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Film Adaptation as Translation in The Example of Elia Kazan’s a Streetcar Named Desire

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The purpose of this paper is to approach film adaptation as a modality of translation and show an analysis of changes occurring in the adaptation of the famous play A Streetcar Named Desire for the big screen. Novels, plays and film have been the most popular narrative modes of the modern World. After cinema began to be seen a narrative entertainment, the novel as a narrative fiction began to be the source material of the film adaptations. Film-makers have seen the novel as a ready-made material. Theatre plays are also seen as more ready materials since they are in the form of dialogues. The reason of this continuing interest at the very beginning depends on the respect of its writer, respect of the literary work itself, its popularity. Although the popularity or success of the literary work brings respect to the title of the movie, all movies adapted from fiction cannot be successful. Four points needed for a literature-based film to be successful is listed by Cahir:

  1. The film must communicate definite ideas concerning the integral meaning and value of the literary text, as the filmmakers interpret it
  2. The film must exhibit a collaboration of filmmaking skills
  3. The film must demonstrate an audacity to create a work that stands as a world apart, that exploits the literature in such a way that a self-reliant but related, aesthetic offspring is born
  4. The film cannot be so self-governing as to be completely independent of or antithetical to the source material (Cahir, 2006: 99).

The audience who have seen the play version or read the script have their own mental images of the atmosphere of the play and its characters, undoubtedly they compare their images with those in the movie version. Fidelity is also questioned: Is it true to the play?, Does it capture the spirit of the play?, Is the characterization loyal to the original? Fidelity to the source text might be the major criterion for judging the film. On the other hand the concept of fidelity has different dimensions: fidelity to the text, fidelity to the spirit of the novel, fidelity to the era… Christopher Orr remarks this idea: ‘Within this critical context (here he means intertextuality), the issue is not whether the adapted film is faithful to its source, but rather how the choice of a specific source and how the approach to that source serve the film’s ideology. (qtd. in McFarlane, 1996: 10) The adapter might see the original as a “raw material”, and his/her movie version as a commentary on the literary text. Even from this point of view, the remaining spirit and essence of the original text in the movie can be questioned.

Geoffrey Wagner also suggests three possible categories for adaptation;

  1. transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.
  2. commentary, ‘where an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect . . . when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation.
  3. analogy, which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art. (Wagner, 1975: 28-30)

All these comments on the process of adaptation shows the fact that both adaptation and translation involve an act of communication between a source text and a target text, it involves the transfer of meaning between two different media. According to Catrysee, adaptation and translation share the following common characteristics:

  • they involve products which are situated in a complex context of producers, receivers, and various other agents;
  • they involve utterances or texts and the interaction between texts and their receivers;
  • translation and adaptation are considered irreversible processes, in the sense that a back-translation is not the same as the source text and, similarly, a novelization of a film adaptation would not be the same as the source novel;
  • adaptation and translation are teleological as processes, in that they are influenced by source and target (con)text conditioners, the latter of which play a pivotal role in the overall decision-making;
  • notions of “equivalence” can be traced in both adaptation and translation. (qtd. Perdikaki. 2017: 250-251)

Lefevere’s concept of Patronage is also common for the two processes, it places emphasis on the factors that monitors the translation and movie adaptation processes, as we will see in the example of the ‘rape scene’ of A Streetcar Named Desire. Since both adaptations and translations are part of the polysystem, they are also influenced by tangential systems.

The model for adaptation analysis of A Streetcar Named Desire used in the case study of this paper is based on Ven Leuven-Zwarts’s taxonomy of translation shifts. Descriptive/comparative and interpretive components will be used to explain adaptation shifts. Moreover, Catrysee’s descriptive approach of adaptations will be used. The play version and the movie version will also be compared accordingly.

A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1951is based on the play of the same name written by Tennessee Williams. Although the film is based on a story written for the stage and not the screen, Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is considered as a classic and placed among the greatest movies ever made, it has received twelve Oscar nominations. This success shows that the film succeeds in adapting the material it is based on.

Sexual desire, fantasy and delusion, interior and exterior appearance, masculinity, feminity are the major themes that Williams deals with in his play. Love, loyalty, psychosis, and cruelty amongst the characters is also questioned from Blanche’s point of view. Transfer of all these themes and topics are done with the help of Tennessee Williams himself, he collaborates to the script, and works with Kazan in a studio. Bray states that: “the director was involved in the play’s writing from very early on and the playwright was involved in the production process throughout its development” (Bray. 2013: 71).

