Literary Adaptation

The White King is Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel’s feature directorial debut, a bold adaptation of György Dragomán’s novel. A coming of age story of a young boy who sees his father imprisoned, the narrative follows the protagonist as he and his mother are labelled as traitors; his youthful innocence contrasts sharply with the viciousness of adult malice and oppression.

The boy’s youthful spirit sharpens the blade of totalitarian oppression as the film offers a striking portrait of a dystopian nation and its dictatorship. Yet more simple than that, it is in the words of Helfrecht: “A portrait of a child’s view of a regime.” The innocent point of view of its twelve-year-old Djata is not a mere creative choice, rather it is in fact central to their aspiration to instil the spirit of the book within the film.

Helfrecht and Tittel’s short Battle for Britain previously played at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2011, which coincidentally strikes up imagery of a past battle against the forces of totalitarianism that connects the two films. Ahead of the UK theatrical release of The White King, the writer-directors joined Aestheica in conversation to reflect on the process of adaptation, and the relationship between the literary and filmic languages.

ASFF: I have heard it said that a film adaptation is required to live separately of the book in order to tell its own version of the story, whilst finding a way to bring something to the source material. Having made this film, how do you view the process of adaptation?
AH: Well that’s the area that I’m particularly interested in and I’ve done adaptation on stage. I’m always interested in books and I think you have to be bold and brave, and as you said, shouldn’t be slavishly transliterating the novel. You have to have a strong take on the material, but you have to honour the spirit. So when I did the Hemingway adaptation, for me it was all about my relationship with the author. I felt so strongly that I had this relationship to him, and it’s that, having a take.

With The White King, people are quite literal and they all said about the book that he’s obviously talking about Romania – he grew up in Transylvania that was part of Romania back then, and he moved to Budapest when he was seventeen. When I read it I felt it could happen anywhere. He had such a distinctive, surreal and universal quality to his writing, and he himself said to Jörg and me, “It’s not necessarily Romania.” Obviously there are iron curtain references there, but it’s actually very loose, much looser than a lot of people assume. We said, “Well look, we want to do something kind of crazy. We want to set it in the future and we want to change quite a few things. We want to really develop the mother and the family characters, and much more.”

He loved that we were going to make quite bold choices and he loved that our goal was to do a more Orwellian approach. I think the function of any dystopian novel or piece of fiction is to hold a mirror to where we are today, and so that’s why we didn’t want to set it in Romania or Transylvania during communism. Although we do understand a lot about communism because Jörg’s mother fled the Soviet regime in Poland in 1968.

JT: My mother wrote the score for the film and she writes the music for most of Agnès Varda’s films, like Vagabond and The Gleaners and I, and other beautiful ones.

AH: As well as operas and symphonic music – she’s a pretty amazing composer. Yes, there is a lot of understanding of that in our family. But we wanted to make something new and I think that’s really important. We tried to honour the essential qualities of the strange mixture of naivety and knowing of the boy.

JT: Also the idea that if we had made a film that was purely historical and foreign, then it would feel like: “okay this happened in the past in a foreign land, it doesn’t affect me – poor Romanians or poor Hungarians… Oh well.” If we had set it in America today then people would say, “Well that’s nonsense, that will never happen.” So we created a country in the future because we felt whether you are watching this in Europe, in Asia or in Africa you could say, “What if this were to indeed happen again, here somewhere?”

AH: Dragomán has said he was very touched that his book was translated into 28 languages. One of the most moving responses we had was in Edinburgh at the World Premiere from a young guy in the audience. He was from Uganda and he said: “Oh my God this is what my childhood felt like.” We met him afterwards and he’s a filmmaker, but it was an extraordinary response because again of the fact that the source material has that universal effect. The film is a portrait of a child’s view of a regime. There are regimes everywhere and they have happened at all points of history, and the present and the future. The very unique thing about the book, which I think is special in the film too is that it’s a child’s view, and so therefore it can happen anywhere.

ASFF: To pick up on your point about the child’s view, whilst literature allows you inside the mind of the character, offering an internal point of view, film is external. Adapting the Gil to the screen surely must have offered you both an intimate encounter with the contrasting points between literary and film language. What has the experience taught you about the relationship between the two?
I think books are authorial and they can dip in and out of what a character is feeling, as well as free flow continuum. One of the things in The White King is that the voice of the boy is really quite extraordinary. You’d read that and think, “oh it’s definitely a case for voiceover.” But I am quite skeptical of voiceover unless it’s used in comedy or its used ironically, to show the difference between what you are actually seeing and what the character assumes you are seeing. It was very, very tempting and a lot of people said: “Are you sure you don’t want to do a voiceover?” One of the things I felt we shouldn’t have was a voiceover. I wanted to see if we could have this inner life of the boy coming out through his eyes and through his behaviour. We wanted to keep our camera on the boy because that was the truest thing that I could think of to be true to the voice in the novel. I am not sure that you can always have both, I think you have to choose.

JT: What’s interesting is the fact that you have to make choices that the reader will make for him or herself when reading a book, and that is the process of adaptation as well. We are indeed taking you closer to an interpretation and we are taking some of the interpretative faculty away from you, because strangely film is a more literal medium than books, even though books only have words in them. They don’t give you the pictures and therefore they allow you to create whatever world you want to project on top of those words. So yeah, it is very interesting and a strange dilemma. It’s like how much interpretation do I leave to the audience as well, and it’s a crazy balancing act.

Paul Risker

The White King is released digitally and theatrically Friday 27 January, followed by a DVD release on Monday 30 January.

1. Still from Alex Helfrecht and Jorg Tittel’s The White King (2016). Courtesy of the filmmakers.