Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books Into Movies

Robinson makes a new friend

Full disclosure of my bias upfront: I don’t usually care for faithful film adaptations of books. If a film transplants a book slavishly to the screen, adding to it merely the pictorial element — however fastidiously — the film often strikes me as redundant and less than interesting. I prefer it when a filmmaker raids the source material for what interests her, throws literal fidelity to the winds, and infuses the movie version with her own thematic obsessions and stylistic signature — i.e., makes the book “her own” — as Claire Denis did in Beau Travail with Melville’s Billy Budd.

But sometimes a director can make a radically personal and original film while retaining much or all of a book’s plot but simply inflecting it carefully and strongly with his sensibility. Case in point: Luis Buñuel and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954). At first glance, the movie appears to be a faithful rendering, especially for a viewer less acquainted with Buñuel. But look a little deeper, and we see how successfully he has hijacked the novel, but without losing his regard for it.

Buñuel makes a revelatory point — that the meaning of a film is contained less in the broad strokes of the plot than in the interstices of that plot, in the spaces and cracks that lie between the large events of the story. So, while the original plot remains quite intact, the movie has scores of ingeniously invented Buñuelian details. A few interesting aspects:

  • Buñuel beautifully accentuates Crusoe's solitude and forced celibacy. Crusoe makes a scarecrow out of the first thing he can find, a woman's dress. A gust of wind blows the dress up gently, as if bringing the figure to life for an instant — and he freezes in a quiet moment of shock.

  • Later, Friday puts on the same dress and Crusoe grows furious and asks him to take it off immediately. (Subtextually, a moment loaded with sexual danger.)

  • "I'm an atheist, thank God," said Buñuel famously. Steeped in Catholicism and taught by the Jesuits as a child, religion and theology fascinated him all his life. In a touching moment, Crusoe arrives at a ravine on the island, longs to hear another human voice, and shouts a line from the Bible ("man short in days and long in sorrow") so he can hear an echo...of his own voice.

  • It wouldn't be a Buñuel movie without a killer dream sequence. Crusoe dreams of being punished by his father. He is convulsed with thirst but tied up, placed in water up to his waist. (Frustration — a key Buñuelian trope.)

  • As Crusoe is leaving the island, he hears the bark of his dog and spins around, though we know that his dog is long dead. It's a wonderful moment — a poignant disjunction of sound and image. (A sound from the past travelling in time to plant itself in the image of the present.)

So, tell me: your favorite literary adaptations? And why?


Blogger girish said...

First, please excuse the abominable visual pun.
Then, check this out. Maud points to a Slate article collecting reminiscences of "first literary loves". Then, she asks readers to send in theirs. (Think I'll be going, no surprise here, with Lolita.)

November 17, 2005 7:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Siren has a mama of a post about biopics--a must-read, I tell ya.

November 17, 2005 7:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Art-watch: Nifty posters from the Hurricane Katrina Poster Project.

November 17, 2005 7:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Re: the topic at hand, I like what Altman did with Carver in Short Cuts, Terence Davies with Edith Wharton in The House Of Mirth, and Bunuel (again) with Bronte in Wuthering Heights.

November 17, 2005 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I think that The Conformist and Contempt both improved upon Moravia's novels. I also liked both Cavalcanti's and McGrath's versions of Nicholas Nickelby. After I saw Company of Wolves, I started collecting the short stories and novels by Angela Carter. Neil Jordan and Carter reworked some ideas from her short story into a feature length narrative.

November 17, 2005 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Excellent point about the Godard and Bertolucci, Peter. Great personal adaptations, both.
Netflixed Company Of Wolves last week.

November 17, 2005 9:39 AM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

I think the following are all fine film versions of books.

Out of Sight (from Elmore Leonard's novel)
Jackie Brown (from Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch)
Adaptation (from Susan Orleans' The Orchid Thief)
The Shining (from Stephen King's novel)
Fight Club (from Chuck Palahniuk's novel)
All the President's Men (from Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein's book)
About A Boy (improves on Nick Hornby's novel, especially the ending -- for that matter, I've learned to appreciate how good the film version of High Fidelity is)
Silence of The Lambs (from Thomas Harris' novel)

Mind you, there are lots of other great movies based on books, but since I haven't read the source material, I can't judge how good the adaptation was.

