Why Are Film and Theater Adaptations Sometimes so Different From the Originals?

Updated on August 3, 2018
Salma Hassaballa profile image

Salma Hassaballa has produced two documentaries and written books in multiple genres. She is a member of the Arab Writers Union.

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This week I attended a seminar about the pros and cons of having a book adapted to the theater or the big screen. The adaptation of the Marionette Women theatrical text was debated as a model. The notable author of the play, Mrs. Hala Fahmy, the innovative director, Mr. Hossam ElDin Salah, and the well-known critics Dr. Hossam Akl and Mr. Medhat El Gyar were all invited to share their considerable experience and wealth of knowledge in the panel discussion. The hall was full, and the discussion was interesting, intriguing, and engaging.

Marionette Women is about a retired belly dancer who changes careers to work as a marriage counselor. All characters in the novel are women, and the only male character (who is adored by all the females) is absent as the story unfolds. The author is usually thought of as a feminist. However, she argues that her message is to urge women (and men), through her story, to respect and cherish independence and distinction. In other words, she counsels people to avoid being the marionettes.

What Factors Cause Theater and Film Adaptations to Stray From the Original Material?

The director, Hossam ElDin, amazed the audience at the conference with his experiences of dealing with a cast formed exclusively of women. He said that, contrary to his expectations, he had a tough time. He even added that he felt like being sent to hell every time he had to attend rehearsals carried out by the female cast! He explained that the women were usually jealous of each other, and it was very hard to please any of them. I did not agree with the director’s point of view. Adding a male actor to the cast would not have prevented women from being jealous, if they really were. But the audience, mostly men, were very amused by the director’s assertions and hints.

Other notable figures shed light on other types of problems during production, which sounded genuinely serious. They explained some of the factors that may alter adaptations, some of which I was totally unaware of.

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1. Political Factors

The critic, Medhat El Gyar, talked about the famous Return My Heart, an Egyptian movie that was released on October 12, 1957. The original text used the vehicle of a romantic story to depict the events that culminated in the revolution/coup which took place in Egypt in the year 1952. The author inevitably mentioned Mohamed Naguib, the revolutionary leader who toppled the king and became the first president of Egypt. However, the movie production took place during Nasser’s reign. Nasser toppled Naguib and took his place, so mentioning Naguib's name at the time was a taboo. As a result, Naguib’s character was completely omitted from the movie adaptation, despite the fact that he played a very significant role. Politics may intervene in shaping drama, and perhaps even have a direct effect on the message.

2. Budget Concerns

It goes without saying that a small budget limits any production. I remember when I was producing my Beyond Life documentary; I managed to persuade a director of Photography (DoP) from Jersey Island to film the drama with a limited budget. The documentary dealt with the question of the continuation of spirit/mind/soul after physical death. As the work unfolded, I drew parallels between a human life and a passenger's journey on a train. The passengers are unaware of the final destination. As the train goes by, they leave without saying goodbye to one another because everyone reaches his station without prior notification. When I wrote the script, I imagined a train full of passengers coming from every part of the world including Africa, East Asia, the Middle East, and the West. But because of the limited budget, I was informed that this request could not be achieved. I had to accept a scenario where the passengers had the same nationality and belonged to the same race in order to be able to proceed with the production.

3. Profit-Hungry Producers

The director at the seminar shed the light on a completely production pressure I hadn't encountered before; the producer’s desire. Many producers focus on the profit they gain at the expense of delivering the message and possibly even the quality of the production. On many occasions, the producer may insist on inserting scenes he thinks will attract a bigger audience (unnecessary sexy scenes or poorly executed comedy). In the case of Marionette Women, the producer even intervened in the title of the production, despite the disapproval of both the author and the director. The producer found that the Sultan’s Seraglio title was more appealing to potential viewers than the original and pushed to go with it.

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4. Actors

Astonishingly, Hossam ElDin Salah added that he prefers dealing with beginner actors rather than big stars. He said beginners do whatever it takes to prove themselves; they are very punctual and obedient. The author, Hala Fahmy, totally agreed. She said that superstars sometimes even change the dialogue on stage! Apparently, they are overly confident that the author, the director, and the audience will accept any words they wish to utter and gestures they choose to make.

5. Cultural Norms

The critic, Hossam Akl, talked about the famous movie The Virgin and the White Hair that was produced in 1984. The original novel was about a woman who decided to adopt an orphan against her husband’s will after losing all hope of bearing a child of her own. As the orphan grew up, the girl fell in love with her adoptive father, who could not resist her. They were involved in an illegal relationship that led her to bear his illegitimate child. The story had many elements that were very offensive and unacceptable in Egyptian society, so the storyline was changed to match public taste and to be more socially acceptable; the adoptive father managed to control himself in the movie, avoided an immoral relationship, and brought a suitable suitor for his adopted daughter.

I went through a similar experience when I was advised by my Canadian editor to modify my novel ‘Adam’s Game’ for the Arabic-to-English translation. In my science fiction novel, one of my protagonists fell in love with his cousin. In Arab societies, this is not unusual. In fact, the marriage of cousins is preferable in some parts of Southern Egypt to prevent the interference of strangers in family business and to halt the fragmentation of family land. However, the editor surprised me when she said that the cousin marriages are unacceptable in Western culture. Cousins are viewed like brothers and sisters there. The editor urged me to change this part of my story. So, I let my protagonist fall in love with his neighbor instead of his cousin in order to match the cultural norms of my audience. It became clear to me that changes are inevitable if I want my story to be widely read by different audiences in different formats and languages. But I have to be on my guard in order to stay true to my message.

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My opinion coincided with the views of the author and director of Marionette Women. Both confirmed the right of the director to modify the written text for an adaptation as long as it will not alter the author's core message. It also became very clear that any sort of pressure exerted against the will of the author or the director will cause unnecessary problems that may lead to complete failure. I hope others will benefit from the things I learned.

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