Exercise in Literal Translation IV

Click for a PDF of Alvin Sargent's (first draft?) screenplay

Click for a PDF of Alvin Sargent’s (first draft?) screenplay

Only when I finally sat down to watch Robert Redford’s film of Ordinary People did I realize the true purpose of the exercise I’ve described in this series.

Analysis can and does support creativity even though it’s not an end goal in itself. In this instance, my sense of the possible film, the literal translation, helped me to establish an essential distance from the actual film and to find a balance between thoughtless absorption and critical detachment.

I watched the film twice. I took notes. I drew charts, listing scenes and sequences (groups of related scenes). I noted what I learned and at what point, comparing the film’s and the novel’s deployment of exposition, as well as what moved me and why.

Adaptation, I realized, confers upon the screenwriter responsibilities and rights, most significantly:

• the responsibility to retell, as much as possible, the story conveyed by the source material;
• the responsibility to strive to recreate the emotional experience evoked by the source material, what likely made the adaptation desirable in the first place;
• the right to make changes in order to carry out the above responsibilities and to establish and maintain the unity of the film.

By writing out and reading over the cards, I’d familiarized myself with the novel’s scenes to such a degree that changes by the screenwriter jumped out at me like 3-D projections.

I might just as easily have noted the considerable amount of material lifted directly from the novel, such as dialogue between Conrad and Dr. Berger, a character defined by his eccentric sense of humor. Then again, what endured wasn’t particularly surprising; I watched to discover what had changed.

At first glance, some of the alterations seemed inevitable, others arbitrary. Later I recognized that even one major modification creates the need for more, if only for consistency’s sake.

The parts of a film are specific in a different way than the parts of a novel; instead of description, we get incarnation. My Conrad, your Conrad – now he’s a young Timothy Hutton making his feature film debut. And all the different versions of Cal? They collapse down into a far less grizzled Donald Sutherland.

I’d wondered how screenwriter Alvin Sargent would approach the challenge presented by Beth, Conrad’s mother, whom we only see through Conrad’s and Cal’s eyes in the novel. One might say that Sargent brilliantly surmounted that challenge — Mary Tyler Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character.

One might also say that Sargent circumvented it: He gives Beth her independence, but brings us no closer to understanding her. She’s something of a cipher in the novel and remains so in the film. Where is the line that distinguishes mystery and obscurity? I’m still not sure.

As I conclude this series, I take another step forward, but also one back: this exercise, as designed, points to both the value and the limitations of the literal translation.

Just as I have with Ordinary People, I can break down The Journeys of Socrates into cards and scenes so as to reveal another possible film. Of course, there will be no an actual film with which to compare it — not yet anyway. Exercises, like booster rockets, must fall away.

What, then, can give me the distance that I’ll need from the literal translation?