July 17, 2024


Arts Fanatics

Debunking the Fidelity Approach in Film Adaptation

What is film adaptation? It’s the process of translating a written text – novel, short story, play, or even comic book – into the visual medium of film. It’s a process that has become financially vital to cinema during the film industry’s evolution. Hollywood relies so heavily on adaptation is because there is a ready-made story and structure to work from, plus – assuming the source text is popular – an established fan-base, which means a built-in audience. However, when considering this fan-base the most pressing issue is that of the fidelity approach; in other words, how faithful will the adaptation be to the source text? This is certainly a bone of contention for the fans anticipating the movie-version of their favourite story, who believe or hope that the film will be an accurate translation of the book they know and love. Often, the results are controversial because the fidelity approach holds an illogical position of supremacy in adaptation theory; most film adaptations are viewed as inferior to their literary equivalents as assessed by the conventions of fidelity. The following exposes the fidelity approach as outmoded, impractical, and, at worst, even irrelevant.

The ‘reading’ – or the interpretation – of a text is a tenuously personal process. One reader’s views will always differ from another’s, throwing the fidelity approach into doubt right away. What exactly is being suggested with the word ‘fidelity’? A literal translation of a text could refer to the print and the film following the same narrative path, or maybe a replication of the theme. This is where fidelity becomes a rather vague concept. A film, adapted from, say, a novel can use the same narrative techniques, or follow the same structure, as the source, and yet convey an entirely different theme. Conversely, a film could duplicate the theme of a text while presenting the story in an entirely new manner. Which adaptation is the most faithful? Brian McFarlane states that: “The critic who quibbles at failures of fidelity is really saying no more than: “This reading of the original does not tall with mine in these and these ways.” (McFarlane, 1996, p9).

“Hollywood is gonna kill me by remote control.”

(Philip K. Dick, on reading the first draft of Blade Runner in 1980, in Kerman, 1997, p91)

After unsuccessful attempts at becoming a mainstream novelist, Philip K Dick turned maverick pulp science fiction writer, changing both sci-fi and film adaptation indelibly. Dick dealt with concepts of human existence and morality though LSD-distorted eyes, and most of his works centre on the false dichotomy of co-dependency-versus-conflict between man and machine. As his work became more popular, and so started to cross the desks of idea-hungry film executives, his oeuvre was soon labelled ‘unfilmable’. His works include Ubis (1966), A Scanner Darkly (1977) – the subject of an unseen ‘spec’ script by Being John Malkovich (1999) scribe Charlie Kaufman, and later adapted by auteur Richard Linklater in 2006 as a rotoscope feature, starring Keanu Reeves – and, most famously, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which was the basis for Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford.

After only partially reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Scott rejected it as being, “a brilliant piece which in book form would never make a film” (in Greenberger, 1982, p61). Ironically, the film that Scott was slated to direct at that time was an adaptation of James Herbert’s lengthy tome, Dune (1965), a book that was for years branded ‘unfilmable’, even (or especially?) after David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation. However, after reading a treatment and first draft of the screenplay for the renamed Blade Runner, Scott signed on to direct.

“[It is like] Phillip Marlowe meets The Stepford Wives.”

(Philip K. Dick, in Bukatman, 1997, p20)

Supported by the above quote, an abundance of anecdotal evidence that suggests that Dick hated what Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher had done with later drafts of the script. However, the following quote – regarding a rewrite by David Peoples – seems to say otherwise:

“After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that Peoples could get some of the scenes to work. It taught me things about writing I didn’t know.”

(Philip K. Dick, in Kerman, 1997, p92)

Dick’s assessment implies that the differences between the original text and the screenplay actually strengthen both the adaptation and the source text; that the creation of the latter allows the two mediums combine in some kind of intertextual coherence. One enhances the existence of the other.

Both the novel and the film have the following outline in common: a police officer named Rick Deckard is assigned to hunt and kill a group of escaped androids in future Los Angeles. Yet, the film is not considered to be faithful to the original Dick novel. Science fiction, more than any other genre, is renowned for its devout retinues, or cults. These fanatic collectives dogmatically champion the fidelity approach, and are the most vocal at any sign of divergence from their exemplar; take liberties with the adaptation and prepare for the outcry. With Blade Runner, this outcry was further exasperated by press reports of clashes between Dick and Scott over early drafts of the script and was not aided by Dick’s death a matter of months before the film’s release date.

