Fences, Adaptation and Storytelling

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There is a general rule regarding the quality of an adaptation of material from one medium to another. Good adaptations translate their content across mediums whereas bad adaptations merely transport the content to the new medium in the language of the initial medium. A good adaptation justifies the story being told in a new medium, using that medium’s strengths and tweaking the story to be better suited to said strengths. For an example of this, look at the way that the Game of Thrones TV series trims the fat of George R.R. Martin’s novels. A book is generally considered to have no real limit in terms of length, so Martin can dedicate an entire paragraph to explaining the lineage of a particular character or family. It would be a completely unacceptable thing for the show to stop dead in its tracks and list a given character’s lineage right as the audience is introduced to them. On top of eating up precious run time, cinema does best when conveying action and worst when things are static and expository.

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, appeared to me at first to be a bad adaptation. My first issue was that the film spends most of its first half in one location. The one setting approach was an indication that the film was keeping too much of the stagey, play like elements in tact. In addition, the film opts to tell so much of the story through dialogue that alarm bells started to go off in my head. “You’re watching a bad adaptation; you’re watching a bad adaptation”. It wasn’t until later into the running time that I realized I was wrong in my appraisal of the film up until that point. Fences does leave many of the elements of the stage play intact, from the minimalist setting to the dialogue heavy storytelling. Under normal circumstances, an adaptation of a play would almost certainly be the worse for that. It just so happens that Fences is a rare case where confinement of setting, lack of visual flourish and storytelling through dialogue are all features that serve the film adaptation as well as they served the play.

When I say that the film lacks visual flourish, I don’t mean to say that it was made incompetently. The editing, blocking and cinematography are all well handled. The only thing I mean to say is that the deliberate choice was made to stage a number of the film’s scenes in such a way that they feel very much like a play. The first (roughly) 30 minutes of the film are made up of a conversation between Troy (Washington, starring as well as directing), Rose (Viola Davis) and Jim (Stephen Henderson). Throughout the course of the conversation, the camera is simply pointed at one of or more of the characters while they are talking. The film never dramatizes the events of Troy’s stories by using a flashback and the director doesn’t break up this large conversation into smaller, more digestible conversations that are set in different locations, as he easily could have. Due to these choices, a certain fatigue sets in while you are watching the film. You start to wish that the film would take you to another location or that something would disrupt the conversation so you can move on. As Washington must have noticed, this is exactly what you should be feeling while watching the movie. As the film goes on, we see that each and every member of his family feels trapped and confined in the family house. Troy’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo) explains that he is miserable and anxious, always waiting for his father to judge him. Similarly, Rose shows great dissatisfaction with her life and what little she has made of it. As such, Washington’s choice to set the majority of the film in the house leaves the audience feeling exactly how the characters are feeling. Specifically, both the audience and the characters feel confined to the house as a setting and start to wish that they could move beyond it. Since the choices made bring the audience’s emotions in line with that of the characters, it seems that the restricted setting was indeed a good choice to make.

As for the majority of the story being told through dialogue, that too has a function beyond preserving the conventions of the play. Troy uses his voice as a kind of tool throughout the film. Talking is one of the ways that he makes life something that he can control and understand. The audience gets its first inkling of this right out of the gate, as the film opens on a black screen and only give us visuals once Troy starts talking. This momentary suspension of visuals signals to the audience that Troy’s dialogue is affecting the way that we understand the narrative. As things progress, Troy goes from little embellishments to outright lies that it is not even clear he knows are lies. Later in the film, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) catches him in an outright lie. She points out that he admitted his mentally disabled brother to a hospital even though he said he wouldn’t and she has his signature to prove it. Troy repeats, even after she leaves, that he didn’t sign the paper. In this scene, Troy is using his voice to try make the world the way that he wants it to be. Since Troy is actually creating narratives through dialogue, the filmmakers can’t help but tell the story through said dialogue.

When the movie starts, Troy comes off as tough but fair. He’s charming, but in an fatherly way where you like him even though you probably don’t agree with him about everything. As we learn that Troy is a selfish liar who is constantly deceiving his family, we learn that he was also deceiving us with his performative monologuing. Denzel knows that opening the film with Troy as the main source of information means that we will lend more weight to his words. The privileging of Troy as an information source and the strength of Denzel’s performance has us believing his seemingly abiding love for Rose. In a crucial scene midway through the film, when Troy reveals that he has impregnated another woman, the audience feels as stupid as Rose does for trusting him.  Since the film primarily gives us information through Troy’s dialogue, we have no choice but to form opinions about the character based on the things that he says about himself. As his true character comes to light (such as it does with his admission to Rose), the audience is once again brought in line with the perspective of the characters by virtue of the film emphasizing dialogue heavy storytelling.

Troy does not just use his voice to deceive other people, he also uses it to deceive himself. We see this tendency show itself in the previously mentioned scene with Rose, in which Troy repeats a falsity in a futile effort to make it true. In addition to that moment, Troy brings up a number of times that he feels he has control over when he will die. He, true to form, tells a story about fighting off death and keeping it at bay at one point in his life. After that, he has two monologues in which he engages in a one sided “conversation” with death. However, Troy’s death happens off screen and he ends up having very little control over it. The film reveals to us that Troy’s discussion with death was nothing more than a monologue of self deception. We see that Troy had no control at all and that he was never in dialogue with anything or anybody. The self deception seen from Troy throughout the film is another reason that emphasizing Troy’s voice as a storytelling mechanism makes sense.

Troy uses his voice to control his family and to keep them in line with his expectations. Additionally, he uses it to manipulate himself and convey a false sense of control over his life. Living in the same house as Troy creates a fatigue for his family members, which the audience feels due to the choice to focus on one setting for most of the film. In light of these examples, it is clear to me that Denzel Washington did not make a bad choice to preserve the stylistic elements of a play when adapting Fences into a film. In fact, these choices are good ones because they bring the audience in line with the characters and give them emotional reactions that properly serve the story.

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