Most people would qualify a good book-to-film adaptation as a faithful one. But unless you’re working with a DreamWorks budget, matters of finance and convenience often get in the way. (Creative expression factors in, too.)
But what are the consequences of making a not-so-faithful interpretation, whether by choice or necessity, besides the chance that you incite the ire of fanboys (“Lord of the Rings,” graphic novels like “The Watchman”) and academics (“The Count of Monte Cristo,” any and all attempts at Shakespeare)? Even bad adaptations have a chance to become cultish fan favorites, like the film version of Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” which translates the protagonist’s boozy second-person narrative into an away-from-type Michael J. Fox – though it’s mostly known for what a disappointment it was, McInerney adapted the novel himself.
To some degree it’s a matter of faith to the original’s dialogue, setting, character descriptions and so on. But it’s also important how the filmmaker conveys the author’s message. What can seem like the slightest change – shooting in a more convenient location, cutting scenes to fit a time limit – may pervert the context in which the meaning is meant to be conveyed.
Filming for the screen adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” – winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – began last year in South Africa. The novel opens with an affair between a graying, dissatisfied professor at a Cape Town technical college and a much younger student. He is white and she, the author alludes, is “coloured” (the acceptable term for mixed race in South Africa). She’s uncomfortable with the affair, and he’s eventually fired because of it. The novel follows the disgraced professor, David Lurie, from Cape Town to his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape, where they become victims of a seemingly random act of violence and must deal with the consequences in a new, post-apartheid South Africa.
In the film, parts of the University of Cape Town (where I am currently studying) substitute for Coetzee’s fictional college. The Beattie humanities and Arts Block buildings provide lecture theaters and classrooms, while UCT students and staff serve as human backdrop. If you look carefully, Professor Carrol Clarkson, an authority on Coetzee in the UCT English department, appears briefly as an extra.
“It’s funny that someone so big in the world of Coetzee studies appears in a role so small in the film,” one doctoral student said, himself studying Coetzee. “And most people won’t even realize it.”
But there are more obvious parts of the film viewers with a basic understanding of South African geography will notice. While most of the latter two-thirds of “Disgrace” take place in the Eastern Cape, filming took place a few hours north of Cape Town. Instead of simply hale green countryside, craggy mountains frame Lucy Lurie’s “farm.”
“Disgrace” was directed by Steve Jacobs and adapted by Anna Maria Monticelli. Reportedly, to Capetonians’ questions of why they hadn’t relocated to the Eastern Cape, one of the filmmaker’s said, more or less, “Well, isn’t it all the same anyway?”
The potential problems of this version of “Disgrace,” then, don’t really lie in casting actors as sexier, more physically attractive than the author describes – something I’ve often noticed in other films. (I imagine John Malkovich is fantastic in this role, although the character Lurie – not exactly a silver fox but obviously once handsome – is supposed to start out with a rather nice head of hair.) But placing a farm in the Western Cape while still suggesting it to be in a completely different part of the country compromises the film’s cultural context. The core act of violence in “Disgrace” is Coetzee’s addressing of “farm attacks” during the 1990s in South Africa. Although only a slight majority of victims were white, the attacks or robberies were often perpetrated by young, unemployed black men, and seen as acts of vengeance against white Afrikaners by black Africans in a post-apartheid state.
In a country like South Africa, assuming that everything and everywhere is “the same anyway” might have more implications than condensing the fourth installment of Harry Potter for a feature film. The history of South Africa is a complicated one, and the Eastern Cape has borne some of its heaviest blows – the original border wars between the Dutch and British colonialists and the Xhosa and Khoisan come to mind. Coetzee’s placement of the attack on Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape takes on greater meaning, symbolic in the sense of “deep time,” when one considers the especially tumultuous history between whites and blacks in the Eastern Cape concerning land ownership. To take away this added heaviness, the added years of meaning, would be to lessen the impact of the event.
Chou liked “Jurassic Park” as a book more because of its historical accuracy. E-mail her at email@example.com