Notes on Adapting Ion to the Screen
Craig Michael Johnson
7 July 2001

I’ve been giving a good amount of thought to the screenplay and how to properly and clearly express my reactions and ideas. Certain points strike me as very important and warrant a lot of discussion, likely more than I will be able to tackle here or elsewhere.

1. How well the current screenplay works
2. Adapting Plato for the screen
3. The purpose of this project in a historical perspective
4. Solving the problems

1. How well does the screenplay work?
On the whole, my honest opinion is that the screenplay, in its current manifestation, is not dramatically effective in general, much less as a vehicle for Plato. It’s fatally flawed in several ways, which, however, do not necessarily reflect any real shortcoming in the author’s ability or intent or verify the impossibility of putting Plato on screen; instead, the problems within the product are, as will be clear, the symptoms of a defective logical and artistic basis and an unrealistic objective. Slight changes in focus and concept may yet be able to salvage, and will definitely improve this project.

2. Can the Platonic Dialogues be put on screen?
The issue central to any discussion of film adaptation (especially those of very old texts) is the feasibility of taking one type of artwork and turning it into another. While there are some notable exceptions which, in their stature, distort the truth, the fact is that 99% of film adaptations of books and plays are failures, usually not because of their deviation from the original but because of their attempts to translate literary devices to film in a backward-thinking way. Filmmakers often look at the original form as something to be broken out of while strangely preserving many traditions exclusive to the original medium; they refuse to take advantage of film as its own art form and instead, through their efforts, subordinate it to the novel or play. In fact, film’s potential proves superior to all preexisting art forms, allowing the creator the greatest malleability of medium, combining the virtues of the previous forms of word and image and yet, in the combination, creating an exclusive language and capability. Thus film must be thought of as its own being and the virtues of the film medium must be recognized and utilized in accordance with the nature of the content.

Adaptations, then, should not simply be plays with camera movements, but indeed general reconstructions and reinventions of ideas to suit the new format. Some of the great adaptations in film history have been accused of betraying the sensibilities of their previous forms, but this is a wrong-headed criticism. Simply the act of attempting to adapt a story from one form to another is an audacious and irreverent decision. It represents a lack of irrational worship of inferior forms and an optimistic vision of the potentialities of bringing great artworks into existence by merging the qualities of the filmistic medium with strong, previously existing stories and ideas that have made impressions on the filmmaker. Indeed, adaptations are expressions of love and respect for great thoughts and the cinema itself.

It’s worth noting that plenty of adaptations are devoid of these merits, and are simply exploitative efforts hoping to capitalize on an already popular idea, like a successful novel or piece of popular culture. Sometimes, though, popular books make excellent films, often commenting on the strength of the original story and the filmmaker’s talent and clarity of intent and vision. Just as often, mediocre books have made incredible films and, of course, great books made awful films, even in the hands of great directors (see John Huston’s Moby Dick.)

What this comes down to is the notion of what an adaptation should be and why it is done. Two different answers strike me: 1)a story is adapted as a dramatic framework for the presentation of ideas, or 2)an old story can be adapted into modern auspices for the purpose of making a comment about the story’s lasting impact and continuing relevance. Thus it is the ideas that are adapted and the dramatic framework which is created. The screenplay in question attempted to do something in between; it made a half-committal to the original dialogue as a framework for ideas and a half-committal to a new framework, namely the modern story about the students, on which to drape the ideas presented in the original text.

This middle-of-the-road solution actually expressed itself in another way as well. The origins of the modern, college story were well-elucidated to we readers, and, in a way, seemed to be a burden to the original vision. There are, indeed, two different extremes to which this project could have been taken – the MTV, pop-culture, story-based extreme and the experimental, avant-garde, philosophical extreme -- and the fact that it fell uncomfortably somewhere between (though more toward MTV) shows. The entire idea became compromised when the nature of the vehicle was compromised, though I will later argue that a straight adaptation of the dialogue itself would not have worked either. In simple terms, this involves a lack of clarity and committal to a single filmistic idea. It did not take into account the possibilities film offers and the structure of the original dialogue.

Thus is raised a point of dispute: could any adaptation of Plato, with the committal to the direct adaptation of the structure of the dialogues, have worked in a “modern, youthful” context? I do not think so. It denies the non-dramatic nature of the dialogues. An adaptation of Sophocles or Euripides may work, but the dialogues will never function as dramatic aspects of a greater, plot-driven piece. The language is beautiful, the ideas are rich, but the dialogues cannot be the framework on which a story moves from one point to another. Nor can they stand alone as dramatic units. They are simply not suited for direct adaptation to film as dramatic fodder (though it bears saying that film is not an absolutely dramatic medium.)

3. What about the intent of this specific project?
The expressed purpose of this project, as far as I can comprehend, is to expose a wide audience to the notions of reincarnation and divine inspiration expressed in Plato by way of a reinterpretation and modernization. Within the screenplay, the lack of Classics teaching in the schools as well as many other aspects of the modern era are lamented, in order to articulate a dissatisfaction with modern systems which, apparently, could be solved by a return to the Athenian system. I would argue that the intent of the film – the idea that a mass audience attuned to MTV culture will examine Platonic ideas – is misguided and actually serves to hinder the artistic effort.

