Hermeneutics of Generosity: How Dr. Grewell watches film adaptions

Posted by Julia Adams on 9/3/23 2:17 PM

Watching film adaptions with hermaneutics of generosity

**Note** Patrick Henry College does not officially endorse the following movie selections or the worldviews they represent.

If you are a literature aficionado or enjoy watching the film adaptions of your favorite books, you may have experienced an imaginative dissonance between the film and the original work. Perhaps you pictured the main character as a bit more charitable than the movie depicts. Perhaps your own mental pictures are so dissonant from the movie that you have to choose which you would rather believe. Or, to the chagrin of many, the film changes the plot dramatically, and “It just isn’t the same!”

Dr. Cory Grewell, Professor of Literature at PHC, understands this experience and shares his advice with us.

The Great Big "Should"

When a film adaptation of a book arrives in theaters, people go to see it with their own set of “shoulds” from their reading of the work. For example, what the characters should look like, how they should behave, and what the setting should look like. Like me, however, you might have found yourself greatly disappointed. While seeming to approve on the outside, your mind is racing with constant critiques of the stature of the protagonist, the visual representations of characters, the costuming, or even the reactions portrayed on the screen.

While this is certainly understandable, there is a way to appreciate the film adaptation on its own merit.

Defining "Adaption"

One important aspect to remember is that no film is ever going to be completely true to the book. It will keep the main characters, and if it is a good adaption (more on that later), it will keep the main point of the story. However, the rest is up to creative license. That is why the opening credits typically include the words “an adaption of” or “based on.” Sometimes these deviations from the original plot are done for the sake of making it easier to film or to make more sense to a modern audience.

It can be difficult to balance the reality of your own imagination against the director’s creative license. Many struggle to keep the movie separate from the book, but it is important to do so to enjoy the cinematic experience.

Grewell's "Hermeneutics of Generosity"

To truly enjoy an adaptation, then, you need to accept the film on its own terms. This is the concept Grewell calls “Hermeneutics of Generosity.” Try to avoid comparing it to the book. Instead keep in mind the two perspectives brought to the movie theater: dynamic meaning and an imaginative reality, neither of which can be satisfied completely.

Dynamic meaning, according to Grewell, is the perceived meaning from the reader’s denise-jans-9lTUAlNB87M-unsplashperspective. This is the answer to the question, “What do you think is the author’s main point?” It’s going to be different based on the previous experiences of each reader. For example, someone who has researched the law of primogeniture in early 19th century England will come away with a much different answer regarding the main point of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than someone who has not. Imaginative reality is the reality the imagination constructs based on what the mind’s eye sees. When you read the description of Raskolnikov’s actions upon returning to his apartment in the beginning of Crime and Punishment, what do you picture? That is your imaginative reality.

A Reality of Their Own

Grewell pointed out that each character also has an existence that cannot be ignored. For example, when an author is writing a story and hits the backspace button saying, “No, that character wouldn’t do that,” he encounters such a reality. How does the author know what the character (which he created), would or would not do? With the physical manifestation of the character on each page comes an assumption of the general path the character would take.

This general path, however, also comes with its own independence. As Luigi Pirandello wrote in his play Six Characters in Search of an Author, “When a character is born, he acquires at once such an independence, even of his own author, that he can be imagined by everybody even in many other situations where the author never dreamed of placing him; and so he acquires for himself a meaning which the author never thought of giving him.”

This concept in literature applies to film. Each person who plays a part in the production of a film has his own imaginative reality. It’s like having “more cooks involved in the soup,” Grewell said. When a book is published, there are fewer cooks. Typically, there’s the author, editor, publisher, maybe an illustrator, and the reader. In film production, the number of people involved grows exponentially. Now there are actors, directors, screenplay writers, costume designers, and more, not including the audience. Each of these roles has been influenced by their own reading of the book based on other experiences they have had, and want to bring their own “reality” into the part they play. Think of an adaption as a transaction between parties. It will look different on paper than it will on film.

English at PHC: a step forward for the Literature program

So, What Are Quality Film Adaptions? 

For quality adaptations, Grewell recommends The Maltese Falcon, Lonesome DoveO Brother Where Art Thou?, Apocalypse Now, and The Lord of the Rings.

In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Grewell thinks that Jackson had “the story in his back pocket… [while he] made his own work of art.” The Maltese Falcon is an excellent example of how a movie can stand on its own. The audience does not need to read the book first to understand the movie. O Brother Where Art Thou is a good adaptation of The Odyssey because it follows the main plot points, even if it is in a different culture and millennia. Apocalypse Now is an R-rated movie based on the book Heart of Darkness, which every freshman reads in Western Literature II. The story, instead of taking place in Africa, is based in Vietnam. The fight against wild Africa continues to permeate throughout the plot, upholding the integrity of the book. 

Row of BooksThere are cases where actions in a book would not make sense to a modern audience. Grewell used Love’s Labour’s Lost, a Shakespearean play brought to the big screen by Kenneth Branagh, as an example of this. In the play, the characters create bad sonnets when they find themselves falling in love. To an untuned ear or even a modern audience, the playwright’s point is lost. Instead, Branagh made the characters sing show tunes, which are generally regarded as passé, sappy, and silly, making the audience cringe, which was the original point of Shakespeare’s bad sonnets. Does this take away from the integrity of the adaption? No; instead it augments it and makes it more enjoyable to those who have never read Shakespeare.

While directors should maintain some accountability to the overall plot, it is possible for a film to create what Grewell calls “imaginative dissonance” which makes it difficult for viewers to see the film as even following the original book.

The film adaptation of the Jack Reacher novels, featuring Tom Cruise as the title character, is an example of such "imaginative dissonance." According to Grewell, many in the audience left the theaters unsatisfied with the movie version of Reacher. Reacher is a big Marine, and Tom Cruise, well, is not. While they tried various angles to make a visual allusion, it was not enough.

Your experience of a film greatly depends on how attached you are to your own imaginative reality. If you want your favorite character to come alive on the big screen, it may be worth the pain of the creative licensing the word “adaption” allows." Sometimes, the “Hermeneutics of Generosity” is just what is needed to watch a film and join the Great Conversation.

Learn more about PHC's Philosophy of Education

 Patrick Henry College exists to glorify God by challenging the status quo in higher education, lifting high both faith and reason within a rigorous academic environment; thereby preserving for posterity the ideals behind the "noble experiment in ordered liberty" that is the foundation of America.



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