Historically, film adaptations have been viewed as a nexus wherein high literary culture merges with the lower culture of the film medium; this serves to introduce works of classical literature to audiences who would otherwise not have access to them either due to economic, social, or language barriers in the case of Enoch Arden (D.W. Griffith, 1911); thus, film adaptations spread elements of high culture to mainstream society.
This is particularly evident in the silent film adaptation of Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden which premiered in the early days of cinema whereby the majority of viewers were composed of the working underclass who, after laboring for long hours, used cinema as a form of escape.
The epic poem details the sacrifice of the heroic father, Enoch Arden, whom upon being lost on a deserted island, returns home to find his wife and children belonging to another man, Phillip – his childhood rival for Annie’s affections. In choosing to remain estranged from his family, Enoch, an embodiment of the working class man, is able to give them all the lavish comforts that Phillip, a representative of the wealthy upper class, could provide. Thematically, the sacrifice of Enoch, appealed to the mainstream audience and provided the strongest incentive to adapt the narrative to film, despite the challenges that the film’s creation imposed- the greatest being that of the film medium itself.
Adapted during the 1900s, Enoch Arden constituted a mile-marker in cinema history, using innovative filming techniques such as close-ups, and transition editing while also establishing a new standard in casting and film length. Early cinema lacked a distinct narrative story as the technology was still very new and the possibilities of film were largely unknown. Typically, the first films involved a stationary camera shooting small ten to fifteen minute skits similar to vaudeville productions; this was largely contributed to the consensus that audiences’ ability to sit still would expire after fifteen minutes. However, this undefined rule of early cinema had to be broken in order to re-create the plot of Tennyson’s poem, resulting in a, quite uncommon, narrative format that was double the length, thirty four minutes total, of the expected attention span of audiences.
A necessary step in establishing the tone and events of the poem’s narrative is creating the feeling of time passing for the viewer. Griffith accomplished this task in three ways: first, through the use of different set backdrops; second, through the utilization of fade out transitions to smooth out the choppy effect of changing scenes; and finally, the film was the first to feature children at different ages – thus, the viewer watched as the children matured while Enoch was deserted on the island. The combination of these elements allows the visual narrative to span, as the poem does, for years. Beyond the creation of a film narrative, Griffith’s Enoch Arden provided further innovation to the film medium through actual camera movements and close-up shots of the actors, made possible by placing reflecting lights at the actors’ feet. These techniques highlighted both the actors’ performance, whose melodramatic flair was heightened by the awkward transition from theater to film, and the viewer identification with the characters- thus, strengthening the film’s tone.
Despite the severe restrictions of early cinema, Griffith’s Enoch Arden, in comparison to the literary source text, is relatively a close adaptation; yet, as is typical of all cinematic adaptations, alterations to the text were necessary. In order to condense the text’s length into a visual narrative, much of the poem’s substance was either removed or reworked; the predominant theme of the ‘good father’ remained intact, but the religious undertones of the poem, as indicated most prominently through the scene where Annie searches through the bible for a sign about Enoch, was removed. Furthermore, the characters along with the youthful love triangle between Enoch, Annie, and Phillip are more developed in the poem.
The most notable alteration, however, concerns the removal of Enoch’s youngest child’s death and the death of Enoch himself. Since, film is more beholden to social trends and because of the weight given to the effect of visual stimuli, the child’s death was probably thought too graphic for the early days of film. Showing the child’s death would risk alienating the audience and, by extension, decreasing profits. The alteration of Enoch’s death, however, has little to do with social trends and hinges, instead, upon the primary purpose of the film industry- entertainment. While the poem gives the reader a greater since of closure as Enoch’s death, which is slower than the film version, brings him closer to his deceased child, the film heightens Enoch’s sacrifice by leaving the viewer struck with a combination of sadness and admiration for the hero; the ending of film, which features Enoch dying, seemingly, immediately after looking through Annie’s window and seeing his family happy without him, also provides more dramatic tension – making the final moments of the film much more climatic and poignant.
In adapting Lord Tennyson’s poem, Griffith’s Enoch Arden, despite the challenges posed by the largely foreign technology of film itself, redefined the standard of early cinema; the film’s ground-breaking use of camera movements, casting, and narrative plot demonstrated the possibilities of film in creating and unfolding stories which were equally as powerful as their literary counterparts while simultaneously spreading the high culture associated with literature to new audiences. The film’s successful blending of high and low culture spurned a trend in film which still exists today- even in television which, just as film was regarded with less prestige than literature, is perceived as a venue of low-brow entertainment.