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From Fidelity to History

Film Adaptations as Cultural Events in the Twentieth Century


Anne-Marie Scholz


Transatlantic Perspectives, Volume 3

New York : Berghahn, 2013

Hardcover. xii + 227 p. ISBN 978-0857457318. $90.00


Reviewed by Laraine Porter

De Montfort University, Leicester


In the introduction and conclusion to the excellent From Fidelity to History : Film Adaptations as Cultural Events in the Twentieth Century, Anne-Marie Scholz presents a convincing argument for more historians to contribute to the study of film adaptations. Her case is clear; individual adaptations need to be considered in their specific, historical, cultural and geographical contexts. The key to her argument lies in the book’s sub-title ‘from fidelity to history’ as Scholz moves beyond analysing the extent to which a film remains faithful to its original text, into detailed empirical and historical study. This is a useful and expansive paradigm which treats film adaptations as ‘social and cultural events in history’, rather than using ‘fidelity criticism’ as the starting point. In this way, Scholz opens up new avenues for investigation and fresh perspectives for interpreting her chosen texts.

The book avoids auteur-based approaches to literary and film adaptations, that sees them characterised by struggles for authorship and control between film director and writer, or the more formalist approaches that pitch literary text against the demands of film form and style. Instead, Scholz offers fresh perspectives by considering a series of case studies within the conditions, timeframe and politics of their adaptation into films, some of which such as The Third Man (1949), have been well documented elsewhere. Scholz is also very clear in defining her terms, particularly how she understands and applies ideas around ‘reception’ and the post-feminist critique that underpins her work.

Scholz’s transnational approach contributes significantly to this book’s originality. As a bi-lingual German and English speaker, working and living between Germany and the US, she has accessed and referenced German archive material, shedding new light on the reception of popular British and American films in Germany and Europe, alongside their more widely documented receptions in Britain and the US. Additionally, her experience in teaching American Studies in Germany has, by her own account, contributed to her interdisciplinarity.

The selection of films is eclectic, reflecting the author’s own interests and research over the years. Case studies range from The Third Man (1949) and The Trial (1963) to 1990s adaptations of the work of Henry James and Jane Austen. This is by no means a weakness as there are comprehensive chapters on each, but it does create a significant timeframe (1949 to the 1990s) and an intellectual paradigm that shifts from the reception of international films in Cold War Germany to post-feminist relations between classic texts and Hollywood in the 1990s. The potential problems of covering this timespan are addressed through the book’s two-part structure which divides the case studies into two key periods and geographical frameworks: West Germany 1950-1963 and Hollywood in the 1990s.

In Part 1, her starting point is post-War West Germany with the first half of the book devoted to three key and very different adaptations: The Third Man, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Trial, all considered under the rubric of ‘Post-Cold War readings of the Reception of Blockbuster Adaptations in Cold War West Germany 1950-1963’. This heading creates a slight dissonance with traditional accounts which would not describe these films as ‘blockbusters’ in the contemporary use of the word, particularly not The Trial; Orson Welles was, by this time in his career, experimenting with film form and content and working as a relative outsider to the mainstream film industry. Scholz’s statement that Anglo-American film industries primarily aim to ‘entertain audiences worldwide’ is also a little reductive; again The Trial resists easy assimilation into an entertainment paradigm. Nor are these films designed ‘not to offend’ as Sholz also states; Welles became something of an enfant terrible and The Trial is an experimental adaptation of a ‘difficult’ modernist text. But these are minor criticisms in an otherwise nuanced consideration of these ‘image objects’ as she describes them. Questions of readership are also interesting here in terms of audience expectations. More people may have read Kafka’s original book than watched Welles’ film. Conversely, it is the film adaptations of The Third Man, adapted from Graham Greene’s novella, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel, that are more likely to be the dominant texts for Anglophone audiences. But patterns of readership are notoriously hard to historicise in terms of reception due to paucity of empirical data. Scholz circumvents this by laying out her methodology in terms of three levels of reception; firstly the reception of the original text, not by readers, but by the film maker/s themselves; secondly, the reception of the finished product by critics and reviewers, and thirdly her own readings based on their transnational reception.

The first chapter examines The Third Man as emblematic of post-War Europe in a state of flux and looks at the film’s reception in a Germany coming to terms with defeat and division, the Cold War and encroaching American cultural imperialism in the West. Here, Scholz offers new insight into a well-documented and well-loved film already the subject of several books including Rob White’s BFI Film Classic (2003) and Charles Drazin’s highly informative and entertaining In Search of the Third Man (1999). However, Scholz offers new contributions by using German source material to understand how the film was received in Cold War Germany, a culture that was both hyper-sensitive to the threat of film propaganda after the experience of Nazism on the one hand, and concerned about anti-communist propaganda emanating from Hollywood on the other. American producer, David O’ Selznick’s involvement in The Third Man created tensions, not only among the British creative team as documented elsewhere but also, as Scholz points out ,in creating mistrust on the film’s release in Germany.

