Power and Adaptation: Film Adaptations from Novels in 1950s Indonesia

Originally published on 28 April 2017 at Literacy, Literature, and Education (Universitas Haluoleo, Kendari)

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The adaptation of novels into films has become an important part of Indonesian cinema, with Woodrich (2015) terming the period since 2000 the “Second Golden Age” of adaptation.[i] Of the ten most viewed Indonesian films released between 2000 and 2016, four have been adapted from novels (“10 Film Indonesia peringkat teratas…”).[ii] Novels advertise that they will be adapted to the silver screen. Moviegoers write extensively about adaptations and how these films meet (or, more commonly, do not meet) their expectations. Indonesian academics have begun to write extensively about adaptation and its implications as a form of reception (Afri, Nurizzati, and Nasution, 2014), as textual transformation (Isnaniah, 2015), or even as a theory (Eneste, 1991).

However, this was not always the case. Although the practice of adaptation in the Indonesian archipelago can be traced to 1927 (Woodrich, forthcoming), it remained relatively uncommon until the 1970s. Out of the 660 films listed by J.B. Kristanto’s Katalog Film Indonesia (‘Indonesian Film Catalog’) as having been produced before 1970 (Kristanto, 2007), less than 5% (28 films) can be identified as having been based on novels. Public and academic discourse on the practice from this period is also scarce, be it in the popular media (newspapers, magazines) or in academic media (journals, books).

In an attempt to explain this lack of production and recognition for film adaptations, this article explores film adaptation as it was practiced in 1950s Indonesia, a time of rapid social and political change as well as impressive rates of film production—more than 360 films produced in ten years, including 65 productions in 1955 alone (Kristanto, 2007). The exploration will follow a theoretical framework of capital and power derived from Pierre Bourdieu’s categorization of capital; as such, it will focus on how adaptations were influenced by and subject to the exercise of economic, cultural, social, and symbolic power. Data collection for this article was conducted using library research, with a particular focus on contemporary newspapers and magazines. Data was analyzed using a qualitative approach.

In the following section, this article will expand upon the connection between capital and power, using a Bourdieusian perspective. It will then provide a basic overview of the practice of film adaptation in colonial Indonesia, as required to understand better the influence of shifting capital and power orientations in independent Indonesia. Afterwards, the practice of adaptation in 1950s Indonesia will be mapped and analyzed, with a particular focus on three aspects of adaptation: the films, their marketing, and their critical reception. From this analysis, conclusions will be drawn in the final section.

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Capital and Power

The conceptual framework for this article is based on Pierre Bourdieu’s expansive theory that navigates between subjectivism and objectivism to explain a social reality that is constructed by individuals and collectives in a manner that is subject to structural constraints from structures that are themselves socially structured (Bourdieu, 1990a: 131). Although his theory involves four key interwoven concepts—agents (“practical operator[s] of constructions of the real” [Bourdieu, 1995: 180]) field (“a series of institutions, [etc.] which constitutes an objective hierarchy, and which produce and authorize certain discourses and activities … [but] also constituted by, or out of, the conflict which is involved when groups or individuals attempt to determine what constitutes capital within that field and how that capital is to be distributed” [Webb, Schirato, and Danaher, 2002: x–xi]), capital (discussed below), and habitus (“the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations… [which produces] practices” [Bourdieu, 1977: 78])—this article will focus on one, capital, and its implications for power.

Capital is identified here as “all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation'” (Webb, Schirato, and Danaher, 2002: 22). Bourdieu recognizes four types of capital: economic (physical assets held by an agent that can take a variety of forms), cultural (“culturally authorized tastes, consumption patterns, attributes, skills and awards” [Webb, Schirato, and Danaher, 2002: x]), social (“the aggregate of the actual or potential resources … linked to possession of a durable network of … relationships [Bourdieu, 1986: 51]), and symbolic (a “degree of accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honor … founded on a dialectic of knowledge … and recognition [Johnson, 2002: 7]”). They exist in all fields, but are weighted differently in different fields and different poles of the fields.

These types of capital are not mutually exclusive, with economic capital being gained at the expense of cultural capital (for example). Agents can gain more than one type of capital through the same act, with different worth attributed to the types of capital gained. In releasing a film adaptation, for instance, filmmakers gain not only financial capital through ticket sales, merchandising, and other involved economic efforts. Filmmakers may also gain social capital through the creation of networks, cultural capital through their association with the novel, and symbolic capital through the acquisition of popular recognition.

