Adaptation as Translation as Interpretation: Antonioni’s Blow-Up

Blow-Up | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In the short story Las Babas del Diablo, Argentine author Julio Cortázar follows Roberto Michel, a translator and amateur photographer. Michel witnesses an apparently innocent interaction between a young boy and an older woman, capturing it with his camera, only to reconsider reality when reviewing and reimagining the resulting blown-up photograph. A few years later, filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni would read a version of the story translated into Italian. Antonioni went on to adapt his reading experience into Blow-Up, his first film entirely in the English language, “inspired by” Cortázar’s short story.

Translation is thus key to both Cortázar’s story and Antonioni’s film—both as text and method; substance and practice. A great translation “captures the spirit of a text…conveys what is written between the lines,” according to Ros Schwartz, a French-to-English translator. Distilling the “spirit” of an original text is similarly a common goal of literary adaptations to film. Translation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin: both methods of interpreting and reimagining a source text.

As an adaptation, Antonioni’s Blow-Up is both an interpretation and a film about interpreting. It’s about man’s relationship with reality. It’s about the line between art and artist, and how the interpreter—whether Cortázar’s Michel, Antonioni’s Thomas (David Hemmings), or Antonioni himself—is both observer and participant, unknowingly influencing the reality he seeks to capture. And ultimately, it is Antonioni imposing his preoccupations onto Cortázar’s story. If nothing else, Blow-Up represents a half-dozen approaches to adapting literature into cinema, all rolled into one. It shows how an adaptation, at its core, is an act of translation in a visual medium.

As a story about the act of interpreting, Blow-Up hews closely to its source text. In Cortázar’s story, amateur photographer Michel imposes his own meaning onto an interaction between a younger boy and older woman. He imagines an attempted seduction and an uncomfortable boy. After snapping a photo and being chased off by the woman, he casts himself as the boy’s hero. Back home, Michel blows up the photo, discovering truths he failed to witness or understand in real time. Seeing the woman glancing at a sinister man outside the frame, Michel reimagines a “reality” in which he saved the boy from a scheme to kidnap him. The more Michel obsesses over the blow-up, the more he devolves over the subjective nature of reality. Eventually, he hallucinates a version of events where he is powerless to save the boy. 

Antonioni retains this kernel even as his story grows around it. Blow-Up follows Thomas, a high-fashion photographer who stumbles upon a couple interacting in the park. Snapping pictures until the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), catches him and chases him off, Thomas later pours over the photographs, enlarging and reprinting every frame to create a new story pinned across his studio. Just like Michel unravels, Thomas also comes apart as he sees details that he missed when witnessing the scene first-hand. A man with a gun hidden in the bushes. A figure that could be a body, obscured by overgrown bushes. Did he stop a murder? Did he witness a murder? The impact of this irreality on Thomas is of far more interest to Antonioni than the details of the potential homicide.

Both stories are about interpretation. Projecting his own imagination onto the details that emerge in his photograph, Cortázar’s Michel realizes “what had to have been happening, what had to have happened, what would have had to happen at that moment.” He no longer sees a stationary picture, but instead a living, moving film. Antonioni adapts this projection by having Thomas hang multiple blow-ups across his studio, creating for himself a series of the events, even tracing his finger from the woman’s eyes to the object of her gaze, finding the man with the gun. Matching Michel’s imagination, Thomas claims to a friend that “somebody was trying to kill somebody else,” and “I saved his life.” Antonioni changes Paris to London; one photograph to multiple; kidnapping to murder. But in his treatment of the story’s focus on the interpretation of reality, the Italian auteur’s adaptation is relatively direct.

Like translation, adaptation goes beyond a literal retelling of the source. Sophie Lewis, a French- and Portuguese-to-English translator, focuses on striking a balance between finding the “idea of the text’s original sound and intention,” and “its re-enactment through the translator’s own voice, the way they personally would express these styles and ideas.” This echoes film critic Andrew Sarris’ description of the auteur theory, in which “the strong director imposes his own personality on a film.” Just as Michel uses photography in Cortázar’s story to decipher a reality he struggles to understand, Antonioni relies on cinema to reimagine the ideas and themes in the short story through his own personality. 

So, just like Michel and Thomas see something different once reality is rendered through art, Antonioni inevitably finds new meaning in his cinematic adaptation. Cortázar wrote a story; a linguist translated it into Italian; Antonioni adapted this new edition. For each detail that survives this series of translations and adaptations, another is changed or lost, though the “essence” is retained.

Speaking shortly after its release, Antonioni identified that essence when he told an interviewer that the film “is about man’s relationship with reality.” While for Thomas this relationship is dictated by his photography, the audience’s relationship with the reality of the film is instead controlled by the narrator—in this case, Thomas; in Cortázar’s case, Michel. 

In Cortázar’s short story, Michel is a self-professed unreliable narrator. Speaking in the first person, he notes “I am not describing anything; rather, I am trying to understand.” He speaks in conjecture, even noting that “one could guess what had just happened a few minutes ago,” before describing those events as apparent fact. By allowing readers into the internal life of its characters, fiction lends itself to this uncertainty. Reality is a known unknown. 