Although it is called Kazan’s movie, it is hard to tell that the script is adapted by Kazan since Williams works in the studio throughout the process. The themes of the play -sexual desire, fantasy and delusion, interior and exterior appearance, masculinity, feminity- causes pressure from the studio, it was not very common for 1950s to deal with such issues on screen so some changes needed to be made. Transferring references of homosexuality, a rape scene, a suicide, and domestic violence into the film version was not easy for the era. Some dialogues are cut from the original version including references to Blanche’s ex husband’s homosexual tendencies, Stanley’s violence towards his wife and Blanche. The rape scene also causes discussions, censors want the scene to be omitted. On the other hand, Williams insists on the scene by saying “the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society” (qtd. in Bray. 2013: 75). As a result of his disapproval, the rape scene is symbolicly included, the violance of Stanley is softened. Williams also plays a key role in the selection of the cast. Blanche is played by Vivien Leight but Williams insists on Marlon Brando-who also plays in stage versions released in 1947 and 1948-for the role of Stanley Kowalski. In a letter, Williams telld about how he is content with the adaptation of the character of Stanley Kowalski to the screen:

Adaptation of a stage play differs from an adaptation of a novel, novella or short story. Especially a staged play causes expectations for the audience who have seen the first version.

What is movie’s behalf here is that various set designs, camera movements, music effects, more realistic outside settings… In movie version, Kazan uses all these elements to Project Blanche’s mind on screen. For example; ‘the scene of Japanese lanterns’ in which Blanche insists on turning out the lights and lets only the paper lanterns on is transferred by the help of camera movements which shows Blanche’s wrinkles near her eyes. Kazan wants the audience to empathize with Blanche. Signs of her mental breakdown and her vulnerability is mostly given through her actions, especially with her mimics. For example, in the scene in which she tells the her new fiancé about her ex-husband Alan, although her words are proper and convincing, as the camera zooms in we see that her actions Show that she is lying about her past.

Variety is not the only person who sees Blanche as a woman in search of physical

In the movie version, Kazan and Williams put a lot of focus on her Blanche’s emotional downfall, unlike the play version of stage. Kazan states “remained determined not to allow Brando’s stage dominance to overshadow the character of Blanche” (Bray. 2013: 79). They make their decisions accordingly.

The setting especially Kowalski home is also designed to give that effect of sympathy for Blanche. Small rooms of the house are used to Show Blanche’s inner turmoil. On the stage of theatre such an effect cannot be given through the stage design since the performance should be seen by each audience, idea od small rooms with lots of old furniture is not a good idea for stage performances of the play. It is stated “so that as Blanche feels more constricted and threatened inside the Kowalski home, the walls could literally move in and create a claustrophobic tension within the space” (McGee. 1996).

In the movie version, we are introduced to Blanche in New Orleans Train Station, she is confused. She steps of train to smoke-filled station. The she gets on the streetcar and tells where she needs to go. The film cuts here. Blanche is shocked by the busy streets of New Orleans, she meets with her sister Stella, they talk about Blanche’s new situation. During the conversation, the camera stays on Blanche, never shows any other character or details around. These close ups and camera angles that are chosen by Kazan differs the movie version from the stage versions. The camera movements guide us to see the significant elements, and helps us to focus on. In the scene of letters in which Stanley throws Blanche’s letter on the floor, the camera follows Blanche to the ground to show her vulnerability. The use of film techniques establish sympathy for Blanche and gives necessary details at first sight. The rape scene is also given through film techniques in a symbolic way, camera zooms in the frame, the broken mirror, the music rises and we hear the voice of a broken bottle. The rape is not obvious but clear from all the outcomes. Kazan succees in giving the themes of the novel through the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Adaptation is a kind of translation from one medium, prose, to another, film. Adaptation involves a process of modification and change in order to suit a new purpose. Adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire is also constructed within the framework of time, censorship and other obstacles also affects the process and they become the main reasons of adaptation shifts. Some of the scenes in the film are also out of sequence in relation to where they appear in the play on stage. The dialogues, events, symbols related to the themes of sexual desire, fantasy and delusion, interior and exterior appearance, masculinity, feminity is also affected by filmmakers attempt to limit the number of variables involved in the movie version.

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Film Adaptation as Translation in the Example of Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from
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