Film adaptation refers to the representation of work of literature in a film. It is the interpretation of a source material such as a comic into a live film. The interpretation of comics can accurately depict the original work or detract from it, because, often, comics are “impossible to adapt outside the comics genre” (Lefèvre 2).
Adaptations often face many challenges, which affect the authenticity of the films in representing the actual social and natural environment inherent in the comics. This paper, based on Hight’s arguments, analyzes the adaptations and interpretations of the original work in the film American Splendor and evaluates the artistic approaches taken by the directors in this film.
Analysis of the Adaptation
Adaptation involves sticking closely to the original work, altering the original work according to the film director’s intentions or developing a new theme that is different from the source material. Adapted works employ a number of film styles that help to bring out or extend the meaning as contained in the original work.
Lefèvre outlines four problems associated with filmic adaptation: (1) the original comic texts may be tampered with when writing the script; (2) the page layout may not match the film screen; (3) the problem of converting drawings to photography; and (4) comics lack sound, which is present in films. Assessing these problems in the American Splendor will help compare this film to the original work.
In this film, Pekar claims that “he did not actually read the script before filming commenced” (Hight 181) implying that he was not involved in the writing of the script. Individual artists usually write the comics themselves, as autobiographic comics tend to express individual perspectives of the author.
Many film directors transpose the original works to ensure that the original text is followed as closely as possible. In this film, the failure to involve Pekar in script writing may have compromised the validity and authenticity of the script.
Pekar’s portrayals of himself in the comics are consistent in style and content with those in the film.
The film combines five different types of representations to retain Pekar’s artistic style; the narrative parts in the film involve Pekar’s original voice, played by actor Paul Giamatti; the interview sequences feature Pekar himself; the archival footage also features Pekar; in a stage play (actor Donal Logue); and in animations or graphics in the film (Hight 180).
Also, the film directors maneuvered the adaptation problems by using representations of Pekar’s voice in the narrative sequences. Both the scripted voice-over and interview segments involve Pekar; these help to articulate Pekar’s original intent.
The film also achieves a high level of verbal-visual blend, whereby scenes that cannot be filmed are expressed visually using captioned drawings (Hight 183). It involves maintaining the faithfulness of the original work with respect to visual and verbal cues.
However, revisions in the film including the use of pseudo names and telescoping of certain events affects the transposition of events in Pekar’s comic (Hight 181). These actions leave out essential details contained in the original work such as Pekar’s love for Cleveland, his criticism of jazz and his intellectualism (21). As Harvey states, a film gives the same content to the audience, only that it does it differently through special effects (15).
Thus, films manipulate the audience by matching image and sound. In contrast, in comics, “pictures and words blend to tell the tale” (Harvey 9) in a way that resonates with the storyteller’s original intent. Sound and music in a film serve to bring out the context of each scene. In the American Splendor, Pekar’s voice-over and sound equipment are used to enhance the authenticity and bring out context in each scene and context in the film.
Jazz music introduces each live action before fading away into a distance. Thus, in American Splendor, the ‘special effects’ introduced and the specific details edited out from the comic affected the representations of Paker’s autobiography in the film.
The differences between autobiographic comics and films are evident, with the introduction of sound and voice to ‘silent’ comics being the most crucial one (Lefèvre 6).
Unlike films, written stories tell the reader about the details of the event, with the interpretation largely dependent on the reader. In this film, actors Donal Logue and Paul Giamatti depiction of Pekar may not accurately represent Paker, the character, in the film both in terms of sound and intent, as the comic did.
As Lefèvre puts it, a film is primarily a ‘visual medium’ and a distinct artistic genre (7), which omits specific character content that only language provides. Thus, the absence of sound in the American Splendor allows the reader to rely on words and his or her imaginations to understand the comic. By comparison, in the film, the viewers only consume the actors’ interpretations of Pekar’s original meaning.
The transfer of drawings to photographic forms in the film is another artistic approach that film directors use in adaptation. The transposition of visual images in comics into photographic images is often inaccurate (Lefèvre 5).