The moving image poses fascinating challenges to Antonioni’s adaptation of the unreliable narrator. As interpreted by an average viewer, a camera is far more objective than a pen. The lens depicts what happens—just as Thomas’ camera captures the truth, so must Antonioni’s, at least in the subconscious of filmgoers. In short, we trust our eyes. Understanding this dynamic, Antonioni takes steps to establish his narrator’s unreliability. A gunman showing no sign of existence in one photo suddenly emerges with clarity upon blow-up, apparent photographic evidence of a body is questioned by a friend who visits Thomas, and after finding a dead body in the park one night, Thomas returns to find nothing the following day. In these subtle touches, Antonioni does just enough to adapt Cortázar’s unreliable narrator, forcing audiences to question not only reality, but our own eyes.  

Both Michel and Thomas also have their realities undermined when re-enacting them through their art. This is one of the core tenets of Antonioni’s adaption, and he brings it to the screen by literalizing the fantastical. Where Michel imagined his blown-up photo to be a moving, changing representation of what may have happened, Thomas instead goes back to the scene of the event, finding the body he created in his mind from a blurry image. But because Blow-Up is “not about a murder but about a photographer,”Antonioni trains his camera first on Thomas’ face, focused on his reaction, only panning over to the body after we feel what Thomas feels. 

Just as Antonioni once explained that “there’s a moment when one grasps reality, but the next moment it eludes us,” so too does Cortázar end his story with Michel saying: “I didn’t want to see anymore. I shut my eyes.” But Antonioni must adapt this recounting of how the erasure of one supposed “truth” destabilizes Michel’s entire connection to reality. Here, the director moves away from the literal text, using his own approach to capture the spirit of Michel’s devolution. Antonioni’s medium strips him of the ability to easily convey the deteriorating internal thoughts of his photographer. Instead, he finds a new way to establish and undermine Thomas’ reality: his interactions with others. 

In a magnificent essay for Criterion, academic David Forgacs notes that Thomas’ “confident and bullying relation to the world begins to crumble when he realizes that his camera has recorded something disturbing of which he was unaware.” This crumbling is Antonioni’s adaptation of the essence of Cortázar’s work. He changes the photographer’s reality, but undermines it just the same. Thus, where it might be easy to see the film’s diversions—the return of the photographed woman to his apartment to retrieve the pictures, the infamous visit of two teenagers aspiring to be models—as departing from the original text, in fact these scenes further entrench Cortázar’s ideas, but with Antonioni’s flair.

Where Cortázar ends this existential crisis with Michel turning his back on reality, Blow-Up finds its photographer leaning into the uncertainty. In an Antonioni-esque, unsettling final scene, Thomas embraces the subjectivity of reality, joining in the mimicry of the white-faced students who pretend to play tennis. The movie closes on an overhead long-shot of Thomas standing in the park, reminiscent of the final image in La Notte, as he slowly dissipates into a vast green field. This adaptation is one that only Antonioni could have made—he has filtered the original’s ideas through his own personality. 

Antonioni adds a third level to his adaptation of man’s relationship with reality, adjusting his own filmmaking to serve the material. Throughout Blow-Up, the same scenes are depicted from multiple angles, forcing the audience to experience first-hand the disorienting effect of a change in perspective. A model lies on the ground, resting; cut to another angle and Thomas looms in the background, sitting on the couch, and we see her as prone, vulnerable. Two visiting teens clamor around Thomas, exuberance pouring through them; cut to his perspective, feet on his desk as he looks up at the girls, and their innocence becomes naiveté, his power and control putting them at risk. 

Antonioni furthers this interpretation of our relationship with reality by adopting and adapting Cortázar’s alternating use of both first- and third-person points of view. Bringing that approach to the visual medium, Blow-Up lets Antonioni’s camera diverge from Thomas’—the former representing third-person, the latter first-person. The juxtaposition of the two perspectives in rapid succession disorients viewers in the same way Cortázar’s use of language does, creating two “realities,” the film refusing to tip its hand on which is the objective version (if either).

This split-perspective approach also undergirds Antonioni’s “spiritual” adaptation of a secondary theme: the role of artist as participant versus observer. In his short story, Cortázar emphasizes Michel’s participation through the use of third-person to occasionally describe the photographer in the same terms as the objects of his observation. Antonioni does the same with his camera. The director takes his time with the extended sequence in the park, tracking Thomas as he, in turn, tracks this mysterious couple. Antonioni uses three types of shots: that of Thomas’ camera looking at the couple, additional shots of the couple from more “objective” angles, and long-shots focused only on Thomas. Several slow pans across the park emphasize how reality can change as perspective shifts—the truth is always just outside the frame.  

Cutting between Thomas and the subjects of his photography in the park, Antonioni minimizes the photographer’s role as observer, turning him visually into a participant. Thomas becomes another player on the chess board. This provides a stark contrast to the staging of Thomas’ revelation in his studio. As soon as the enlarged pictures are pinned up, Antonioni commits his camera exclusively to these photos. By turning the lens into a first-person tool belonging to Thomas, the director briefly transforms him from participant back to observer. In this way, we trust what we see in these pictures—black-and-white, photo-realistic depictions of reality—more than what we saw in the park. 

