To direct, or to be directed

By Emily Smith

The relationship between the writer and the director of a piece of drama or film is one vastly unlike any other in the literary world. A director’s involvement with the performance is one characterised by dichotomies. A director is intimately involved in a play’s construction, but no more than a witness to its creation; they both own the final production, and have no claims to it. The troubled unity between writer and director has been known to cause friction as often as it causes creative harmony. In the battle for custody of a production, the jury is very much still out.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw, though notorious for more than his ego alone, proves a prime example of a creative control freak. He was insistent that the role of a play’s director was innately inferior, with less creative responsibility, to that of a writer. As such, he felt that the director had less right than the author did to be imaginative with the piece in front of them; it was not their place to mould the art, and the author’s wishes ruled supreme. The adaptation must adhere to what the author originally intended, and its sole purpose to ‘produce the particular illusion desired by the author.’ Hence, the director was not to change the author’s vision, but rather to act as a vector to transmit this vision to an audience.

Ironically, after his death Shaw’s plays spiralled out of his control regardless of this insistence; My Fair Lady was born, despite his previous frantic deprecation of musicals, and of romance.

Two fundamental questions are raised by the attitude of Shaw and his sympathisers. Firstly, can any text be considered truly ‘original’? Shaw’s Pygmalion is arguably just an adaptation of a mythological tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Why, then, does Shaw claim literary dictatorship over his play, given that it is in many ways, simply another adaptation?

Considering this, the question of who owns an adaptation arises. Whilst an author or creator is often regarded as a production’s ‘owner’, it is likely that they have conceded the rights to their performance, usually for some monetary reward. This issue blurs even further when considering adaptations of older works. Without getting a dead writer’s consent, it could be argued that many productions can be seen to have had no permission at all. Are they thus illegitimate?

The fundamental issue is perhaps located in an audience’s perception of ownership. An audience may, arguably incorrectly, assume that the author owns a dramatic adaptation (though this is simply not the case legally). After all, we have all heard the familiar, somewhat snotty declaration that ‘the book is better.’ Such a declaration seems to suggest that there is a distinct lack of respect for a director’s interpretation of a piece, compared to that of its original author. Can it then be argued that a director is inherently inferior?

The idea of inferiority hints at a fundamental struggle in criticism: the problem of ‘improvement’. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is a perfect example of this issue: although the original work is adapted freely, Luhrmann’s film was arguably more accessible to a modern audience, although many dispute his artistic changes. With Shakespeare unfortunately unavailable for consultation, the debate falls on scholars, the self-designated guardians of his work, as the presiding ‘authority’. Directors are denied such authority, and are instead forced into a defensive stance, frequently having to justify their own adaptations to their unimpressed critics.

Ultimately, the same questions remain: what role does a director have over a production? Are they its ‘second’ creator, or is the process of writing solely dependent on the author, and their original vision? If a work is perceived as being ‘complete’, then perhaps Shaw was correct, and it is not the director’s place to meddle. However, this suggests that literature is static – a problematic and frankly untrue assumption.

There is clearly no unanimous answer to the question of completeness, leaving the process of adaptation particularly open to critique. It is little wonder, then, that the director may be uncertain of their own role. Even Quentin Tarantino expressed such an anxiety when he admitted that the original version ‘works on the page, so it is mine to mess up…and I’m a little nervous about it.’

Illustration: Faye Chua

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