So the question before us is not about the shooting script, but the continuity script. We want to know whether the task of preserving a story from the finished, continuity script to the finished film is a significant aesthetic achievement. Screenplays vary in how much detail they specify.
Ordinarily, they specify the beginning and ends of scenes, significant actions and events that occur, and dialogue. Screenplays for silent films are an interesting case.
Some silent screenplays actually include a story synopsis. Of course, it is easy to imagine that one could alter the mood or the themes in translating the screenplay into a film. Perhaps one might object as follows. As Ted Nannicelli puts it, screenplays, unlike play scripts, are not work-determinative. However, this does not seem to be the case with films. Two films that are produced using the same screenplay are not thereby the same film—in fact they could not be. There are, in fact, very few examples of the same finished screenplay being used more than once.
Even if a remake uses the same shooting script as the original, the final script is often quite different. But in both cases, the remake is clearly a different film than the original. However, it does not follow from the fact two films are distinct artworks that the two films tell different stories.
In fact, the stories—the sequence of events that the audience is prompted to imagine—in these cases the two Psycho s and the two Prisoners of Zenda are virtually the same. And it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.
So there is normally no reason to think that merely adapting the story from literary work to film is an aesthetic achievement. We must allow, however, that there are some exceptions. In some cases, the story of a literary work poses special kinds of challenges. Sometimes a literary work offers contradictory or highly compressed descriptions of events. Because of the medium-specific differences between films and works of literature, including the temporal, visual, and sonic elements of films, in order to get audiences to know the same fictional propositions in the same order , great imagination and creativity are sometimes required.
Nonetheless, I think, such cases tend to be the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, simply adapting the story from one medium to another is not itself a significant accomplishment. The argument for the third premise has already been hinted at. Transposing a theme from one medium to another is never an obvious or straightforward matter. The transposition of a theme into a screenplay poses a very different set of challenges than transposing a story.
How one might do this depends on what the themes are, and the way themes are expressed in literary works are generally not optimal for expressing those themes cinematically. Thematic transformation may occur either at the step of converting a literary work into a screenplay, or at the step of turning the screenplay into a finished film. The screenplay vastly expands the scope and events of the original story, adding a number of major characters and most of the events.
An earlier storyline is told forwards, and is intercut with the main storyline. From a thematic point of view, the screenplay is very faithful to the short story. On the other hand, the story is almost unrecognizable. Sometimes the thematic work is done not at the stage of the screenplay but during shooting itself, using cinematic choices not necessarily specified in the screenplay. In the novel, Highsmith is able to use techniques like free indirect discourse to convey these themes, but in order to faithfully preserve these themes across different media Hitchcock had to make creative, artistic use of the distinctive features of the film medium.
Successfully preserving a theme across different media, therefore, is an accomplishment deserving of our praise and attention. Notice that this premise does not assume a much stronger claim about medium-specificity. Films can be animated, live-action, silent, black and white, 3-D, and on and on. Literature is an even broader category encompassing concrete poetry, comic books, oral sagas, some works of history, and more.
We do not need to assume that there is some set of medium-specific features that apply across all cases. The claim here is merely that adaptations that manifest significant achievements in transposing a theme from the particular distinctive features of the original literary work to the particular distinctive features of the film are to that extent aesthetically better.
However, one may object that there is nothing about thematic fidelity as such that makes the adaptive process count as an aesthetic achievement.
19. Visual Aesthetics
Some of the themes are similar—both take up patriotism and militarism—the ways in which the themes are handled are wildly different. The theses of the two films are almost opposites. The book seems to say that militant patriotism in defence of foreign threats is a virtue; the film seems to say that it is a vice.
And the film has a completely different mood than the book: the mood is dark yet funny, while the book is uplifting but sombre. From this it seems to follow that any kind of thematic transposition can be valuable, whether faithful or not.
Fiction (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
We should note first that cases like these are rare. The typical aim of adaptation is the preservation of a work from one medium to another, not the transformation of that work. Parodies are not typically counted as adaptations. For example the Abrams, Zucker, and Zucker farce Airplane! However, it does seem plausible that, even if such cases are rare, the transformation of theses, even the inversion of the theses, from a literary work to a film would constitute an aesthetic accomplishment deserving of praise.
But it does not follow from this that thematic fidelity is not a virtue. What this shows is that there are other virtues that adaptations can display. It also does not show that just any kind of thematic transposition will count as aesthetically valuable: the transposition will need to show skill, accomplishment, effort, and so on.
As is often the case in art, it is possible for a quality and its opposite order and disorder, for example to each count as excellences in particular works. Thematic fidelity is still a virtue in adaptation, even if in some cases thesis inversion can also be a virtue. This conclusion also helps us explain why it is that the question of fidelity sometimes seems rather inconsequential and other times to matter a great deal. We care about fidelity—or at least some kinds of fidelity, like thematic fidelity—because we admire the artistic imagination and effort that go into the transformation.
Other kinds of fidelity—like story fidelity—do not normally merit our aesthetic praise. Fidelity in adaptation is important; it comes in different flavours and some, but not all, of these are in fact aesthetically significant. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.
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Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume Article Contents. Fidelity Disambiguated. Is Fidelity Good? Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. He is now working on a book titled On Photography for Routledge. He grew up on the smell of D76 and Neutol WA, and supported himself through art school as a photographer.
Cynthia A. She is currently — serving as president of the American Society for Aesthetics.
Her publications include work on ancient philosophy and feminist theory as well as aesthetics, and her most recent book is Portraits and Persons. Philosophers cultivate the virtue of cool detachment, but philosophers of art must make a special effort to keep their aesthetic passions in check. Neutrality clears space for multiple perspectives and frank confrontations, but it can be fragile.
Related Once-Told Tales: An Essay in Literary Aesthetics (New Directions in Aesthetics)
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