Capital of one type may be converted into capital of another type, as judged appropriate by the agent and informed by the habitus (Bourdieu, 2002: 99). The acquisition of rights to adapt a specific novel to film, for example, represents a conversion of economic capital (the money paid for adaptation rights) into an opportunity to access the cultural and symbolic capital of the novel and its audience. Conversely, the symbolic capital (the reputation) earned from directing a successful film may be transformed into economic capital (greater funding).

Different types of capital may also can be transformed into power. Instead of focusing on symbolic power as the practiced transmutation of different forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1990b: 170), this article divides power into four categories: economic, cultural, social, and symbolic. All of these forms of power are linked to the capital behind them, with economic power involving the use of economic capital to influence others, cultural power involving the use of cultural capital, and so on. As such, rather than view all forms of capital leading to symbolic power, this article holds that different forms of capital (or combinations thereof) may lead to different types of power.

These types of power are not monolithic or mutually exclusive. They may be exerted at the same time, or even in the same action. When filmmakers market films as being adapted from specific novels and/or the works of particular writers, several forms of power are exercised simultaneously. Symbolic power is realized by foregrounding the works/authors’ existing fame, thus borrowing that fame in an attempt to transform it into (mostly economic) capital. Social power is exerted by implying of a special connection between filmmakers and authors, one that offers a unique perspective of the novels adapted; this may be particularly true when novelists have a direct role in the production process. Cultural power is exerted by associating film, popularly understood as a form of popular media, with a medium that has a more consecrated literary heritage; films are consequently assumed to share this heritage, even when the novels adapted are not, in and of themselves, consecrated.

Although possessing capital is a prerequisite to exerting power, with greater capital offering greater capacity or potential to exert power, capital is not the only factor in determining power.  Power must be recognized, for the ability to exert power “is defined in and through a given relation between those who exercise power and those who submit to it” (Bourdieu, 1990b: 170). The identity of “those who exercise power” and “those who submit to [power]” is not fixed or static, but dynamic. Filmmakers, for example, are recognized as creative professionals and thus have the capacity to exercise symbolic power over audiences by determining what they see and how they see it. At the same time, however, filmmakers are subject to these audiences’ power, recognizing themselves as being limited—through legislation, cultural values, societal situations, etc—in what they may present and how it may be presented.

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Adaptations of Novels in the Indonesian Archipelago before 1950

Film adaptations of novels in the Indonesian Archipelago did not begin in the 1950s. As we have shown elsewhere (Woodrich, forthcoming), the adaptation of novels was relatively common in colonial Indonesia. Eleven of the 101 feature films produced in the Indonesian archipelago between 1926 and 1942 (Biran, 2009a: 379–386), or 10.8 percent of all domestic feature films from this period, were adaptations of novels. The earliest of these adaptations was Eulis Atjih (1927), based on a Sundanese-language novel by Joehana (real name: Ahmad Bassakh). The other film adaptations of novels from this period are Setangan Berloemoer Darah (‘A Blood-Caked Glove’, 1928), Si Tjonat (‘Tjonat’, 1929), Njai Dasima (‘Mistress Dasima’, 1929), Melati van Agam (‘Jasmine of Agam’, 1930), Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang (‘The Rose of Tjikembang’, 1931), Karnadi Anemer Bangkong (‘Karnadi the Frog Contractor’, 1931),[iii] Njai Dasima (‘Mistress Dasima’, 1932), Melati van Agam (‘Jasmine of Agam’, 1940), Dasima (1941), and Siti Noerbaja (1941).

The source novels for these films varied in terms of language—some were written in Sundanese, some were in vernacular Malay, and some were in the state-sponsored Court Malay. Likewise, they came from authors of varied cultural backgrounds, including Eurasians, Chinese, and indigenous authors. However, these eleven films shared three characteristics that are essential to understanding both them and subsequent adaptations.

First, these films were all adapted from novels that were popular successes. Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang, for instance, was adapted from a novel of the same name that had sold more than 1,000 copies during its first print run (Kwee, 1930: IV), while both Melati van Agam films were based on a novel of the same name that had reached its sixth printing by 1941 (“Bioscoop romans advertisement”). Siti Noerbaja, meanwhile, was based on a novel of the same name that was the most popular book at Balai Pustaka lending libraries in the the 1920s (Foulcher, 2002: 88). As such, it can be concluded that domestic filmmakers had, as early as the 1930s, found a correlation between a story’s popularity with readers (i.e. existing audiences) and a film’s potential marketability.

