A Film Version Or Tv Serial English Literature Essay

Published: 2021-07-04 04:40:05
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The adaptation of literature into other mediums is not a new phenomenon, and yet it invariably opens up a discursive space in which people from all walks of life feel qualified to comment on the success of such an enterprise. This is particularly true of adapting literature into film, where the latter often attracts criticism for its portrayal of the source text. The phrase ‘it wasn’t as good as the book’ is common in film reviews and discussions, suggesting that in order to please critics and fans, a film’s primary concern should be loyalty to its source. By focusing on the authenticity of an adaptation purely in relation to the literary text, films are often unfavourably judged, especially if major changes or omissions take place in the adaptive process. This blinkered view prevents film watchers from seeing what an adaptation can bring to the text that it is adapted from. The advent of contemporary cinematic techniques means that the viewing experience is now more engaging and technically advanced than ever, but this too brings with it the potential for more areas of criticism from viewers who have high expectations. Film directors, then, are subject to multiple pressures when adapting literary texts, but as Cartmell and Whelehan point out, "it’s vital to bear in mind that there is no dominant genre," and that an elitist assumption of the literature’s superiority has "blighted" work in the field of film studies (1).
If the adaptation of a novel, in particular, is fraught with potential pitfalls, then adapting a novel about a culturally significant and sensitive subject is a complex task for the auteur. The potential obstacles posed by such an enterprise are also an exciting challenge for film directors; as Morris Beja argues, "what a film takes from a book matters, but so does what it brings to a book" (88). Beja’s assertion can clearly be seen in David Trueba’s adaptation of the 2001 novel Soldiers of Salamis, written by Javier Cercas. Based on Cercas’s text, Trueba’s film portrays the story through the eyes of a female protagonist, Lola Cercas, as she undertakes a process of searching for the truth that echoes the search of the Spanish nation for the truth of their history in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In 2003, just two years after the novel had first been published, David Trueba’s adaptation was released. This essay will undertake a close ‘reading’ of the film, focusing on aspects of the film’s diegesis that include mise-en-scene, sound, characterisation, and the representation of time and memory in relation to the source novel.
The Spanish Civil War took place over three years, from 1936 to 1939, between the existing Republican political party in power and a rebel group, led by General Franco. After three long years of fratricidal conflict in which thousands of citizens were killed or forced into exile, the Franco party won the war and Spain entered into a dictatorship that would last for almost forty years. Under Franco’s rule, Spanish politicians allegedly agreed to impart a form of censorship that precluded public discussions of the war, for fear that political disagreements would lead to further conflict and violence (Preston 2006). This silence on the subject of the war led, in large part, to a collective repression of memories and testimonies about the war, and lasted until Spain began the transition from dictatorship to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.
Although the silence was not complete in Spain - there are novels and other creative outputs from the country written not long after the war that focus on the conflict - it was not until Franco’s death and the subsequent changes in Spain’s political landscape that Spain and its people could truly begin to deal with the trauma they had experienced as a nation. The new freedom afforded to Spain led to a creative outpouring of literature, film, and other works that explicitly deal with the Civil War, although the passage of time under the period of silence means that much of the work has been authored by second and third generations of families, as opposed to men and women who were directly involved or affected by the war and its immediate aftermath. This generational distance from the conflict offers a unique perspective on the war, particularly from writers who tackle the subject using fiction rather than pure historical fact. One of those writers is Javier Cercas, whose novel Soldiers of Salamis (2001) focuses on a single episode in the Civil War that is based on an anecdotal story in which a Republican soldier pardons a Falange (fascist) writer and politician, allowing the latter to escape with his life.
