Culture

‘Ratched’ and the Aesthetics of Adaptation

Image: Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched in Ratched, wearing a yellow suit, a hat, and sunglasses, beside a pale green 50s-style car.

Those of you that have seen Netflix’s Ratched, Ryan Murphy’s latest overblown American Gothic festival of special effects and set design, might very well have clicked on that ‘back to browse’ button with a very similar thought to mine when the final episode ended: Just what have I spent 8 hours watching?

It’s unnervingly easy, in fact, to let Ratched’s alluring visuals and incessantly derivative score distract you from the series’ lack of any real content. Despite the continual insistence in the opening titles that the series is based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with which for many of us Nurse Ratched has become synonymous, it’s really very hard to see any more than a passing connection between Sarah Paulson’s admittedly commendable performance and the icy face of industrialised healthcare she represents in Kesey’s novel. On its own merits, in fact, Ratched might be considered a perfectly passable series to binge-watch on a Sunday afternoon. The trouble arises, however, when you remember that this is ostensibly a prequel to a classic work of literature. Considering it’s supposedly an origin story, of the kind that have become so popular recently, it’s almost impossible to discern a clear character arc connecting Paulson’s conflicted but ultimately noble sibling and the acidly taciturn performance given by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman’s 1975 cinematic adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

To an extent it’s hard not to judge 2020’s Ratched against this film. Though the two aim at different things through different media, it’s still hard not to come away from Forman’s film thinking it captures the feel of its source material far better. Even in the introductory sequences, the creative disparity is clear. Where Murphy opens with an overbearingly Hitchcock-esque scene of mass murder, accompanied by the ever-present weight of the soundtrack, the film opens instead with a far more sedate stationary visual, and a less intrusive musical presence. It’s this feeling of comfort with subtlety and near silence that reminds us of Forman’s sensitivity to both his medium and his source material. Whilst there are moments, as in the novel, of utter chaos, it’s the fact that they’re punctuated by such uneasily clinical tranquility that makes them so effective. The group ‘therapy’ sessions run by Nurse Ratched show this cycle of chaos and calm at its best, as the near silence builds slowly to dizzying riots of sound.

Even on the rare occasion of a lull in the action, the visuals are so hyper-stylised that it’s difficult to view anything as much of a respite.

Ratched, by contrast, has no such moments of calm. Even on the rare occasion of a lull in the action, the visuals are so hyper-stylised that it’s difficult to view anything as much of a respite. Frankly, I suspect they’d become headache-inducing after any more than a few hours. Whilst it’s certainly true that it’s harder to make something feel so formally controlled as a two-hour film over an eight-hour period, we’re still left with the question of why Murphy chose something that so clearly benefits from gentle and subtle handling for the basis of a stab at gothic horror. Where, for example, the lobotomy that makes for the novel’s tragic ending is never really elucidated, Murphy shows us no fewer than six over the course of two episodes, mostly in real time, with deeply unsettling intimacy. It’s difficult, in fact, to see what purpose these scenes serve besides mere sensation. I sensed a vague gesturing at one of the series’ many underdeveloped subplots, but these too are all too easy to forget in the midst of so much gratuitous violence.

As an adaptation, Ratched can’t be ranked among the likes of Apocalypse Now, for example, because it simply feels uncomfortable. In working so hard, and so obviously, to find its own voice apart from the source material, the series feels uneasy as an adaptation and just as unsuccessful on its own merits. It feels like Murphy is trying to couch some genuinely daring attempts at originality in a recognisable trope, in this case both the setting of the mental institution and the familiar figure of Ratched herself, for the sake of broader appeal. There is a logic to this. The peculiar demands of Netflix as a platform do, obviously, necessitate a wider and immediate appeal than older cinema ever needed to. It is, after all, much harder to differentiate a title from thousands of equally available others than it would have been when the choice was limited to a handful of titles on that year’s calendar of theatrical releases. 

It feels like Murphy is trying to couch some genuinely daring attempts at originality in a recognisable trope, in this case both the setting of the mental institution and the familiar figure of Ratched herself, for the sake of broader appeal.

In modernising trope, Murphy’s series exemplifies the kind of infantilisation of audiences that we so often see from online-only media. As a series of impressive visuals, and the occasional well-staged set-piece, it’s highly watchable, provided you don’t take it too seriously. But this is exactly the point: the only real enjoyment comes from embracing its shallowness. As entertainment, it rewards a single, cursory engagement, and nothing more. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the sort of cinematic experience that rewards rewatching, Ratched just isn’t, and apparently doesn’t want to be.

Of course, you could fairly reply that if this is what people want (and its popularity would suggest they do), then there isn’t an issue. Yet there remains the question of why a director would bother to adapt something so complex as classic literature into something so superficial. As much as it never pays to be prescriptive about art, it’s nevertheless difficult not to notice the amount of critical bile it seems to stir up. Even if it is the borrowed IP drawing in audiences, which seems in itself difficult to believe given the obvious lack of resemblance to its sources, it still seems a needlessly alienating move at a time when platforms like Netflix are striving for more legitimacy within established critical institutions.

As much as it never pays to be prescriptive about art, it’s nevertheless difficult not to notice the amount of critical bile it seems to stir up.

What makes this all the more puzzling is that there can be huge benefits in using a more longform series to adapt literary material. HBO’s serial adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, as just one example, is an ideal demonstration of how the contours of the novel can be translated to a more visual form. Admittedly this is in no small part due to the novel’s presentation as a ‘story cycle’, with each story being a discrete part of a coherent whole, and thus ideal for miniseries adaptation. Each of the four episodes focuses on one of the longer stories, with the titular character and her husband remaining more central throughout than they are in the novel. In many other ways, however, form marries content far more sympathetically here than in either of the adaptations previously described. Inasmuch as cinematography can ever capture the complex interiority of the modern novel, the plain provincial humanity of Strout’s characters are expertly rendered onscreen. So too are most of the subplots given more than passing attention, with many of the more tangential characters finding their way into at the very least the background of the main action. The ever-present figure of the pianist, for example, rewards readers of the book without distracting from the necessarily condensed action of its televisual adaptation.

What makes this all the more puzzling is that there can be huge benefits in using a more longform series to adapt literary material.

The upshot of this sensitivity to the material is to make the novel’s best moments feel like more than fan service when they are played out in front of us. Ultimately, it feels like a coherent and cohesive translation of the deceptively complex world of rural Maine into four hours of subtly beautiful television. Where there is a departure from the novel, indeed, this feels like an addition to it. It’s this feeling of addition that makes Olive Kitteridge feel like such a successful adaptation. By the end it feels like more of a contribution to Strout’s world than simply a translation of it into a different medium. Whilst you’re in no danger of confusing the book and the series, there’s nevertheless a sense that Cholodenko’s adaptation inhabits the novel’s world more as a new element of it than a mere lens, and that’s what makes it so watchable.

All this, of course, isn’t to suggest that the only way to successfully adapt literary material is through televisual miniseries. Rather, it’s a case for moderating expectations and reflecting on what we want an adaptation to be. If Netflix’s model of loose thematic adaptation to boost popularity is here to stay, and I suspect it is, then there seems to be even more of a case for defending the miniseries and cinematic adaptation. Genuinely original and sensitive adaptation of literary material can and should be done on film, and provided you know where to look, there’s a lot more choice than most online platforms would suggest.

Image: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Categories: Culture, Film & TV

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