Literary adaptations


Literary adaptations
   From its beginnings, Spanish cinema has sought inspiration in literary sources. One reason was popularity: if a film is based on a well-known book, there will at least be curiosity to see how the translation into images has been done, or, for those who are aware of the quality of the book but have not read it, the film may become a substitute. Another was funding: literary adaptations provided a degree of prestige that constituted a good reason for authorities to justify funding, and Spanish film has been largely dependent on institutional support.
   Literary adaptations became particularly central to Spanish film-making particularly during three periods. The first was between the late 1910s and the end of the silent period, when film was still in its early days, and adapting a stage play or a novel was regarded as a way to earn respectability for the new art. Most of these adaptations were little more than illustrations with simplistic tableaux-based mise en scene. The most frequently adapted author in those years was Valencian novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (five versions of his novels were shot in Spain during the silent period), who specialized in rural dramas and also wrote the classic bullfighting novel Sangre y arena (Blood and Sand). Nobel Prize-winning playwright Jacinto
   Benavente saw, like Blasco Ibáñez, the potential of the new invention, and worked to encourage five adaptations of his works between 1914 and 1924. The last one was produced by Films Benavente, a company he founded to keep a tighter control on film versions of his output. But, by and large, the preferred genre for adaptation was the costumbrista sainete: the silent period coincided with the golden age of this theatrical genre, whose most prominent practitioners were Carlos Arniches and the Álvarez Quintero brothers.
   The second important period for literary adaptations took place between the late 1940s, the golden age of CIFESA, and the mid-1950s. Preferred sources at this point were late 19th-century novels, particularly by writers with strong Catholic credentials, such as the priest known in literary circles as Padre Coloma, author of the source novel for the Juan de Orduña box-office hit Pequeneces (Small Matters, 1950). Other frequently adapted authors were Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (nine adaptations in the 1940s) and, still leading the list of preferred authors, sainete playwright Carlos Arniches, whose works were adapted on more than 20 occasions during this period. Well-established directors such as Rafael Gil, José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, Juan de Orduña, and Luis Lucia became closely identified with prestige adaptations. Of the contemporary writers, the works of Wenceslao Fernández Flórez were most successfully translated to screen: 12 adaptations between 1941 and 1956, including solid fare like Huella de luz (The Trace of Light, Rafael Gil, 1943), El destino se disculpa (Fate Apologizes, José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1945), and El malvado Carabel (Wicked Carabel, Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1956). Closing the list of prominently adapted authors, playwright Enrique Jardiel Poncela's zany comedies were adapted eight times by well-established directors. The best films adapted from Jardiel's output were Gil's Eloísa está debajo de un almendro (Eloísa Is under an Almond Tree, 1943) and Gonzalo Delgrás' Los habitantes de la casa deshabitada (The Inhabitants of the Uninhabited House, 1946).
   But what is remarkable about adaptations in this period are the absences. Although Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quijote de la Mancha is represented with a version, released in 1948, directed by Gil, there is a relative lack of other Golden Age playwrights and novelists, with the exception of the anonymous picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes. It was as if filmmakers or institutions were tempted by the prestige, but wary of the difficulties of adapting such well-established works. Famous writers from the prewar years with strong literary reputations, who had in some way or other been identified with the Republican cause, were simply banned, and adaptations from their works were discouraged. For instance, there were few adaptations from Benito Pérez Galdós or Jacinto Benavente until the mid-1950s, and the work of Valle Inclán (the first adaptation of his work was Juan Antonio Bardem's 1959 Sonatas) and Federico García Lorca (not adapted to film during the Franco period), to name only the two most influential writers of the century, had to wait a long time before being transferred to screen.
   All of these would be remedied during the third peak period for literary adaptations: the 1980s. Although novels and plays continued to be translated into film between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, the practice became less central in those years, and less energy and talent were devoted to film adaptations. But the end of the Franco period, with its impulse to represent what had until then been banned or discouraged, made filmmakers turn their attention to literature. There was a second reason why literary adaptation became a flourishing practice at the time: the Ley Miró, introduced in 1983, encouraged "quality film," and adapting from a literary source was undeniably a quality factor in a project that would make funding more likely. It was easy to convince the authorities to support scripts based on such emblematic authors as Federico García Lorca or Valle Inclán (however, among the most frequently adapted novelists of the early Transition years was the Franco supporter Fernando Vizcaíno Casas).
   The key film in this sense was Mario Camus' Los santos inocentes (The Holy Innocents, 1984). Camus was undeniably one of the key figures in the translation of literary works into films. His adaptations were typically tidy and linear. More inventive was Vicente Aranda, the rival literary adapter of the late 1980s, who had a preference for freer reinterpretations of the works by complex modernist authors like Juan Marsé (he adapted three of his novels) or Luis Martín Santos (whose masterpiece Tiempo de silencio became one of the most accomplished Aranda films of the 1980s).
   In recent years, Aranda has turned to adaptation again, directing two films with well-known literary sources: Carmen (2003) and Tirante el Blanco (Tirante the White Knight, 2006), the latter based on a medieval adventure epic poem. Works by Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela and Miguel Delibes (the author of the source novel for Los santos inocentes) were also frequently adapted for the screen.
   The generation of the 1990s, including Medem, Amenábar, and Álex de la Iglesia, has reacted against the quality pressures of literary adaptations, systematically preferring to work within the limits of film genres. Pedro Almodóvar borrowed plot motifs from the film canon, but only once did he make a nominal adaptation with Carne Trémula (Live Flesh, 1997), inspired by a thriller by Ruth Rendell. Although adaptations continue to be made, the impulse toward internationalization limits the possibilities: the Spanish literary canon is not particularly popular abroad, and there are very few classics that would deserve international attention, whereas fantasy and horror have more interest for international audiences.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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