from I READ IT AT THE MOVIES
Death in Venice: The Adaptation
Directed & Written by Luchino Visconti
Now that we’ve attempted to analyze the target text and detailed much of its content, we can take a look at how the screenplay has been structured. Since there is no screenplay extant, I’ve isolated the master scenes in the film and summarized them as follows:
EXT. SHIP-DAWN-LONG SHOT
The film opens at dawn as a steam ship slowly journeys on its way somewhere, presumably to Venice. The ship sails into frame, then goes out of frame.
Aschenbach sits in a deck chair, reading, but seems both bored and pensive, if not sleepy.
The ship, called the Esmeralda, slowly comes into port as a tugboat pulls alongside.
SERIES OF SHOTS
Of Venice; of gondolas arriving.
BACK TO SCENE
Before Aschenbach disembarks, he sees and is confronted by an old man with red hair, who’s dressed in a white suit and leans on a cane and who clearly looks as if he’s made himself up in an attempt to look younger. The old man wishes him a good trip, but Aschenbach is obviously put off by both the man’s demeanor and his appearance.
INT. GONDOLA-SAME DAY
Once in the gondola, Aschenbach demands that the gondolier take him to the steamship landing, but, instead, the gondolier takes him to the Lido with the excuse he can’t take the vaporetto with that much luggage. The gondolier, who is dressed mainly in black and white, tends to mumble to himself in Italian. Unlike the gondolier in the novella, this gondolier does not have the same appearance, though his function is basically the same.
EXT. DOCK-SAME DAY
Aschenbach finally gets off. He walks somewhere while his luggage is transferred someplace; however, when he returns to pay the gondolier, he discovers that he’s disappeared. Aschenbach is told by another gondolier, that the one who transported him is not an honest gondolier and left when he saw the police.
INT. HOTEL-SAME DAY
At that point, Aschenbach checks into the hotel and there’s an allusion to the sirocco even though there is no evidence of a sirocco. The conciérge welcomes Aschenbach, and takes him to his room which is the best in the hotel. Aschenbach unpacks. As he looks out to sea from his balcony there’s a
FLASHBACK #1-THE PAST
Apparently ill, Aschenbach is lying down on a couch. A physician says he needs complete rest. Alfried, his friend, is there and after attending Aschenbach, goes to the piano and begins to play something by Mahler. Aschenbach looks at an hourglass and the sand running out…no more time left, he says.
This particular scene would, in effect, replace the scene at the cemetery in part I. Though it attempts to express the same anxiety over the fleetingness of life, it doesn’t replace the context.
Aschenbach is now dressed for dinner. He kisses a photo of his daughter and his wife and leaves for the dining room.
INT. LOBBY-SAME EVENING
In the lobby, he walks around rather aimlessly, then picks up a paper, and sits down; he looks around the room and sees Tadzio and his family, 1st. He then goes back to the paper; however, is attention goes back to Tadzio, 2nd. Dinner is then called, though he doesn’t immediately leave.
Aschenbach looks at Tadzio again, 3rd. Aschenbach still doesn’t leave, but tries to listen to the family’s conversation. Finally, the family retreats to dinner. At that point, Tadzio returns Achenbach’s look, 4th.
INT. DINING ROOM-SAME EVENING
Aschenbach sits by himself at dinner, but stares at Tadzio, 5th, who looks back, 6th. At that point, there’s a Voice Over about “beauty” as Aschenbach eats his dinner and stares at Tadzio again, 7th. After dinner, Aschenbach walks outside when the Voice Over talks about life vs. reality and that leads to a
FLASHBACK #2-THE PAST
Aschenbach talks about beauty again with Alfried and it’s stated that one cannot reach anything spiritual through the senses; that evil is a necessity, the food of genius and that there is always a conflict between art and ambiguity. There’s a
INT. HOTEL-NEXT DAY
There’s yet another allusion to the sirocco, but still no evidence of one. Aschenbach sees Tadzio’s family at breakfast, 8th. A letter is delivered to Aschenbach, though he doesn’t read it. Tadzio walks in and Aschenbach watches him go to his family, 9th. Tadzio looks at Aschenbach, 10th.