What unites The Third Man, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Trial as adapted texts in this book, is their function in the cultural reconstruction of Germany after the War. Scholz offers considerable insight, from a German perspective, into how these films were emblematic of developing Cold War tensions between Europe and the US. In the case of The Third Man, this was explicit in the representation of Vienna as a divided and broken city muddling through under the governance of the four Allied Powers. This representation prompted the German press to accuse the film of ‘libelling Vienna’ by depicting it as ‘half cemetery and half night club’ with even respectable Viennese reduced to racketeering in the struggle to survive among the bombed-out ruins. Scholz also introduces fresh ideas on the film’s anti-communist ideology and how different national perspectives developed different interpretations and the ways in which the film itself was conducive to these. She offers some useful readings around the function of central characters; Holly Martins, the American naïf and ‘meddler’ who leaves a wake of death and destruction in his trail; the displaced Anna as the European pawn caught between East and West, Harry Lime’s American uncaring entrepreneurialism which translates into casual child murder, and the British policeman Calloway who offers a definitive, authoritative and moral voice. She also discusses the film in relation to the changing status of high and low art and culture in post-war Europe; a destitute Vienna representing the decline of old European cultures of classical music, art, and theatre contrasted to Holly Martins as a writer of American ‘cheap novelettes’. Scholz also points out the use of un-translated German dialogue in the film which privileged German-speaking spectators, and the casting of well-known Austrian actors in key roles, as indicative of the film’s ambivalence towards the American ‘Coca Colonisation’ of Europe after the War. She also discusses how the iconic zither soundtrack captured the ‘spirit and voice of the locale’ whilst contributing to the film’s international appeal and made it popular in Germany and Austria on its release.

The chapter on The Bridge on the River Kwai draws comparison with the German film Die Brücke (1959) which shared similar themes, though dealt with them in very different ways. Again, Scholz uses a wide range of different perspectives, from reviews, critics, audiences and commentators to show how both films were open to different interpretations of being either anti-war, pro-war or referencing the Cold War. The Bridge on the River Kwai is an interesting example in that it is an American production based on a French novel and starring a British cast (including the establishment figure of Alec Guinness) with David Lean as director. In the UK, The Bridge on the River Kwai became classic Sunday afternoon TV matinee fare, passing into the national consciousness as a British film about flawed and questionable British heroics and the stiff upper-lip, (with Guinness’s character fighting for recognition of his officer status by his Japanese captors as part of the Geneva Convention, but ultimately directing his men in the construction of the Bridge). The film’s British reception engendered critique of these values, but Scholz deals primarily with German reception, which saw the film as another example of post-war American cultural invasion, particularly the use of American composer Mitch Miller to arrange The Colonel Bogey March theme which became a popular tune in Germany. Scholz presents a nuanced and clear account of the different contemporary opinions on the film which, like The Third Man, became pivotal in debates around German memory and identity in the aftermath of the War. She cites a poignant example from an interview with a former German POW imprisoned in Russia who talked about the way in which Bridge on the River Kwai represented British POWs as heroes, whilst German POWs had no chance of a heroic return after the War.

The question of how to both forget and remember the War in Germany is key to Scholz’s discussion of the German film Die Brücke, based on the novel by Manfred Gregor and directed by Austrian Bernhard Wicki, in which young German soldiers, recruited towards the end of the War, are despatched on a futile mission to defend a bridge that has already been designated for destruction to prevent the approaching American troops from entering a rather ‘dreary German town’. Despite the film’s ostensible message about the futility of war with its bleak monochrome cinematography and mechanised sound track, (contrasting to the Technicolor Cinemascope of The Bridge on the River Kwai), Scholz goes on to quote 1960s German youths who saw the film’s doomed German soldiers as providing role models for young German men of their generation who simply wanted to protect the Fatherland. Such citation offers a fascinating insight into a new generation of German viewers who were beginning to question the idea that 1950s German war films merely articulated post-war anxiety by representing the German subject as essentially a victim of fate, manipulated by military authority and its evil commands. These and other examples in the book affirm the complexities of reception and indicate the wealth of insight to be gleaned from secondary sources around what Scholz describes as ‘thinking men’s war films of the 1950s’; produced at a sufficiently safe distance from the War to be able to reflect on its madness.

The Trial is an altogether different film in every respect. Although like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Third Man, it is essentially a hybrid combining Kafka’s Czech novel and Welles, the peripatetic actor/director who by 1963 when the film was released was more comfortable working outside of Hollywood and the US. Here Scholz discusses the Americanisation of Kafka and the role of the ‘Kafkaesque’ in German post-war culture, arguing that Welles saw Kafka’s text as prefiguring both fascism and totalitarianism. Part of the fascination for German viewers and critics was linked to the fact that Kafka had been banned separately in the East and West Germany, but much of the debate on the film’s release and subsequently, has focused on the fidelity of Welles’ adaptation which Scholz successfully redresses here.

