Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Curious Case of Updating the Classics (The War on the Period)

One of my favourite artistic not-quite-a-myth but definite-not-a-truism is on that intimates an artistic work cannot succeed in an audience’s view if the world it creates is not one like his. It’s somewhat of a dilution of the generally more accurate adage that (esp.) thematically artistic work must have the ability to transcend time and society. I accede. Somewhere along the line, though, a belief in that adage has turned in something of a renouncement on the standard period piece. It’s a tetchy issue to extrapolate in itself, especially since that issue precipitates a host of others most significantly – perhaps – the general amateur critic’s view that the AMPAS is unduly obsessed with the “period” piece; an issue regardless of its actual veracity I’m not specifically committed to arguing on either side of the issue. What intrigues me most about the slow, but nonetheless significant, movement away from the period is the effect it seems to have on literary adaptations.

(For the record, I find the term “period piece” to be one of the most inherently problematic ones in movie-critiquing jargon. The umbrella term has become ad hominem for any film taking place in the 1960s or earlier. Considering that pre-1960 gives us 1960 years of movie fodder and the post 1960 gives us about 50 only shows the oddity in criticising the prevalence of “period pieces”, but maybe the issue is the prevalence of a specific period in period history. And, I’ve digressed – I’ll move on.)

The subject has been one meandering through my brain for some time now, but the situation came to a head when the news of Christian Carmago’s directorial by way of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull “which will set The Seagull in rural New England” was being streamlined. balk at the idea of sounding like a literary pedant, but this is one in a line of “updated” takes on classics that’s getting me the slightest bit chagrined. Really now, what gives? Theme. I’m from the (literary theory) school of thought that every artistic work, essentially, comes down to thematic thrust (even the most decadently aesthetic pieces). We appreciate films, like any other art form, because their themes are resounding, because their theses touch something in us irrespective of language, race or era. (Additionally, it made me sad because the plans for the traditional adaptation of the play with Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan never came to fruition, coming off their successful run on Broadway.)I

Take for example Charles Huddleston’s imminent adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Literature enthusiasts would know that the film has something of a controversial history with the tale of the unsatisfied wife who eventually leaves her husband and children at the end. It was something of a shock to the Victorian ideals of the 19th century, and viewed from our contemporary world today it’s interesting to considering how different marriage was regarded. Nonetheless, an adaptation is imminent and apparently it’s not a straight literary adaptation, but an updated spin on the tale. It replaces the debt issues of the 19th century with the current American economic crises. And, I think – why? I’d assume Huddleston is keen on noting how despite the more than a century since Nora’s issues in Ibsen’s play we might not have come as far as we thought. If so, I accede. But, is it essential for that to be evinced by “updating the play”.

It’s not just because I’m unwilling to accept change with classics, because it’s hardly the case. Why update a film to make its themes hit home more effectively with a contemporary audience? Can’t the film audience be given more credit – won’t they’ be able to espy the thematic parallels in a film which doesn’t look like the world in which they live? Couldn’t the filmmakers have enough trust in their films to believe that they can get their thematic point across by having to resort to a contemporary setting? As good a film as Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was it essential for it to be set in contemporary Rome?

Who knows, perhaps I pontificate needlessly. But, each time I hear a film adaptation of some classic piece being “updated” I roll my eyes a little. It’s en vogue at the moment, but unless the filmmaker can submit a significant reason as to why I’m generally blasé on the trend.

Do I over think the situation or is it a significant bugbear?

1 comment:

ruth said...

It is a tricky trend because as you said, unless the filmmaker is super talented and can add something really intriguing to it, then I wish they stay away from it. I did like Branagh's HAMLET which was updated to the 19th century but kept the Shakespearean dialogue intact.