It is generally agreed that horror pictures are the most disturbing ones for audiences. However, assuming that all the bloody and scary scenes are unreal no matter how vivid they are, they seem to be much less shocking, whereas, for some films that do not belong to the horror genre though, they are even scarier because they show the evil side of humanity in a straight way. Requiem for a Dream, a filmic adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel by Darren Aronofsky, is one of this kind, which is a successful demonstration of various cinematic strategies to transfer the written language in the novel onto the screen, showing the four main characters’ gradual corruption caused by heroin addiction.

Whereas reading a print text immerses us through imagination in another world, seeing a play or film immerses us visually and aurally, which could be even more shocking in particular when presenting evil and some other extreme elements on the screen. This is because when people read a print work, they have to imagine what the depictions are like, which is boundless and differs from one to another, as different people could interpret them in different ways out of their own experiences. Nevertheless, one does not have that certain kind of experience or is limited in the ability of imagination might not be able to construct the pictures in his or her mind or understand what the writer wants to express so that it is easy to result in lack of understanding or confusion. While for films, as an audio-visual art, directors could use various ways including sounds, images, camera skills and even the choice of actors, to demonstrate what they want to express rather than depiction at and only at text level in books.

In this sense, we can boldly say that the more the topic is far from our daily lives, the better effect a film adaptation could create because it might be difficult for us to imagine based on language description only if we are quite unfamiliar with the topic. However, with the help of visual and audio presentation by films, it could be easier for us to know what the thing is like in a clear way. That is why some novels, due to their unique topics, are more suitable to be adapted for the screen. Violence, as Quentin says, is one of the topics that can be outstandingly presented on screen in this sense.

In fact, topics dealing with extremely evil in humanity could mostly be shown on screen, as it is not likely to be experienced by most people. Besides, such kind of topics could be more shocking on screen because of the brutal presentation of evil in front of audiences, which is easy to cause disturbing feelings. More suitable though, it still requires the most intelligent and resourceful talents to address the task. As a typical example, the adaptation of Requiem for a Dream successfully shows us the gradually fall of humanity and soul as a result of addiction and desire with undisguised and even cruel exposure of effects of taking drugs.

The Use of Montage

In mainstream cinema, it always tends to downplay taboos and provocative content for the sake of social security and the taste of the majority. However, in Darren’s adaptation of Requiem for a Dream, he breaks the convention bravely for artistic integrity. Without downplaying the effect of taking drugs, on the contrary, he strengthens it through special film editing, which is referred as ‘montage’ in film language.

It is said that without editing, a film is dead; with it, alive. Generally speaking, the length of a shot is in part determined by the amount of information within it. However, rapid or slow cutting can carry meaning in itself. Montage, consisting of splicing together different pieces of film, can be made to emphasize contrast by cutting one shot sharply into another or can be gradual through the devices of fade-in, fade-out or superimposition. It is montage that determines the tempo of the action and gives the element of rhythm to the changing picture. In Requiem for a Dream, the most famous scene about this is the one depicting the entire process and detailed body changes after taking drugs (Figure 1-6).

Figure 1 Spreading of heroin powder

Figure 2 Heating heroin

Figure 3 Dissolution of heroin

Figure 4 Injection

Figure 5 Amplification of pupil

Figure 6 Heroin’s flow under skin

In this scene, a continuous series of drug taking activity is shown on screen in a vivid way. Dissolving, igniting, injecting… each shot switches rapidly, reflecting the excitement of drug indulgence, and at the same time indicating the extreme desire looming at the bottom of people’s hearts. In the book, the equivalent part (p. 5-6) is mainly focused on the description of how Harry and Tyrone are behaving after taking drugs, while the film on the basis of preserving that, adds the detailed changes of inner body with the help of the rapid cutting. The visual effect is so powerful that it is as if throwing at audiences suddenly. Moreover, the fast cutting here also creates an atmosphere of anxiety and pressure. In this way, the adaptation successfully intensifies the effect of drugs have on human beings while being loyal to the spirit of the original novel.

The Use of Camera Angels and Photography

Like other films, Requiem for a Dream also uses different camera angels that serve the plot and characterization effectively.

In the scene that after Marion asks Arnold for money at the cost of sleeping with him, she goes out of the room, into the elevator and then downstairs, Darren use long take to show the whole sequence more naturally and continuously (Figure 9 shows the long take with a couple of pictures). In this way, audiences can catch the protagonist’s every second of expression and movement closely, as if we are together with her, experiencing all that she is experiencing and feeling all that she is feeling. Thus, it is easier for audiences to empathize with the character.

Moreover, he also applies a special photographic technique with the camera fastened on the actress’s chest (Figure 8). Therefore, the camera could shoot alongside the actress’s every single movement. At the same time, this is a low-angle close-up shot, which even enables audiences to clearly see the sweat on Marion’s face, thus creating an atmosphere of extreme tension, depression, and stress. In addition, as the camera dangles below Marion’s face level, her face is distorted into different grotesque shapes (Figure 9), which startles the viewers with the dramatic effect showing Marion’s moral corruption due to drug addiction.

Figure 7.Camera fastened on Jennifer’s chest

Figure 8 A sequence of movement depicted by long take

She walked down the stairs, anger and disgust building and fighting, her eyes starting to tear, and when she thrust herself out into the street and was hit with a shock of cold air, she suddenly stopped, dizzy, and leaned against the building and vomited, and vomited…

Hubert uses a sequence of verbs to describe what Marion does and how she feels after her nasty deal with Arnold, which is also a vivid description that enables readers to construct a picture in their minds through imagination. For the adaptation, the director employs excellent cinematic techniques to visualize the scene directly in front of the viewers, which we could say, is faithful and at the same time creative and even more shocking.

Besides, the background music here is also dramatically depressing and desolate (which is worth appreciating as well). Setting off the visual expression, it makes the scene even more astonishing, as if cloaking audiences in a shroud of deep bleakness and melancholy.

Adaptation has long been under dispute. However, Requiem for a Dream has set a perfect example in cinematic history. Darren Aronofsky’s combination of multiple film skills and his literature sensitivity helped create this legendary masterpiece while generally respecting the writer’s central idea and spirit. Although inevitably owing to the bleak display of drug addiction and the strong disturbing feeling it brings about after watching, there is abundant criticism in particular from defenders of the mainstream cinema, which leads to its ban on screen for many years.

This might be the price to pay for pursuing art, and the process of appreciating artistic work is more often than not an experience of strong inner contradiction, as we have to try to feel what the artists want to express. So at least, Darren is brave enough to be loyal and be true, and present genuinely the shattered dream in front of us. Pain or callous, this is something that cannot be avoided in art, which is sentimental and emotional, and the stronger the emotion, the shocking effect it would be. And one of the best embodiment of the strong emotion is probably the disillusionment of beauty, which is one of the reasons why there is not even spring in the film.



Gjelsvik, Anne. (2013) ‘What novels can tell that movies can’t show’. In: Bruhn. J. and others. (eds.) Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions London: Bloomsbury, pp. 245-264

Hurbis-Cherrier, M. (2007) Voice & Vision: A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production Amsterdam, London: Elsevier/Focal Press

Hutcheon, L. (2013) A Theory of Adaptation London, New York: Routledge

Nelmes, J. (1996) An Introduction to Film Studies London: Routledge