Isaac Bashevis Singer on Screen

The big screen likes I.B. Singer--but he didn't always like it.

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"Those who adapt novels or stories for the stage or for the screen must be masters of their profession and also have the decency to do the adaptation in the spirit of the writer," said Isaac Bashevis Singer in a 1984 New York Times self-interview."You cannot do the adaptation against the essence of the story or the novel, against the character of the protagonist."

Yentl: Oy Vey!

Singer spoke from experience. When Barbara Streisand transmogrified his "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" into the film Yentl (1983), she rejected the Nobel laureate's screenplay and his vision of the story. But he's hardly the first author to have suffered at the hands of Hollywood: the above remark could have been made by any scribe whose work has gone celluloid. Translating a piece of literary art into something for the popcorn-munching masses is always tricky business, and Singer knew the importance of good translations.

Yentl / Movie

Which is why Singer's public denunciation of Streisand is so impressive. In the Times piece he asks the reader to imagine ending a film version of Madame Bovary with Flaubert's heroine "taking a cruise along the Riviera" (instead of swallowing arsenic) or concluding a big-screen treatment of Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov transforming himself into a Wall Street broker in lieu of slinking off to Siberia.

"This is what Miss Streisand did by making Yentl, whose greatest passion was the Torah, go on a ship to America, singing at the top of her lungs. Why would she decide to go to America? Weren't there enough yeshivas in Poland or in Lithuania where she could continue to study? Was going to America Miss Streisand's idea of a happy ending for Yentl? What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning? Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter? This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation. It was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement. As it is, the whole splashy production has nothing but a commercial value."

We laugh, but Singer's doing something serious here. What contemporary writer would publicly criticize a powerful media person whose efforts had earned him so much money? (Jonathan Franzen's attempt to put Oprah Winfrey in her place was the closest we've seen to this in recent years.)

Enemies, A Love Story

Ironically, fidelity--something Singer didn't quite master in his personal life--was so important to his artistic side, and one of his best novels, Enemies, A Love Story, concerns the human complexities of betrayal. This Singer work was faithfully adapted for the screen. (Director Paul Mazursky and writer Roger L. Simon received a 1989 Academy Award nomination for their work.)

"When Paul Mazursky and I were preparing our adaptation of Singer's Enemies, A Love Story," Simon has said, "the Nobel Prize winning novelist only had one request. He wrote Mazursky: 'Please, no singing in this movie!'"

The filmmakers did eschew musical productions, but the film still lacks something of the book's gravitas. What's missing? Singer's voice. Without the narration that carries us through the novel, large parts of the story's soul is excised. So much of protagonist Herman Broder's character is mediated through Singer's witty and often philosophical ruminations. Actor Ron Silver does a good job of showing Broder's passivity and helplessness, but he doesn't give us a deep sense of his character's life.

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Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is the editor of JBooks.com. His personal website is Kdgordon.com.