Second, almost all of these films were adapted from novels subsequently branded “popular literature”. Setangan Berloemoer Darah and Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang, being part of the corpus of Sino-Malay literature, were described as “wild readings” by the colonial government and later excluded from the canon of Indonesian literature; the same applies to other vernacular Malay works such as Melati van Agam (Soemardjo, 1989: 100). Likewise, the Sundanese-language novels Eulis Atjih and Roesia nu Goreng Patut (the latter being the basis for Karnadi Anemer Bangkong) have been excluded from the canon of modern Sundanese literature owing to their use of non-formal language (Kartini et al., 1979: 62). The sole exception is Sitti Nurbaya, which has been considered one of the three most important literary works of the Balai Pustaka period (Teeuw, 1980: 95).[iv] However, this novel’s consecration appears to have had little impact on the decision to adapt it to film.

Third, and especially important in the face of widespread illiteracy in the archipelago, all of these stories had previously been adapted to stage form. Some, such as Njai Dasima, had been popular in traditional theatrical formats such as lenong, a type of Betawi stage drama. Others, such as Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang and Siti Noerbaja, had found popular acclaim with more “modern” (read: Europeanized) troupes; the former had been written for the Dhalia Opera in 1927 and performed by dozens of troupes since then (Kwee, 2002: 298–299), while the latter had been adapted by the Padangsche Opera as early as 1923 (Cohen, 2003: 215). Through such theatrical adaptations, these novels had a greater opportunity to reach illiterate audiences; consequently, these illiterate audiences could be expected to have an interest in a film adaptation of the story.

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Adaptation on the Sidelines

Film Productions

A survey of existing literature on film adaptations of novels in Indonesia (Woodrich, 2015) identifies only six films as being made based on novels between 1950 and 1959, or 1.6% of the films produced in this period. These films were Ditepi Bengawan Solo (‘By the Banks of the Solo River’, 1951), adapted from the novel Dipinggir Bengawan Solo by Muhammad Dimyati; Solo Diwaktu Malam (‘Solo at Night’, 1952), from the novel and stage play of the same name by Kamajaya; Pulang (‘Homecoming’, 1952), from the novel of the same name by Toha Mochtar; Sukreni, Gadis Bali (‘Sukreni, Balinese Maiden’, 1955), from the novel of the same name by A.A. Pandji Tisna; Arni (1955), from the novel of the same name by Nursiah Dahlan; and Saodah (1956), inspired by G. Francis’ story Tjerita Njai Dasima (‘The Story of Mistress Dasima’, 1896).[v]

The exercise of power is evident in the selection of novels for adaptation. Perhaps most striking, given the prominence of works written in vernacular Malay and works written by ethnic Chinese authors in the colonial period, is these works’ near-complete absence in adaptations made after Indonesian independence—even among filmmakers who were themselves of ethnic Chinese. As a result of nativist nation-building following Indonesia’s independence, emphasis on an Indonesian identity was prominent in mainstream discourse, and elements considered non-Indonesian—often equated with an indigenous identity[vi]—or counter-revolutionary were met with increasing hostility. Eventually, by the end of the 1950s, works of vernacular Malay were few and far between, while ethnic Chinese writers were increasingly sidelined (Benitez, 2004: 15–16, 82–83).

This symbolic and cultural power, so prominent in national discourse, also worked on filmmakers, limiting their opportunity to select specific novels for adaptation. Aside from Tjerita Njai Dasima, works adapted to film were those written in the Indonesian language by indigenous authors. However, not all such novels were created equal.

Of the novels adapted, four have not been considered part of the Indonesian canon. Teeuw (1980), for instance, completely ignores the oeuvre of Kamajaya, gives only brief mention of Nursiah Dahlan, and dismisses Muhammad Dimyati’s work as semi-literary and lacking the “liveliness” of language enjoyed by Sumatran writers. He gives the adapted novel, Dipinggir Bengawan Solo (1950), no attention at all. Meanwhile, the story of Njai Dasima, owing in part to its use of vernacular Malay, has been classified as pre-Indonesian literature. Aside from Tjerita Njai Dasima, which has most recently been republished as a single volume with S.M. Ardan’s 1965 retelling of the story, none of these stories remain in publication today.

Only two of the works adapted have been considered part of the Indonesian literary canon. Toha Mochtar’s Pulang (1952) has been described as “remarkable for the vision which it displays” (Teeuw, 1980: 247), and remains in publication through Pustaka Jaya. Meanwhile, A.A. Pandji Tisna’s Sukreni Gadis Bali, which received similar attention from Teeuw (1980) and remains widely available in Indonesian, has also been translated into English by George Quinn; this translation was published in 2013 as The Rape of Sukreni by the Lontar Foundation, known for its focus on works from the Indonesian literary canon.

From the above, it is clear that filmmakers in 1950s Indonesia prioritized adapting films from works of popular literature; this reflects the tendency found in other eras and other countries. Two reasons, both applicable here, are generally put forth to explain why this occurs. First, works of popular literature are expected to have a broader existing audience base than works of the literary canon, and as such offers the opportunity for greater financial return (Saputra, 2009). Filmmakers thus exercise the symbolic power granted to them, as part of their positions as filmmakers, to choose novels that offer the greatest opportunity for profit. Once an appropriate novel has been selected, financial power can be exercised (i.e. financial capital can be expended) to acquire adaptation rights.

Second, filmmakers also attempt to reach the broadest possible audience by choosing novels that follow a linear pattern, with each narrative event leading readers (and, for the film adaptation, viewers) to the next narrative event. Works with more complicated narrative patterns or challenging themes (such as canonical works) are transformed by filmmakers, again using their recognized authority—their symbolic power—as filmmakers, so the adapted stories can be more easily followed by the average audience member. This is what Axelrod (1996) refers to as “the commodification of form in the adaptation of fictional texts”: texts (novels) become simplified so they may be better marketed as commodities.

Contemporary sources are unclear about specifically why works considered literary were rarely adapted in 1950s. However, several interpretations are possible. Profit-oriented filmmakers may have questioned the financial viability of adapting canonic works of literature, which frequently sold poorly, and thus exercised their financial and symbolic power to receive adaptation rights instead. They may also have found the themes too complex to translate adequately into film. It is also possible that writers themselves may have been—as discussed below—dismissive of film’s ability to meet the artistic standards of literature, and thus exercised their power to block adaptations of their novels. A minority of writers do seem to have had an interest in seeing film adaptations of their novels, as indicated by Pandji Tisna being credited as directing the film version of his novel for Bali Film.

Advertisement for “Solo di Waktu Malam” (1952) produced by Borobudur Film [Image scanned by Christopher Woodrich]


Advertisements for film adaptations from this period do not recognize the films being advertised as adaptations. They do not directly refer to these films as adaptations, nor do they make reference to the works being adapted, either by title or by reference to the author. Rather, advertisements follow general tendencies in this period’s film advertising, including in focusing on the films’ stars in both texts and images as well as presenting potential audiences with summaries of the films’ plots.

Two examples can be seen above. In advertising material for Solo Diwaktu Malam (1952), no mention was made of Kamajaya, the novel’s author; the advertisement instead focused on the film having “12 silver-screen stars in one film” and named four of these stars (Figure 1). Likewise, advertising material for Di Tepi Bengawan Solo (1951), made no mention of the author, instead naming five of the film’s stars and showing them in varied locations (prison, a room filled with flowers, and along the banks of the Solo River) and different costumes (Figure 2).

This general lack of emphasis on films’ status as adaptations can be attributed to the low literacy rate in Indonesia and, consequently, the written works’ limited market penetration. In the 1950s, after more than five decades of modern schooling, literacy rates in Indonesia remained extremely low; a report by UNESCO (1957: 39) estimated that 80 to 85 percent of the country’s adult population was illiterate. Even as the government exercised its power to promote literacy through a compulsory education program (Ministry of Education, 1951: n.p.) and adult education (Silitonga, Soekardi, and Tambunan, 1952: 22),[vii] the fact remained that the vast majority of the population could not be expected to have read the novels being adapted to film. This held particularly true for the lower-class audiences who made up the audience of most Indonesian productions; such viewers lacked the capital (both economic and social) necessary to access education and popular literature.

It would appear, based on the evidence presented above, that filmmakers recognized this situation and presented films in a manner that offered them the greatest economic return. Rather than emphasize the story upon which the films were based, they instead used marketing similar to that of films that were not adaptations. Film flyers offered a wide variety of pictures and film stills, with a particular emphasis (both visual and written) on their stars. Meanwhile, to address potential audiences’—or, rather, educated potential audiences’,— lack of familiarity with the story, they offered synopses of the films. Studios, unable to exercise direct power to draw audiences, instead relied on their economic capital to design and print the advertisements as well as the social and symbolic capital of their stars and cultural capital of tried and true marketing techniques.