The Remains of the Day and The Hours are both decent, but they lack a special element. They get the events right, but they fail to capture the power of the writing. I intensely disliked The English Patient and The Mambo Kings, because I loved the books so much.

November 17, 2005 12:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice picks!
Love your site, by the way.

November 17, 2005 12:26 PM  
Blogger Musing said...

Not necessarily my favorite but thinking of the 1939 Wizard of Oz adaptation--symbolic meaning or not, silver slippers just wouldn’t have been as visually stunning as ruby ones.

November 17, 2005 12:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jeannette, I've never read the book. I really need to. I know the movie is a popular classic and people know it by heart but I've seen it just once and don't remember it that well. (Shame on me.) That's what happens when you don't grow up with something.

November 17, 2005 12:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I'm a fan of Sasha Frere-Jones.
Here's a cool interview with him, and it even has a picture of him.
I like how he bristles when he's called "rock critic". (He prefers "pop critic"--good for him.)

November 17, 2005 1:42 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

What a great post, Girish. I haven't seen Bunuel's adaptation of Crusoe, but I appreciate the nuanced reading you've provided here (it makes me want to see it). I too greatly enjoyed Terence Davies' adaptation of House of Mirth; the tone of that film is what impresses me the most (and Laura Linney's great in her supporting role). I also love the film version of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, which Ian Softley made in 1997. Filming James is almost impossible, but Softley managed to capture the smooth, tragic trajectory of the story (and the film's beautiful to look at).

I think that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is philosophically superior to its source, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I've always felt that the movie captures the existential drama of the story and the power of memory better than the book does. Also, even though I've only seen it once years ago (it's not on DVD), I remember really enjoying Kenneth Branagh's complete adaptation of Hamlet. He uses the entire text but expands on it by bringing the setting several centuries forward and by shifting elements (such as making the arrival of Fortinbras' army into Denmark a crucial event, almost a climax, which is something most adaptations don't do). Having said that, Jack Lemmon's very brief moment as Marcellus is absolutely cringe-inducing.

November 17, 2005 1:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Excellent examples, Michael.
I've neither read the James nor seen the film. The only Softley movie I've seen is the one he made about the Beatles, which I liked (Backbeat). Great soundtrack too (with Thurston Moore, Greg Dulli, etc.)
Agree with you also about Blade Runner.

November 17, 2005 1:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ben's a damn fine archeologist.

November 17, 2005 2:03 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Speaking of James, I wrote myself not too long ago about how marvelously The Turn Of The Screw was adapted into Jack Clayton's The Innocents.

So here's an obvious one, for me: Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle / Eyes Wide Shut.

Adaptation I'm currently anticipating with baited breath: Tom Tykwer's take on Suskind's Perfume.

Adaptation I'm ruing the collapse of: the Coen Brothers' take on James Dickey's To The White Sea.

November 17, 2005 2:08 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Henry James almost always puts me to sleep, but I loved what Truffaut did with his work in The Green Room. I found the film absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

I've read some of the L. Frank Baum books, long ago, and I think the Wizard of Oz movie is superior to the source. Same with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, not least for losing the narrator's racism (that is a fantastic film in general).

And then there's Psycho, which was based on a rather pulpy novel. I like pulp sometimes, but I think there's no question that Hitchcock reworked it with great finesse.

Stand By Me might be better than The Body for losing the long embarrassing explicit short story about sexual experiences. Tonally, it fit like Tom Waits + Elvira Madigan.

November 17, 2005 2:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hmm. You've made me mighty curious about the Schnitzler, which I haven't read, and The Innocents, which I haven't seen.

November 17, 2005 2:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa--I like how Hitch believed that the humbler the source material, the better the prospects for Hitch to sculpt it any darned way he wanted.
But if he were remaking a well-known work of literature, its departures from the original would be much more conspicuous and remarked upon.

November 17, 2005 2:30 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I haven't read Grapes of Wraith in a very long time, so can't really comment on how it is transferred to film, but I just have to throw it out b/c of John Ford's version being a great visual capture of american history/myth.

