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Adaptation: text to screen > summary table > learn more

This section is written by Cathy Poole, Head of Learning at Watershed, and should be read in conjunction with Nicola Williams’ notes about adaptation in the Making the Film section of this learning resource.

from story to screen…

Filmmakers are always looking for stories to make into films. Literary texts provide a rich source. The most commonly adapted texts are novels and plays - for instance the work of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde have been adapted regularly throughout the decades since film began.

While poetry is less common as a source for filmmakers, there are some visually stunning examples, for instance Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s ‘Night Mail’,1936, from WH Auden’s poem, ‘This is the Night Mail’, and Sandra Lahire’s filmic response to Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’, 1991. Most recent is Dal Yma Nawr / Still Here Now, an anthology of Welsh verse from the 6th century to the present day, beautifully brought to the screen by director, Marc Evans

Academics highlight three differing approaches to novel adaptation:

  1. films within which the original text is treated as sacred;
  2. films which retain the essence of their source, but which involve a fair bit of reinterpretation;
  3. films where the filmmaker borrows aspects of the story, but uses it as a launching pad for new invention.

Philip French speaks of ‘films that feed off, quote from, expand and imaginatively reinvent familiar texts.’ Philip French, Observer Review, 12.04.98

Discussion about poetry and the screen takes a slightly different direction. Peter Todd, who curates programmes of film poems and poetry-films draws on the work of William C. Wees;

‘Rather than making a film to ‘illustrate’ a poem or using a poem to ‘accompany’ a film, a number of avant-garde film and video makers have created a synthesis of poetry and film that generates associations, connotations and metaphors neither the verbal nor the visual text would produce on its own.’

While it would be inaccurate to describe Nicola Williams as an avant-garde filmmaker, it is worth thinking about how The Wrong Flowers poem and film work together. What it is that the film, The Wrong Flowers gains from the poem which inspired it? What does the poem gain from its adaptation to film? How do the two generate metaphors which could not have been produced individually? Above all, what is it that we, the audience, gain from this new text?

Typically adaptations of literary texts treat their source material in a number of different ways. Characters or events are often either added or taken out, depending upon their relevance to the film’s message. In The Wrong Flowers, for instance, Maureen, the friend, is added, and it is through her character that we get a stronger sense of Brenda’s experience of school. She draws attention to the impact of the schoolyard bullying on Brenda. See Adding a character in Nicola Williams’ notes on Planning in the Making the film section.

When conveying character, the tools available are different for the writer and for the filmmaker, with the filmmaker engaging the aural and the visual. Voice, body language, gait and dress are the essentials. Characters’ thoughts and feelings shown in interior monologue in a novel are expressed visually in film - actions, gestures, facial expression, behaviour, responses to others. The background in which the story is set and the use of colour also contributes significantly to our understanding of characters’ feelings. In the poem, The Wrong Flowers, we hear from Brenda about her experience. The bright green of the fields with the yellow and purple flowers where young Brenda walks with her father, compared with the grey of the schoolroom, make evident the contrasting emotions she felt during her childhood.

A writer uses tense to convey past events, a filmmaker employs the flashback. The Wrong Flowers animates Brenda’s memories of childhood, and because memory is not linear, the film moves around in time, with adult Brenda seen at the beginning, preparing the audience to experience her memories. The image that follows is of Brenda looking longingly into the playground through the bars of a gate or fence which is keeping her out. It is only later in the film that we see the teacher’s and pupils’ attitudes to her in school and the final meeting between teacher and parent which leads to her departure to another school.

In film, point of view can be established through showing the character and then showing in the subsequent series of shots what it is they are looking at or thinking about. In the poem The Wrong Flowers, the voice is that of the adult Brenda, talking about her childhood. In the film we see young Brenda’s view of the school playground from the outside looking in. Camera angle can also be used to suggest point of view and power relationships, as is shown during Brenda’s last day at school. Miss Thomas, the teacher, and Brenda’s father are seen looking down on Brenda, the camera is low down looking up at them like Brenda herself. This shot makes the adults look powerful and dominating in relation to the child Brenda.

Although some authors write the screenplay for the film of their book, or become an advisor on set, as did, Ayub Khan Din on East is East, the film of his play, there are many examples where the writer has had nothing to do with the film’s script. In the case of the film The Wrong Flowers, there was lengthy discussion about what Brenda wanted to see in the film of her poem right from the outset, and writer and director Nicola Williams wrote the script in response to Brenda’s ideas.

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