This morning, while I was having my daily lemon poppyseed muffin and coffee at the Cafe Carolina, I idly glanced through the Arts section of the TIMES, the Tuesday crossword and Ken Ken puzzles requiring very little time, as usual. I happened on a story about John Goldwyn, grandson of the legendary Samuel Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame, who is trying to make a comeback as a movie producer with the just released The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I have seen previews of the movie, a fifty million dollar spectacular, starring the always egregious Ben Stiller. My first reaction to the previews was a silent "Oh, no! That is all wrong!"
Anyway, the TIMES piece got me thinking about the larger question of the appropriateness of adaptations and modernizations of classic literary works. You know the sort of thing I mean: King Lear set in 1930's Weimar Germany, Romeo and Juliet as a musical about New York gangs. Sometimes these work exceedingly well. West Side Story is, for my money, a completely legitimate take on the Shakespeare play. Sometimes these adaptations are disasters. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson are so completely wrong that their version of the great Conan Doyle characters struck me as a deliberate piece of camp [and a bad piece at that.]
The problem, as I see it, is this: a great author integrates the characters and plot lines so perfectly with the social, legal, political, and cultural milieu in which the story is set that the two cannot be disambiguated. Pride and Prejudice is set in a world in which property and marriage and family connection are inseparable. Darcy's hesitations about marrying a daughter of the Bennett family makes no sense if the story is transported to 1990's San Francisco. Richard III is incomprehensible if Richard is figured as a New York corporate executive. The motivations of the characters, the constraints on their choices, the tragedy of their situation are all inseparable from the social world they inhabit.
Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a delightful James Thurber short story about a meek little man -- a Casper Milquetoast, if I may show my age -- who carves out a tiny interior space in his imagination into which he can retreat from his overbearing wife [A Thurber standard] for fleeting moments of satisfying fantasy. One of his little flights of fancy, for example, takes place in the brief time that he sits in his car at a traffic light, waiting for the red to turn to green. To render this fiction cinematically by a series of dramatic, expensive special effects episodes completely loses the charm of the original story [you will notice that I say this confidently despite having not seen the picture.] As for the casting of Ben Stiller, words fail me. Walter Mitty is not a mugging self-referential clown. Far from it. Kevin Kline might be able to carry it off, but not Ben Stiller.
If I may recur to Aristotle -- always a permissible move for a philosopher -- the great writers succeed in finding the universal in the particular. They do not write the universal and then arbitrarily set it in some particular to which it bears no intrinsic relation.
Very much the same thing is true of great composers, I believe [although here I suspect I will get a strong argument from some performers as well as from some composers.] The original pianoforte [soft-loud -- rather like the pushmepullyou in Dr. Doolittle] is very different from the modern concert grand. It makes a different sound. When Mozart wrote for the pianoforte -- I am convinced -- he did not write for some ideal perfect piano which, alas for him, the available pianoforte only imperfectly instantiated. He wrote for the existing instrument. Had someone made a modern concert grand available to him, mirabile dictu, he would have written different music. That is why not even the immortal Glenn Gould was able, on a piano, to play harpsichord music as it was meant to be played.
Well, as I say, I have not seen the movie. I am still trying to find the time to see The desolation of Smaug.