early cinema

Bringing "Rip Van Winkle to Life," Part III

Image credit: Joseph Jefferson as Rip harryhoudinicircumstantialevidence.com

Just as there are as many interpretations of a text as there are readers, every new adaptation of a text weaves and builds a new story. Given technological constraints, the film version of "Rip Van Winkle" is necessarily short. As such, it’s important to consider the executive decisions made in paring out a new interpretation from the bones of Washington Irving’s 1819 tale. It’s also important to note that the film version was not an adaptation of Irving’s short story alone. The film was most likely created in part because of the popularity of the Jefferson stage play. The play was co-written by Joseph Jefferson and Dion Boucicault, the same Joseph Jefferson who starred in the film and worked with Laurie Dickson and American Mutoscope and Biograph Company to help to create the film.

Bringing "Rip Van Winkle" to Life, Part II

Joseph Jefferson as Young Rip Van Winkle Image Source: Wikipedia

In my last post, I began telling the story of how “Rip Van Winkle” came to be converted to film. The story is fraught with all of the workplace drama and power plays that one might expect from a nascent Hollywood industry. It’s a tale of stolen ideas, patents, and lawsuits, that led to an eventual motion picture industry monopoly. As I mentioned in my last post, most scholars credit Thomas Edison’s assistant, Laurie Dickson, with the creation of the Kinetoscope, an invention very similar to the Mutoscope on which audiences would have viewed Rip Van Winkle. The invention was essentially a peephole in a tall rectangular box with film running between two spools. Around the time of the invention’s 1892 patent, however, the relationship became rocky.

Bringing "Rip Van Winkle" to Life

Gif illustrating how a Phenakistoscope works Image credit: Wikipedia

In adapting a book for film, a number of executive decisions are made: scenes are cut, metaphors are made visual, and wardrobes are custom fit to match the era or character’s personality, all to the chagrin or pleasure of the audience. While the conversation around film adaptation often happens with full-length feature films, it should be remembered that this is not solely a conversation worth having after the twentieth century. Of course, plays and even early forms of cinema have at times made more drastic and noteworthy changes when adapting a text for the stage or screen. In the early days of cinema, these changes were especially pronounced. Largely due to technological constraints, cinema couldn’t always replicate a narrative anywhere near its entirety – though in some ways it could do more. One consequence, especially visible in the sample that I use here, the short film Rip Van Winkle, is that the resulting adaptation has to tell the story in five fleeting scenes. In this post, I’ll offer an informational and technical overview of how one of the first film adaptations of a work of literature came to be, and in my follow-up posts I’ll offer more details about the Rip Van Winkle film itself, with a comparative analysis between the story and film.

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