This first section of the book offers fascinating and different perspectives that reposition well-known films within German post-War and Cold War politics and memories. These perspectives are inevitably complex and contradictory, but are invaluable in showing just how ambiguously such transnational adaptations might be received beyond Anglophone markets. For films which have passed into the film cannon from the vantage point of UK/US, Scholz’s German perspective opens them up to wider interpretation and debate.

Part II shifts the focus from West Germany to contemporary Hollywood, commencing with a useful summary of her approach in ‘Postfeminist Relations between Classic Texts and Hollywood Film Adaptations in the U.S. in the 1990s’. Here she cites Barbara Klinger and argues for re-focussing on conflict rather than consensus when looking at relationships between audiences and films. Her attention is on Henry James and Jane Austen adaptations and the context of their production as part of, certainly in the UK, 1990s ‘British Heritage Retrovisions’. Scholz acknowledges the industrial impulses behind the slew of James and Austen adaptations in this period, presumably in terms of audience demand, guaranteed box office success and returns on investment, whilst acknowledging that each film needs to be considered as an individual case study in as much as directors like Ang Lee, Jane Campion and screenwriter Emma Thompson et al., personally engaged with the original texts and each film elicited different responses from audiences and critics. What united this wave of Anglo-Hollywood adaptations however, is their obsession with James and Austen as literary figures.

Scholz begins with a revisionist analysis of 1990s ‘Jane Mania’ as a post-feminist, rather than a conservative phenomenon that began in 1995 with Clueless, a loose adaptation of Emma, updated to a Beverly Hills high school setting. But rather than considering the Austen adaptations as a discrete sub-genre, she cites a review of the film that located it in a debate about Hollywood’s problem with representing female intelligence. Drawing on this paradigm, Scholz goes on to consider Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) in relation to Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) for their respective challenges to the ‘conventional dichotomies of public/private and feminism/conservatism’. She makes a strong case for these 1990s adaptations, with their emphasis on public ‘discourse rather than the representation of politics’, as a reaction against The New Right’s attempts to reprivatise relationships in the 1980s.

‘The Henry James Film Boom of the 1990s’ considers The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Washington Square (1997) and The Wings of a Dove (1997), acknowledging that the first two out of these three films were directed by women (Jane Campion and Agnieszka Holland) in contrast to the Austen adaptations that were all directed by men, though what we can conclude from this is not clear. But she does make an interesting comparison between the ways in which the James adaptations were discussed in relation to their success or failure in capturing James’ ‘complexity and ambiguity’; a phenomenon that she contrasts to the debate circulating around the Austen adaptations which viewed them primarily as costume and heritage dramas. Scholz attributes this to the perceived distinction between male and female authorship and the superior attitudes to James’ modernism and his complex ‘universal values’ as opposed to Austen’s personal, female-centred discourses. This point is borne out by the repeated use of the high-brow and conceptual term ‘Jamesian’ when discussing these films as opposed to the adoption of ‘Jane’ , as in ‘Jane Mania’, ‘Jane Addiction’ and ‘Jane Reaction’, as a way of demeaning the reception of the Austen adaptations among impressionable female audiences.

In her Conclusion, Scholz makes an assertive and convincing argument for the ‘case study’ which considers adaptations located in their historical contexts, as opposed to the more fashionable approaches derived from media and literary studies. This is partly because the case study can call attention to the transnational relationship between the two forms. Scholz references the reception of Tom Ford’s 2009 film, A Single Man, based on Isherwood’s novel. Here British and American critics differed in their opinions of the film’s success, based variously in terms of differing gay politics, transnational adaptations of iconic gay novels and cultural globalisation, thus providing a range of contrasting, culturally specific trans-Atlantic readings.

The need for more sophisticated study of the interrelationship between the different cultural forms of cinema and literature, located within historical contexts, is central to Scholz’s argument. We cannot assume that the original text would have existed a priori to cinema-goers in the 1940s any more than it does today. The film would be the dominant text for many contemporary viewers whose first and only experience of The Third Man would be the film rather than the novella, for example and Scholz is clearly aware of the importance of examining shifting perspectives across history and place; none of which are fixed.

Overall, Scholz’s highly readable and accessible book contributes new insights to the field of adaptation studies and the individual films that she so thoroughly and eloquently studies. She achieves a balance in considering films as both industrial products and artistic achievement and her transnationality and, more specifically, her bi-lingual skills give her important access to German language secondary source material, hitherto not included in English-language studies of these works. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in transatlantic adaptations or indeed any of the films she considers and its intellectual paradigm is both expansive and offers a significant contribution to current debates in adaptation studies.


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