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  • Heather Fowler

Genre Play -- Bringing a Magical Realist Sensibility to Adaptation

As an author of poetry, plays for theatre, short stories, novels, audio plays, screenplays, experimental work, and librettos, I’ve given a lot of thought recently to the art of adaptation--particularly from one form to another, but also from one genre to another. It may be an excess of information to let you know I’ve even sorted my electronic files into handy folders with titles like Ghost Narratives, Historical, Literary Traditional, Experimental, Dystopia, Magical Realist, etc.

My two most recent projects, still works in progress, are a full-length play based on a literary ghost story I wrote entitled "Tombstone Love Poem" and a feature film screenplay based on a German fairy tale entitled "Fitcher’s Bird," the screenplay co-written with film director and author Lauren Rachel Berman. Concurrently with writing the ghost play, I also worked on a ghost story manuscript I’m about to start shopping entitled Temporary Ghosts: Love Stories that houses the adapted story.

Image Gallery: original Grimm fairy tales

While none of the three pieces are, on the surface, magical realist, lately I’ve contemplated how my sensibility as a magical realist informs and creates complexity in all my work, particularly adaptations. As a published author of two collections of magical realist short fiction and one magical realist novel (see the Books page on this site if curious), my work along those veins spanning decades, I see more and more that my propensity for the use of reality with magic makes for interesting ripples in any genre or style into which I create a straddle (or blend).

In my ghost play, for example, I use the setting of a graveyard as the location for all events. I create rules for this afterlife such as binding the deceaseds' spirits to a vicinity of the bones, making each tombstone a spirit’s home, and allowing for the ritual of death-fact-admission so common to this type of tale. Thematically, the play explores the idea of how long one is obligated to love and honor another after death, but the narrative’s underlying question, for me, is a philosophical discussion about the permanence of love and marital obligation. A few educated readers have called the play a dead person’s parallel for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

From what I’ve said so far about this play, you may think: But where’s the magical realism? I see conventions of normal ghost narratives and possibly literary plays, but not necessarily magical realism. From what I’ve told you so far, I would agree. Except my work as a magical realist gave me the following impulses for adapting ghost story ideas that were subtle in the short story but increased in visibility, magic, and depth when threaded into a play for theatre:

1. An expansion of the story conceit that all ghosts have a golden sheen, an embodiment of energy without the weight of human flesh—where all live humans are somewhat less luminous, more grayed. (Since this play has 85% ghosts, the humans are few and far between)--what takes place in a few phrases of the fictive narrative becomes a make-up advisory in the play and also spurs a more magical element for both suggested lighting and costume design, making the idea of “light” beings all the more readily apparent and infused when staged.

2. This above element, made more palpable, then spurred the creation in the play narrative that the tombstones are actually, for each ghost, a doorway into a construction of his/her former home that only the ghost affiliated with the tombstone can enter and dwell within. Imagine a spirit imagining s/he can enter a tombstone and see the walls and structures of “home,” replete with the ambiance and properties that are recalled. Imagine how the audience can now view dramatized scenes that exist in a setting within a larger setting. One stage, many dimensions. Now, certainly, with these two things alone (lit skin, lit homes), we have both magic (existence of a doorway to the trappings of a different life in the afterlife) and memory (reality being causal to what is seen and inalterable in these homes--inalterable unless the ghost’s long-term memory shifts).

When the hybridity of magical realist thinking met the traditional tropes of the ghost story, suddenly, the play narrative grew more moving and more complex. The play not just embraces both genres but blends them, binds them. Blended, too, is the traditional stage play as the umbrella form for all. But some of my favorite work by other authors remains that which is strictly unclassifiable but identified as different genres to different audiences. The story is mutable and fresh due to its layering.

Likewise genre-blending for depth in adaptation, in my fairy tale adaptation of the Grimms’s fairy tale “Fitcher’s Bird” into screenplay form, I also brought my magical reality to bear on the traditional fairy tale genre when committing to increasing the length and scope of a story that required some logical gaps to be solved. In the fairy tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” for example, a parallel to the Bluebeard tale, there are similar elements: serial murders, three sisters, a magic egg, an important key, and a murder room. However, the "Fitcher's Bird" fairy tale is written such that our protagonist, a woman (sister saves sister trope), flees Fitcher’s estate after saving her sisters in a talking bird’s disguise. A magical realist reads this and says: Why a disguise? In the fairy tale, the youngest sister’s escape is described as follows:

"When everything was ready she dipped herself into a barrel of honey, then cut open the bed and rolled around in it until she looked like a strange bird, and no one would have been able to recognize her. Then she walked out of the house."

For my co-authored screenplay, I knew I would not follow this part of the tale. Since any magical realist worth her salt knows that the basic tenet of magical realism is believability and multi-dimensionality of the premise despite (or in harmony with) the magical conceit, the adaptation of this tale into writing for a feature length film created several new adjustments to the fabric of the narrative that can only be considered a blending of fairy tale and magical realism, with cinema conventions creating form and structure.

The integration of magical realism gave multi-dimensionality to the screenplay story that made what was two dimensional and somewhat simplistic more nuanced and flavored by characterization decisions and a concrete arc with developed characters. I list below a few writerly decisions made that were impacted by my magical realist sensibilities:

1. Where there was bird costume of sorts in the Grimms's tale, the new screenplay created our protagonist’s transformation into an actual bird. This spurred development of many escape routes and blocking notes, whole new scenes in the screenplay, as well as a character’s arc that included learning to be a bird and delineating how this ability would effect the protagonist’s relationships with others.

2. Relatedly, research was needed, as is a frequent magical realist practice when integrating fabulist strategies. So, naturally, the decision to opt for a magical transformation as a real bird during this adaptation led to an authorial decision to research the location (Germany) of the tale, decide on a more specific location (Northern Germany, bordering the Netherlands), and an actual bird to be used in the script, the Northern Gannet seabird, which is white like the undefined woman-bird in the fairy tale and present in the region.

Photo from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2004

3. To further adapt this tale with a magical realist’s sensibility, I also researched what this bird’s relationship would be to nurturing its own egg and symbolically connected scientific bird research to the bird/protagonist’s prophetic sorcerer’s egg in the story. Thus the science of the real object (defined bird, with concrete habitat and mating habits) and a engineered parallelism of size and coloration of the tale's magic egg (not defined in the fairy tale) became more powerful and more defining.

4. Further, the tale has no set timeframe, but the movie, imbued with magical realism, required the balancing realism of place and frame. Due to the screenplay being set in Northern Germany and the needs of cinematic scenes to be associate with eras, myself and my co-writer decided somewhere between 1905 and 1915 was appropriate.

In short, both the magical qualities and the realism in the fairy tale were amplified when it was written to be seen on the silver screen.

I could list many more recent adaptation projects from one form or genre to another (usually a shorter work selected for expansion to a long-form narrative) and how they've been impacted by my love for and interest in magical realism, but for now, just consider the amazing possibilities of adapting a work set in one genre by adding an element of cross-pollination or genre hybridity. It’s really quite a pleasure and can yield some powerful work.

Thanks for the read and happy writing. May the muse pay inspired visits to all.

All warm regards,


This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Nearly 20 blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (28th - 30th July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the links below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

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