Javier Cercas was born in 1962 in Spain. Soldiers of Salamis is his fifth novel, and was published in 2001 to great acclaim, going on to be translated into several different languages before being adapted onto the big screen in 2003 by a Spanish film director, David Trueba. Cercas’s novel is formed in three parts. The first part, "The Forest Friends" explores the life of a fictional writer and journalist, named after the author, who is facing writer’s block and general unhappiness in life following the death of his father and his dwindling literary career. It is this fictional Cercas who narrates the story. He chances upon the anecdotal tale of how a fascist writer and founder member of the Falange, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, miraculously escaped execution, not just once but twice. The story tells how Mazas, who had been captured by the Republicans and was being transported into the Catalonian forest in the last days of the war, was able to escape from the group of prisoners and hide in the forest. In their search for the escapees, the Republican soldiers scour the forest and one of them finds Mazas hiding in the undergrowth. Looking directly into Mazas’s eyes, the soldier is said to have called back to his group that he had found nothing, allowing Mazas to escape with his life. Mazas then hides out in the forest, happening upon three other people whom he calls his ‘forest friends,’ until he can rejoin the advancing Nationalist troops. The first part of the novel documents the narrator’s growing interest in this story, and his resolve to piece the puzzle back together through a series of interviews and searches. This aspect of the novel reflects the real Cercas’s investigations into the episode, and exemplifies the novel’s intelligent mixing of historical fact with fiction that echoes Spain’s own search into its repressed past.
The second part of the novel, entitled "Soldiers of Salamis," breaks from Cercas’s search and documents the real Sanchez Mazas’s life, focusing on the forest incident and Mazas’s character in relation to his fascist ideas and his literary career. The third part of the novel picks up where the first leaves off, detailing Cercas’s search for the unidentified soldier who supposedly pardoned Mazas in the forest. Believing that he knows who the soldier is, Cercas travels to Dijon in France, where the elderly gentleman (Miralles) now resides in a residential home. Desperate to know the truth, Cercas asks Miralles directly if he is the soldier in the story, which Miralles denies. The two discuss the war and the concept of heroism, before Cercas leaves for home, no closer to the truth than before. The novel’s typically postmodern ending therefore denies full closure of the story, and the narrative time changes echo the position of the Spanish people as being centred between their unresolved past and an unknown future.
It is likely that contemporary viewers of the film will have read, or will know about, Cercas’s novel, and therefore there is an expectation that the film will address the issue of the war. This is supported by the images that precede the film’s beginning, in which a stark monochrome field is shown, littered with bodies. The drained colour of this scene means that the bodies of the deceased cannot be easily identified, echoing the novel’s concern with representing the conflict as destructive on all sides, regardless of political allegiance. The mobility of the camera as it sweeps across this scene lends the opening scene a feeling of close proximity to the war that cannot be effectively captured on the printed pages of a novel. It is though we are seeing, or being asked to see, the war first hand through a soldier’s eyes. Faulkner notes, too, that the opening sequence of the film demonstrates concern with itself as a medium of representation, and suggests that the film self consciously asks, "how can cinema, whose every essence is movement, represent the stillness of death?" (85). This self-reflexive challenge echoes the novel’s concern with the representation of things that seem, at least initially, to be beyond representation, such as the tension between the past and future experienced by the Spanish nation. One of the ways in which Trueba deals with this issue in the film is to use a female protagonist as opposed to the novel’s male narrator.
Set in present day Gerona, the film depicts the same search for truth as Cercas’s novel, with several significant differences, of which the use of a female protagonist is the most marked. Lola Cercas (played by Adriana Gil) is a disillusioned journalist and writer, suffering from writer’s block, the recent death of her father, and the loss of her long-term relationship. Asked to write an article on a Spanish poet for the local newspaper, Lola’s research leads her to the story of Mazas’s failed execution, which becomes the basis for her next book. Lola’s search for the true story behind the forest incident shows her gradually moving from a position of disinterest to one of passionate involvement, echoing the search of the novel’s narrator. In this way, Lola’s journey also echoes that of the Spanish people undergoing the transition from a period of silence to one of renewed enthusiasm to know about and to represent their history through creative and formal mediums. The film charts Lola’s search through historical archives, libraries, and interviews with real and fictional witnesses, portraying her increasing enthusiasm for the task to determine the truth of the past. Trueba also plays with the temporality of images, making an increased use of colour in flashback scenes as the film progresses, to visually reflect the piecing together of an historical puzzle.
