How far should a screenwriter go in changing the plot of a novel when creating a film adaptation?
Michael Hauge, in Writing screenplays that sell, says that it’s a false assumption that a novel can always make a natural transition to the screen. The two forms have very different rules, he says, and the allegiance of the screenwriter should always be to the screenplay not the original novel.
This is a fair point, but it begs the question: Can a film adaptation stray so far from the original story that it produces a story that’s less than the original?
Take as an illustration The Four Feathers, a 1902 novel by A.E.W Mason, which has been adapted for the screen as many as seven times. Two very different approaches are taken in the 1939 film adaption (directed by Zoltan Korda) and the 2002 film adaptation (directed by Shekhar Kapur).
Set in 1880s during the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan, the novel is about honour, atonement and redemption. Harry Feversham, a young officer, resigns his commission on hearing that his regiment has orders to leave for Egypt. He has been plagued since childhood by the fear of becoming a coward and failing to live up the expectations of his military father and forebears.
He fails to see the consequences of resigning on the eve of war and is sent white feathers, a sign of cowardice, by three of his brother officers. His fiancée Ethne Eustace rashly gives him a fourth and breaks off contact with him. In an effort to redeem himself, he follows the army to the Sudan in that hope of performing an act of courage that will impel those who sent the feathers to take them back.
The novel and the two film adaptations take different paths to deliver the story. Harry is surprisingly absent from large parts of the novel, his progress being revealed through the accounts of other characters. Shifting the focus between so many characters would be too much for a 120 minute film, and the screenplays understandably focus primarily on Harry.
But there is less excuse for other omissions. The opening chapter of the book sees Harry as a boy sitting at his father’s table during a reunion of retired officers from the Crimea. Harry is fascinated but afraid of the stories he hears from the battlefield. Two in particular affect him deeply – they are stories of officers who broke in the heat of battle: both eventually kill themselves. Later on the stairs, the young Harry is seen to be staring in terror at the portraits of his military ancestors, afraid that he will not live up to them.
These two scenes are crucial for understanding Harry’s motivation. The 1939 version sensibly includes them in exact detail. But the 2002 film adaption leaves them out altogether, inexplicably opening at a brutal rugby match with Harry and his officer friends as participants. Without the childhood scenes of Harry, the 2002 screenplay struggles to explain why Harry resigns on the eve of war.
Both films err in overstating the friendship between Harry and the officers who send him the feathers. The 1939 film adaptation makes Jack Durrance, Harry’s best friend, one of these. It justifies this departure from the novel because of the role Harry will later play in saving Jack’s life. But in the 2002 film Harry appears to be such good friends with the others that the screenplay struggles to make sense of the scene where his good friends collectively decide to send him the white feathers.
Both screenplays devote time to the growing relationship between Ethne and Jack. But by reducing this to a sub-plot, they fail to examine and explain Ethne’s reason’s for choosing to entertain marriage to a man she does not love. This is her atonement for the part she has played in ruining another life.
For a novel set in and around the campaign in the Sudan it comes as a surprise that it contains no battle scenes. The closest the novel comes is a brief reference to the death at the Battle of Tamai of Castleton, one of the officers who sent Harry a white feather.
By contrast both films use battles as part of the narrative. The 1939 version is perhaps more successful in integrating this into the plot, setting up the opportunity for Harry to save his brother officers. The 2002 film adaption seems to take this to extreme, setting up the battle as a critical part of the plot. It is arguable that the simplification of the plot for the screen dictates that a set-piece battle sequence exist. It’s absence would leave a hole in the plot. But it’s a stretch of the plot of the novel. It’s presence in the 2002 screenplay seems to be no more than a reflection of the battle in the 1939 version.
Another addition is a scene early in the Sudan, where Jack and the others pursue and kill a Sudanese sniper. It stands out as a moment of incongruent modernity, more reminiscent of a police chase through modern inner city alleys than 1880s Sudan. Its purpose in the plot is unclear, perhaps it is supposed to be a reflection of modern-day presence in Afghanistan, or give context to the British presence in the Sudan. In any case, it adds nothing to the plot.
Perhaps the greatest invention belongs to the 2002 film adaptation, and that is the character Abou Fatma, who is portrayed as a Sudanese warrior. Fatma saves Harry’s life, and befriends and protects him at considerable risk to himself. In this version, Harry is only able succeed in his struggle because of the support of this noble warrior. He is so central to Harry’s success, that without him Harry is no more than a bumbling fool stumbling from one life threatening crisis to the next.
Do the screenwriter’s changes make the film adaptation a better story?
As always, this is going to be a matter of opinion. It depends on whether the turning points of the story are better understood in the screenplay or the novel:
- Why does Harry resign his commission?
- When he realises the mistake Harry has made, what drives him to pursue the course of action he follows?
- Why does Ethne commit herself to marrying Jack, a man she does not love?
In contrast to the 1939 screenplay, the 2002 screenplay makes none of these any clearer. This is not an easy story to bring to the screen: in its original form the story spans many years, its central event is grounded in Victorian viewpoint and morality, and the plot shifts between characters throughout. But by radically altering the plot and reimagining the story through a confused, post-colonial point of view, the 2002 film adaptation goes too far from the original and loses the plot.