This is not to say that, had the market for popular novels been greater, filmmakers would not have included mentions of the books adapted. Rosidi (1955b: 10) notes that, in the case of Rindu Damai (‘Longing for Peace’, 1955), banner advertisements proudly proclaimed Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s role in writing the film, despite the author having only written the treatment upon which the film was made. The popularity of the author, already recognized domestically as a master of his craft, offered this film’s makers the opportunity to exercise cultural power and implicitly argue that their film was better than other productions. Through the association of their films to particular authors or works, filmmakers could exert symbolic power to promote their own interests.

A similar exercise of power can be seen in Usmar Ismail’s promotion of his 1962 film Anak Perawan di Sarang Penjamun (‘The Virgin in the Bandits’ Nest’) as the first collaboration between an author and a director in Indonesia (in Anwar, 1962), despite—as shown above—numerous popular novels having been adapted previously. By doing this, Ismail exercised cultural power by linking his film to a novel by a consecrated author, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. He also used both his symbolic power as a consecrated filmmaker unlikely to be questioned and his cultural power as a pioneer of “films as art” to overwrite any prior adaptations produced in Indonesia. The role of symbolic power and the ability to consecrate and deconsecrate specific works and authors will be further examined below.

Advertisement for “Solo di Waktu Malam” (1952) produced by Borobudur Film [Image scanned by Christopher Woodrich]

Critical Discourse

In critical discourse on the practice of film adaptation, meanwhile, cultural and symbolic power was utilized to marginalize adaptations produced in Indonesia. This can be seen in two contemporary articles on film adaptation, both by prominent figures with significant cultural capital and capacity for cultural power. The first of these, penned in 1955 by literary critic and poet Ajip Rosidi,[viii] was a two-part article on film adaptation published in the popular magazine Kentjana. Titled “Tentang Sastera dan Tjeritera Film” (“On Literature and Film Stories”), it dealt with film adaptation in general and Djoko Lelono’s adaptation of a “synopsis” (more properly, a treatment) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in particular.

In the first installment, Rosidi mentioned numerous works of literature that were adapted to film, either successfully or unsuccessfully. These included five films based on classic Shakespearean plays (HamletMacbethRomeo and JulietMidsummer Night’s Dream, and Julius Caesar) as well as films based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Rain” (1921, adapted as Miss Sadie Thompson), Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not (1937) and short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis? (1896), and Homer’s epic The Odyssey (adapted as Ulysses). All of the films he mentioned were based on works in the Western literary canon, ranging from the Greek classics to Elizabethan drama to modern literature. No films based on popular fiction, such as The Big Night (based on Stanley Ellin’s novel Dreadful Summit), were discussed.[ix]

Later, Rosidi bemoaned the fact that a focus on consecrated works, a concern for works with sufficient cultural capital to be considered literary, had been, at least in his opinion, non-existent in Indonesia. Ignoring adaptations of novels such as Pulang (1952) and Sukreni, Gadis Bali (1955), which entered the Indonesian literary canon (Teeuw, 1980), he wrote:

Until now there has not been an awareness [of film as art] from many filmmakers in Indonesia. We do not see any efforts from them to film works of literature, and from the stories they select, we can judge them as lacking artistic accountability[x] (Rossidhy, 1955a, 7, 32).

Rosidi provided several examples of Indonesian literary adaptations that were announced but never realized. His selection, as with the Hollywood films he mentioned, is telling: Utuy Tatang Sontani’s stage drama Bunga Rumah Makan (‘Flower of the Restaurant’, 1948) and Priyono Pratikto’s short story “Dua Manusia Sepandjang Bukit” (‘Two People along the Hills’). Both works were written by authors consecrated in the contemporary literary field, using media dominant among the literarily oriented.

