Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art
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Modern Literature and the Film-Making Industry

Veronika Julia Korner (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest)


Putting post-modern or contemporary literary masterpieces on the screen is a common phenomenon in the 21st century film-making industry. In spite of the widespread practice it is worth considering that texts of the E register literature remained inadaptable for the screen. As the media theoretician F. A. Kittler pointed out in the Discourse Networks 1800/1900 the criteria of E literature is exactly its inadaptability since the first movie has been opened. To adapt modern texts to films, a completely new (mostly popular) literary work is needed that has a consistent intertextual connection with the primary literary work. In this lecture the working of the adaptation process is going to be analysed. In the first instance the current approaches of medium theory toward the method of adaptation and the related key terms have to be understood.


1. Transposition of Media (F.A Kittler)

A medium - in the case a film, a book - is definitely untranslatable. A medium is a medium, is a medium, and so on: hence it can be said that every medium contains another one and that is the reason why it cannot be translated. Transferring messages from one medium to another involves reshaping them to conform to new standards and materials. According to Kittler t he possibility of transposition for the transmission of the message from one medium to another is the only tool that remained in the discourse network 1900. The transposition -theory approaches the adaptation from the aspect of mediation and leaves a point out of consideration: the message itself.


2. The Medium is the Message (Marshall McLuhan)

The well-known cliché "The Medium is the Message" means that the medium determines decisively what the message is. It is also interesting that both the printed book and the movie are in McLuhan’s terms "hot mediums", so the receiver cannot abstract and imagine anymore: the information is fully served. However, the printed book as the first mass medium with its reproducibility, increased volume and storage of transmission capabilities, and still provide tasks for the imagination and abstraction - as well as in the case of films. hier

Before McLuhan we had not regarded technologies as extensions of our body. If a car can be thought of as an extension of the human body, if a remote control panel can be thought of as an extension of the human arm, than both the film and the printed book can be thought of as an extension of the human brain: extensions of memories, knowledge and dreams. F. A Kittler carried on with these thoughts in the Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter: "Once the technological differentiation of optics, acoustics and writing exploded Gutenberg’s writing monopoly around 1880, the fabrication of so-called Man became possible. His essences escape into apparatuses. Machines take over functions of the central nervous system, and no longer, as in times past, merely those of muscles. And with this differentiation - and not with steam engines and railroads - a clever division occurs between matter and information, the real and the symbolic."The real is translatable, the symbolic can only be transposed.


3. Other theoretical models of adaptation: the hypertextual model, the version model, the translation (narrative) model

According to the hypertextual viewpoint, during the process of adaptation the film uses the literary text as a quotation, a paraphrase. There is a much more radical approach as well: the whole literary work simply cannot be projected on the screen, only paraphrases, dialogue-mosaics, and the narrative presence.

The version-model is the most common and widespread approach towards the adaptation. Both the novel and the film are operating with special narrative tools and therefore the adapted novel is going to be transformed to a completely new, different and incomparable masterpiece on the screen. In this case the differences of the narrative tools are unambiguously problematic.

The film theoretician Béla Balázs and later Andre Bazin used the same narrative approach but reached different conclusions. Béla Balázs used metaphors borrowed from the fine arts to show the way to his views of adaptation. For example Charles Dickens’s novels are exactly like flamboyant paintings with their marvellous fantasy-world. A story can be abridged, a painting could never be. It must be repainted to the screen. The method of repainting provides the wide artistic freedom of the filmmakers.

Andre Bazin pointed out: the story of a novel is a construction that gives coherence to the film. The literary work is the only essential source of the film from which it takes its inspiration. A good adaptation attempts to "translate" the literary work into the language of the screen. According to Bazin, this method is the only one that challenges film and literary theory.

The narrative approach raises several questions. If the screen has a language, something must be made unmistakeably clear: there is an active verbal or linguistic medium between the medium of the film and the medium of literature, with help of which the scriptural picture can be translated into visual experience. Although the script is not part of the artistic fantasy during the translation of the literary work, it uses this verbal medium. Both the novel as the basis of the script and the script itself as the basis of the film use the immaterial linguistic medium as a bridge.

For this analysis I chose the film adaptation of the novel "Seventeen Swans" by Lili Csokonai. This is one of the most mysterious and scandalous novels of Hungarian literary history of the 20th century. The book was published in 1987 with a completely unknown writer on the cover, and the guessing started immediately. The setting of the autobiographical novel is Hungary in the 1980’s and the narrator/author Lili Csokonai uses the Hungarian language of the 17th century to tell her love story. The first part or chapter "Curriculumvitaeswan" (in one word), truly and respectfully reflects the centuries-old Hungarian tradition of gender autobiography. The suspense between the elegant and the rather vulgar language and the story of sexual accomplishment and defencelessness of a woman is incomparable in the gender-authorial and also in the post-modern tone of voice. The Élet és Irodalom published an appreciation written by Imre Bata about Lili Csokonai’s remarkable, young and fresh female voice, and introduced her as a great promise.

