Spielberg’s West Side Story will need to bring something new to the table

Is everything up for grabs? EPA/Sebastien Nogier

Adaptations are everywhere. Almost every other major release or project currently in development is has its origin in another text, whether that be book, play or another film. Most recently is the news that a TV adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo is to be broadcast on Channel 4. And then Fox has reportedly cut the red tape around what many thought untouchable: West Side Story. This was “specifically because Steven Spielberg is interested in making it”.

Almost every other major release or project currently in development is has its origin in another text, whether that be book, play or another film. The phenomenon is not exactly new, and is of course neither a good nor a bad thing in itself. No one would argue that some fantastic films have resulted from returning to or rethinking what has gone before. West Side Story itself is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. We have a compulsion to recycle material across genres – plays, books, television, film – and what’s more, we want to rehash old attempts, as well. How we view these versions is largely driven by the relative status of the original.

Let’s look at the current crop of high-profile film adaptations. Twelve Years a Slave enters public consciousness as a major, internationally award-winning film by Steve McQueen first and foremost, and a text by Solomon Northop second, despite Northop’s diary predating the film by more than a century.

Similarly, The Grand Budapest Hotel – at least in the case of Anglophone spectators – tends to be received as another quirky Wes Anderson film par excellence, its origins in a literary source almost overlooked or, if mentioned, then categorised as an “obscure” work of fin-de siècle fiction, regardless of Stefan Zweig being a Nobel prize-winning novelist.

The Wolf of Wall Street is associated with Martin Scorsese as director – and Leonardo DiCaprio as protagonist – and although there is a degree of controversy regarding the ethical implications of using the story of a real-life criminal as filmic material, there does not appear to be much concern over which particular aspects have been selected for the screenplay from Jordan Belfort’s memoirs.

But of course situation is different when the work to be adapted is a high-profile cultural product in its own right. In this case, it is the source text that is likely to draw in the punters – and although the adaptation may also be the work of an established screenwriter and director, the expectation is to achieve relatively close fidelity to the original. Hilary Mantel’s bestselling historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been a raving success as Mike Poulton’s stage adaptations at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and are about to transfer to London’s West End. They are also currently being adapted for television.

And the forthcoming film version of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is most likely to appeal to the global fanbase of the novel deemed “mummy porn”, rather than to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s regular enthusiasts as a film director or cutting edge visual artist.

So it is these kind of works that gets people’s backs up, and these which are also supposed to show the most fidelity. Much of the debate in the press – though not so much in the academic arena – continues to scrutinise departures from what might be termed an “original”. But I would argue that perhaps this shouldn’t be the case. How we judge the merits or flaws of an adaptation should be based on how far the adapted piece operates as an independent work of art. This is at odds with the historical basis in which adaptations have been judged, more often than not on the basis of their loyalty to their sources.

But these departures from the source are what we should focus on. What is new? What more do we get out of the adapted piece, how does it shed new light on the older work, or make it relevant for us today?

We see this happening when the same subject matter and source material is being adapted more or less simultaneously into multiple forms and mediums. This can lead to broad variety without almost any overlap in terms of concerns and reception, as the recent case of The Great Gatsby illustrates. The versions ranged from a middle-brow cinematic version by Baz Luhrmann to an avant-garde piece of durational performance entitled Gatz, by experimental theatre company Elevator Repair Service. They were not held up against one another, which allowed greater flexibility with the original text.

For some, perhaps rightly so, such a constant revisiting of material is not a source of pleasure but an act of overindulgence which should be discouraged. But I think that returning over and over again to the same stories is not only an act of compulsion, it is necessary re-appropriation. It is translations and indeed adaptations – rather than their initial sources – that find themselves dated and out of kilter with the times.

So to return to the possibility of the Spielberg West Side Story, I have two questions. Can another return to well-known and widely scrutinised material be artistically challenging? And if so, is Spielberg the right person for it? Perhaps people will be calling for loyalty to the earlier film. But in my view, it will only be worth a shot if it is as different, and takes as many risks, as possible.