The position taken by the screenplay is that the American educational system has degraded, preventing critical thought, and that a return to the style of education idealized in the dialogues would be the current system’s salvation. Thus, the screenplay itself seeks to be a teacher in the Socratic style while advocating such teaching methods, attempting to spread Plato’s ideas to a mass audience. However, this stance is actually contrary to the reality of the Athenian system, which skimmed a tiny minority off the top of the senatorial society for educational cultivation. The remainder of society – women, slaves, and other sectors of the unluckily born – was condemned to lives of ignorance, darkness, and servitude, hardly a system of mass educational welfare. Socrates himself was supposedly a homeless man who wandered the streets enlightening Athenians, but there remains debate as to whether Socrates existed at all. This trend, of course, continued down throughout history, with notable exceptions, and now, instead of lamenting the death of the American educational system, we should analyze the progress it has made and focus our attention on actually providing good education for as many people as we can, not a fastidious few. The point is that, while it would be a true step forward for human culture if the majority of people began pondering Platonic ideas, this was never the case, for very substantial and real reasons: the economic and political systems have always benefited from reserving a well-rounded education for the ruling classes and pointing the rest of us toward the factories and fields. Indeed, the current system is decrepit, but it represents a democratization of education the likes of which the world has never seen. Thus, before we ponder our epoch’s popularization of Plato, we should recognize the devices which do and have always prevented a real – not historically idealized – popular intellectual culture, and work to expose and destroy those machines. Otherwise we have no choice but to flop about in nebulous obscurity, trying to create artwork for the people while ignoring them altogether.

4. Is Plato doomed?
No, actually, I think that, once these factors are all taken into account, a creative solution will be much clearer and will produce something workable which respects the virtues of both the ideas and the screen.

Taken to a conclusion which ignores some aspects of my argument, one might think I am ringing the death knell for Plato – indeed, all philosophy – on film. Anyone who knows me and my tastes would correctly identify this as a misrepresentation; I strongly feel that film is an ideal medium for expressing philosophical ideas, and that it has been done successfully many times in the past. However, never has the philosophical brunt of any story been reliant upon a direct adaptation of a philosopher’s work to the screen, naturally, because they, more often than not, are expressed in long essay form, and without anything resembling a narrative structure as in Plato or Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. However, as we have seen, adaptations which fully accept these formats as useful for film will necessarily fail.

Successful attempts at philosophy on screen utilize – often to very powerful effects – the formulation discussed in section 2 of this essay, in which philosophical ideas are draped over a narrative framework. This is not to say that the framework must be a conventional story, and, indeed, many successful films involving deep philosophical ideas have demonstrated audacious attempts at storytelling: watch 2001, probably the most philosophically advanced of all the “big” movies, if not all movies, which had a tremendously experimental story and structure which indeed repelled some people.

At the same time, we must recognize the limits of our efforts. The philosophy cannot be explicit, and will most likely not be gleaned by an entire generation. A good film requires a certain amount of ambiguity, of inference and contemplation by the viewer. The most satisfactory philosophical experience is one which makes the viewer feel he or she is the philosopher; Wittgenstein called philosophy the act of clarification, not observation, and for a viewer to watch a film and then be led to his own conclusions is a powerful and truly philosophical experience. This leads to a difficult contradiction which further elucidates point 3: a satisfactory philosophical experience cannot be spoon-fed, and yet many people, because of the nature of popular tastes, will not exert the effort needed for that experience. This is not elitism but observation of how most people watch film; it is also very cynical to think that we can sneak or dump ideas into the brains of the drooling throngs. We must respect the reality of learning in a most humanistic sense: people learn best when they reach their own conclusions, and this comes out of intellectual interest. (It’s worth noting that this is why we tend to forget all the stupid bullshit we learn in high school, often during high school itself: it’s based upon memorization, a type of informational accumulation which dissipates as soon as we stop using the information.)

So this can be done: to write a story involving reincarnation and divine inspiration centered not on a literal adaptation but instead an ideological core based in Plato may be a very powerful thing. Write in the spirit of the ideas, and the ideas will be evident. Make references to the Ion and the literary history will be evident. Take care with the film medium and the artwork will reach people – probably not an entire generation, but indeed many people who might just pick up on the ideas and reconsider them. If the ideas still live, they will ring loud in the human mind. It can only do justice to Plato to have such optimism and faith in reason and human creativity.

I hope this was of some help. Good luck!


Suggested Film Viewing List

A few good philosophically-minded flicks (and, while I’m at it, their locations in Movies Worth Seeing):

2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick
A Clockwork Orange - Kubrick
The Shining - Kubrick
Full Metal Jacket - Kubrick
The Dekalog - Kryzstof Kieslowski
Three Colors: Blue, White, Red - Kieslowski
F For Fake - Orson Welles
Time Regained - Raul Ruiz
Three Lives and Only One Death - Ruiz
The Seventh Seal - Ingmar Bergman
Cries & Whispers - Bergman
Simon of the Desert - Luis Buñuel (Mexico)
The Exterminating Angel - Buñuel (Mexico)
The Milky Way - Buñuel (France)
Humanité - New Foreign (French - Dir. Bruno Dumont)
Rashomon - Akira Kurosawa
High & Low - Kurosawa
Ran - Kurosawa
Kagemusha - Kurosawa
Thin Red Line - War (Dir. Terrence Malick)
8 ½ - Federico Fellini
Dead Man - Jim Jarmusch
Andrei Roublev - Russia Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Solaris - Tarkovsky
Stalker - Tarkovsky

And, of course, Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, and many other film adaptations of classical philosophical literary works. It’d also be worth re-reading classic Greek plays like Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle.