Film adaptation as interpretation: The adaptation process from novel to film in reference to Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf and Michael Raeburn’s Triomf

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Michael Raeburn’s film adaptation of Marlene Van Niekerk’s seminal 1994 novel Triomf was released in 2008. It is clear that Raeburn’s film, Triomf, deviates from Van Niekerk’s novel, offering an alternative version of the Triomf story. A comparative study of these two texts offers insight into the adaptation process and contemporary adaptation studies. Adaptation studies scrutinises the relationship between film adaptations and their source texts.

Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf offers an allegory of the Afrikaner and the fears surrounding the first democratic South African election and the likely change in political regime. Afrikaner ideology and the apartheid regime are simultaneously scrutinised. With a white incestuous family living in the white working-class suburb of Triomf (built on the ashes of the black suburb Sophiatown, whose tenants had been forcibly removed by the apartheid government) at the novel’s core, the text’s use of allegory is strongly metaphoric of one demythologising the Afrikaner. The tragicomedy can ultimately be interpreted as one that offers hope for a democratic future in which past grievances can be accepted, if not forgiven. The novel is widely regarded as one of the defining anti-apartheid novels in Afrikaans literature (De Kock 2009:16, 22) and earned Van Niekerk the prestigious CNA Prize for Literature (1995), the M-Net Book Prize (1995), as well as the first Noma Prize for Publication in Africa (1995). The novel was translated into English for a South African market by Leon de Kock in 1999, followed by a second English version for the international market. 

Michael Raeburn’s 2008 film adaptation (screenplay by Raeburn and Kohll) with the same title as the novel is based on De Kock’s English translation for the South African market. The film originally received a mixed reception, but did well on the film festival circuit, winning the best film category at the 2008 Durban International Film Festival. Raeburn was told that South Africans would not want to see themselves depicted, as portrayed in the novel, “at their incestuous, violent and nasty worst” (Smith 2008:8). The film adaptation follows the same basic story as the novel’s, but offers a retelling thereof that can ultimately be interpreted as one that offers a bleaker vision for a democratic South Africa.

Comparing these two texts provides insight into the interpretation of both, as well as the adaptation process involved.

Contemporary researchers in adaptation studies argue against fidelity criticism as a comparative methodology, as these are hierarchically unjust comparisons that traditionally value the literary text over the film. Such paradigm shifts have been sought largely since Stam and Reango’s seminal work Literature and film: a guide to the theory and practice of film adaptation (2005), which argues for a broader focus on intertextuality to oppose that of fidelity criticism, as one of the strongest concerns with fidelity studies is the question: faithful to what? Stam and Raengo paved the way for substitute approaches concerning comparative analysis in film adaptation to avoid fidelity criticism, with other researchers equally engaged in the problem. McFarlane (1996:23) argues that comparative studies should determine which literary elements were retained during the adaptation process, but also what was changed, and as a result what the ultimate interpretation might be. Leitch (2008:18) reasons that the gaps between the two texts should be studied in order to determine whether the film adaptation’s interpretation of the literary text offers a new perspective on the original story. That which the film adaptation changes or does not include should therefore be included in such a study (Leitch 2007:18). Deliberate changes would indicate how the film adaptation interprets its source text. Focusing on the gaps between the source and the goal texts, fidelity criticism is avoided, while scrutinising the manner in which the goal text interprets its literary source. The study’s emphasis thus shifts from the question of why specific changes were made, which would imply a comparison for the sake of fidelity, to one that asks what effect this has on the story. This study therefore asks whether the adapted text, which offers an interpretation of its source and in so doing deviates from it, can be seen as an original story. 

Leitch’s argument regarding the comparison between goal and source texts is presented in his 2008 paper “Adaptation at a crossroads”. Here he states that comparative studies between a literary text and its film adaptations are in danger of implying a hierarchical relationship between the two narrative media, with the film adaptation as subordinate in some way. This can be seen, for example, in the titles and chapter headings of recent subject specific books, including The Cambridge companion to literature on screen (2007) and Twentieth-century American fiction on screen (2007), to name but two. Leitch’s argument lies in the use of the preposition (“on”) in the above titles, which indicates that the literary source can be duplicated on the film screen. As such the film medium’s inherent qualities, which can add to the adapted story, are placed second in an implied hierarchy, which leads to a comparison based on fidelity.