However after a while the authorial disguise was lifted. After making the narrative situation uncertain, the certainty of the authorship was lost too. Péter Esterházy’s authorship remained in the background on purpose; his name is only on the inner cover of the further editions. I do not think that publishing this novel under the name of a fictitious author has only been a joke by Esterházy, and neither that it was a supercilious mystification.

Actually the novel makes Lili speak about her life, it is not Esterházy who does so, so the author is the one who is talking, whose voice is inside, who is trying to get known to herself throughout the text. Esterházy does not want to create a Lili-character who talks about herself, and neither does he want to put himself into the character of Lili, he simply makes the border-line of fiction and the authenticity of the genre of autobiography indistinct. He simply lets Lili speak.

Unlike most post-modern literary works ‘Seventeen Swans’ does have a plot. Lili gives a sketch of her life in the "Curriculumvitaeswan", and further details are fragments in the text. Although a review of a book seems completely useless it might be important especially for our later analysis of the film adaptation. A young girl, Lili Csokonai in the 1980’s in Hungary is starting to speak about her life. She loses her mother after her birth and her father at the age of four. The father is a mythological statue for the young girl: she keeps having conversations with her dead father and praying to him before shooting her lover, Márton Kéri. Lili always wants to attain self-justification. After her father’s death she moves to foster parents, her foster father is molesting her, so she has to go. She starts working as a cleaner and keeps dreaming about nice clothes and make-up. She meets Márton Kéri, a married man, whom she gives her virginity. The profanity of this sexual and love affair, and in general, the profanity of life is being reinforced by the sacral, ancient Hungarian language. She gets pregnant from Kéri, but she has to have an abortion. Kéri causes a car-accident, his father dies, and Lili is crippled. Kéri leaves her after the accident, Lili moves into a flat where she lives alone. She writes her autobiography and tries to understand the things which happened to her. An old Greek man, Naxos helps her in the household and becomes her lover. Naxos leaves her too. Lili has permanent physical and emotional pain, and decides to kill Kéri. She succeeds.

The novel is about the eternal human demand of being loved. The progress of time, the transitoriness of the human body and the flow of the sensitivity are in the focus of the narration. It is the terrible feeling of irreversibility what makes Lili to write. The sacral, vulgar, and inornate language she uses gives simultaneously a dramatic and self-ironic tone to the autobiographical novel.

The adaptation of the novel, ‘School of Sensitivity’ by director András Sólyom, apprehends intuitively this special tone. It keeps and tries to give utterance to the novel’s special linguistic cavalcade: an expressive voice of a woman who is 30 years older, actually the actress Kati Lázár’s voice, recalls and quotes the pre-text. These monologues of Lili are linked not only to the text where they are written down but also to the film where they can be heard. Throughout the immaterial linguistic medium the special tone of these monologues was successfully transformed for the screen. The swan, as a structural organizer of the novel, a central symbol of Lili’s mood is strongly emphasized in the film, too. A swan, swimming in a mysterious red light on the surface of the water reflects Lili’s sufferings and losses: virginity, beauty, freedom, blood and love. It is also important, that with tiny changes, the whole narrative structure of the novel is being projected onto the screen.

Once the director András Sólyom said in an interview that, although Esterházy gave his blessing to adapt the ‘Seventeen Swans’, he was totally convinced: it is impossible. Most people agree with Esterházy the novel IS basically inadaptable: for example, the post-modern suppressions, emphasises, the special structure and genre, the typographical specialities could never be brought to screen. After all, we have to consider that this are exactly the criteria of E-literature. Although the narrative structure of the novel is quite flexible for a film, the symbols are visually provocative, the narrative situation and tone is individual, and the topic is well known to everyone: the difficulty of being loved and not being loved anymore. Why would it be an impossible idea to build a film based on these fundamental elements of an E-text? As András Sólyom later pointed out, putting "Seventeen Swans" on the screen was just like playing with a difficult puzzle. I think, the above-mentioned special fragments of the novel are transposed well into the "School of Sensitivity", and they keep their original voice, smell, taste and mood in the movie too.

© Veronika Julia Korner (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest)


BAZIN, André: Mi a film? Esszék, tanulmányok, Osiris, Budapest, 2002.

ESTERHÁZY Péter: Csokonai Lili: Tizenhét hattyúk, Magvető, Budapest, 1988.

KITTLER, Friedrich: Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1999.

KITTLER, Friedrich: Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, Stanford University Press. Stanford, California, 1990.

McLUHAN, Marshall: Gutenberg galaxis, Trezor, Budapest, 2001.

McLUHAN, Understanding Media. The extension of Man, Cambridge, MA; London: The MIT Press, 1995.

9.5. Recycling Culture. Ancient and Sacral Texts in (Post)Modern Literature and Art

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Veronika Julia Korner (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest): Modern Literature and the Film-Making Industry. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_5/korner16.htm

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