The challenges of adaptation | Kenneth Scicluna

We speak to filmmaker Kenneth Scicluna, fresh off the set of  ‘Elegija’ – a short film inspired by the poetry of Doreen Micallef, to be screened at the upcoming Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival.

What were some of the main challenges you faced when adapting poetry to film? How is it different from a more “conventional” film script?

I think the process of adaptation takes a similar path no matter the nature of the source – one seeks the soul of the original work and recreates it in film. It is, by necessity, a process of destruction and recreation.

The challenge, in this case, was less because the source material was in the form of a poem, and more due to the nature of Doreen Micallef’s poetry. If anything, a poem lends itself more readily to transposition into film than, say, a novel, because length tends to be contained. 

Some poets revel in images, visual and auditory: Ted Hughes’ The Hawk in The Rain, to a degree, could in itself be the script to a short film. Micallef, on the other hand, pours out her heart, particularly in the two poems chosen for adaptation: Dedika and Eleġija. Epistolary in nature, the poems have scant references to sounds and images. The visceral pleas, and melancholy admonitions that Micallef sends towards “the other” are appealing in their directness, and yet, in their translation to a filmic existence, require the search for, and creation of, objective correlatives that give those words a physical dimension.

And yet, Doreen Micallef’s poetry can be physical.  Although the effect is subtle in the poems mentioned above, in others like Iħirsa and Profezija (which are also more metaphorical in nature), the layout of the poem itself is as important as the content.  Sprawled across the page, flowing, leaping, zig-zagging downwards, the form is inseparable from the words.

That style in itself illuminates the kind of time and space that the film needs to inhabit. In Dedika and Eleġija, a single word changes the direction of thought, and subsequently, of narrative. From the latter:

F’għajnejk hemm ħarsa xotta

ta’ dmugħ niexef qoxqox

li ma tibkix

waqt l-aħħar tislima


l-aħħar tbissima

I hope that the changes I had to make, in the leap from page to screen, offer a respectful re-interpretation of Doreen Micallef’s art.

In reading between the lines, to seek out themes, I tried not to go far beyond. For example, take the anonymous “other”. There is anecdotal evidence of who such men could have been, but no such concrete hints are to be found within the poems.  In not wanting to present a male face, I have turned the “other” into a female – that way, the issues between the two are not coloured by the physiognomy of a male actor, even though there is a male catalyst in the film, but stay on the level of a relationship between two humans, even though they have very different traits, with the issue not becoming one of gender.

Likewise the notions of God, the universe, creation. The latter, and the various aspects of it, is one of the defining themes of the film. God, as a Christian entity, does not come into the film, but becomes a facet of creation.

The notion of the universe again feeds off aspects of creation, but also informs the destructive facet of the film, in the idea of bodies that simultaneously attract and repel each other, that stay together as long as there is a degree of separation between the two – when that distance is forcefully breached, implosion occurs.

If you will, the process that led to the script was one of interrogation with the characters. The outline was based on an interpretation of the themes. The flesh of characters’ experiences came out through a process of questioning, within the limits set by the themes.

In creating the film, and before shooting started, the process went further through a round of questioning with the actors, adding to, or changing what the characters would have said about themselves, informing not just the performances, but also the interaction of the medium with the narrative.

What was it about Doreen Micallef’s poetry in particular that kept you interested?

I would say the bold, fierce, rawness with which she sees through her life and those around her. 

The way she moulds time. The way she puppeteers the universe, and yet allows herself to be manipulated. She scorns, and yet, she loves. She lives within herself and within others, flitting through forms of existence, and emerging the sadder for it.

The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival will be taking place between September 4 and 6 at the Msida Bastion Gardens, Floriana at 20:00.

Eleġijia is being produced in collaboration between Valletta 2018 and Inizjamed, which aims to provide a platform for Maltese literature.

The project is being carried out as part of the preparations for the European Capital of Culture in 2018.