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?