In the course of her research, Lola conducts interviews with several elderly people who were involved in the real conflict, and with family members of those involved who died. These interviews are juxtaposed with fictional testimonies, echoing the novel’s combination of the past with the present; of history with memory. Through these interviews, the passage of time is visually displayed in the aged faces of those few still alive who experienced the conflict first-hand, which is contrasted with the relative youth of those interviewed who are a generation or two distanced from the war. Faulkner, too, cites Trueba’s "documentary interest in recording the physical trace of time on the body" (87). It is through these testimonies that Lola’s interest in the war and the Mazas episode increases, and she begins to thoroughly research the events. This is shown in the film through a series of scenes that concentrate on the processes of research and writing; Lola is shown scouring libraries and bookshops, and typing at the computer in her study, while multiple shots of documents, photographs, book pages, written and typed manuscripts and letters create a sense of urgency in her search for the truth. These images serve to authenticate the film in juxtaposition to its fictional elements, at the same time reinforcing the film’s literary source. In this, Trueba expands on Cercas’s use of multi-genre sources in the novel, which includes a page of Mazas’s diary, and a copy of the original newspaper article written about the Spanish poet Antonio Muchado. In the novel, these elements serve to emphasise the complex interplay of truth and fiction in the process of remembering, and the film honours that complexity.
Real footage appears on screen as Lola discusses her research into Mazas with her friends and colleagues, which is emphasised by a sequence shot through a sepia filter that shows the incident in question from the perspective of Lola’s imagination. This reconstructed footage contrasts with the archival footage to echo the novel’s disjointed chronology, and serves to reinforce the notion that the full truth of history cannot be known. Regardless of Spain’s supposed vow of silence, truth is elusive, and memory is selective. This is underscored in the scene in which Lola reads to her elderly father before his death later in the film, and he asks her, "What war?" The addition of this scene in the film explores Lola’s father’s dementia, which is symbolic of the generation that lived through the national silence on the subject of the war. This scene is cut through with authentic footage and reconstructions to portray Lola’s imagination as it creates the images in her mind, reinforcing the complex interplay of fact and fiction. Cercas clearly outlined his position in regards to this debate in a series of interviews with David Trueba about the cinematic adaptation of his novel:
The Transition was . . . a sort of pact of forgetting . . . maybe there was no
better way to do it . . . Anyway, what’s remained is that fog, that oblivion
that affects everyone like Miralles …This is indisputable, a historical fact that also affects the others, the victors, the people like Sánchez Mazas. . . . The Transition wiped the slate clean and didn’t judge those who should have been judged. . . . So then, of course, there’s a historical debt. Over the last little while, this has been changing . . . And it’s not that this is good: it’s indispensable. The film will contribute to that . . . And, as for my book, I hope it’s contributed with its grain of sand to this facing up to the truth, because my aspiration was to lie anecdotally, in the particulars, in order to tell an essential truth.
(quoted in Camino 99)
Trueba remains loyal to Cercas’s aspiration, incorporating Cercas’s view from the outset of the film in a conversation that takes place between Lola and Aguirre. Lola speculates on the possibility that a particular soldier named Monroy gave the firing squad their orders to execute the group of prisoners containing Mazas, whilst the scene cuts to a reconstructed ‘archive’ image of the order being given by a different soldier. Aguirre expresses doubt about the authenticity of Lola’s theory, commenting that it is just one of many possibilities. In this regard, Trueba takes pains to highlight Cercas’s message to the reader that historical truth is not always clear. The conversation between Lola and Aguirre is also significant because it takes place on a bridge, which is emblematic of the use of bridges in the film to explore the issue of connections.