This focus on the consecrated continued in Rosidi’s second installment, which mainly discussed on Rindu Damai (1955), a film by Djoko Lelono based on a treatment by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. After highlighting the Shakespearean films of Sir Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles as examples of good adaptations, Rosidi condemned Rindu Damai as a total failure. The film was so poorly done, he wrote, that:

I think the phrase ‘story by an internationally-renowned writer’ on the film’s advertisements does nothing but besmirch the name of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who can of course develop his characters further than this[xi] (Rosidi, 1955b: 10)

Similar tendencies could be found in a second, lengthier discussion of adaptation used by Asrul Sani to introduce the 1957 Symposium on Literature and serialized in Siasat magazine from December 1957 to January 1958. Sani, by this point, was recognized both for his literary prowess—particularly his poetry—and for his experience as a screenwriter—the film Lewat Djam Malam (‘After the Curfew’, 1954), which he wrote, won Best Film at the Indonesian Film Week (later the Indonesian Film Festival) in 1955. He thus had considerable social and symbolic capital, which he converted into power when addressing the symposium.

As with Rosidi, Sani drew a clear divide between literature and film, contrasting (for example) screenplays and poetry. Though he conceded that the two mediums were united in their use of stories, and likewise shared narrative elements such as characters, he rejected any attempt to equate them. This rejection was rooted in a belief that the mediums differ both in their smallest unit of communication—camera angle/set-up for film, sentence for literature (Sani, 1984: 74)—and the capabilities required by creators. In doing so, Sani exercised clear symbolic power, using his language and metaphors to position literature as “more correct” and to question the validity of any attempt to find literature’s position in film.

This is seen early in his discussion, when Sani likened the task of discussing literature’s position in stage dramas, radio, and film to discussing President Sukarno’s position in the constitutions of the Netherlands, China, and India (Sani, 1984: 68). By identifying literature with the Indonesian president, who was most correctly seen as holding a position in the Indonesian constitution, Sani implied that literature was best seen in its own terms, rather than as intersecting with other creative mediums. After expanding on this by identifying several key differences between literature and film, Sani concluded “the issue of literature’s position in film is an insane issue”[xii] (Sani, 1984: 78). He argued that,

If literature did have a position in film, we would find some measure of equivalence between them. This means that a peak of literary achievement would lead to a peak of filmic achievement. Later, it will be shown, that this is not how things are[xiii] (Sani, 1984, 79).

Sani demonstrated his point, as implied by his reference to literary and filmic peaks, through references to consecrated works of literature. He cited, for example, an unspecified adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”[xiv] as lacking the same emotional release as the short story. Other adaptations mentioned, including John Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), as well as King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), were likewise found incapable of reaching the same peaks as their source novels.

In both cases, the writers exerted cultural and symbolic power—power recognized because of the writers’ own symbolic capital as men of letters—to marginalize adaptation. This was realized in two ways: by negating the act of adaptation to works of the literary canon and by identifying film adaptations as lacking the artistic value as the works adapted.

First, both writers limited the act of adaptation to works of the literary canon. They implicitly argued that literature, as part of culture, must be solely limited to the belles lettres—to works of literary canon. By focusing on consecrated works of Western literature, they negated existing adaptations of Indonesian novels; no “true” adaptation could exist if the story filmed was not a “true” work of literature. This view was reinforced by statements that Indonesian filmmakers had ignored works of literary merit, as with Rosidi, or the complete omission of Indonesian film adaptations, as with Sani. “True” adaptations (i.e. adaptations of consecrated works of literature), they implied, were made only in the West.

Second, both writers dedicated considerable space to describing film adaptations as lacking the same value as their literary counterparts, implying that adaptations of a literary work could not possibly have the same merits as the work adapted. Though Rosidi did identify several film adaptations as falling short of their sources, this tendency was clearest in his discussion of Rindu Damai (1955). He dedicated the vast majority of his article’s second installment to vehement condemnation of Djoko Lelono’s work. Sani, meanwhile, focused on an adaptation of “The Black Cat”, contrasting the beauty of Poe’s prose with the banal depiction of “no more than the hanging of a cat from a limb”[xv] in the film. Both writers positioned adaptation as being unable to compete, or even downright incompatible, with literature, and in doing so rejected the value of film adaptation. Though films may function as films, they wrote, they were not literature.

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This article has examined the practice of adapting novels into films in 1950s Indonesia. It has identified six film adaptations produced during this period—Ditepi Bengawan Solo (1951), Pulang (1952), Solo Diwaktu Malam (1952), Arni (1955), Sukreni, Gadis Bali (1955), and Saodah (1956)—and situated them within their filmic and socio-political contexts. This article has argued that the exercise of power, both by filmmakers and by other parties, led the film adaptation process to be marginalized in contemporary discourse. This marginalization can be attributed to several factors, particularly low literacy rates, the minimal market for popular novels, and an emphasis on literature as belles lettres rather than the popular literature from which most films were adapted.