IMO, what makes a good transfer from page to film is offering something unique to cinema, such as the unyielding landscape and harsh winter conditions in Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (originally penned by Russel Banks). The isolating atmosphere from the snow and mountains really brings the trauma of the community to life-- that much more tragic and painful. But, also works to show how the faults and dependency of the parents involved become augmented in such a locale, the intimately tied relationships all the more influential. A very emotionally complex film, more so than Banks' book.

November 17, 2005 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I have a question: given your love for Nabokov, what do you make of the film adaptations of Lolita, particularly Kubrick's?

November 17, 2005 4:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael--As you know, Nabokov wrote the screenplay for the Kubrick film, but was disappointed because Kubrick excised large portions of it (out of necessity, or he'd have ended up with a 12-hour movie). Lolita to me is primarily a book about language, and so Kubrick's film is (thankfully) quite a different animal altogether. I like the film quite a bit, especially the performances. After I saw it, each time I returned to the book, I couldn't shake the mental picture of James Mason as Humbert and Shelley Winters as "Big Haze".

Adrian Lyne's version with Jeremy Irons I didn't care for at all--I found it eye-rollingly cliched.

What about you, Michael?

November 17, 2005 4:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I haven't read the Banks book, but I remember being told (by Darren, I'm pretty sure) that the DVD commentary track features both Banks and Egoyan and is really good.

November 17, 2005 4:47 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

It really is quite good (the commentary track).

On the subject of Banks, I haven't read Affliction, but I love Schrader's film of it. I have read Rule Of The Bone, both the novel and the screenplay, adapted in the late 90s by one of my favorite current auteurs (hint: he's often referred to by his three initials) but never produced. And it's a good thing, too, because it might have tarnished this director's otherwise blemish-free oveure...

November 17, 2005 5:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hmm. "blemish-free oeuvre"...
You've got us curious now.
I don't know...PTA?

November 17, 2005 5:41 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, actually (and to my regret) I haven't seen either version of Lolita. I was curious to get your thoughts because I have avoided the films in part for the reasons you mentioned; the novel really is about language, and needs to be experienced as such. Plus, I had always suspected that Lynne's adaptation was indeed cliched, as you state. I generally admire Kubrick's work, and now that I know that his version is different from the novel, I think I will give it a try.

November 17, 2005 6:54 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

So, I don't know that this fits your criteria, G, but I'm a huge fan of Lean's take on Great Expectations. It's by no means a radical reworking of Dickens... But it's just so gothic and beautiful and, er, great.

November 17, 2005 7:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

That's funny, Ben.
This morning when I was typing up my little polemic, I asked myself: "Now how am I going to justify my love of Lean's Great Expectations? Better quietly not mention it at all..." :-)
I'm glad you did, though.

November 17, 2005 7:34 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

The interplay of Satyajit Ray's films and Bengali literature he drew from is extremely fascinating. Most of his universally acclaimed masterpieces like Apu trilogy, Charulata, Tin Kanya, Debi, Jalsaghar, Ashoni Sanket are period films - adaptations of widely read works of early twentieth-century classical humanist Bengali writers like Bibhutibhushan, Tarashankar, Prabhat Mukhopadhyay and of course Rabindranath. Their vision and sensibility often very closely mirrored Satyajit's own even though Satyajit was a generation younger. He approached their literature with a sense of deep respect - like an aspiring artist trying to emulate his gurus.

Bibhutibhushan's Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Ashoni Sanket are among the greatest novels ever written about rural Bengal. Satyajit was born and brought up in Calcutta. He came from an urban Brahmo background. Without Bibhutibhushan's rich and profound knowledge and experience about rural Bengal, those films would never have resonated so well. Bibhutibhushan's prose was beautifully chaotic. Satyajit's Apu trilogy, and the rest of his work, is all about control and precision. Bibhutibhushan's Apu is imaginative but very impulsive, creative but does not have much self-control. He could be a poet, but never be an auteur director. Satyajit's Apu had a bit of Satyajit in him. Aparajito, in particular, did upset a lot of Bengali critics when it came out. They could not recognize the Apu they loved from the novels. He often seemed detached, even cruel and selfish at times. Bibhutibhushan's Apu had those strains in him too, but they were almost always hidden under a veneer of curiosity and empathy. Essentially, however, they are very similar and the vision of Bibhutibhushan could not be adapted more faithfully.