In the American Splendor depiction of the comic drawings was accurate; this enhanced the “proximity of the film to Pekar’s original intent” (Hight 182). Cartoons differ from film graphics with respect to graphic images; while comic strips involve static images films use motion pictures (Harvey 13). All that the film director needs is a particular amount of time to film motion pictures to completion.
In contrast, a cartoonist needs enough space or panels to illustrate a particular action in its entirety. Space and time are two different aspects, which make a filmic adaptation of comic drawings a challenge. Therefore, it can be argued that the transposition of drawings to graphic images in American Splendor was not ‘faithful’ and thus, the viewer cannot receive the intended message.
In the American Splendor, graphic constructions are infused with the narrative sequences to try and depict Pekar’s illustrations as closely as possible. Being a drama-documentary, captions are replicated from the comic panels to retain the authenticity of the film (Hight 183). Also, the captions are presented in a similar fashion like in comics (in black and white and in speech boxes on the screen).
The film succeeds in using captions; for instance, the caption, “Our story begins” (24) is framed next to a comic strip, which makes it appear like a motion comic.
Furthermore, the graphic representations in the film follow the format of Pekar’s comic, with each photographic image alternating with the actual Pekar’s comic panel, which serves to increase authenticity and validity. Thus, the interplay of scenes in the film reflects the actual comic panels in Pekar’s comic book.
The screenplay in the film also mimics page layout in the comic book. There is a transposition of the layout of Paker’s American Splendor in the film. Narrative breakdown, which involves a careful connection of the specific events in the story, is evident in the film. Each comic panel introduced in the film is followed by actual panels as represented in the comic book.
Speech balloons help the audience to understand the actions of the character. Similarly, in the actual comic panels, words placed in boxes are used for the comic strips. Lefèvre identifies two problems associated with the transition from page layout to single screen graphics; first, transposition of the entire page layout to film screenplay affects the quality of the film since the two belong to two separate genres (8).
Thus, the film directors must edit the original work to ensure that it conforms to the rules of montage and video editing while retaining the original intent of the author.
Secondly, the page layout differs from the screen used in film theatres. A layout is the way events or scenes in a film are organized. It is the plot of the film that describes the sequences of events from the outset through to the end of the film. Unlike in a film, comic books allow the reader to go through the panels at his or her own speed.
In the American Splendor, the directors use the interplay of comic panels to reinforce their transposition of Pekar’s intentions. The different moments are pieced together “in the same way you do with documentary footage” (Hight 183) to make it appear real and authentic.
However, the original work was revised to conform to the characteristics and rules of screenplay, leaving out specific details about Pekar’s love for Cleveland as well as his criticism of jazz music (21). The film did not accurately imitate the relative locations of the various panels as the directors used different multiple-frame images, where the comic adaptation images were combined with actual comic images (Hight 185).
Nevertheless, this approach allows the viewer to make reference to the original work. However, the same approach “breaks the characteristic cinematographic illusion” (Lefèvre 10) associated with films. Thus, in this film, the transposition from page layout to screenplay does not give an accurate depiction of Pekar’s original work.
As stated before, American Splendor is a drama-documentary, a non-fiction work that combines factual information with film melodrama in a documentary format (Hight 189). A drama-documentary is defined as a genre comprising of “dramatized versions of actual events” (Hight 19), which makes it more popular than a documentary.
The American Splendor employs realism to depict historical and political components that people are familiar with. Several instances of realism are apparent in this film. Muted tones that are used in the narrative sequences and Pekar’s terminal illness enhance the authenticity of the film (Hight 186). Also, in the film, actor Giamatti who depicts Pekar is romantically involved with actress Davis, who represents Pekar’s wife.
The essence of this relationship is to depict a real story and make the scenes in the film to resonate well with the audience. In this way, the viewers are able to relate the scenes in the film to the actual events in the comic.
Harvey, Robert. Only in the Comics: Why Cartooning Is Not the Same as Filmmaking. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print.
Hight, Craig. American Splendor. Translating Comic Autobiography into Drama- Documentary. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.
Lefèvre, Pascal. Incompatible Ontologies? The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn Images. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.