Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Film Lumbering, Rancorous Meat

I don't know the numbers and don't care to whack this bush that is the Internet to spook them out, so let's just say that somewhere between a quarter and a half of movies that come out in North America are based on a book or published story or some other primary source. A quick survey of new and upcoming releases supports this lazy guesstimation: Midnight's Children, On The Road, Twilight, Jack Reacher, Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas. With the exception of Lee Child's and Stephanie Meyer's books, I've read and sometimes loved this list. Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, by my reading, rely so much on their being texts (I won't elucidate this point for fear of ruining their fine payoffs) that it's frankly hard to image these being dis- and then recombobulated onto the big screen. And while I hear that both adaptations are real humdingers, I don't know if I'll ever get around to seeing them. 

His whole weird, stubborn life, that wonderful crank JD Salinger refused to let Hollywood get its meathooks into Catcher in the Rye. Part of this stalwart aversion is owing to a bad experience when his story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" was turned into My Foolish Heart, but JD also maintained that his writing was unfilmable, unactable. This resistance story on its own has a tinge of pretension to it, but a sterling core can be found, I think, in Salinger's refusal to have Holden Caulfield pictured on any of the jacket art.
We get some idea of Holden's looks from the text--redheaded with a grey streak, mature-looking for his age, a backwards "people-shooting" hat--but otherwise, Holden's a bit of a ghost when I read him. He's animated feelings, opinions, and meanings. I think of Ignatius from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in about the same way. He's such a lumbering absurdity full-up with these rancourous  fusty opinions that it's somewhat difficult to picture him up and moving in a real world of meat and bone. But Hollywood's been threatening to make this movie since it won the Pulitzer, originally envisioning John Belushi in the role, and over the years I hear that Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, and Zach Galifianakis have been in talks to man this impossible man.

Watching a movie is a considerably passive act compared to the active challenge of reading. Books come with assembly required. Don't get me wrong: films at their best demand an astounding amount of work from the viewer, an ability to harmonize what you're being shown, how you're being shown it, what you're being told, and how you're being told it. While all good art requires participation to create meaning, books alone require the animating spark. Or maybe it's more like disposing of a body: the author gets the head, and it's up to you to get the feet (I'm doing my best not to drag Barthes into this...). Movies tend to drag away and bury the body; the viewer kinda keeps a look-out.

There's a famous story from the making of Alien. Originally, said alien was to appear prominently on screen but dailies revealed that a guy in black leotards would snap the suspension of disbelief. The fix was to barely show the titular alien, relegate the creature to shadows and peripheral blurs. It's rare that an imagined fear will be lesser than a shown one. I'm wondering if the same thing can be said about a deftly wrought literary character.

- Andrew

1 comment:

  1. There's an adage in films that great books make poor films. There are numerous reasons for this but I think the most salient one is that filmmakers tend to feel less inclined to tamper with something considered great for fear that when they screw it up they'll take the blame. If you keep to the text it's easier to suggest, privately of course, that the book might have been unfilmable after all. It's this strict adherence to the text, though, that so often results in the film failing to connect, often for the same reasons that the book was successful. I can think of only two (fairly) recent examples where the filmmakers managed to create a literal adaptation that stood on par with the book (and I would say in these cases even surpassed it). The deviations in both Fear And Loathing In Lost Vegas and The Road were so slight that they don't warrant more than a mention, and both films were stellar. Perhaps it's because the books they were based upon were short, though in both their length concealed a rare complexity of form that should stand as a lesson for writers convinced that speaking volumes should take, well, volumes. I think it's more likely that both directors, Gilliam (Fear) and Hillcoat (The Road) simply trusted their own vision, which just happened to correspond with the novelist's. It's this unity of vision that bridged the gap between page and screen. More often than not though, the filmmaker waffles, decides to play it safe by trusting too firmly in another person's vision and looses their own (see Blindness for the result, adapted by us Canadians nonetheless.) If approaching an adaptation (I've been embroiled in one for Gaetan Soucy's Immaculee conception now for two years with friend, director and sometime writing partner, David Birnbaum) I recommend watching Children Of Men, and then reading the book, (otherwise I would never suggest reading anything by PD James, my god the one was enough). I think they took the central premise, the names of a few characters and of the terrorist group and jettisoned the rest. It's what you sometimes (and probably most times) have to do to make the transition, and also probably explains why a select few "sacred" works, such as Catcher And The Rye, are (thankfully) not likely to appear on a screen near you anytime soon.