Publication on film policy and literary film adaptations

The latest issue of the academic journal Literature/Film Quarterly has been published. It includes my article Adaptation policy: film policy and adaptations in Flanders (1964-2002) (read it here). The article shows that government support has been an essential requirement for nearly all Flemish film adaptations of literary works since the mid-1960s. Therefore, film policy actors play a crucial role in deciding what kinds of adaptations are produced in Flanders. The exploration of the evolution of the various cultural, commercial, political, and (pro-Flemish) ideological factors affecting the complex and often ambiguous adaptation policy process in Flanders reveals how adaptations were often viewed as a ‘safe’ road to take. Literary adaptations frequently satisfied artistic and commercial results, and they proved to be a great vehicle for exposing the Flemish cultural patrimony (e.g. Fons Rademakers’ 1971 film Mira, based on a novel by Stijn Streuvels). Moreover, various policy actors shared a ‘literary attitude’, which was not only characterized by a great respect for literary works and figures, but also by an insistence on a film’s fidelity to the source work.

Theatrical poster for Mira (1971, director: Fons Rademakers), based on a novel by Stijn Streuvels and adapted for the screen by Hugo Claus

Poster for Mira (1971, director: Fons Rademakers; screenwriter: Hugo Claus), based on a novel by Stijn Streuvels

Notwithstanding the fact that many adaptations were seen as ‘better’ films than non-adaptations, policy actors in the 1960s and 1970s felt Flemish cinema should follow a non-adaptation route. Despite the film commission’s literary attitude, non-adaptations were seen as more ‘original’, not only in the sense that they were based on an ‘original’ screenplay without any direct literary origins, but also in the sense that they had a greater cinematographic value. Flanders had a very limited film tradition and in their attempt to develop a genuine ‘Flemish cinema’, policy actors found that Flemish films had to be able to stand alone, without any help from other cultural forms. Original films were thus seen as a more authentic kind of cinema than adaptations were. Despite this preferential leaning, almost half of the supported films during the 1960s and 1970s were adaptations. This was because of a mixture of cultural, pragmatic, ideological, and commercial reasons. Particularly important factors at stake here were the lack of screenwriters and thus of decent screenplays, the involvement of the public broadcaster, the minister’s power, and the successful lobbying strategies of certain producers.

Zware jongens (1984, director: Robbe De Hert), with the comic television duo Gaston & Leo

Zware jongens (1984, director: Robbe De Hert), with the comic television duo Gaston & Leo

The tendency to value original films more than adaptations remained present in the evolution of Flemish film policy but became less and less prominent as both genres received equal treatment in the film commission’s discussions. Paradoxically, however, the percentage of the total number of supported films that were adaptations slightly decreased. This was partly due to the commission’s new openness toward another kind of adaptations: films that had their roots in popular television comedy (e.g. the Gaston & Leo and Chris Van den Durpel films). At the same time, there was a tendency among filmmakers to want to break with the perceived dominance of classic literary film adaptations. This led to more adaptations of contemporary literary works, but it also led to more non-adaptation projects than before. From a broader perspective, I argue that this evolution can be linked to a changing Flemish identity whereby the earlier need for self-assurance via the cultural patrimony made way for a self-conscious demand for contemporary fiction.