Spanish Adaptations by Prof. Sally Faulkner

At Migrating Texts, panels will discuss Dickens, Balzac and Zola as case studies of intermedial adaptation, but as Prof. Sally Faulkner explores in our latest blog post, Spanish literary adaptations are another fascinating avenue for study.

While not on a scale that matches Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare adaptations in Anglophone cinema, intermedial relations between film and literature have enriched Spanish film from its inception to the present day. If adaptations of popular operas (zarzuelas) and other music-hall numbers topped the lists of most adapted texts in early Spanish cinema, by the 1920s directors were turning to literature in order to fulfil the inter-related aims of, first, securing a middle-class, literate audience who possessed the cultural capital to enjoy film versions of texts they knew, second, extending the narrative possibilities of the still relatively new medium by testing it to produce versions of literary originals, and, third, the didactic aim of bringing classic literary texts to the still largely illiterate masses (Compared to relatively high rates of literacy in Northern Europe in the early twentieth century, Spain’s were still only around 50-60% in these early decades of the new century).

With Civil War (1936-39) and dictatorship (Francoism 1939-78) literary adaptations in Spanish film, like all other areas of national culture, became entangled with politics. Received wisdom has had it that period drama adaptations of conservative authors like Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and Jacinto Benavente in the early-Francoist 1940s were at best simply escapist, at worst pro-Franco propaganda. Recent studies of popular culture of this period, spear-headed by critic Jo Labanyi, have shown that culture is rarely ‘simply escapist’, and beneath the apparently conservative surfaces of films like From Woman to Woman (Lucia 1950) lay ideas that bristled with ideological critique of the regime, especially from the point of view of gender.

But literary adaptations weren’t all period dramas that used a conservative author as a fig-leaf to hide ideological opposition. Still under dictatorship, directors dared to push an increasingly desperate censorship board (newly conscious, from the 1960s on, of how their anti-democratic activities looked in the West) by adapting daring, dynamic authors and texts, including works by Miguel de Unamuno (e.g. Aunt Tula Picazo 1964). The most famous example of this is the great exiled director, world-cinema auteur, yet son of Spanish (Aragonese) soil, Luis Buñuel, who returned to Franco’s Spain for the second time in 1969 to make his great adaptation of Tristana (1970), by Benito Pérez Galdós – the Spanish Dickens – whose liberal politics critiqued Francoism.

Under democracy, literary adaptations have been no less aesthetically inventive, nor politically potent, but have become increasingly intermedial, as directors work across large and small screen formats. Thus Mario Camus, a director trained at the Madrid Film School in the 1960s, made what is still one of the great Galdós adaptations of democracy for television, with his version of Fortunata and Jacinta (1979-80). Extraordinarily, given how difficult it is to get hold of almost all but the most contemporary Spanish films, this ten-part series is available in its entirety as a free download from the official Spanish TV website:

More recently benefiting from transnational entanglements with heritage cinema, literary adaptations in Spanish screen culture continue to delight audiences, even if they occasionally annoy critics for being too literary, too cinematic, too Spanish, too transnational or too middlebrow. Exploring the meanings of these terms within shifting Spanish and international contexts is one of the rewards that awaits students and scholars studying these adaptations!

About the author

Sally Faulkner is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Film at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Literary Adaptations in Spanish Cinema (2004) and A Cinema of Contradiction: Spanish Film of the 1960s (2006) and was awarded a Fellowship from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council for 2011. Professsor Faulkner has been named a ‘rising star’ in the field of Modern Language and Literature by the Leverhulme Trust, winning the only Leverhulme prize awarded for Hispanic Studies in 2013. Her latest book, A History of Spanish Film:Cinema and Society 1910-2010, is the first exploration of the relationship between Spanish film and social mobility.


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