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Hollywood Film Makers Mining a Literary Tradition

June 23, 1989|SHAUNA SNOW

Having become accustomed to high-speed car chases, graphic horror stories and the razzle-dazzle of computer-generated special effects, moviegoers of the 1980s may have forgotten that Hollywood's roots are buried in a far more literary soil.

It can be hoped that the poetry-based hit, "Dead Poets Society," which stars Robin Williams as a charismatic English teacher prodding seven lads at a prestigious and stuffy 1959 Vermont private school to make their lives "extraordinary," will remind us.

But "Dead Poets," laden with the words of greats such as Shakespeare and Whitman, isn't the only recent film to borrow from the movie industry's literary tradition.

In fact, recent months have brought us four film versions of classic British stories alone--the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit," a rendition of Daniel Defoe's most renowned novel in Island Pictures' "Crusoe," the rerelease of Samuel Goldwyn's 1939 version of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," and the Ken Russell-directed version of D. H. Lawrence's "The Rainbow."

If these, in addition to "Dead Poets" are any indication, perhaps the movie industry is attempting to once again give adult audiences a wider selection of mature material to choose from. In any case, these films are a good reminder of earlier days of feature film making, in which producers fervently browsed the bookshelves of 18th- and 19th-Century British fiction, digging out such adaptable classics as Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" and Dickens' "David Copperfield."

"From the beginning, Hollywood's narrative was based on classical fiction," said Garrett Stewart, a professor of English and film at UC Santa Barbara. "The genres of adventure and romance (presented in these stories) are timeless. This is what Hollywood built itself around."

Yes, Hollywood grew up with the classics, reworking these 100- and 200-year-old stories in much the same way that school children continue to reread them. And for decades, a fairly steady stream of movie versions of the works of authors such as Dickens, Hardy, Defoe, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Elliot, Henry Fielding and Henry James, was produced.

Then came the '80s, and adaptations of the classics became less common, with the decade's early years bringing us only Roman Polanski's controversial "Tess," adapted from Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" and a few interpretations of 20th-Century classical British novelists such as Edward Forster and Lawrence.

(As UC Irvine English professor Robert Newsom pointed out, Forster and Lawrence produced a type of classic story different from 18th- and 19th-Century novels. Because they were written in a time when less attention was paid to the novel, their stories were not those that people "grew up with in their adolescence" as were Dickens' and the Brontes' stories.)

While the basic motifs of classic stories-turned-film versions may not be that far removed from contemporary movie themes--the tragic love story of "Wuthering Heights" and the shipwrecked man's battle to survive and triumph over nature in "Crusoe" could be loosely compared with contemporary love stories or the battle-against-nature in Mel Gibson's "The River," for instance), but other elements--such as the settings, complexity of the characters and richness of the dialogue--can differ greatly.

But while they may be set in a 19th-Century debtors prison, involve more characters and plot turns than a contemporary soap opera, or have heroes who engage in professions--such as slave trading--that we find incomprehensible, stories presented by the classic British novelists remain extremely relevant to today's world, according to UCI's Newsom.

"There's a certain organization of culture and society that was inaugurated in the 18th Century that defines the way we are today," said Newsom, who has written books about Dickens. "It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that people first articulated the problems of the modern world. . . . The world has not changed very much since Dickens wrote."

(Interestingly, "Dead Poets" film maker Peter Weir, when describing the appeal of that story--written in 1985--has called it "rather like a good Charles Dickens novel that's full of characters and situations.")

Newsom called Dickens "the great middle-class novelist," and said that the author's appeal "continues largely because we're still living in a middle-class world." Dickens wrote about factors that remain common in today's cities, Newsom said, such as feelings of anonymity and the problems of single-parent families, in addition to child abuse, crime, sex and making money.

James Kincaid, USC's Aerol Arnold Professor of English, also cited the relevance of works by authors such as Dickens, who Kincaid said "speaks out of a depth of urgency and the recognition that (life) isn't simple--that it isn't Archie Bunker. . . .Stories from the past . . . are more honest about the pettiness, details and intricate complexities of existence."

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