At several notable points in the film, Lola is depicted as standing or being halfway along a bridge. In this, she represents the position of Spain as a nation as being somehow stuck in the middle, between the past and the future. Additionally, it is on a bridge again that Lola is encouraged by one of the friends, Aguierre, to continue with her writing and to not give up. This speaks to the way in which novelists like Cercas, through their works, are part of the Spanish effort to recover memory and testimony of the war through activities such as those carried out by the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which was established in 2000 with the purpose of collecting testimonies of the war and funding the exhumation and identification of the thousands of unnamed dead lying in unmarked graves across Spain. Furthermore, Lola herself, although it is never explicitly mentioned, is suggested as being around middle age. Adriana Gil portrays a fatigued Lola, frustrated with writer’s block, struggling to deal with the loss of her father who dies in the film, and with the loss of her long-term relationship. Whilst the loss of the father is true to the novel, the loss of the partner is not, and again Lola is positioned as being stuck in between the unresolved past and the future. The loss of her father, and the fact that no mention is made of a mother figure, represents Lola’s disconnectedness from her past, whilst the loss of her relationship denotes an uncertain future.
While her father represents the amnesia of Spain’s past, Lola symbolises the contemporary growing interest in Spain about the war and its aftermath. Although his dementia means that Lola’s father has forgotten the war, he has in his wallet a photograph of himself and two comrades as soldiers, suggesting his direct involvement in at least part of the conflict. Lola finds this photograph after her father’s death, along with a photograph of herself as a child, and a newspaper clipping about the success of her first novel. For Sally Faulkner, these items of Lola’s past raise important questions about her future: effectively now an adult orphan, without a partner or family of her own, Lola’s future seems as uncertain as the past she is trying to recreate in her novel (89). The family items carried around in her father’s wallet are significantly missing any reference to Lola’s mother, which works self-reflexively to highlight Lola’s own childlessness as symbolic of the uncertainty of her future. Multiple references to Lola’s familial position pervade the film and emphasise Trueba’s intention in changing the gender of the story’s protagonist to a woman, in order to provide the film with a vehicle through which the past/future dichotomy could be adequately explored. A baby’s rattle in a borrowed car, a child’s drawing in her study, and multiple other scenes in which Lola sees children and groups of children happily playing serve to emphasis her sadness, as does the scene in which she is shown crying after an encounter with an ex-partner that reveals that he is now a father. Additionally, Lola reveals to Miralles that she "once nearly had children," suggesting unresolved issues from her own past. Since she is alone at the point of this exchange in terms of family, Lola implores Miralles not to forget her, repeatedly asserting her intention to visit him again with friends, telling him that she will not forget him. This conversation is significant in terms of Lola’s new orphan state, and in terms of the film’s message about the consequences of forgetting those who fought for a free Spain; as Faulkner notes, Lola’s childlessness represents "Trueba’s indictment of current directionlessness and uncertainty [in Spain]: will there be a child at all to whom the future may be bequeathed? (92)".
Lola’s age, too, plays an important part in her childlessness, since she is approaching an age where her natural fertility will begin to decline. Faulkner sees the childlessness of Lola as "a source of regret" in the film, highlighting the repeated images associated with children as symbols of Lola’s "anxiety" (85, 90) over her childless state, and the film’s concern in representing Lola’s childlessness as a "hint…at the future, and the possible lack of a future" (90). In this regard, Trueba expands on the novel’s concern with the future as well as with the past. The change in the protagonist’s gender thus provides a more effective vehicle through which to express a state of crisis.
Having reached an impasse in her research into Mazas, and frustrated by writer’s block. Lola’s trail begins to cool until she reads an essay written by a young student that tells of an old soldier named Miralles who he met on holiday, who the student considers his hero. Ironically, then, it is a younger character – symbolic of the future – who enables Lola in the present to connect the stories of Mazas and Miralles, or the past. The student suggests to Lola that she does not need the full details of the past in order to finish her story, telling her instead that "reality always disappoints," and that she can find what she is looking for in her head, or imagination. Lola’s response that she will not ‘make it up’ mirrors Cercas’s refusal to invent the details in his novel, again emphasising the tension between truth and fiction that pervades the novel and its screen counterpart.
