‘Translating’ classic literature to film and television

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-02-09

Classic literature is a quintessential part of human culture. It not only plays an important role in promoting national cultural development and international cultural exchange, but also has an imperceptibly nourishing effect on people’s cultural literacy. Moreover, classic literature serves as a source of inspiration for film and television production. Screen adaptations still hold great appeal for the audience and can lead them to read the original works, which contributes to the popularization of classic literature and cultural inheritance.


The conversion from texts to visual works is similar to rendering a piece of literature into another language. Translation facilitates cultural exchange and human communication, enabling the re-canonization and rebirth of classic literature. Prior to the advent of film and television, literary works were primarily canonized through verbal communication and performance. Since the emergence of film and television, screen adaptation has become an important medium for literary canonization. As film and television appeal to a wider audience, the intellectual and cultural essence of classic literature can be effectively disseminated and internalized by the public.

Adaptation strategies

What factors determine a successful screen adaptation? What “translation” method should be adopted? Translation studies and exemplary renditions provide insight into these questions.

Foreignization, domestication, and creative adaptation are all screen adaptation strategies borrowed from literary translation. While foreignization fully respects the stylistic features and plot structure of the original work, screen adaptation must accurately reproduce the aesthetic effects, themes, and characterizations of the original literary text and, on this basis, make necessary modifications to adapt it to a different form of media.

Domestication fully respects the viewing habits of film and television audiences. Due to limited running time and other factors, screen adaptation rarely presents a literary work in its entirety. To cater to the needs of screen audiences, a certain amount of abridgement is necessary when adapting classic literature, particularly voluminous works, for film and television.

Creative adaptation involves adding scenes and subplots or even creating new characters that do not exist in the original work. This strategy is often desirable, given that screen adaptation of classic literature requires the introduction of other elements such as sound and music.

Literature, film and television, as different forms of art, each has their unique expressive techniques and artistic features. Since translation from one language into another is often regarded as “recreation,” conversion from one form of artistic expression into another also qualifies as “recreation.” Nevertheless, all types of “recreation” are constrained by the “source text.”


Faithfulness is an important criterion for translation quality assessment and should also be considered as such in the case of screen adaptation. Screen adaptation of classic literature should strive to minimize misinterpretations and grasp the central idea of the original work through thorough examination of the source text. While it is acceptable to make appropriate modifications and add or delete certain subplots, screen adaption must retain the overall spirit of the original work. Otherwise, it would somewhat hurt the source text and spoil the aesthetic experience for screen audiences.

Classic literature has provided a wealth of “raw material” for film and television production around the world. According to Linda Seger, an American author and script consultant, more than 80% of Academy Award winners for Best Picture are adaptations of classic literature. The film and television industry has been actively drawing inspiration from literature since the 20th century.

For instance, the historical war film “Troy” is based on Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet has been adapted to film numerous times. The American animated film “Mulan” is based on the ancient Chinese poem “Ballad of Mulan.” The Soviet novel How the Steel Was Tempered was adapted for film in the Soviet Union and for television in China. Abundant screen adaptions serve to popularize and revitalize classic literature.


Wu Di is a professor from the School of Literature at Zhejiang University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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