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In Defense of Literature: An Open Letter to Ingmar Bergman

July 14, 2018 | By

Ingmar Bergman had written an essay ‘Film Has Nothing To Do With Literature’ translated by Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner which was part of his book ‘Four Screenplays’ published in 1960 . Parts of the essay is available at NCERT and The Same Cinema Every Night.

Silhouette editor Amitava Nag wrote the original version of this open letter in 2008, after Bergman passed away in New Quest magazine. An edited version is reprinted here on Ingmar Bergman’s birth centenary in 2018.

Dear Mr. Bergman,

Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007)

Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007), Swedish stage and film director during the production of Wild Strawberries, 1957 (Pic: Svenska filministitutet)

I take up this opportunity to write this open letter to you. It created a peculiar feeling in me when I got the chance to share my comments on an article written by you – comments from an Indian film buff after 48 years! My initiation to world cinema was through your films, some fifteen years back, and till date you have remained a single film-maker who has the most profound influence on my cinematic aesthetic senses. Hence, it is quite an honour for me to critique this article of you – ‘Film Has Nothing To Do With Literature’ (from Four Screenplays by Ingmar Bergman, Translated by Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner).

Who has given the name of the article such – is it by you or your editors or translators? I felt it to be a misnomer since the article basically deals with the creative process that you take up when you plan for a film – right from the spark of an idea to a script and finally executing it. The debate that you raised was not even half of the total document!

I fully understand your view when you say, that the first lightning of an idea is “a mental state, not an actual story”. It’s a level of abstraction which you hint at probably, which you interpret further into a story (the winding up of the thread as you mentioned), then into a script and finally the blueprint for shooting. I think literature can also act as this precursor. India is country, where for centuries literature was read out, in the banks of the holy rivers and in the courts of kings. Literature here is perceived hence, as a story-telling medium. The history of Swedish literature of the first half of the 19th century is probably not that enriched and the youth of the ‘40s and ‘50s were rather more focused elsewhere than literature, their generic marked lineage to the Nazi state quite apparent always. So I understand, to you literature cannot be that influence as us. But take it from me, Mr. Bergman, its just another level of logical abstraction when you get to read a literary piece and an idea strikes you and you sit to write your script. No idea, in the purest form of the word, is essentially original and I feel we shouldn’t hanker too much thinking that the idea from someone else’s literature is not fully your own – in the end every inspiration is derived from life, this is what it counts. I cannot resist my temptation here to quote the eminent film scholar and dramatist Bela Balazs – “nearly every artistically serious and intelligent adaptation is a re-interpretation of that material”. And we have umpteen examples to our favour! But I definitely agree, trying to make a blind copy of the literature in a different medium in a spree to remain ‘faithful’ is in most cases doomed to be a failure.

Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman with wife Estonian-Swedish pianist Käbi Laretei (1922–2014) (Pic: Wikimedia)

Apart from literature’s relation to film as the latter’s idea generator, there is another aspect which I disagree with you. You have written – “when we experience a film, we consciously prime for illusion.” From my point of view, in very few cases, film creates an illusion the same way literature does. There is not much a viewer can do, you are right – “the sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings”. The viewer is forced to see what is being shown in most cases, his mind is too preoccupied to be prepared for illusion. There is probably a single Apu in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, but there are hundreds and thousands of Apu in our minds by reading Bibhutibhusan’s masterpiece (on which Ray made his classic with his own interpretations!) – every reader has his own cast, his own costume, his own setting, playing and fast-forwarding time and again in his head.

I will close this letter by touching upon an interesting aspect which I felt did come up in your essay – the technical differences between film and literature, why to you, its virtually impossible to translate literature to films.

Director Ingmar Bergman (left) and actor Victor Sjöström

Director Ingmar Bergman (left) and actor Victor Sjöström speaks with Bergman’s daughter Lena during production of Bergman’s 1957 movie Wild Strawberries at Filmstaden in Råsunda outside Stockholm. Photo courtesy of Pressens Bild, 1957

Here again I quote Sergei Eisenstein (from his book Film Form) – “I consider that besides mastering the elements of filmic diction, the technique of the frame, and the story of montage, we have another credit to the list – the value of profound ties with the traditions and methodology of literature”. The ‘methodology’ is a very significant term here since this is where the two mediums come in conflict. Accepting fully the differences of the two or as I mentioned earlier, the film from a literature is essentially a re-interpretation of it in filmic language and grammar its interesting how ‘literary’ were your films of the 1950’s. The confessions of the Knight in the church which was almost a soliloquy in The Seventh Seal or the narrative logic to describe Professor Borg’s constant swing between reality and his dreams are purely the by-product of literary techniques. In many of your films of the 1950’s (before this article you wrote) viz. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician , The Virgin Spring – all have extensive dialogues or background narration to depict a mood or to outline a character or to pose an emotional turbulence, e.g. in Wild Strawberries, in one of the dream sequences (looking into microscope to see his own eye in horror) Professor Borg’s alienation is what we were ‘told’ via narration, the sequence has no visual impact to us as audience. And in most of your films of this era we find barren landscapes with mystical light as ray of hope or dark clouds to depict terror – man made or otherwise where your characters are always trying to bridge the ‘gaps’. The reference of the supernatural and the spiritual which can at best be termed as ‘Gothic’. And as a foil to this style you used narrations – verbalization of your thoughts and ideas. The 1960’s saw a change in your style, you came close to your characters and focused on the face as you once said later – “For me, the human face is the most important subject of cinema”. This relation with your characters made us feel your association with them more directly and your style, to me was more, from then onwards, cinematic. From your published screenplays also we can see, how it differs from the cinema version – the process of interpreting the written words on film reels probably started then, for you.

Hence, this article historically falls in the juncture, the link between the old style and the new form, and I doubt if you do really mean “Film has nothing to do with literature” – your own work reveals, even to disown literature, you need to internalize its style and then mould it for your filmic needs.

Till then, we can hate but probably cannot ignore the literary influences on films.

Cheers!!!

Amitava Nag

More to read

The Cinema of Bergman and Antonioni

Ingmar Bergman – The Seventh Seal

In the Wink of an Eye

I’s Eyes: Exploring Use of Eyes in Films

Creative Writing

Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to amitava@silhouette-magazine.com

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent book on cinema is Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter.
All Posts of Amitava Nag

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Literature: An Open Letter to Ingmar Bergman

  • Partha Pratim Ghosh

    A very insightful, should I say, an essay in the foil of a letter! Amitava, known and relevant to me as an objective and initiated thinker, has again stripped his essay completely off his personal liking or any bias to a maker! Its relevant to mention, since I know him as an intense lover of Bergman films.

    Ironically, disowning literary influence is a very common subject handled by multiple film makers and cine buffs historically. This fact itself perhaps proves both a strong lineage of literature in the process of evolution of the language of cinema, as well as a gradual distancing from literary methods and techniques. Amitava has quite strikingly read this dichotomy as a subtext, in the distinctive two phases of Bergman cinema. Finally and probably, we can echo from What Mrinal sen had said – “Cinema, at its core, is a strong hybrid of multiple other artistic forms and their history. Its an assimilation of literature, theatre, painting sculpture and music”. While talking of sculpture, can we forget the unforgettable “sculpting in time”, which came from no other than Tarkovsky, a cine author being admired very strongly also by Bergman!

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