Although both the narrator and Lola determine to record only the truth, both suffer with writer’s block early on in the narrative as a result of their distanced position from the story. In the novel, the narrator’s writer’s block is cured when he begins to see the story as a puzzle with missing pieces, and his desire to fill in the blanks allows him to move on. In the film, Trueba expands on this element with an additional scene in which Lola’s friend Conchi (the narrator’s girlfriend in the novel) reads a draft of Lola’s book and comments to her friend that it is missing something: "I can’t see you in this story…I don’t know what you think of what is going on…If you were engaged in some way, if you participated in the story…" Conchi insists that Lola’s presence is the missing element and that Lola should rewrite her draft to give her book more emotional impact. Through this scene, the film suggests that personal engagement with a story, specifically history, is what keeps memories alive and gives them a human face.
In Cercas’s novel, Conchi, an effervescent TV personality, is the narrator’s partner, and her crude behaviour provides a comic element to the story that balances the obvious tragedy of the novel’s subject. Importantly, though, the most significant aspect of Conchi’s character remains the same in Trueba’s adaptation; Conchi is a fortune teller, and through this, she is the embodiment of the fact that the future is unknowable to everyone, even those who claim that they can see it. Conchi, then, represents Spain’s future, which could be bright and hopeful if resolution can be made with the past.
The film, like the novel, comes to an end with the meeting between the protagonist and the alleged hero, Miralles. Miralles, then, is symbolic of all of the Spaniards who were forced into exile by the conflict, and who never returned. The meeting of Cercas and Miralles is darkly humorous, with the elderly gentleman exerting the authority of age and experience over the younger writer. Their discussion ends with Miralles’s refusal to confirm or deny his identity as the Republican who spared Mazas. In this, the novel evades full closure and confirms the inability of memory to restore truth. The film remains loyal to the novel’s ending, avoiding a romantic resolution. This is emphasised in the shot-reverse-shot sequence that takes place between Miralles and Lola, in which Miralles challenges Lola’s preconceived idea that he is in fact the hero she has been seeking:
Writers. You’re just sentimentalists. What you’re looking for is a hero, and I’m that hero, aren’t I? …It’s the hreoes who don’t survive…the Garcia Sugues boys, Miquel Cardos…Santi Brugada…All dead…Time doesn’t pass for them. Nobody remembers them.
The naming of deceased soldiers in this sequence mirrors the novel’s naming of the same real people who died in the war, reinforcing the importance of testimony in preserving the memory of the dead. Additionally, this list of names directly challenges the war memorials that were erected in Spain under Franco, which name only the dead who perished fighting for the rebel party. The names, too, highlight the significance of the contemporary work of organisations like the ARHM in attempting to identify and properly bury the thousands of people who remain in unmarked graves across Spain to this day. Miralles’s comment on time in this sequence also refers back to an earlier conversation in the film between Lola and Conchi (another that takes place on a bridge), in which Conchi complains that the chiming of the church bells every quarter hour reminds her of time passing and makes her feel older. This juxtaposition further emphasises the point that time does not pass for the dead, and that the passing of time constantly creates history. In a subtle reference to Spain’s history, Miralles observes, "Years ago people decided it was best to forget the war. That’s fine by me." Although his generation may have wanted, or been forced, to forget, the film adds depth to the novel’s call for acceptance of the ambiguity of truth, but nonetheless reinforces the novel’s message of the importance of remembering the past.
Lola leaves her meeting with Miralles in a taxi, looking back in tears at him as the taxi moves her physically forward. At this point in the film, the camera shifts to occupy Lola’s place, looking back at the solitary figure of Miralles, who shrinks in size in the frame as the taxi gets further away. This mirrors the narrator’s visualisation of Miralles as "a lone soldier" (208) at the end of the novel. In this, Miralles represents the history of Spain becoming increasingly remote as time passes, whilst Lola again represents the dialectic of past and the future in what Faulkner calls a "Janus-faced Spain" (84). The contradictory movement in this scene is reflective of Spain’s position in relation to its undiscovered past.