EXT. BEACH-SAME DAY
Aschenbach sits at his cabana; Tadzio is out in his bathing suit; Aschenbach looks at him, 11th; before Tadzio goes off with his friends.
Aschenbach eats a strawberry, then walks to the water’s edge and sits on a row boat; he watches Tadzio come out of the water, 12th
INT. HOTEL-ELEVATOR-LATER THAT AFTERNOON
Aschenbach gets into the elevator followed by Tadzio and other children; he stares and smiles, but feels very self-conscious, 13th. Tadzio walks out of the elevator, turns and stares back at Aschenbach, 14th
INT. HOTEL ROOM-SAME DAY
Aschenbach is in his room, struggling with something on his mind; he tries to read, but can’t seem to get something off his mind. There’s a
FLASHBACK #3-THE PAST
Another discussion with Alfried.
INT-HOTEL LOBBY-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach decides to leave Venice. He asks to have his luggage sent on, then asks for the bill.
INT. HOTEL DINING ROOM-SAME DAY
Eating alone at breakfast he’s told that there’s some kind of problem with the luggage; Aschenbach explodes by saying send the luggage on and he’ll follow after breakfast. Tadzio’s family arrives, but Aschenbach leaves passing Tadzio as he does, 15th; he stops and says something to the effect that life is brief, may God bless you, but no one hears him.
INT. GONDOLA-SAME DAY
Aschenbach rides in the gondola; he’s pensive.
Aschenbach discovers his luggage has been sent somewhere else and he refuses to leave without it; he takes that “error” as some kind of destiny to return to the hotel which he does and with a smile.
INT. HOTEL ROOM-SAME DAY
He returns to his room and, from his window, he sees Tadzio, 16th, on the beach; he smiles and waves.
EXT. BEACH-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach sits by himself. There’s a
FLASHBACK #4-THE PAST
Aschenbach is with his wife and daughter in the German/Austrian/Swiss countryside. He plays with his daughter, kisses his wife.
BACK TO SCENE
Tadzio is full of mud; his mother cleans him off; Aschenbach sees him, 17th; Aschenbach sits down to write something.
INT. HOTEL ROOM-DAWN-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach looks out to sea.
Sees Tadzio again, 18th who seems to tease him by walking in front of him. The action seems to take Aschenbach’s breath away.
Tadzio is playing the piano, 19th. Aschenbach addresses the concierge about the apparent health problems in Venice to which the concierge denies there’s a problem. There’s a
FLASHBACK #5-THE PAST
Aschenbach is in a brothel with the young Esmeralda; Aschenbach leaves.
EXT. HOTEL-SAME NIGHT
Aschenbach runs into the family again on a walk and sees Tadzio, 20th; he sits down and at that point says to himself, “I love you.”
INT. CHURCH-NEXT DAY
Tadzio and Aschenbach in church, 21st; Tadzio prays with family.
EXT. SAN MARCOS SQUARE-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach sees them again, 22nd, and, in a continuous scene, follows them through Venice; the smell is intolerable.
INT. HOTEL-THAT EVENING
There’s a singing troupe performing. He sees Tadzio again, 23rd; but this time there’s a lot of eye contact between them; the lead singer, red hair, rotten teeth, tells Aschenbach there’s no reason to fear sickness and asks for money. This red hair character is the same as the one in the novella.
EXT. SAN MARCOS SQUARE-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach is walking alone.
INT. BANK-SAME DAY
He gets some cash and asks a clerk there why Venice is being disinfected; initially he answers it’s only precautionary, but then he goes into a diatribe about the Asiatic cholera and how it’s spread and about all the dead in Venice and advises Aschenbach to leave immediately.
