6 U.S. Specials: Adaptations on Six American Short Stories
This collection of screen adaptations have been chosen from across a range of American authors, genres and styles-from the Gothic fable of Hawthorne’s ‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ of 1837 to the light comic reflectiveness of Amy Tan’s ‘Two Kinds’ of 1986.
Each story contributes to that on-going tradition of formal experimentation that characterises the uniqueness of the American Short Story in general. In this, each provides an ironic insight into the art of short storytelling itself – in all its variable permutations.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’, for example, beguiles his dubious elderly acquaintances into the belief that they can reclaim their lost rebellious youth, yet our own critical distance from the absurdity of the narrative is undermined by the teasing first-person narrative that questions that given authority of this and any other story. The account is set within the fictive world outside the Doctor’s laboratory where careers in the ‘real world’ of politics – as populated by mirrors, portraits and uncertain memories – all depend upon the vagaries of public opinion, rumour and fable – all informal narrative strategies in themselves.
Similarly, the telling gap between social reality and myth is comically exposed in Crane’s ‘12-O-Clock’ where the fraught combination of fear, rumour and the selective viewing of passing events prompts the good citizens of a small western town into a bloody gunfight in order to defend their perceived good reputation of the town.
The oral tradition of the 19th Century gives way to the dubious power of early twentieth century myth-making-cinema itself.
This is foregrounded in the dizzying career of Fitzgerald’s screenwriter Pat Hobby whose individual voice must conform to the industrial imperatives of a powerful Hollywood which can translate one for of narrative account – history – into its replacement – mass entertainment. Yet it’s Fitzgerald’s final knowing irony, in keeping perhaps with John Ford, that recognises the power of such fairy tale versions of history.
Yet, towards the middle of the century, both the legitimacy of the myths and the industrial corporate source which nurtured and sustained them became severely questioned and finally undermined.
The collapse in faith is mirrored in Malamud’s ‘My Son, The Murderer’ (1968), where the singular and often reliable narrative voice that had sustained the Realist style elsewhere now fragments into a collage of opposing and often contradictory claims, with little post-modern irony to save it.
This breakage of narrative cohesion is further explored in Bobbie Ann Mason’s ‘Big Bertha Stories’ of 1988 whose grim parody of the traditional fairy tale serves to chart the psychological collapse of a ‘surviving’ Vietnam war veteran by charting his attempts to articulate his tortured memories of the recent war.
The guiding concern throughout, then, is to explore the ambiguous territory between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, past and present, private and public, through stories which systematically underline the creative and destructive potential of the formative imagination as it guides and prompts actions and beliefs in the real world of the semantically unstable protean American scene.
This has a strong contemporary relevance in the last of the six adaptations, Amy Tan’s ‘Two Kinds’ of 1986, that now foreground the voice of the marginalised female immigrant who now becomes the narrative’s final triumphal authority, raising as it does through the competing claims of rival cultures. The casual but careful blurring of myth and truth is the very substance of the mass-media culture which surrounds her and which invests so heavily in the truth that for everybody, in America at least, the ‘Dream’ can indeed become the real.
It’s this tension that makes such stories rich in potential for the screenplay adaptation. It is also reflective of a tradition, which evokes, questions, and undermines the cultural and political myths of a nation which, for Joyce Carol Oats, remains itself, “…a theoretic experiment in newness, exploration, discovery…”
Guest Lecturer, John F. Kennedy Institute, FU, Berlin and graduate of American Studies, University of Keele and the London Film School.