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The Art of Adaptation

Laura Fraine takes in the new Moving Pictures exhibition at Seven Stories.


or readers and champions of children’s literature, the news of a forthcoming film adaptation is often received with mixed emotions. Films and TV series may be great for bringing books to a wider audience, ‘But you must read the book first!’, we exhort our

children. Images seen on screen seem to be so vivid that other interpretations pale in comparison, even as instinctively we feel the opposite – that a character met on the page and brought to life in our own imagination is the stronger, truer character.

A new exhibition seeks to eradicate these fears, and celebrate the art of adapting books for the screen. Moving Pictures is jointly curated by Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and The National Media Museum, and is currently showing at Seven Stories in Newcastle.

Books, films and television programmes are examined in this exhibition, from fairy tale classics to modern dramas. Taking in the original illustrations, film extracts, letters, scripts, and various ephemera of the publishing and filming processes, Moving Pictures does a brilliant job in conveying the sense that a story is something alive and mutable; that a published book is just one version of that story and all the best tales are apt to change over time.

Take Cinderella, a fairy tale which dates back more than one thousand years and for which there are thought to be a thousand recorded versions. Fairy tales of course have a long and unrecorded oral history, but the oldest known telling of Cinderella originates from 9th century China, in which Yeh-hsien is the heroine whose wishes are granted by a golden fish. Cinderella has many names around the world: Cendrillon, Ceneretola, Ashenputtel, Ash Girl, Katie Woodencloak being just a few, and the version best known to us is based on the French story written by Charles Perrault in 1667.

The story is on display in book form with versions illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, Jane Ray and Shirley Hughes (Hughes would later write her own adaptation of the fairy tale with Ella’s Big Chance, set in the Jazz Age, published by Simon and Schuster in 2004). But Cinderella has also been a stalwart of the stage, regularly reprised as pantomime, drama and ballet. The 1950 feature length cartoon of Cinderella would revive the flailing fortunes of Walt Disney Pictures, and remains a huge success today, with the Disney Princess franchise dominating the market for little girls’ toys.

It isn’t the original film, though. Georges Méliès directed and produced the first silent film of Cinderella in 1899. In 1922, Lotte Reiniger, a German film director and pioneer of silhouette animation, made Aschenputtel, a mesmerising and beautiful short made entirely in silhouette. Reiniger was

of Hugo Cabret, and its 2012 cinematic adapation, Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Brian Selznick’s book tells the story of Méliès and the birth of cinema, but it does so in a unique way by aiming to act like a film. The result is part novel, part picture book, part flick book. ‘Because my story is centred around a filmmaker… I wanted to experiment with the visual aspect of my story,’ explains Selznick. ‘I decided to tell part of the story in images, like a movie. I returned to my manuscript and removed as much text as I could, replacing words with illustrated sequences so we could watch those parts of the story.’


influenced by George Méliès, but she also anticipated Walt Disney. Incidentally, Disney made his own seven minute cartoon of Cinderella in the same year as Aschenputtel was released, while Reiniger’s own remake of Cinderella came four years after the Disney blockbuster.


Georges Méliès crops up again in the exhibition in an appreciation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 book, The Invention

8 Books for Keeps No.206 May 2014 2

What happens when an homage to film, created in order to emulate the cinematic experience, is subsequently made into a film? In the case of this adaptation, the director is for the most part faithful to the text. Many of the images used in the book are translated wholesale into the film. ‘When I went on set, everybody had a copy of the book. Scorsese always kept a few on hand, so he could give them to people so they’d understand what

he wanted in the shot!’ said Brian Selznick. The author was told by the film’s production designer, ‘I just did everything you drew.’ Yet, there is the sense of Scorsese writing himself into the history of cinema too. As he tells the story of pioneering techniques while using 3-D technology for the first time, it is hard not to notice he is adding himself to the list of pioneers. The film can’t hope to match the book for inventiveness, but nonetheless it captures the book’s mood and meaning very stylishly. ‘I just wanted the screenplay to have the same emotional wallop that the book does,’ explained screenwriter John Logan.


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