This blurring of observation and participation also emphasizes the shifting line between art and artist. In the short story, reminiscing on his intervention in the day’s events, Michel boasts that while his “part had not been too outstanding,” he nonetheless helped the boy escape. When he later re-interprets the photo, he stares in awe, dreading what may have happened now that there was distance between the artist and event. He panics that he was “nothing more than the lens of my camera, something rigid, incapable of intervention.” As he quickly unravels, he’s paralyzed by his powerlessness.

For Antonioni, Thomas’ similar denouement begins with the discovery of the body. The crime is committed, his role as participant complete, and Thomas immediately determines he must get a shot of the body. When his partner Ron tells him he isn’t a photographer, Thomas responds simply, “I am.” That quickly, Antonioni has turned Thomas back into an observer, an artist so involved in his art that he can’t let it go. He is helpless as a participant, so he returns to the safety of observation; but he has effectively erased the line separating art from artist.

Antonioni’s decision to entangle the artist with his art cannot be divorced from context. The director embedded himself in the London fashion photography scene of the mid-‘60s while researching and writing Blow-Up. His experience is yet another ingredient added to the director’s adaptation of the source material. 

As Sarris would argue, though, the strongest filter for Antonioni’s adaptation of Las Babas del Diablo is likely his “personality” as a director, identifiable by his body of work. In a spate of early films in the 1950s (Cronaca di un amore, I vinti, La Signora senza camelie, Le Amiche, and Il grido), the Italian trained his focus on the middle class, highlighting the causes and costs of social alienation. Transitioning to his most well-known work, the unofficial early ‘60s trilogy of L’avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse, Antonioni fixates on alienation and loneliness in the then-modern world.

Cortázar’s short story kicks off with a simple statement, that “among the many ways of combating oblivion and nothingness, one of the best is taking photos.” Cortázar presents the idea as a humble fact not in need of exploration, but Antonioni incorporates it as a throughline for the entirety of ­Blow-Up. The film opens by intercutting scenes of dreary, economically disenfranchised men with the intrepid “rag” adventures of white-faced students, exuberantly harassing passersby for donations. Halfway through, a seemingly out-of-place scene of war protesters crowding the sidewalks interrupts the narrative. Neither sequence can be found in Cortázar’s story, but both fit comfortably into Antonioni’s oeuvre on disassociation and disaffection. 

And unlike Cortázar with Michel, Antonioni imbues Thomas with this sense of alienation. The director repeatedly isolates his protagonist in the frame, particularly in the extended sequence at the park. Long shots from above, often with a fisheye effect, magnify his loneliness. Thomas’ otherwise cool nature cracks whenever the phone rings, leaving him leaping and crawling for human contact. Eventually he gives the requisite speech on his dissatisfaction with it all, ending with the sad, demented, “Even with beautiful girls, you look at them and that’s that”—perhaps Antonioni’s attempt to justify the leering male gaze of his camera up to that point.

The incident at the park briefly revives Thomas. As Roger Ebert put it, “a character is awakened briefly from a deep sleep of bored alienation and then drifts away again.” For the most part, Antonioni doesn’t divorce this theme from the rest of the film; he weaves it in. This obsession with alienation is the crystal through which the director refracts the light of the original. As Cortázar describes the role of a photographer, Antonioni creates a “permutation of his own personal manner of seeing the world.” From Cortázar to Antonioni to Thomas, Blow-Up collapses the line between translator and translation, adapter and adaptation.  

Once you identify this filter through which Antonioni casts his interpretation of Las Babas del Diablo, specific filmmaking decisions make sense as part of the whole. One piece that feels anachronistic, however, is Antonioni’s decision to deviate from his general apathy to the details of the murder while filming Thomas’ photographic revelation. As he studies the blow-ups, the scene takes on the tone of a detective story. After putting the first one up, the photographer pours himself a drink and a needle drops, cueing up a time-to-put-the-pieces-together scene reminiscent of procedural crime dramas. In his Criterion essay, Forgacs reports that Antonioni consulted with Italian journalist and author Italo Calvino, who advised him to “create the sense of solving a mystery” in the discovery of the crime through blow-up photographs. The intrusion of another’s sensibility in an otherwise flawless interpretation of an original work is noteworthy. Cortázar cared little for such fixations, and for the remainder of his film, Antonioni felt the same. It is a small but noticeable deviation.

Adaptations and translations—siblings but not twins, and both ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Visual versus written. Both acts of interpretation. As Thomas’ friend, an abstract artist, refers to his pieces, “they don’t mean anything when I do them, but afterward, I find something to hang onto…it sorts itself out.” In Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni committed to a faithful adaptation of Julio Cortázar’s Las Babas del Diablo, but specifically to his version of the story. Another director’s interpretation would have been different—after all, as both Michel and Thomas learned, there is no objective reality.