[Milton-L] Beowulf, Milton, Pullman, "adaptations," etc. etc.

Mario DiCesare dicesare1 at mindspring.com
Mon Jan 21 19:59:23 EST 2008

Dear Colleagues,

I agree with most of Hannibal Hamlin's venting; the article in question 
seemed to me little short of preposterous. However, I want to pursue a 
somewhat different angle on this whole discussion.

I have to admit that I am non-plussed when people talk about film 
"versions" of literary works, and especially when they talk about a film 
as an "improvement on the original"; as Hamlin says, this is simply 
foolish. It is true that many a film starts off from, or even hews 
closely to, a particular literary work. It does not follow, however, 
that the film is a "version" of the literary work. Film is film and 
literature is literature, and to confuse them is mischievous.

I have great delight in good films which take off from books I have 
enjoyed. And I too do fall into the trap of "comparing" the film to its 
"original." But this is a trap; we shouldn't "compare" them. But 
consider all those terms: Aren't they superficial at best? It's not 
always easy to make the act of faith required to simply forget the 
"original" and accord to a film its own integrity and art form.

Recently, I saw John Huston's last film, "The Dead," for the third or 
fourth time. I found myself deeply moved by it yet again. I know Joyce's 
story well, I think, but I did not feel as I watched the film that I 
needed to impose it on the screen in front of me. I was moved by the 
film, particularly by the performance of Anjelica Huston, who plays 
Gretta Conroy. Despite the title, the film had for me a powerful sense 
of life and of love, a sense that pervades the party scenes, the aunts' 
attitudes, Gabriel Conroy's controlled presence, even Firkin's soppy 
performance that his aunts tolerate out of a tender affection. Most of 
all, that sense is there at the end, as Gabriel, moved deeply by 
Gretta's memories of Michael Furey, feels for her a profound sympathy 
(in the root sense of that word) that is nothing short of love. Huston 
conveys that sympathy extraordinarily well, I think, amid the 
too-obvious falling snow he presumably felt compelled to emphasize in 
his affection for Joyce's story.

The point is a simple and yet an elusive one: Film and literature are 
different art forms. To submit one of them to the trappings of the other 
seems to me a violation of the integrity of each. Consider the film and 
the book, each on its own terms. "Paradise Lost" needs no "improvement," 
certainly, and much as I admire Pullman's novels, I don't see any need 
to drag Milton into consideration. Incidentally, I also think that the 
fact that Pullman's novels are "children's books," necessarily makes 
them a whole different kind of literature. But that's not at issue here.


Mario A. DiCesare

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