There is a limited range of options with adaptation. You can add to the original story. You can deduct from it. You can transpose the existing material from one medium to the other. If it’s your own story, as in the case of James Dickey screenwriting Deliverance, you might do all of those three in an attempt to say something similar to what you had already said. You might try to say it more eloquently or more effectively, or you might try to refine it, or revise it in the light of hindsight.
What Dickey has done has been to add a little, remove a little more, and transpose the vast majority of his written story into the screenplay. In my edition the book makes 242 pages of text, plus a few lines, and that seemed a lot for the simplicity of the shown story.
Reading the original novel of Deliverance what’s immediately striking is the difference between how Dickey begins to tell the story, and how he begins to show it.
Filmed story has ‘credits’, which in some ways resemble the cover, title page and ‘preliminaries’ of a printed book. Whereas in the latter we get publication date, publisher, and publishing history if not a first edition, and sometimes a brief note on previous works by the same author, in the former we have the headlined names of Director, Screenwriter, originating material if it’s famous, head of photography, producer, distributer and so on. But what we also have with film, and which might be thought vaguely analogous to the cover image, is often some film footage showing behind those pieces of printed information. Curiously, what films never seem to do, is to give those credits by soundtrack, but always use the printed word!
In some films – Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue is an example – what’s shown behind the credits is the set up of the story. In others – like The Human Stain, based on Philip Roth’s novel -, the climactic scene unfolds, and is then ‘explained’ by the story that follows. In the classic old movie High Society, Louis Armstrong plays the theme song in the bus carrying him and his band to the mansion in which the story is set, and he actually announces as they arrive: ‘End of song. Beginning of story’, which is one of the neatest explanations of how stories begin that you will find.
In the case of the film Deliverance, the setting is explored as the camera pans down the fictional Cahulawassee River to where the damn that will flood the valley is already under construction. A brief scene shows the cars of the protagonists driving into the wild country where the story will unfold, and as the credits end, the story begins with them filling up with gas at the boondock shanty town. A voice over sketches the sort of people our adventurers are, and their opening encounter with the ‘mountain men’ shows us the differences (and perhaps similarities) between the urbanites and the rurals, and within the group of travellers themselves.
Look to the novel and it starts with an oblique description:
‘It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose.’
It’s an interesting opener, for it means nothing without the context that the next sentence might provide. Like a camera pulling back from a close-up, we see eventually that the four protagonists are discussing a map of the river which Lewis plans to take them on. Near the bottom of this first page a second paragraph begins: ‘I leaned forward…’ and we realise we are in a first person narrative.
The first person narrative does something special. It allows the author to tell us a story in a voice belonging to a witness of or actor caught up in it. The first person narrator is at once authentic, and vulnerable to undermining. It allows that voice to satirize itself, at the hands of the author. It sometimes allows the reader to see beyond what the narrator sees of him or herself and of the other characters and of the events as they are described. When this seeing is intended by the author it heightens the power of the telling, but if we sense that it is not, then we are seeing not the author’s insight but his or her limitations. It is nearly impossible to replicate in film, though some have tried (notably, I suppose, Michael Powell). The most effective written first person I’ve ever encountered is in the novel Barry Lyndon, but Kubrick’s film adaptation could not replicate Thackeray’s authorial slow and subtle reveal of his first person narrator’s character.
It’s on page three that we learn who Dickey’s narrator is, but the dominant character Lewis is revealed at the beginning of the third sentence, only a few lines in. It is Ed who is the narrator, and Lewis dominates his consciousness.
Thinking about this adaptation, before having read the book, I wondered how the bulk of a novel could be made out of the very few ‘action’, or even dialogue sequences in the film. A lot of the film shows the group canoeing the river. Would the novel do that I wondered? What it does do, is spend much more time on the narrator’s back-story than the film does, and in fact by page 35 in the novel, he is still telling us about the freeway journey into the wild. By page twenty he has not even left home. Several named characters, his workplace, and his business practices, and his attitude to them, have been recalled, dissected and described. He has attended a photo-shoot with a female model.
All of this is part of establishing who he is, and who Lewis is, and what is the relationship between them. The film does it all in seconds, and in a few sentences, and because we actually see and hear them speak with intonation, emphasis, vehemence or sarcasm, rather than have to construct in the characters imagination, we can appreciate what sort of people they are. What showing can do quickly and in several ways at once, telling has to do one word at a time, in order.
Surprising to me was the fact that Dickey’s novel has as much, and arguably more of the river scenes than does the film. They occur in the same places in the story, and go on for pages. It’s remarkable than he can do it. The first river sequence, during which they launch the canoes and paddle to their first evening’s camp runs for eight pages. Later sequences, where Bobby and Ed paddle to their deadly encounter with the mountain men, and the later two sequences, where the four flee from that site, and again where they make the final journey down river to Aintry, are equally long, if not longer. I confess I skip read the novel after the killing of the second mountain man, and wonder to what extent I did so because I had seen the film. I’m not convinced I would have read the whole novel if that had not been the case, and those river sequences most likely would have been the ones that would have stopped me from doing so.
The inciting incident, of the rape of Bobby and the threatened sexual assault on Ed, takes up nearly thirty pages of text and ‘faithfully’ foreshadows most of the dialogue and actions included in the film.
Another long sequence, removed from the film, or at least shortened to the point of being fundamentally changed, is where Ed climbs the cliff, shoots the second assailant and lowers his body into the gorge. In the novel this is much longer, more elaborate and complicated, both to describe and to imagine! Whole segments of the sequence are removed, for in the novel Ed not only climbs and kills, but plans his attack, stalks his victim, and follows the dying man as he would a wounded beast, before carrying him back to the cliff edge to lower him down. What in a written first person narrative will not undermine our interest in the character, might have seemed, when viewed through the camera lens, to implicate us in a nasty piece of work
The final segment of the story, in which the traveller’s account of events is tested against the scrutiny of the locals is heavily compressed, simplified in both extent and cast numbers. Those imaginary characters don’t add much to the cost of producing a novel, but they would to the budget of a film. Conversations with doctors and policemen, the calling for help at a service station, are much reduced. The film’s final scenes, of Ed with his wife, have compressed a much longer piece of writing. Streamlining is a term I’ve heard used in this context, and it’s a good one here. For me, the film tells a slicker and more streamlined story than the book, much of which goes on in the first person narrator’s thought as he reacts to events and plans how he will progressively come to shape them. That transition, from being the acolyte of Lewis’s to the prime mover of the group, is present in the novel but is embedded in much navel gazing and descriptive writing. In the film it is more clearly and neatly encapsulated in a few exchanges between Ed and both Lewis and Bobby.
As we might expect, film shows explicitly what stories demand that we interpret and imagine. They make it easier for us, but they also make us passive witnesses, to what the told story requires us to take a part in the construction of.