This has two major implications for the act of film adaptation in Indonesia. First, the current “Second Golden Era” of film adaptation did not emerge on its own. Its form, and the historical developments which led to it taking this form, were shaped over time by various intersections of power and capital. These intersections affected the boundaries of fields involved in the practice of adaptation and, consequently, informed the habitus that influenced involved filmmakers. These intersections and their effect can be traced, leading to a genealogy of adaptation that understands adaptation as an ever-mutating practice.

Second, the current interest in film adaptations of novels in Indonesia will not last indefinitely. Shifts in power relations and capital will ultimately lead to decreased interest in this practice as another practice takes prominence. As with interest in other cultural practices, interest in film adaptation experiences ebbs and flows as the boundaries of various involved fields change. Although it is impossible to predict specifically how this will happen, it is undeniable that the current “Second Golden Age of Film Adaptation” will end one day.

Advertisement for “Eulis Atjih” (1954) produced by Ardjuna Film [Image scanned by Christopher Woodrich]


[i]     The “First Golden Age” begins with the release and subsequent success of Karmila (1974) and ends with the downturn in the Indonesian film industry in the early 1990s (Woodrich, 2015).

[ii]    Laskar Pelangi (‘Rainbow Troops’, 2008), Ayat-ayat Cinta (‘Verses of Love’, 2008), My Stupid Boss (2016), and Eiffel I’m in Love (2003). Before 2016, in which half of the ten most viewed Indonesian films were released (with only one being an adaptation), three more adaptations were on this list: Ketika Cinta Bertasbih (‘When Love Prays’, 2009), 5 cm (2012), Ketika Cinta Bertasbih 2 (‘When Love Prays 2’, 2009), and Sang Pemimpi (‘The Dreamer’, 2009).

[iii]    The title Karnadi Anemer Bangkong is commonly used to refer to this film. However, based on contemporary reports it is possible that the film’s release title was Roesia Gadis Priangan (Woodrich, forthcoming)

[iv]    The others being Salah Asuhan (Abdul Muis, 1928) and Layar Terkembang (Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, 1936).

[v]    Two other films, Dewi Rimba (‘Jungle Princess’, 1954) and Eulis Atjih (1954), share titles with novels but have completely dissimilar plots. See their flyers for further detail.

[vi]    This is evidenced by claims that Darah dan Doa (‘Blood and Prayers’, 1950) was the first Indonesian film because it was the first to be made by an indigenous producer and director. For discussion of this case, see Setijadi-Dunn & Barker (2011: 34).

[vii]   Efforts that were, to an extent, successful. The 1950 estimates cited above represent a 6 to 11 point gain over similar figures from 1930 (UNESCO, 1957: 70).

[viii] Rosidi was credited in these articles as “A. Rossidhy”.

[ix]    This film was screened in Indonesia in 1953 (“Agenda”), meaning that Rosidi could have seen it or at least been aware of it.

[x]    Original: “hingga sekarang belum mendjadi suatu kesadaran bagi sebagian pengusaha film di Indonesia ini. Tidak ada kita lihat usaha mereka untuk memfilmkan suatu hasil sastera, dan dengan tjerita-tjerita jang djustru mereka pilih, bisalah agaknja kita menilai merkea (sic), dalam hal ini penilaian dari sudut seni jang djuga meminta pertanggung djawab.”

[xi]    Original: “Saja kira menuliskan kalimat ‘kisah pengarang tokoh internasional’ dalam reklame film itu, tjuma menodai nama Pramoedya Ananta Toer sadja, jang tentunja kemampuannja membangunkan tokoh2nja tidak tjuma sampai sekian.”

[xii]   Original: “Persoalan kedudukan sastra dalam film adalah suatu persoalan yang edan.”

[xiii] Original: “Jika kesusastraan mempunyai kedudukan dalam film, maka kita akan menemui semacam kesejajaran ukuran pada keduanya. Artinya suatu puncak yang tinggi dalam kesusastraan harusnya juga menghasilkan suatu puncak yang tinggi dalam film. Nanti akan terbukti bahwa tidaklah demikian adanya.”

[xiv] By 1957, two adaptations of “The Black Cat” had been released, one in 1934 and one in 1941.

[xv]   Original: “Tidak lebih dari suatu penggantungan seekor kucing pada sebuah dahan”.


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