Adaptation: The journey from literature to film

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 24 Oct 2021

Concurrently with El-Gouna Film Festival, a seminar hosted by the Arab and Islamic Civilisations at the American University in Cairo discussed a 2021 title on the adaption of literature to the silver screen, a long journey in the case of Egypt.

the open door
A screen grab of the 1963 movie The Open Door base on the novel of the same name by Egyptian writer Latifa El-Zayyat.

“Adaption: from literature to the cinema – stops along a joint history” is the title that was put out earlier this year by El-Maraya for Cultural Production. This book of slightly over 300 pages is essentially an assembly of narratives on the issue that had been shared by concerned researchers who examined not just the parallel histories of novel-writing and cinema production in Egypt but also the influences of both art mediums – and for that matter certainly industries - on one another.

Salma Mobarak, professor at the Cairo University Department of French Literature and Walid ElKhachab, professor at the York University Department of Liberal Arts co-edited this highly informative volume.

In a on-line seminar on the book that the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilisations at the American University in Cairo, hosted by AUC professor Dina Heshmat on Sunday, both Mobarak and El-Khachab argued that one of the key points that this volume puts across is the irrelevance of all attempts to try to put literature as superior to cinema – or for that matter the other way round.

The concept of artistic hierarchy among the diverse mediums, Mobarak argued, should be disregarded simply because it is an artificial assumption on art in general.

In the case of Egypt, the book recalls the journey of the evolution of literary and cinema production has been all but fully simultaneous. In 1913, the book reminds, Mohamed Hussein Heikal wrote what is arguably the ‘first’ Egyptian Novel – “Zeinab”. Only 10 days later came “Barsoum looking for a job” as the first fully Egyptian produced and directed feature silent film. It was yet another decade later that Mohamed Karim, the early 20th century film director, put out Zeinab into a silent film. And it took Karim himself a couple more decades to represent his own movie into a sound film.  

In the span of these two decades several films have been produced based on literary originals – novels and plays. The adaptations came mostly from foreign literature, especially French.  However, with the expansion of the volume of Egyptian literature, more and more adaptations were being made upon the Egyptian literary production.  This, in a sense, as the chapters of the book suggest, was almost an act of national pride: to take the Egyptian cinema industry forward and to lean more on the equally developing Egyptian literature to produce scripts or even just themes for these movies.

With the accent being increasingly put on the call of ‘nationalism’ after 1952, the authors of the book suggest repeatedly, it was more and more the Egyptian literary production that was giving the leads when the silver screen looked for titles. Latifa ElZayat’s novel (AlBab AlMaftouh) (The open door) that reflected on the national movement of liberation from British Occupation was quickly turned into a film after its publication. The book came out in its first edition in 1960 and the film was in the theaters in 1963.

Cairo University literature professor Hala Kamal, in her chapter on The Open door says that the film director gave himself a few liberties while doing his work.

According to Heshmat, this is perhaps only one of other examples where the film director and at times scriptwriter too forgo commitment to the original text. For Mobarak, however, a cinema production should never be viewed to examine whether or not the director was faithful to the original text. This, she said, would be missing the point about the film-making.

Ultimately, according to AlKhachab, within the reign of the ‘film d’ateur’, the French expression that is designed to highlight the artistic personality is inevitably dominant. This, he added, could well be the case when directors with a high artistic imprint do the adaptation. Youssef Chahine’s Hadouta Masrya (An Egyptian Story) which is ‘inspired by/taken from’, ElKhachab argued, is a prime example.

Deviating from the original text, according to the book, however, is not always a function of the influence of the style of the director. It is at times too, the book noted, a function of political context and-or timeframes. Some of the films that were produced, during the 1960s, especially after the military defeat of 1967, were ‘fixed’ due to political reasons.

In its chapter on Tawfik ElHakim’s (Youmeyat na’eib fialaryaf) (A maze of justice: diary of a country prosecutor) that was published for the first time in 1937 and turned into a film in 1969, the book revealed the hassle that Tawfik Saleh had to go through upon his adaption of the film to accommodate the wish of the ministry of interior, at the time, to avoid any association between the accounts of injustice that the novel reflects with the Nasser Era. Saleh eventually put together a film with a 1930s setting. However, to have his message on the state of justice in Egypt under Nasser, Saleh got the 1960s decoration for the court settings in his film.

AlMaraya's book indicates a purposeful influence of literature on the silver screen – at times. According to the AUC seminar, there was also a purposeful influence of the films, or at a later stage of the soap operas, on the books of which they were adapted. The recent adaptation of Nagubi Mahfouz’s Afrah AlQoba (Joys of the dome) into a soap opera gave prominence to a book that had never received due attention upon its publication. Similarly, ElKhachab added, was the case with Sonallah’s Ibrahim Zaat.

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