Aschenbach imagines telling Tadzio’s mother to leave immediately and touches Tadzio’s head, 24th.
BACK TO SCENE
Aschenbach thanks the clerk for telling him and leaves.
INT. HOTEL ROOM
Aschenbach in his room, thinking again. There’s a
FLASHBACK #6-THE PAST
Death of his daughter. Grief.
INT. BARBER SHOP-NEXT DAY
Aschenbach is now at the barber’s who dyes his hair (which isn’t grey to begin with; after all, he’s only 50) and his moustache, blushes his lips and cheeks, whitens his face, and puts a flower in his lapel. Not only does he now look like the fop on board the Esmeralda, but he looks less youthful and more funereal.
EXT. VENICE STREETS-DAY
Aschenbach is in the city and sees Tadzio and his family, 25th; he follows them again, and they spot each other again, 26th; Aschenbach, infected with the disease, begins to weaken, falls to the ground, laughs, cries. There’s a
FLASHBACK #7-THE PAST
We see Aschenbach in concert, but being booed. An argument with Alfried ensues in his dressing room. Alfried laughs. Aschenbach’s wife tries to get people away from him.
INT. HOTEL ROOM-NIGHT
Aschenbach awakes in a cold sweat, screaming; in bed he hears Alfried’s voice in a Voice Over—man and artist are one, touched the bottom together then one knows, no impurity more impure than old age, then we see the face of Tadzio, 27th take up the entire frame.
INT. LOBBY-NEXT DAY
Tadzio’s family is ready to leave Venice after lunch; curiously, Aschenbach still wears the makeup from the day before.
EXT. BEACH-MID MORNING
The beach is practically empty. Aschenbach walks out and sits down; he watches a skirmish between Tadzio and another boy, 28th. It’s apparent that Aschenbach is very ill and as he watches the two boys fight, the hair dye runs down his cheek. Tadzio finishes with the boy and walks out to sea, he turns and looks at Aschenbach, 29th; who’s in his death throes; Tadzio turns back to the sun and makes some gesture towards the sun and as Aschenbach tries to get up and reach for Tadzio, 30th, he slumps back in his chair and dies. The penultimate shot is of Tadzio standing in the ocean with a camera just to the right of the frame.
Final shot is of others discovering Aschenbach is dead and carrying him off.
Needless to say, the film plot is much different than the novella in that, among other things, Aschenbach is not a writer, but a musician who, at what appears to be a crossroads in his life (though we don’t know why it’s a crossroads), comes to Venice for a holiday. We know from the novella that Aschenbach has had a great deal of difficulty in making a decision as to where to go and his decision is not predicated on any apparent illness or stress. Nor is it predicated on a concern for his family about which we know nothing. It is predicated on escaping from the tedium of the mundane.
In Campbellian terms, we could look at this stage as Aschenbach’s separation from his ordinary way of life and the trip to Venice would be his initiation. Allegedly, Mann’s own interests and experiences clearly inspired and shaped the novella since, in 1911, Mann took a Venetian holiday and, like Aschenbach, was attracted to, but never approached, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy. We also know that in his letters and essays the allusion to homosexuality is apparent even though Mann was a “family man.” “By 1918, Thomas had fathered five children—Heinrich [his brother], only one. And yet the book suggests he was profoundly unmarried, thrilled by the prospect of soldiers finding love among themselves, away from their wives and families. In a book filled with allusions to Germany’s great writers—himself emphatically included as a symptomatic product of the culture—Thomas’s final troubadour is Hans Blüher, author of the Role of Eroticism in Male Society. This detail gives special poignancy to Heinrich’s unmailed letter which he reveals that he understands all to well Thomas’s ‘ethos’ (the allusion to ‘ethos’ recalls the 1903 debates over passion” (Wysling, xiv). Mann attempted to separate the institution of marriage from his own homoerotic desires, the latter of which, he had written, has no blessing in it “save that of beauty and that is the blessing of death.” At any rate, those desires are instrumental to the integrity of the novella and in Visconti’s adaptation of it.
