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Below is a link from a piece by Stanley Kauffman, the film critic of The New Republic, responding to readers who exhorted him to read Louis Begley's book "About Schmidt." (Kauffmann saw the movie and reviewed it favorably, but allowed as how he hadn't read the original. The readers who wrote in liked the book but not the very liberal adaptation.) Kauffman suggests that familiarity with the original may not necessarily a good thing and may not even be necessary, period:


"I'm not proposing that the ideal filmgoer is ignorant of every good novel or play that has ever been published and that might be adapted. I suggest only that balance can be difficult if it is necessary, and that sometimes an evasion is a comfort. A film may be well able to stand on its own without comparison to its source."

This is an issue that seems relevant to other art forms, ballet included. Speaking for myself, I don't see how comparisons to source material can really be avoided, and I don't think they should be avoided – they don't have to be invidious, and they are frequently enlightening. The opposite can also be true – going to a book after seeing an adaptation can make you aware of crucial things altered or left out entirely. I think what Kauffmann means is that complaining about how much better the book is than the movie is beside the point. The important issue is whether or not the work in its new form can stand on its own. Yes, or no? (or yes and no?) What adaptations have worked for you, and what others have not? And what do you think made the difference in each case?

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Off the top of my head:

Prokofiev took episodes of War and Peace and created a very decent piece of musical theater, but it can't really be compared to the monumental novel--perhaps "based on" or even "inspired by" would be a better way to describe this and many other works than "adapted from".

Just for laughs: In The Di Capo Opera Manual, which lists sets, major roles, suggested running times and other data for opera, has this for War and Peace under the heading Hazards: Cannonball lands onstage near Napolean; Staggeringly large cast; Moscow burns.

Regarding opera taken from Shakespeare--Verdi did Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff--I know both the operas and plays pretty well. In every case they stand by themselves as independent works of art. Verdi always wanted to do King Lear and it he had it most likely would be a magnificent work of art, which one could experience without reference to the play.

Perversely enough, though, I don't know Don Carlos, the play by Schiller and love the opera based on it by Verdi. But since I don't know the play, I feel I would understand the opera more if I did know it.

MacMillan's ballet Manon, with its leering, pornographic glee at Manon's plight is closer to the novel by Prevost Manon Lescaut than either of the operas with which I am familiar, Massenet's Manon or Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

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It depends a great deal on who is doing the adapting. When a lesser artist adapts a great work to another medium, the result is not just different, it's different and less. And in this case familiarity with the original does hinder the enjoyment of the adaptation a great deal, as it should. If you can't make it as great, leave it alone. PLEASE.

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It's hard to think of two more dissimilar works of art than Don Quixote, the novel by Cervantes, and Don Quixote, the ballet by Petipa. The novel is a satire on the romances of chivalry popular at the time, as well as an extraordinary panorama of 17th century Spain. The ballet is basically the story of Basil the barber, Kitri the innkeeper's daughter, and her foppish suitor Gamache, with cameo appearances by the Don and Sancho. I had the atypical experience of having seen Balanchine's Don Quixote before Petipa's. When I finally did see it, every time the Don and Sancho walked out on stage looking forlorn, I thought they were looking for Balanchine's ballet.

But Balanchine's Don Q was not a success, even though it definitively established the greatness of Suzanne Farrell. There's talk of a revival, a prospect which I know plunges such fine people as Mel Johnson into deep gloom. I saw the ballet many times and saw something new every time. (There WAS something new every time.) I'd love to see it again.

I don't know when the character of Don Quixote evolved from that of dotty old coot into noble visionary, but it was yet another art form -- the American musical -- which firmly established him as striving to reach the unreachable star. In Holding on to the Air, Farrell writes of being taken to see Man of La Mancha, "The musical version of Don Quixote had received far more acclaim than Balanchine's version, and I was determined, out of loyalty, to dislike it. Despite this, I enjoyed it thoroughly and cried voluminously."

I am determined to cry voluminously at the revival of Balanchine's ballet.

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