Rabindranath has a gurudev (godlike) status and a cult following among Bengalis. Satyajit used to draw a lot of flaks whenever he deviated from Rabindranath's works, no matter how inconsequential and minor it was.

Satyajit's approach to his contemporary Bengali writers like Shankar and Sunil Ganguly was often radically different. It was almost similar to Hitchcock's preference for selecting minor works which could be used as very flexible springboards. I think the primary reason behind that was the fact that most creative and progressive post-independent Bengali writers took a sharp left turn towards social realism. How Samaresh Bose's same shory story Uratiya was transformed so differently and yet brilliantly by Mrinal Sen (Genesis) and Budddhadev Dasgupta (Uttara), Ritwik Ghatak's films and Mrinal Sen's early films like Calcutta 71 inspired by Manik Bandyopadhyay's writings are good examples of what kind of literature other creative filmmakers were finding interesting at that time. Not that it did not interest Satyajit at all, but the political overtones and a somewhat narrower framework concerned the individualist and universal humanist in him... but I digress :)

November 17, 2005 10:55 PM  
Anonymous sacha said...

I'll add three:

The Virgin Suicides,novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (Which manages to be both beautiful and awkward, like the characters he describes.)

The 25th Hour, novel by David Benioff (He also wrote the script based on this first time novel. The dog doesn't die in the beginning, Girish--you should see it. In fact, in the novel the dog is a deeper character than the film--a disappointment to me.)

Sideways, novel by Rex Pickett (Which at one point made me laugh so hard when I was reading it on the plane that the flight attendant asked me if I was okay. The ending is also much more satisfying than the bad movie one.)

November 17, 2005 11:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dipanjan, thank you for taking the time to educate us. Really enjoyed your observations.
I lived in Bengal for a few years (Calcutta, then at IIT Kharagpur) and loved to speak the language but didn't know how to read or write it.
And I had no idea that those two Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta movies were based on the same story!

November 18, 2005 7:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sacha, I liked Sideways a lot. And I need to see the other two. Soon.

November 18, 2005 7:48 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

I didn't know that Uttara and Genesis being based from the same source either; the "competition" theme between the two men over a woman and the atemporality is similar (but so are hundreds of movie plots), but I don't remember any marching dwarves in the Sen film. :)

By the way, it's been probably 25 years since I last saw Grapes of Wrath, but doesn't the film end at about 2/3 into the book? Anyway, another example that comes to mind is how Louis Malle really "got" the tone and perspective of Josephine Hart's book in Damage.

November 18, 2005 11:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, the way Dasgupta was talking about the dwarves at the Q&A, they seemed to be near and dear to him (and his imagination!).

And Malle can be such a chameleon like that.

November 18, 2005 11:21 AM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

Yes, dwarves are very close to Buddhadev. Do you remember the cross-dressed dwarf who was the conjurer's assistant in Tahader Katha (Their Story)? He is possibly alluding to Lord Vishnu's Vamana avatar in some way. It is also a result of watching too much Bunuel :). There is no reference to dwarves in those two stories. Incidentally Kamal Majumdar, the writer of Tahader Katha, was a close friend of Satyajit Ray. He used to write Bengali in a very unique and French-like syntax. Tahader Katha is a wonderful short story - both stylistically and thematically. It would definitely qualify as one of my most favorite adaptations.

November 18, 2005 1:01 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

I can't believe I forgot about The Innocents. Amazing movie which has been AWOL on DVD until two months ago. Along with Robert Wise's version of The Haunting, one of my favorite movies about haunted houses. That last scene in the greenhouse -- the confrontation between Miss Giddons (Deborah Kerr) and Miles (Martin Stephens -- just blew my mind.

I saw The Innocents around '84. I loved it so much that I read the Henry James novel. I got confused, because James said that the ghosts were real, but if you read the book, it was very clear that it was a distinct possibility that the governess was nuts (The movie has the same ambiguity). One of my college professors essentially said that the author isn't the final authority on his/her own work, and I've lived that credo ever since.

November 18, 2005 5:12 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Am a huge believer in the idea of the intentional fallacy myself.

November 19, 2005 8:21 AM  
Anonymous Ju-osh: the paleface Ghostface said...

I'm going to echo the mentions of:

The Virgin Suicides (how did 'Lost In Translation' get so much praise and this get by most folks almost unnoticed?)