The movie was, inevitably, slaughtered by most critics, with the major criticism being that it was not an accurate replication of the book.

“The filmmaker’s most important failure lies… in what they… left out from the book or pointlessly downplayed.”

(Kenneth Jurkiewicz, in Sammon, 1982, p24)

When the finished film was submitted to the producer, Michael Deeley – late and over-budget – he hated it, claiming that audiences would find it ‘too cerebral’, despite the more challenging elements of the book already being removed, and insisted that changes were made. He ordered that the ending – which inferred that Deckard himself was a replicant – be replaced with a less-ambiguous, ‘happier’ resolution, which was constructed using stock footage left over from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) (another adaptation, this time from the Stephen King story of the same name). He also requested a Phillip Marlowe-esque interior monologue (voiceover) be added in order to both explain the film to the audience and to soften Deckard’s brooding character, despite vociferous protests from both Scott and Harrison Ford, who played Deckard. Apocryphally, so displeased was he at having been forced to record the voiceover, Ford delivered his line reads poorly on purpose in the hope that they wouldn’t be used.

The film flopped on its cinema release, but later achieved cult status on video. This success justified the release of Scott’s original vision for the film – Blade Runner: Director’s Cut – in 1991, which restored the ending and discarded the interior monologue. This is universally-regarded as the most complete and successful incarnation of the film, and yet this version veers further away from the book than the 1982 cinema release. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it is made clear at the conclusion that Deckard is thoroughly human; Blade Runner: Director’s Cut leads the audience to strongly suspect that he is a replicant. The book and the film even carry different themes: that it is difficult to draw a line between ‘real’ and artificial life. In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard – our hero – falls in love with a replicant, then discovers he might be one himself; in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Deckard and his wife fail to recognise the injustice that artificial animals (pets) are valued above artificial humanoids (slaves).

According to Geoffrey Wagner (1975, p223) there are three categories of adaptation: Transposition, “in which a novel is given directly on the screen with minimum of apparent interference”; Commentary, “where an original is taken and either purposefully or inadvertently altered in some respect… where there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violation”; and Analogy,“which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art”. But, can Transposition be used as a synonym for fidelity? Note the phrase, “minimum amount of interference”. Wagner acknowledges that a text cannot be transferred to the screen without some degree of manipulation.

So, what degree of manipulation makes for an infidelity? Is that to be decided critically? If yes, then there are no rules; there is no binary function to determine fidelity or infidelity. So, is each assessment valid in its own right; can an adaptation hold the superposition of being both faithful and unfaithful at the same time? Critique is subjective, whereas fidelity is rigid; the two are mutually exclusive. This permeates filmmaking: take the hypothetical example of ten film directors tasked with adapting the same text adhering to the fidelity approach. How would the personal biases of each director and practical limitations of filmmaking influence the finished product? Does intent denote fidelity? How many of these films would tally with another person’s interpretation of the source material, and in what way would they differ? For all ten directors – without conference – to present some kind of uniform translation of the base text would not only be at odds with the expressionism of filmmaking, it would be inhuman.

Texts and films are different mediums and need to be treated accordingly. All films are produced from a ‘source text’ – adaptation or not – in the form of a script. The process demands a level of interpretation – by both director and actors alike – from script to screen, whether that is enforced by budget, practicality, dramatic integrity, or personal bias, in order to translate between the two mediums. So, in a sense, fidelity can never exist. Whenever there is a text to film transition, by the very nature of the visual medium, there is adaptation, and whereas fidelity means to stay faithful to the source text, to adapt means change to fit. Therefore, the association between adaptation and fidelity is a contradiction in terms. Without change there can be no adaptation.


Kerman, J. (1997) Retrofitting Blade Runner, Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2nd Edition

Bukatman, S. (1997) Blade Runner, London: BFI

Sammon, P. (1982) The Making of Blade Runner, Cinefantastique 12 (Jul-Aug 1982), pp20-47

Greenberger, R. (1982) Ridley Scott, Starlog (July 1982), pp60-64

McFarlane, B (1996) Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Wagner, Geoffrey (1975), The Novel and the Cinema, New Jersey: Associated University Presses Inc.