play based on the historical incident of L. And the star of the day may be a Brad Pitt or an Angelina Jolie or a Tom Cruise who may or may not be appropriate for the play itself. But they have the pull to secure the part. A play as a play on stage, in contrast, concentrates and frames audience focus. On stage characters adapt to the same words and action at the same time and on the same plain. The stage space is a limited horizontal plain as opposed to the immense vertical plain of the movie screen. The stage has three dimensions and a movie two.
But the absence of the space-time continuum in a movie provides oneiric depth. This is partly created by the sensation of inevitable flow. With a theatrical stage, each member of the audience individually chooses where to look, who to listen to, or who or what to hold on to most attentively. In a movie, the camera keeps making that choice and providing the small, medium, and big picture. The camera decides what you see and where you look and even who your ears perk up to the most. The camera is your eyes, it is inevitable flow.
We cannot improve our eyes, but we can always improve the camera.
Art is risk. How well you fight your way out of it. Documentary films seek a form of literal adaptation to be historically sound. But the nature of historical truth achieved by documentary is debatable. Documentary is not a verbatim representation. As historian Erik Barnouw maintained, a documentary film director makes endless choices:. Each selection is an expression of a point of view. One can hardly imagine a documentary. It is evidence, testimony—which announces its topic, alerts our critical faculties, and at its best is part of the diverse testimony which is at the very heart of a democratic process.
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A documentary is not fiction but faith. A documentary provides objective reality filtered. It began literally as a time of war film. It was initially screened in the U. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government. It is a social ritual which overrides individual distinctions and in which people freely engage in order to communicate with the collective, cultural self.
PBS programs a common, national schedule. Yet PBS is locally based in a non-profit organization a university, state agency, or community organization. And it is watched by about one third of the U. Its programs are not flashy frames for ads, as network TV can easily be.
It seeks to accommodate itself to the actual community. Third, among the viewers who saw The Civil War enthusiastically it was common to find this documentary called the best history lesson they ever had. Burns, in a very real way, is that special teacher most of us have who convinces us for a while that there is, indeed, interest to be plumbed where there was never interest before. I think it surely ought to be retold for every generation. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another. Lastly, Burns takes his reading of the Civil War beyond maudlin grief and woe.
The documentary updates the event by an integrated synthesis which involves the deep witness of the popular, ordinary viewpoint given by common soldiers, farmers, workers, immigrants, tradesmen and women of all minorities. The traditional occupation of transcendent ideals, the strategies and statistics of battles, the doings of great men and women is subdued—but not omitted. He makes of the event a story of tragic reconciliation. It was a sublimely satisfying sacrifice. There have been about six hundred significant film and TV productions which have incorporated Abraham Lincoln, not counting his use in everything from TV variety to new programs.
Lincoln was ready-made, market-tested, already popular and in the public domain—waiting to be mass-produced. He had also been a very entertaining man. Thus Lincoln the humorist became a great source of ongoing public entertainment. And he was far and away the most beguiling and diverting of early U. Finally, the subject matter of Lincoln, the Civil War, and slavery in fiction, film, or historical renditions has been a way Americans have tried to come to terms with tragedy.
As the U. He is a figure Americans can publicly turn to in times of trial. It is striking how Lincoln was quoted or noted on U. But Lincoln can also be dismissed, rejected, neglected, readjusted. Just like tragedy itself in the U. Is this true? How important in a movie are words? How important that language itself be proper to the filmic experience?
Could it be that the more outstanding the use of language is in a movie, the more it stands out and might even displace the viewing of a story. In , I revealed I had seen movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals. Plot: Out of work vaudeville star Frankie Merriweather Morgan is trying to break into radio.
Trying to figure out how to get back into his career and pay alimony to three ex-wives, Frankie gets his children Grey, Lynn, Nunn into the act. Mickey Rooney and Hedy Lamarr sound like they are not the real actors doing the voice over. Frank Morgan has to earn money to pay alimony to three wives. Frank Morgan and Virginia Grey are the leads in this film, and while they were famous and appeared in several films, they generally were supporting roles in larger budget MGM movies.