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  • Adaptation, Abjection, and Homecoming in Saramago's Ensaio sobre a cegueira and meirelles's Blindness
  • Micah K. Donohue

Fernando Meirelles's Blindness opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival to scattered applause and sharply divided reviews. While The Guardian hailed the film as "elegant, gripping, and visually outstanding" (Bradshaw), The New York Times panned it as "nasty, brutish, and nowhere near short enough" (Dargis). Responses were equally polarized in Spanish- and Portuguese-language newspapers: the Brazilian Globo celebrated Blindness as "talvez o filme do ano" (Pelli), but the Spanish El Confidencial complained that Meirelles's film was "menos sutil" and cruder than the story on which it was based (Garcia de Francisco). Despite their marked differences, the reviews found common ground in comparing Blindness to its source: José Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995). Critics repeatedly invoked the issue of fidelity (or bemoaned its lack), and El ConfidenciaVs Alicia Garcia de Francisco was not alone in judging the cinematographic adaptation inferior to the written text.

Only a few days after Cannes, Meirelles travelled to Portugal to screen the film for Saramago. When the lights came on in the small Lisbon theater, the Nobel laureate judged Blindness "um grande filme" (LUSA). Although in many ways Meirelles's film directly translates Ensaio sobre a cegueira's prose to images, important differences exist. The spoken language shifts from Portuguese to predominantly English, an unnamed but identifiably European city from the end of the twentieth century transforms into a twenty-first-century composite of North and South American cityscapes (Toronto, Sao Paulo, Montevideo), and an ensemble of internationally renowned actors embodies the originally nameless, specter-like characters.1 Rather than dismiss or criticize these changes, Saramago celebrated them. At a press conference [End Page 77] that he gave with Meirelles later that year, the Portuguese novelist emphasized that "E bom que o filme nao tenha uma fidelidade excessiva senao esta condenado. Um realizador e um criador, nao um mero copista" ("Saramago aplaude"). Saramago describes Meirelles as the cinematic "criador" of Blindness. By identifying the Brazilian director as a creator and "nao um mero copista," Saramago makes a larger point about adaptation that resonates with the recent theories of scholars such as Brian McFarlane, Linda Hutcheon, and Kamilla Elliot.2 Namely, that an adaptation's thematic and stylistic departures from its source constitute filmic misprisions – to borrow Harold Bloom's literary term and adapt it to cinema – that translate the film from slavish imitation ("uma fidelidade excessiva") into original art.3

Taking Saramago's defense of Blindness' differences as my starting point, I explore a generative rupture between the novel and the film: Blindness tells a hopeful story of eventual homecoming, while Ensaio "denuncia o vazio e a ruina espiritual do homem em nosso tempo" (Biezus Kunze 16). By analyzing how the hope-filled world in Blindness differs from the abject ruins of Ensaio, this essay intervenes in a critical conversation that has largely ignored how the novel and film offer diametrically opposed interpretations of what Saramago calls "este mundo de cegos" (Ensaio 248). While Blindness has been studied as an adaptation of Sarama-go's novel, the available scholarship has discussed the dialogic and intertextual relationship between the two works in fidelity-based language.4 These studies have tended to emphasize how adaptation and source material "colaboram para que o filme conseguisse provocar sensacSes semelhantes as que sao provocadas pela leitura" (Santos Reis and Goncalves 146), or to debate Meirelles's success in "captur[ing] the essence of Saramago's text" (Rueda 12).

By contrast, I argue that through a series of marked revisions, Blindness juxtaposes a narrative of recovery and return against one of horror, abjection, and loss. A story of healing and ultimate faith in the human condition collides with Ensaio's grimmer pronouncements on the political institutions, interpersonal relationships, and economic conditions that structure the modern neoliberal world system. In the afterword to True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity (2011), Fredric Jameson discusses how "antagonism and incompatibility," strong forms of aesthetic difference, provide "the most productive course to follow" in theorizing adaptation in the twenty-first century (231): they challenge fidelity as an obstacle...


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