Leitch (2007) goes on to reason that comparative studies can determine whether an adaptation of the literary text offers a new version of the novel’s story by taking the gaps between the two texts into account, especially those which have been changed and those which were not included in the adapted film. On this basis it can be determined whether the film adaptation deliberately deviates from the novel, which in turn can lead to accepting the film adaption as an innovative retelling of the original story, and in turn offering an interpretation thereof. 

Similarly, McFarlane’s (1996:23) earlier argument states that comparative studies should determine what the adapted film retained from the literary novel on which it is based, what was changed and what its resulting interpretation might be.

It appears that no international or national research has expanded on Leitch’s (2007) argument. According to Sherry (2016:12–3), adaptation studies as a discipline is traditionally biased in favour of unified media, such as the source novel and the final, adapted film, with little attention given to the adapted screenplay. The role of the screenplay is generally degraded within both literary studies and adaptation studies (Sherry 2016:14). A study that takes the source novel and its adapted screenplay into account, expands on an alternative comparative methodology, and academic research in the field. K.A. Boon (in Sherry 2016:14) states that the screenplay enjoys less attention in academia than in popular culture. In reference to the latter, this study also adds to the academic discourse on the screenplay by taking the unpublished Triomf screenplay into account.

Despite the growing South African film industry and the number of Afrikaans films rapidly being produced, and an influential Afrikaans literary tradition, little research has been, or is being, done on South African film adaptation. With this study I attempt to contribute to this field by considering how Michael Raeburn’s 2008 film adaptation with the same title interprets its 1994 source novel by Marlene van Niekerk in order to determine how it differs from the source and what the interpretative implications are. This study not only contributes to research on South African film adaptation and screenplay studies, but also brings insight into alternative readings of Van Niekerk’s novel.

This research article offers a report on research done in order to answer the following research questions: 

  • In which way does the Triomf film adaptation differ from its source text?
  • Does Raeburn’s adaptation offer an interpretation of Van Niekerk’s novel?
  • Based on the filmic interpretation, can the Triomf adaptation exist independently of its source novel? 

In summary, this research article asks the following research question: To which degree does Michael Raeburn’s film adaptation of Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf interpret the original story?

The polysystem theory presents a theoretical framework in which a comparative study between a literary novel and a film text is possible. Marginalised forms of literature, such as a screenplay based on a literary text, can be studied in comparison with the original source text by means of the polysystem theory, as it offers a paradigm in which texts aren’t studied in isolation (Viljoen 1992:495). André Lefevere expands on the polysystem theory within the domain of translation. He argues that translation is a form of rewriting that includes criticism, reviewing, summary, anthologizing, making into a comic strip or TV film (Hermans 2004:127). The latter is evident of translation as a means to expand on a literary source in its adaptation to a screenplay and a visual medium, such as film.

After defining film adaptation in its general sense I will turn to film adaptation as interpretation of its source text. The Triomf film adaptation and the Triomf novel will then be comparatively examined.

The ultimate result of this research report is that, based on the gaps between Raeburn’s film adaptation and Van Niekerk’s novel, an approach suggested by Leitch (2008), the film adaptation is shown to offer an interpretation of its source text. As such Raeburn’s Triomf offers an alternative reading of the original story, one that is less hopeful about the future of South Africa after the 1994 democratic election. I conclude that Raeburn’s film adaptation can exist independently of its literary source text and can therefore be regarded as an original story.

Keywords: adaptation studies; film adaptation; Thomas Leitch; Michael Raeburn; Triomf; Marlene van Niekerk


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Filmverwerking as interpretasie: Die verwerkingsproses van roman na film met verwysing na Marlene van Niekerk se Triomf en Michael Raeburn se Triomf


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