The use of a female protagonist serves to feminize the war in the film, appending an extra layer of compassion to Cercas’s preoccupation with the human face of conflict. Indeed, humanity and the devastating consequences of war on all involved is one of the film’s primary concerns. At several notable moments in the film, lingering looks take place between characters that emphasise the silence of particular scenes, for example, the film’s depiction of the moment in which the Republican soldier comes face to face with Mazas in the forest involves the two exchanging a knowing look. This scene is repeated several times in slow motion to highlight the unspoken message that passes between them: they are, at that moment, two men fighting for survival, rather than soldiers trying to kill their enemies. The Spanish Civil War made enemies of neighbours, and the film captures the novel’s message that all humanity suffered as a result. The importance of ‘seeing’ in such moments as this is echoed in the scene in which Mazas, who has just escaped the firing squad, stumbles into the forest and loses his glasses, a scene that is taken from the book. The literal blindness of Mazas in this scene depicts his figurative inability to see the consequences of a conflict that he is largely responsible for starting. It also, however, humanises the character of Mazas, making him temporarily vulnerable without his sight, allowing viewers to sympathise with his situation. At this point, rather than a political fascist, viewers are invited see Mazas the man, frightened and alone, running for his life.
Trueba’s adaptation of Soldiers of Salamis, then, retains a level of fidelity to the source novel that emphasizes the book’s key messages about humanity, memory, and the connections between past and present that contribute to the formation of a person’s sense of self. Lola’s search for Miralles and the ultimate futility of that search echo the narrator’s experiences in the novel, whilst the sex change of the film’s protagonist serves to expand on the convergence of past and future in the novel. Through his use of a female lead, Trueba explores Spain’s search for historical truth in juxtaposition with the uncertainty of a future that is based on an unresolved past. The uncertainty of the future is represented in the film through Lola’s childlessness, while her age and the motif of bridges emphasis her middle position; she is approaching middle age, and is caught between her past and her future, unable to move on until the former is reconciled.
Ultimately, the novel and film’s typically postmodern ending forgoes any sense of closure, underscoring the author’s message that it is not possible to fully know the truth of events that have passed. Additionally, the film employs the use of reflections, usually in window panes, to demonstrate the novel’s preoccupation with reflecting on the past, which itself mirrors Spain’s recent renewed enthusiasm for piecing together the puzzle of its own history and exemplifies the "Janus face" of Spain (Faulkner 84). The film, in its authenticity, appeases critics and viewers by remaining true to the novel and avoiding a clichéd ending in which everything works out fine. Everything did not work out fine, as the masses of unmarked graves hiding unidentified bodies in Spain attests. In this, the film retains the novel’s message that the polarisation of groups – Nationalists/Republicans, victims/winners – oversimplifies the war and detracts from our understanding of the complexity of human relationships in times of conflict.
The collective amnesia in Spain in the years following the war is shown to have a resonance through decades and generations that affects the sense of selfhood in contemporary Spanish society, hence the nation’s recent enthusiasm for recovering historical memory. The film’s chronology, too, emphasizes the human aspect of war; demonstrating fidelity to the novel’s fractured narrative, the film employs a reverse chronology, starting with scenes of the war, and ending with a message about humanity communicated through the meeting of Lola and Miralles. In this regard, Trueba’s adaptation is a war film that does not directly address the war, instead focusing on the novel’s message that the human impact of the war is the most important thing. Through its use of mise-en-scene, motifs, mixed historical and recreated footage, and a female protagonist notably absent of a family through which to pass on the stories of the past, Trueba’s film provides a faithful representation of the novel’s key messages whilst illuminating the novel’s use of time and memory. Thus, the novel benefits from the cinematic adaptation, supporting Beja’s argument that what a film brings to book matters.
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