- Stanley Kubrick: Adapting the Sublime by Elisa Pezzotta
Pezzotta’s book offers a thoroughgoing analysis of the aesthetics of Kubrick’s films from 1968 until his death in 1999, each of which adapted an earlier print text. Pezzotta looks at these films as transmedia adaptations that re-imagine the stories of their ostensible sources by using not only the resources of cinema but also by using, citing, and adapting texts from other media: dance, painting, and, most importantly, music. She reads Kubrick’s ability to make these idiosyncratic films with Hollywood studio backing and minimal studio interference as symptomatic of the intersection of cultural and commercial forces that brought self-consciously auteurist filmmaking into the Hollywood mainstream during the age of so-called New Hollywood. However, Pezzotta argues that Kubrick deviates from other, contemporary art-cinema and New Hollywood directors in his use of adaptations to stage sublime experiences in genre films. Kubrick’s adaptations deny audiences the subjective realism typical of art cinema, and instead push viewers to meditate on the power of art itself. Pezzotta’s book achieves its aim to situate Kubrick’s aesthetic historically and “to challenge the tendency in adaptation studies to depend too much on literary studies” (4). She understands Kubrick’s films as complex aesthetic objects, hypertexts where, in addition to the “primary” source text, much of each film’s ostensible meaning emerges from juxtaposed quotations that re-purpose other, “secondary” texts, from Hindu scripture to Triumph of the Will to the avant-garde compositions of György Ligeti. However, the book’s approach is more formalist and narratological than historicist; what it does not offer, but instead calls for, is an analysis of “the history of cinema” “from the perspective of adaptation studies” (153). We can read Stanley Kubrick: Adapting the Sublime as a prelude to such a history.
Pezzotta situates Kubrick’s work in both the commercial and avant-garde cinemas of its time, and she situates her own analyses in narratology and film studies. Her second and third chapters offer a two-part analysis of Kubrick’s re-structuring of the syuzhet (narration) of the stories he adapted for the screen; she characterizes Kubrick’s narrative style as one that widens the narrative gaps (temporal, causal) already present in source texts, thereby generating bolder ellipses and ambiguities while simultaneously asserting Kubrick’s authority over the resultant hybrid text. Pezzotta’s fourth chapter, on “Music, Dance, and Dialogue,” parses Kubrick’s distinctive uses of sound both to evacuate meanings present in the source texts and to infuse his films with meanings not present in the source texts. For example, Kubrick often borrows a novel’s most cryptic or banal dialogue for his screenplays, and when the source texts name particular songs, Kubrick substitutes others. Pezzotta’s fifth and sixth chapters read Kubrick’s work in terms of discourses about dreams and the sublime, from both before and since the rise of the modernist, avant-garde cinemas that so influenced Kubrick.
The book’s only disappointment comes early, in Chapter One, “A History of Kubrick Adaptation”—tellingly, the book’s shortest. It [End Page 58] sketches Kubrick’s career, presenting a few production anecdotes, but it does not adequately situate his mature work in the context of the changes to the American film industry during those decades. To her credit, Pezzotta urges scholars to approach adaptations not simply as the cinematic term in a book-movie dyad, but as products of overlapping, even contradictory, discursive, commercial, and artistic forces. “A cinematic adaptation is not the only child of its two parents,” writes Pezzotta, “its director and its source novel, but also of its mode and context of production and of the cinematic tradition that precedes it” (6). Yet while Pezzotta reads Kubrick’s work against the “cinematic tradition” of art cinema, she says little about how this famously difficult director managed to keep making his famously difficult films, and with Hollywood money, and from the far side of the Atlantic. Readers must look elsewhere for analyses of the production or the...