Book to Film Adaptation – Case Study of M.Butterfly (1993, David Cronenberg)

Many forms of texts are now being made into movies. Adapting from books, games, or even radio shows. When adaptation happens occurs, sometimes fans are outraged when the films are not truthful to the original text. Films often used the terms, “based on this book, loosely based on, or inspired by” to give an idea how different the adaptation will be. Issues will always revolve around movies adaptation. This essay will examine issues of adaptations in relation to M. Butterfly both film and theatrical script version. Focusing on the differences and similarity of the adaptation.

M. Butterfly was a play that was written by David Hwang. It is telling a story about a French diplomat named Gallimard who felt in love with a Chinese ‘female’ opera singer, named Song. The story progressed and showed how their relationship blossomed. Big twist in the story Song was a male, and he was a spy for the Chinese government. Interestingly this story was based on a true story that happened in 1983. Also, the theme of the book, which was orientalism, feminism, and submissive was also taken from the original opera of Madame Butterfly. In 1993, David Cronenberg made a movie adaptation of M. Butterfly.

In relations to adaptations, some must said that a good adaptation is an adaptation that sticks true to its nature. Fans occasionally being let down when it comes to books to film adaptation. Especially there are a different hierarchy between literature and film, making books much more preferable rather than film. There are seven important theories relations to hostility of adaptations. One of the theories is dichotomous thinking. Dichotomous thinking is a bitter rivalry between film and literature. This made film seems to be as the enemy of literature. In theory, the movie M. Butterfly would less preferable comparing to the book, because the fact that movie is for mass audiences and seen as low culture while a play is look upon as high culture. The first noticeable differences between the book and the movie were the opening scene. In the book, the opening scene was a sequence of flashback. Gallimard was in his cell, telling the story about his life. While in the film, it was the other way around. The flashback became the opening scene, while the cell scene was move to the end of the movie. In addition to that, play to movie adaptation might have differences in theme. Despite the fact that theme of postmodernism and feminism revolved around both the film and the play, but there are an element of horror in the movie. In an article written by Asuman Suner, it was stated that David Cronenberg’s version of M.Butterfly has the same pattern with his earlier style of horror film. These created an even more rivalry between the book and the film. Cronenberg as the director has added his style of directing into the film, which might differ to what David Hwang’s version.

Second theory is ‘anti-corporeality.’ In this content filmic text is seen as an obscene. Reading a book triggers your imaginary to provide the scene that is written, but in the film it portrays it to the viewer. A play is limited. It was performed in a stage, which does not have much place to move. But it is different with movies. In the movies, the cameras revolve around the character, and they can jump from places to places. Therefore, it could trigger feeling from the viewers. Example could be seen in the scene such as the Chinese opera house scene. In the movie, the first time Gallimard found the Chinese opera house, he only said one line asking where the opera house was. It differs from the play in which Gallimard was explaining his curiosity about ‘the butterfly.’ So in the film, it was more explicit. Not through words but images. The facial reaction and the gestures of Gallimard, indicated that he was curious about Song. Inevitably it gives more feeling for the viewer to understand Gallimard.

Third theory is class prejudice. Class prejudice is looking at film as being a lower class because it is appeal to a mass audience. Especially for adaptations, it is seen as “dumbed down” version of their original text. Play and opera are seen as complex. It requires high knowledge for someone to understand or follow through the story. And because the play does not need to attract the mass audience, it is appreciate for its complexity. In M. Butterfly, what makes it so complex is its narrative. On the play, it is fully through the eyes of Gallimard. It is narrated in ways we can understand Gallimard but the sequences of event were jumping around. So in scene 1 was Gallimard being in prison, telling the story of his while. Next minute when they move to scene 2, it changed. The story told about his life in China; this continues on for several scenes in the opening act. While in the film, David Cronenberg did not use this method. He followed a chronological timeline for viewers to understand the stories better. If David Cronenberg used the same method then, it would be a film where the viewers need to use their brain while watching. Bourdieu called this a “cultural capital,” which means that audiences just want a light entertainment. And usually people who went to see a play is people who have class. This theory connects to a different theory, ‘myth of facility’. Myth of facility explains the myth that films are easy to make and watch.

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