Out Of Sight

Jackie Brown (pretty much a textbook example of how a filmmaker can remain true to the essence of a book while simultaneously crafting a movie that is 100% themselves, and one of my all-time favorite films!)

And now to add a few new ones:

Walt Disney's 'Snow White' & 'Bambi'

Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel melds any number of Reinaldo Arenas' poems and prose together to construct this bio-pic, but that still counts, don't it?)

L.A. Confidential

Old Boy (Park took a not particularly notable manga and turned into one of last year's more controversial, love-it-or-hate-it films)

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang turned a small bit of serialized pulp fiction from the Saturday Evening Post into a pulp masterpiece. It instantly surpassed the original simply by Lang's casting of Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame as a couple!)

November 20, 2005 1:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice picks, Ghostface-san.

November 20, 2005 2:13 PM  
Anonymous IA said...

Some reasonably faithful adaptations that match or surpass their source material:

Enjo (Kon Ichikawa, 1958) -- Aided by the great screenwriter Natto Wada, who was also his wife, Ichikawa beautifully reworked Yukio Mishima's Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955)-- Olivier chopped out huge chunks of a very long and patchy play to make it into a stylized performance showcase for himself.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt,1969) -- With a few exceptions like this and Goldfinger, most of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are better than the movies.

Pola X (Leos Carax, 1999) -- Herman Melville's Pierre was nearly unadaptable. That Carax could update and hew to the book's plot while combiming its nuttiness with his own is a miracle.

November 20, 2005 7:47 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

I seem to recall Alfred Hitchcock once saying in an interview something to the effect of: "Good books make bad movies and bad books make good movies." I believe in this theory. Hitchcock did a ton of adaptations of books and plays, but none of them were particularly noteworthy works. A pulp novel, high on plot and weak on characterization, is ideal for film.

Most great books have qualities that make them difficult to put on the screen. For that matter, if a book is that great, what exactly is the point of making a film of it? To simply bring it to a wider audience?

November 21, 2005 3:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

My sentiments, exactly.
All the French New Wave guys took Hitch to heart on this point and used to cite this example frequently.

November 21, 2005 3:59 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, have you read that book of interviews between Truffaut and Hitchcock? I skimmed through it and decided to skip it--a lot of things were shown false with just a bit of thought; I wonder if Hitch was misremembering things, lying, or indulging in some revisionist history.

November 21, 2005 7:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa--Actually that book is one of my all-time favorite film books. There was once a time a few years ago when I must've bought a half dozen copies as gifts for friends. I love how Hitch's filmmaking vision, his philosophy of what cinema is and should be, comes through so clearly (and entertainingly). In general, I'm a sucker for interviews and interview books, and this one's a corker.

November 21, 2005 9:16 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Hm. I'll look for it on ILL then. Probably wouldn't hurt to watch my favorite Hitch films first, of course. :-)

November 21, 2005 11:20 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

As for the Hitchcock interview book, it's wonderful. Is it accurate? Probably not, but still highly illuminating on the art of film. In the Sixties, a lot of the classic filmmakers were interviewed (Welles, Ford, Hawks) and told stories that weren't true. Had they come to believe the legend? Were they embellishing for effect? Who knows?

For example, I can highly recommend This is Orson Welles, the interview book by Peter Bogdanovich. From time to time, Bogdanovich catches Welles in an untruth and Welles waves off such things. In Welles’ case, he seems wary of facts being pinned down, as though art can be explained by knowing exactly how an effect was achieved. Was a shot an accident or careful planning? Welles seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter.

In regards to my earlier comment about James and whether he is the best source of the meaning of The Turn of the Screw, I just ran across this quote from C.S. Lewis: "It is the author who intends; the book means. . . Of a book’s meaning, in this sense, its author is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge."

November 23, 2005 10:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

C.S. Lewis: "It is the author who intends; the book means. . . Of a book’s meaning, in this sense, its author is not necessarily the best, and is never a perfect, judge."

Wow, never heard that before, but that's a beaut.
Nails the idea.

November 23, 2005 11:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And thanks for the Bogdanovich heads-up. I have a few books on Welles (Bazin, Naremore, etc) but not this one. Just plopped it into the cart.

November 23, 2005 11:08 AM  

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