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When screenwriters adapt a literary work for either the big screen or television, they often have to make changes in the original for a number of reasons. Sometimes they must trim dialogue or update settings to appeal to a modern audience. At other times, screenwriters introduce changes as a result of suggestions from the directors, who may well wish to distinguish their productions from previous film and television adaptations of the same work.

If a film is made with very few changes to the original work, it may be said to be a faithful adaptation of the work from one medium to another. However, if many changes are made, then the film may be said to be loosely based on the original work. For example, by altering the dialogue, setting, and the species of the characters (among other things), the Walt Disney film The Lion King may be said to be loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

In 2002, Oliver Parker wrote and directed an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. Parker's film remains, for the most part, highly faithful to its source. Most of the changes were made out of necessity to make the film-version a reasonable length for modern cinema. A direct script-to-screen adaptation would probably be somewhat short, however. In order to achieve an appropriate running time, Parker took some scenes and spread them out over different locations. For example, initially Jack and Algernon do not meet in Jack's apartments but rather at a night club. Much of the dialogue remains intact (including discussions of the cigarette case, Bunburying, and Jack's business proposal), but the film's setting is different, and the scene is shorter, leaving the audience guessing as to what Bunburying is. An explanation follows the next day at Algernon's residence, so that the remainder of the scene on film looks much more like that of the script. Parker changes setting again as Lady Bracknell tells Jack to stop by her house the next day; it must have seemed more appropriate to the screenwriter that the "interrogation" scene should take place there instead of at Algernon's apartment.

The characters in the film are much like those described in Wilde's script—with a few minor exceptions. For example, Parker's Jack indicates that he is 35 years of age, whereas Wilde's is 29. Perhaps Parker made this change because 35 is closer to the actual age of Colin Firth, the actor playing Jack. Firth is perfectly cast in the role, doing what he does best, playing a charming but quirky Englishman. Because Jack is not as sly as Algernon, Firth's bumbling nature pays off. Rupert Everett plays Algernon well, although it would have been interesting to see Hugh Grant play the role, so he and Firth could reprise their relationship from the two "Brigit Jones" films. Judy Dench, seen elsewhere as James Bond's steely bureau chief, is also perfectly cast in Parker's adaptation, although her delivery of Lady Bracknell's signature line "A handbag?" leaves something to be desired after one has seen and heard Dame Edith Evans's do it in such a masterful fashion in the earlier film version.

This 2002 film also introduces scenes that were not in the final draft of Wilde's script. For example, the original play makes no mention of Algernon's servants' drinking champagne but instead shows the servants drinking and playing music while Algernon is absent. Also, the scene in the film that involves the bill-collector's coming to deliver Ernest's unpaid dinner bills, although written by Wilde, was cut out of the original staging of the play at the urging of Wilde's director. By restoring what is known as "The Gribsby Episode," Parker has made his adaptation somewhat more faithful to Wilde's original conception than the play script itself.


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Last modified 11 July 2006