From Page to Screen: New Literary Inspirations in Polish Cinema
#language & literature
default, From Page to Screen:
New Literary Inspirations
in Polish Cinema, Still from ‘Dark, Almost Night’, directed by Borys Lankosz, 2019, photo: Adam Golec / Aurum Film / Kino Świat, center, ciemno-prawie-noc.jpg
In recent years, Poland’s cinema screens have been hit with a plethora of adaptations of contemporary Polish novels, non-fiction and more. By now, new takes on the latest in its literature rule the country’s film and television world – and still more are on the way. What drives Polish filmmakers to the present-day page for inspiration?
Adaptations in the works
CIEMNO, PRAWIE NOC (Dark, almost night) - międzynarodowy teaser filmu Borysa Lankosza
In March 2019, Polish cinemas screened Dark, Almost Night – a highly anticipated film directed by Borys Lankosz, which draws from a novel by Joanna Bator. In January, Janusz Majewski began filming Black Mercedes, based on his own novel. Then, there’s Jan P. Matuszyński’s Leave No Traces, based on Cezary Łazarewicz’s prose.
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Other cinematic adaptations are also underway. Just take Leopold Tyrmand’s The Man With White Eyes (originally: Zły), filmed by Mariusz Palej; Other People by Dorota Masłowska, brought to the screen by Aleksandra Terpińska; or a famous report by Justyna Kopińska, Czy Bóg Wybaczy Siostrze Bernadetcie (Will God Forgive Sister Bernadetta?), filmed by Borys Lankosz in collaboration with the author. Film adaptations of novels by Łukasz Orbitowski and Jakub Żulczyk, as well as series adaptations of works by the writers Wojciech Chmielarz, Remigiusz Mróz, Vincent V. Severski and Szczepan Twardoch are a testament to film and TV’s ongoing romance with contemporary Polish literature.
Although adaptations have long factored in Polish cinema, the bond between literature and film has never been as strong as it is today. In the past, modern prose could rarely be seen on the big screen. The artistic and economic success of Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor (originally: Pokot, based on a novel by Olga Tokarczuk), Wojciech Smarzowski’s Angel (based on a novel by Jerzy Pilch) and Lankosz’s A Grain of Truth (an adaptation of a novel by Zygmunt Miłoszewski) convinced the Polish film industry that not only is it worth to read new Polish literature, but that adaptations often pay off.
Other creators have also learned the popular appeal of literary adaptations. The producers of Squadron 303 benefited from the popularity of the original book by Arkady Fiedler, as did Kasia Adamik, whose film Amok dealt with a scandal involving Krystian Bala, the author of the original book (editor’s note: Bala was sentenced to prison for murdering a shop owner and describes this situation in his book). In the title of their movie, the makers of Michalina Wisłocka’s biography referred to her classic book The Art of Loving, and the premiere of Jan P. Matuszyński’s The Last Family, about the Beksiński family, was accompanied by an intense discussion about the excellent book by Magdalena Grzebałkowska.
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For the love of novels
Several promising literary adaptations await their premiere in the coming years. One is definitely Terpińska's Other People. A graduate of the directing department at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Terpińska was an interesting artist even before her feature debut, always displaying a distinctive style and a unique film language. Her short films – All Soul’s Day or America – were electrifying. Rebellious and strong, they showcased her style in all its glory. But her most astonishing work was The Best Fireworks Ever, a Cannes-awarded variation on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance.
The Man with White Eyes is another highly anticipated release, as its filmmakers have wanted to produce this adaptation for years. In 2013, the book was to be transferred to the screen by Xawery Żuławski, the director of the successful Polish-Russian War. In an interview, he shared: ‘We are transforming an old-fashioned box into a modern iPad.’ The script was finished, but the entire production was cancelled. Today, this crime story from more than 60 years ago may finally see filming. While it is now known that Mariusz Palej will stand behind the camera, the script is still in the works. We will likely find out soon whether Tyrmand’s novel will finally hit Polish cinema screens.
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Polish writer, publicist and music critic Leopold Tyrmand during the Jazz Music Festival, 1957, photo: PAP / Tadeusz Kubiak
Tyrmand’s book is one of the few classic stories which attract the Polish cinema today, where most filmmakers are eager to work with the latest hits, unexplored themes and young prodigies. In order to fully deploy the potential of the new generation, Studio Munka set up a program which connects emerging filmmakers and writers. Even without this, however, the work of young writers is considered appealing by the film industry, which is currently working on adaptations of recent novels by Jakub Żulczyk (The Dog Hill) and Łukasz Orbitowski (The Other Soul).
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Truth on screen
Polish filmmakers aren’t interested in fiction alone. For the past several years, the book market has managed to bring Polish and international non-fiction literature in vogue, with filmmakers eagerly waiting to update it for the screen.
A good example of this newly founded relationship is the adaptation in production of Let There Be No Footprints. This 2017 Nike award-winning report by Cezary Łazarewicz took up the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, who was beaten to death by police in May 1983. The film is directed by Jan P. Matuszyński, one of the most talented artists of the young Polish cinema and the creator of the famous The Last Family.
In his feature debut, Matuszyński told the story of the Beksiński family. He didn’t adapt Magdalena Grzebałkowska’s book, but once the film was released, the popularity of the written work contributed to the film’s box-office success. This time around, Matuszyński is working with non-fiction literature, and Let There Be No Footprints – with a script by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk – is also bound to do well. There is only one condition: that the film can actually be finished. The producers of the movie must seek additional funds, as the Polish Film Institute granted them only 1 million PLN (they asked for 5.5 million PLN). The production will surely be postponed if the creators don’t find the necessary support.
