Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Herr Wozzeck Muses: Symbolism through Adaptation

Warning: This musing will contain spoilers for Black Swan. Viewer discretion is advised.

There's an interesting adaptation dilemma that comes up whenever someone adapts Swan Lake to any medium other than ballet. It's not a fact known by the general movie-going public, but it's still pretty vital to some things to think about whenever adapting it.

And that, is this: Swan Lake has multiple endings.

Tchaikovsky was apparently a little indecisive about how he wanted to end Swan Lake. The plot moves along fine and dandily throughout the first three acts, but at the end, there's no specific indication on how it ends. And so, productions get to pick and choose from one of several endings. One of the endings is a happy ending where Rothbart is defeated and the swan queen and her prince are married forever. Yes, the original ballet can have a happy ending, but this ending rarely sees any performances outside of Russia.

What are much more common are the unhappy endings: the most often used ending is one where both the swan and the prince kill themselves at the end, thus breaking Rothbart's spell and freeing all the other swans. It's more bittersweet than anything, but hey. From there, the unhappy endings range from the swan queen being trapped in swan form forever because of the prince's unwitting betrayal of her to Rothbart killing the prince and leaving the swan queen to mourn.

It leaves a very interesting open-ended question to anyone who adapts it, then: which ending do you use?

It's a question I'm sure Darren Aronofsky and his screenwriters poised to themselves when they began conceiving Black Swan. It's definitely not the easiest one to answer, as anything can be done.

Hence, why I think one of the best parts of Black Swan is the symmetry of the ending of the production and the ending of the ballet.

It's interesting that the production of Swan Lake danced in Black Swan ends with the queen killing herself: it's never explicitly mentioned if the prince does so too, but it's implied that's not the case, seeing as how there was only one mattress and she didn't have to get off of the mattress immediately. On one level, it works as an ending to Swan Lake that could be used in a production.

But on another level, it completes the story arc of Natalie Portman's character in a fairly symbolic way within the ballet. By this time, she's completely lost her mind, and laying on the mattress after her character has just killed herself, she's dying from a wound in her stomach inflicted by a shard of glass. It's a strange sort of symbolic ending: it's the best performance she's ever given, and it's one where the character and the performer are almost indistinguisheable. However, for Nina Sayers, that doesn't end so well, as she's become so lost in the pressure of having to be the swan queen that she's become the swan queen, and so dies with her character.

It illustrates one of the biggest strengths of Black Swan; it uses the fact that it's a quasi-adaptation of Tchaikovsky's ballet to its symbolic benefit rather than just as a story to tack on to the movie for no reason. It's one of the more difficult things to think about when adapting a movie, but I think Aronofsky made a great choice in terms of endings when it came to this movie. And on a symbolic level, it really helps the movie out enormously.

This is Herr Wozzeck Muses. I'll see you guys next time.

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