Monday, May 13, 2013

Adaptation & Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz provides a compelling case study on the process of book-to-film adaptation, as it reveals how the conversion between mediums can result, not only in losing something in translation, but in positively inverting the meaning of a text. In the book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller unequivocally depicts the quasi-autobiographical character Don's experiences at a secular university -- having been raised Baptist -- as a process of maturation, of being exposed to a wider world of intellectual openness and breadth, of fruitful experiences with new types of people who influence him for the better, of growing in wisdom, of coming to view his religious roots as narrow-minded and hypocritical. Because we are privy to Don's inner monologue in the book, this understanding of his journey is forcefully impressed on the reader and unmistakable. One may have suspicions (as I did) that what's really going on -- as it does for so many new college students -- is the character is succumbing to the seduction of sinful worldliness, and nothing more. The text of the book is ambiguous enough to allow that this is perhaps some minor aspect of what is occuring, but it also makes abundantly clear that ultimately what is transpiring in Don's life is good.

The translation to film is fascinating because, without Don's inner monologue constantly available, it not only becomes possible to read Don's journey as a straightforward discarding of one's faith in favor of seductive worldliness, but it positively screams to be read in this fashion. There aren't any narrative clues that anything else is happening at all, save perhaps the final 'redemptive' moments that themselves contain decidedly mixed sentiments. The film could practically be used as a Scared Straight propaganda video, showing Christian parents the soul-corrupting dangers of secular University life in modern America. While the book emphatically rejects this narrative and depicts his journey as a process of enrichening, enlightening spiritual and personal growth.

The character of Penney in the film supplies the only counter to Don's descent into effective unbelief. Her faith fuels her political activism and world-saving pretensions, without her having to always, you know, talk about Jesus and be all religiousy. Don clearly admires Penney and sees her brand of faith as more genuine and mature, but if she were an unbelieving, secular do-gooder it's hard to see what -- if anything -- would be lost about his admiration. She says she read the Bible in an ancient literature class and fell in love with Jesus, exactly as if he were some inspiring literary character and nothing more.

The final moments do acknowledge Don's grief at his having been ashamed of Christ, but this is consistent with interpreting his college experience as utterly negative and corrupting up to that point. Again, the precise opposite of what the book portrays.

This disconnect between book and film makes me curious whether this was an intentional move. It probably makes the film more pallettable for a young evagelical audience (the only crowd they could even hope to be appealing to), but it seems to radically compromise on the message of the book to such a degree that one wouldn't think Miller would be OK with it. Yet he wrote the script and was intimately involved with making the film. The only other possibility is that it was unintentional, in which case I would hypothesize it's attributable to an over-familiarity with the source material to the point where the filmmakers assume the audience has (much) more information than they've actually been given. Either way, it's a potent testament to the precarious nature of film adaptation.

1 comment:

  1. Wouldn't you think Miller smart enough to employ a film narrator (why not maybe himself)for some of his internal thoughts and struggles that worked so well in the book.

    I wonder how much control he really had? He wasn't financing it I assume.