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A film version of a well-known non-fiction book is also currently being made by Borys Lankosz, who has already filmed adaptations of Andrzej Bart’s Reverse, Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s A Grain of Truth and Joanna Bator’s Dark, Almost Night. Several months ago, the director announced his plans to make a film based on one of the most famous reportge books of recent years, Czy Bóg Wybaczy Siostrze Bernadetcie, a story of violence experienced by foster children brought up in an orphanage run by nuns. Kopińska is to co-write the screenplay, with Agata Buzek slated to play the role of Bernardetta.
A series craze
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Polish cinema follows the American trend of working with non-fiction literature. An increasing number of productions inspired by reports or memoirs hits TV screens every year. An adaptation of Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black became one of the biggest hits on Netflix, a book by Lawrence Wright inspired an exquisite series called The Looming Tower, and An Escape at Dannemora by Michael Benson inspired one of the most prominent series of the last season.
Non-fiction is rarely present on Polish TV screens, but adaptations of various genres of literature have increasingly made their way into Polish homes. Last year, novels by Jakub Żulczyk (Blinded by The Lights), Vincent V. Severski (Illegals) and Remigiusz Mróz (Chyłka) hit the TV screens. Productions based on works by Szczepan Twardoch (King) and Wojciech Chmielarz (Żmijowisko [Den of Vipers]) are awaiting their premiere.
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Producers of Polish series, especially at the top of the industry, have at least two reasons for working with genre literature. The first one is its popularity: Crime stories by Remigiusz Mróz have been some of the most frequently read books in Poland as of late, while Vincent V. Serverski’s spy thrillers skyrocket to the top of the charts of Polish bestsellers. Before its adaptation, Blinded by The Lights was yet another hit on the Polish literary market.
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It’s not surprising that TV producers want to make a profit out of the popularity of these works. These stories are bound to succeed. At the same time, they attract the media and the readers of the original books. High-end TV series definitely benefit from the prestige attributed to literature in Poland. By reaching for literary hits, producers make sure that their work is recognisable and that it gains a sense of... nobility.
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But television itself also has a lot to offer. Above all, it excels in the field of marketing, and series provide recognition in the realm of mainstream pop culture. In the case of TV adaptations, the fame of the writers drives the promotion of a series, and thus, their successes are shared. Thanks to adaptations, authors can easily enlarge their future reading audience as well. Savvy publishers release new editions of their books with covers referring to series or film adaptations (see the reissues of Blinded by the Lights or Illegals), timed with their respective premieres.
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While Polish cinema, centered around the cult of the auteur, has never developed a tradition of creating crime stories, horror movies or action pictures, literature has not only explored these genres, but also attracted crowds of readers of particular narrative genres. Thanks to this, it sets the tone of in the world of TV series today.
This is not only the case in Poland. The demand for literature is also common among producers from other parts of Europe and from over the ocean. This is mainly due to a growing demand for original stories, which has been intensified by the ongoing struggle for the souls and wallets of subscribers. Traditional TV networks are competing with cable television; HBO constantly fights with Showtime, AMC, FX and Starz – while the harshest war takes place on the market of streaming platforms, where Hulu, Amazon and other players endeavour to overrule the almighty Netflix.
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Thus, series have increasingly become a hot topic, as they attract viewers to subscribe to streaming services. And given that the movie industry fails to provide enough interesting ideas for new work, producers turn to literary hits.
A premium TV experience
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This method is frequently used by producers fighting for elite viewers. It is no coincidence that HBO, a prestigious TV station, made two series based on popular novels: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, both directed by directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Last year, Showtime, its biggest rival, produced the congenial adaptation of Patrick Melrose, a novel by Edward St Aubyn.
AMC, one of the TV series tycoons of the last decade, also found its literary niche. For many years, this American cable TV has been making adaptations of John le Carré’s novels in cooperation with BBC America. After the success of The Night Manager, directed by Susanne Bier, they also produced The Little Drummer Girl, directed by Park Chan-wook. Today, they work on the next series based on another novel by the master of spy fiction – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
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While American television is interested in literary adaptations mostly due to the undeniable profit, literary TV series have another function on the Old Continent. They allow producers to cross borders of their countries and attract the global audience. Literary protagonists belong to international pop culture, which increases their chances for success on the film market.
Producers in England, such as BBC, Chanel4 and ITV, regularly transfer classic literature onto the TV screen. English television produces series showing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Hercule Poirot, played by John Malkovich and Jules Maigret, played by Rowan Atkinson. English broadcasters have already learned how to popularise and monetise the cultural heritage of their country. British series bring over one billion pounds of profit every year.
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The family silver
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Today, producers from other European countries are following in the footsteps of their English counterparts. Italians conquered the world with their excellent Gomorra, based on Roberto Saviano’s prose, and now, they are busying themselves with other adaptations of literary hits – such as My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and crime novels by Donna Leon.
In recent years, producers in Spain filmed Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones, as well as Cocaine Coast, based on a novel by Nacho Carretero. Russians produced a high-budget version of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. In 2018, Perfume, a German production based on a novel by Patruck Süskind, debuted on Netflix, and the French created a series called The Crimson Rivers, based on a novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé.
Compared to their Western competitors, Polish broadcasters seem to be somewhat conservative. They are looking for a safe investment rather than a chance at spectacular international success. Thus, Polish adaptations in the form of series are prepared for the local audience. Reaching for Polish books that have made it abroad, however, would be an opportunity to reach audiences beyond Polish borders. A TV version of the Booker Award-winning Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, or popular novels by Stanisław Lem, would certainly hold promise for success beyond Poland alone. But can Polish broadcasters afford such a venture today? Probably not, at least for now.
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Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, Jan 2019; translated by AJ, Mar 2019