“Since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1927-28, more than three-fourths of the awards for Best Picture have gone to adaptations” (McFarlane 385-6). And no wonder. Adaptations are more likely to succeed, they already have potential audiences, and are easier to make than originals. Different adaptations render the original with differing levels of fidelity, but the one we’ll discuss is as close to true transformation as ever. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, Robert Enrico’s 1962 short film, adapts Ambrose Bierce’s 1891 short story of the same name using classic film techniques in order to transform written word to the cinema. This essay will discuss the differences between the original text and film versions, and explore how the limits of film force directors to be creative when describing some details or bringing to life certain abstract points of view.
How does “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” get transformed? Well, let’s start at the beginning, I hear that it’s a very good place to start. The story starts with a description of the main character’s position in the setting, “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck”. Uh oh, discrepancies already! The film starts with a poster claiming that those caught interfering with railroad bridges will be “SUMMARILY HANGED”, then slow dolly shots of the setting, including the soldiers high up on watch over the valley, and the line of infantry men marching into place in front of the cannon setup the imminent hanging. In fact, the man-to-be-summarily-hanged isn’t on-screen until the 8th shot of the film, two minutes in. And he isn’t shown with a rope around his neck until the 12th shot of the film, three minutes after the start. This will be a theme, the film adaptation tends to stick to a more linear order of events, while the literary version tends to wander temporally and specially more. One could argue that this shows how literature is more suited towards complex and abstract spacial and temporal storytelling, but I think not. In this case, Enrico the filmmaker chose to re-arrange the order of the story, ever-so-slightly, presumably in order to make it easier to follow. However, I think that an even bolder, more modern, more trusting of the audience version could follow the text to the “letter” in this regard. All of these details, save the specific state of Alabama, could be rendered with a camera. First the man, then the bridge he stands on, then his executioners, then the sentinels, then either end of the bridge, then the stockade with cannon, then infantry men with their lieutenant. That was the order of focus in the first two paragraphs of the text. That order of literary focus could just as easily be the camera’s focus, but it’s slightly rearranged in this case. Perhaps here’s another reason why: the third paragraph describes more the man being hanged. It tells of his age, occupation, looks, dress, and expression. Which it didn’t do at the very beginning. The film, by showing his face on screen, had to show most of those details, and so, by delaying the visualization of the first few sentences, the film in a way is truer to the original form than if it would’ve shown his face at the beginning. But I spy a compromise, even closer to the original. A close-up of just the noose around his neck, and then a point-of-view shot looking down past his pants, shoes, and plank into the swift water twenty feet below could accomplish the effect of the anonymous introduction of the first three sentences. The fact that the discrepancies between the letter on the page and the images on screen are so specific tells a lot about the filmmaker’s commitment to adapting the letter and spirit of the text. Most of the content of the story is rendered as directly as possible into images. However, there are limits to the art of film-making.
Film just can’t translate some words into images. For example, the inner thoughts of a character, or commentary on the substance of the world and the players within it. Some films use voice-over for these messages, like interior monologues of a character’s thoughts, or a narrator or character passing judgment on something that occurs. Sometimes character’s just talk out loud to themselves – and the audience – unrealistic and unimaginative at best, jarring at worst. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” doesn’t use those tricks, the short story is almost entirely rendered on screen using film techniques, not dialogue. Where does the film version run into the limits of the medium, and how does it work around them? In the very first sentence of the text, “northern Alabama” is an extremely easy detail to write, but a much harder one to convey on screen. This film just omits it. The viewer could infer it from other parts of the story, but a precise location is omitted from the film. Other common options for this kind of specific setting information include: overlaying text with the name, shots of recognizable landmarks, showing a sign or building or something else with the name on it, or a combination of these techniques. But, in this case, it’s up to the reader’s smarts to infer the location. Next, a few sentences later, “a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.” Though Bierce would undoubtedly defend this line as an important detail, a poignant description of a man with some power, but not a lot of power, the film has no way of showing this commentary without a flashback to a previous time or an alternate time line in which this man is shown as a deputy sheriff. It’d be quite difficult to pull something like that off naturally, without interrupting and muddling the main story. The reader would think that the sergeant plays a larger role in the story than he does. So, the film just omits this small detail too. Other examples are the names of the positions that the sentinels and infantry line stand in. Notice that the actors stand in the correct positions as described in the text, but without the names: “support” and “parade rest”. Of course, fidelity of the spirit of the text can be more tricky than this. Take the last lines of the second paragraph as an example “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.” This example of the original’s narrator commentary shows how film struggles to show non-diagetic points of view. Asides like this support the meat of the text, but often weigh down a film. Though, it can be done well, consider the unnamed narrator and protagonist’s voice-over commentary in Fincher’s 1999 Fight Club, “Pacific, Mountain, Central. Loose an hour. Gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time”. Hyper-accelerated montages can accomplish the same effect visually, though are often jarring. In this vein, the film adaptation must settle to maintain “fidelity to the spirit” of the original, rather than “fidelity to the letter”. Film must recreate the tone of writing with the tone of the images. In this example, the soldiers are shown silent, fixed, and with respect towards the deed about to be done on the bridge. There’s a bigger-picture discrepancy though.
The largest part of the original text that the film version misses is the greater context that Peyton Farquhar, the man-to-be-hanged, is “a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause”, who gets tricked into meddling with the bridge, gets caught, and hence is sentenced to hang. The audience can infer the time period with a little effort, the soldiers uniforms give them away reasonably well as Union men. But, the actual context of this man’s crime, and the controversy of his being a slave owner are all but omitted. This choice by the filmmakers leaves context to be desired. It’s best to read the short story too, before or after viewing the movie.
I’ve been focusing on the film version’s failure to represent certain details of the original text. However, the film version has advantages over the original. The film, with its images, more specifically paints the landscape, objects, and people of the story than the text could. Everyone who watches sees the same images, but everyone who reads imagines slightly different details. In this way, film unifies the story. An adaptation brings ideas on the page into life, “the verbal shadow turned into light, the world made flesh” (Anthony Burgess in McFarlane 385). Though I hardly strayed off analyzing the first page of the story and the first few minutes of the film, I have to mention that I’d cut down the running through the forest scene. We get it. He runs all day. There are shorter ways of showing this struggle. He could run through the day into the night, we could be shown the sun passing across the sky. He just doesn’t need to run for six minutes of a twenty-eight minute film! That over with, Enrico’s film adaptation of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” transforms Ambrose Bierce’s original text into cinema as closely as I’ve ever seen. Extreme care to many of the details of the original, from Farquhar’s facial hair to the posture of the soldiers, is rendered on-screen. Experimental techniques bring to the big screen the dreamy points of view including the bugs on the leaves on the riverbank, and Farquhar’s reunion with his wife. Will a more faithful adaptation of a work of literature ever be made into film? We’ll have to wait and see.
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. 1890.
Enrico, Robert, director. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Released in the U. S. by Contemporary Films, 1962.
Fincher, David, director. Fight Club. 20th Century Fox, 1999.