Subsequent to arriving at the Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach’s attention becomes focused on the angelic beauty of the 14 year-old Polish boy, Tadzio. For some reason, Aschenbach is disturbed by his feelings toward the boy though there is no previous scene that would warrant that attraction. In other words, we don’t have any indication that Aschenbach has latent or non-latent homosexual feelings.
But after a few days, Aschenbach decides to leave Venice, presumably because his desire for Tadzio is becoming obsessive, but, by mistake, his luggage is sent to Como and he returns to the hotel under the pretext that he can’t leave without his baggage. For some reason, this serendipitous accident begins a kind of initiation phase that will eventuate in his death. By this time he’s seen or been seen by Tadzio about 15 times.
Subsequent to his return, Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio is becoming even stronger, yet we still have no motive for it. In the novella, there are numerous allusions to homoerotic notions. St. Sebastian, for example, but in the film, we don’t see them.
Coincidentally, we discover that several cases of cholera have appeared, but have been hushed up by the authorities in order not to disturb the tourist business; however, Aschenbach believes there’s something wrong, a belief that’s confirmed by an agent who advises him to leave immediately. But by then, Aschenbach is in love with Tadzio and leaving is not an option. He becomes increasingly concerned with his own appearance and, at that point, we get the introduction of the barber who in an attempt to make him look younger not only makes him appear more funereal than alive, but, by so doing, makes Aschenbach an analogue to the fop Aschenbach met on the boat.
Eventually, Aschenbach comes down with cholera which is exacerbated by his following of Tadzio and his family through the streets of Venice. In the end, he collapses in a lounge chair on the beach with the vision of the beautiful boy pointing to a far-away place on the horizon.
We have seen how Mann structured the target text and we’ve seen how Visconti restructured it the target text. Though the time factor has altered, it is not a very significant alteration since the novella, by virtue of being a novella, is short itself and primarily focuses on Aschenbach’s psychological state; however, Visconti does make two major changes: Aschenbach is a composer, not a writer, and he incorporates flashbacks that are used to create situations that weren’t in the novella. Some of the flashbacks with Alfried are a kind of contextual substitution for some of the narrative in the novella, but the flashbacks of Esmeralda and of his family are entirely fabricated. Given the complexity of the novella, Visconti had to make a wholesale restructuring of the story by eliminating the prelude to the trip (Sections I & II) and begin with the voyage itself. By dispatching the back-story, Visconti hooked into the mainline of the narrative itself which, of course, was the journey.
The reason Visconti apparently abandoned the writer for the musician was, at least for Visconti, that a musician was more “representable” in a film since it’s possible to have his music as a background (Tonetti, 143). In addition, Mann himself was influenced by Mahler and that influence apparently was enough for Visconti to use Mahler’s music. But the question one must ask is this: Does it work as effectively with a composer? In other words, couldn’t Visconti have used Aschenbach as a writer and still have used Mahler’s music as a score? And if one knows that the music he allegedly has composed is not Aschenbach’s, but Mahler’s, how does that influence the adaptation? I suggest that it would have been negligible. The change from writer to musician didn’t necessarily mean that the latter would suffer more or obsess more than a writer. That’s obvious. As a matter of fact, in terms of Aschenbach’s “love affair” with Tadzio, the result would have been more effective visually to have kept him a writer since the obsession would have affected his writing anywhere he may have been in Venice and not just at the piano. In terms of dramatic action, it would certainly be easier to see a writer rip up paper, throw pens across the room, tear up notebooks than, say, smash a piano. But Heinrich Mann’s letter on the novella written in March, 1913, states unequivocally, “This man [Aschenbach] has tossed away what had seemed to him most desirable: a productive old age, the artistry of life’s final phase, wisdom, completion. He will no longer write; he will not accede to the watchtower of venerability, in which a body of work and a life first become truly encompassing—and it which it is cold” (Wysling, 270-271). Somehow, the alteration of Aschenbach’s character from writer to musician tends to undermine the dramatic possibilities inherent in the former.
