The Grand Budapest Hotel, Stefan Zweig and the Neglected Field of Adaptation Studies

As The Guardian announced two days ago, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has just become the filmmaker’s highest-grossing film (beating The Royal Tenenbaums at $71m in 2001 and Moonrise Kingdom at $68m in 2012) by breaking the $100m mark while global box office taking rising (interestingly with the most enthusiastic audiences in the UK and France).

Apart from its stellar cast and Anderson’s usual cinematographic playfulness, the film has received considerable attention due to its “inspiration” from the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Apart from the closing credits referring to Zweig, Wes Anderson has supported his claim in various interviews. Extracts of his conversation with George Prochnik, whose biography of Zweig with the title The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World will be published by Other Press in May this year, have been published by The Telegraph under the title “I stole from Stefan Zweig”. It has been included in full in The Society of the Crossed Keys, a new compilation of writings by Stefan Zweig, which takes its name from the fictional secret society of master concierges in Anderson’s film, published by Pushkin Press and selected by Wes Anderson according to their inspirational value.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has undoubtedly sparked the most recent re-discovery of Stefan Zweig among the British readership. It has also launched a true treasure hunt for allegedly Zweig-inspired elements in the film among Zweig enthusiasts, reaching from moustaches to experiences of war and exile, high society settings with Central European flair and pastry to sophisticated narrative techniques (mis en abyme). Furthermore, this successful case of what could be called “literary adaptation” in its wildest and widest sense beautifully showcases the interconnectedness of literature and film. The field of adaptation studies indeed represents an important genre in 20th-century cultural production but has received surprisingly little scholarly interest. It has rather been treated as an orphan trapped between literature and film studies. Throughout the century adaptations of Austrian literature, in particular, have generated outstanding success stories, ranging from Max Ophühls’ adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s most famous novella in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and, more recently, Stanley Kubrick’s filmic version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to the very Grand Budapest Hotel.

One of the most recent and most fascinating scholarly contributions to the adaptation of Austrian literature is certainly Catriona Firth’s Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation. Analysing five canonical texts in post-war Austrian literature and their Austrian filmic counterparts, Firth proposes an innovative interdisciplinary approach which aims to move beyond a traditionally linear conception of the adaptation process in order to understand the relationship between the two media not as a unidirectional but a more complex reciprocal transaction. Drawing on an arsenal of theoretical concepts developed within the realm of psychoanalytic film theory, the five chapters discuss Gerhard Fritsch’s Moos auf den Steinen (1956) and its adaptation by Georg Lhotzky (1968), Franz Innerhofer’s Schöne Tage (1974) and its adaptation by Fritz Lehner (1981), Gerhard Roth’s Der Stille Ozean (1980) and its adaptation by Xaver Schwarzenberger (1983), Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Ausgesperrten (1981) and its adaptation by Franz Novotny (1982), and Robert Schindel’s Gebürtig (1990) and its adaptation by Lukas Stepanik (2002). The study provides inspiring new perspectives on the literary works, on the films, the history of Austria after 1945 and, most importantly, on the methodology of adaptation studies.

Read my review of Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation in the most recent issue of the Journal of Austrian Studies.

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