Likewise, as we’ve seen, the flashbacks Visconti uses also take a certain amount of “artistic liberty” and include scenes that were not found in the novella; specifically, the argumentative scenes with Alfried over the nature of art and the scene with the young prostitute, Esmeralda. The flashbacks with Alfried are somewhat contrived in that they are only meant to be vehicles for these obtuse arguments on the nature of art. If they are meant to replace the narrative in the novella, they don’t work very well and the angst that Aschenbach had could just as easily been conveyed in voice over.
As for Esmeralda, (unmentioned in the novella) is that her namesake is, as we know, Quasimodo’s love in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it’s also the name of the ship that brings Aschenbach to Venice. Given the fact that Hugo (and not Disney) kills Esmeralda, one could assume that Aschenbach is destined for death from the outset of his voyage. Likewise, just as Quasimodo’s love is never consummated with Esmeralda, so too is Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio never consummated. The relationship between Esmeralda and Tadzio is clear when he hears “Für Elise" a Bagatelle in A minor (which some say wasn’t really written for Elise, but for Therese von Brunswick, the woman Beethoven fell in love with, and among whose possessions the score was eventually discovered). Being played by Tadzio in the hall of the hotel and has a flashback with Esmeralda who plays the same piece. Though this isn’t the place to discuss Beethoven’s apparent sexual appetites and how those might fit in with Aschenbach/Mann’s, Tonetti suggests that “to balance the sinfulness of this association, Visconti provides another flashback in which a paternal attraction on Aschenbach’s side is suggested by the similarity between Tadzio and the musician’s little daughter” (Tonetti, 145). That ambivalence in Aschenbach’s character is clearly Mann’s ambivalence as well. Not coincidentally, as Heinrich Mann writes in the same March letter, “…a soul has embarked upon its adventure, and somewhere the adventure erupts in the exterior world, as if called upon to do so by the individual’s fate, and the one enfolds itself into the other” (Wysling, 270).
Even though the flashbacks are “inserted” rather than “adapted,” we need to see how they are used and how they help in a more complete understanding of the character.
There are approximately 7 flashback scenes which include the following:
- The family scenes with Aschenbach in the Alps, 1x
- The death of his daughter, 1x
- The encounter with the young prostitute, 1x
- The arguments with Alfried, 4x
How, then, do these scenes contribute to Aschenbach’s character? And are they necessary given what we understand about the novella? According to Visconti, the flashbacks concerning Alfried are characterized as “ideological” and “provide the metaphorical dimension of the passionate involvement of Aschenbach.”(Tonetti, 144) The major argument can be distilled into something very simple: The ambiguity of the artistic creation which Aschenbach refuses to acknowledge resides in Eros and is antithetical to Logos, the power of reason (Tonetti, 144). But is all that really necessary in the adaptation?
We’ve already seen how Mann has written about Aschenbach in very precise terms and what he has written is a direct reflection about who he is. To that extent, the film doesn’t alter much in terms of Aschenbach’s character: his fastidiousness, his rigor, his psychological baggage etc. all of which Bogarde presents quite brilliantly on whose shoulders the entire film rests, since Bjorn Andresen (Tadzio) is never heard saying a word, and the supporting characters make very brief appearances. Andresen’s physical features exactly fit Mann’s description of Tadzio: an adolescent of stunning beauty, whose androgynous features betray tender frailty. "Imperfect" and "bluish" teeth are the only flaw which Mann attributes to Tadzio and which is faithfully reproduced on the screen, along with the youngster’s stooping gait. The fight he loses at the end of the film when Jasciu, the robust older boy, almost suffocates him in the sand suggests that Eros and Beauty are frail and probably short-lived. (Tonetti, 150-151).
The relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio, unilateral as it may be, if, as Tonetti claims, more "vivid" on the screen, is also overly done. In the course of a 130 minute film, there is “eye contact” between them no fewer than 30 times by my count. That would translate to an eye-to-eye meeting about every 4+ minutes. It’s also true that Tadzio’s glances are highly suggestive as is his provocation in front of Aschenbach on the beach. Obviously, Tadzio’s incredible beauty, his presence, his long glances, his awareness. of being followed through the sickly streets of Venice are much more sensual in the film than in the novella since that emphatic visualization and come hither close-ups cannot be duplicated in narrative (Tonetti, 145).
But we also see that, in Goldmanian terms, Visconti has, in fact, “trimmed the sails” of the novella. That is, by beginning the film on board the Esmeralda, he’s eliminated sections I and II of the novella and by virtue of that elimination, begun Aschenbach’s journey in media res. The entire storyline of the adaptation essentially takes place in Venice and the majority of that in or near the hotel. The margins of the story have been condensed leaving little room for extra borders except for an occasional scene in the Venetian streets.
The entire dream sequence that, in the novella, takes approximately 4 pages, is completely excised even though Visconti actually filmed the episode in a Monaco night club; however, he “decided not to include it in the film but to substitute instead a flashback concerning a musical fiasco that Aschenbach experienced, after which Alfried, the alleged alter-ego, poured salt in the wound by dismantling Aschenbach’s rigorous and purist conception of art.” (Tonetti, 146-147). The fundamental flaw in that “exchange” is that the surreality of the dream isn’t the same as the flawed argument between Alfried and Aschenbach. The surreality of the dream would have been difficult to incorporate into the film given the tenor of the tale Visconti was telling and that directorial decision to render an adaptation of one tone or another is something beyond the realm of the writer.
Just as Claude Chabrol ignored the sexually comical carriage scene between Emma Bovary and her lover, Léon, in Madame Bovary or Karel Reisz ignored the famous Chapter 13 in Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman since inclusion of either would have disrupted the “dramatic” tension of the piece as they created it, so too did Visconti eliminate the dream scene as something that would have disrupted the dramatic tension of the piece as he envisioned it. In the former examples, inclusion would have thrown a comedic situation into what had heretofore been a dramatic one and that inclusion would, apparently, undermined the legitimacy of the film. Curious, since both Flaubert and Fowles wrote texts that were fraught with comedic moments; however, those are difficult choices that are usually left out of the hands of the writer in the adaptation process.
It would appear that because of, or in spite of, time limitations, one must choose a “direction” in which the story will be told. That is, will the story be told comedically, dramatically, intellectually, etc? It would appear that once that selection has been made, the choice becomes one of the most motivating, if not the most motivating, features in the adaptation process. To veer from that direction could, in fact, undermine the tenor of the film. Apparently, for Visconti, the inclusion of the dream scene would have undermined the development of the story as Visconti envisioned it and yet it does draw attention to the fact that in the adaptation process not only are key descriptive elements often eliminated, but so too may be key psychological ones.
What every writer who, intent on adapting a work of fiction or drama, to the screen must keep in mind is that there is no “final draft” since whatever is written will ultimately be altered. Certainly, we can make a case that regardless of what Visconti eliminated from the novella and arbitrarily added, he was keenly aware that the film paid allegiance, if not reverence, to the novella.
Egri, Lagos. Art of Dramatic Writing. New York: Touchstone, 1972.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice, Tonio Kröger & Other Writings. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1999.
Tonetti, Claretta Micheletti. Luchino Visconti. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
Wysling, Hans, editor. Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-1949. Translated by Don Reneau. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
“Suddenly Last Summer: St. Sebastian.” Department of Theatre and Drama. Indiana University.