Show and tell

Moviegoers and readers ought to learn to love the book and the film.


Charles Taylor
April 24, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

In a midtown Manhattan bookstore hangs a T-shirt that sums up the fractious relationship between literature and movies. The T-shirt shows a movie clapper board bearing the legend "The Book Was Better." While this is not a piece of apparel likely to be worn by anyone who has ever attempted to read "The Last of the Mohicans" ("There have been daring people in the world who claimed that [James Fenimore] Cooper could write English," said Mark Twain, "but they are all dead now"), it does speak for an awful lot of people who cling to the belief that movies can never equal the subtleties and nuances of literature.

A steady eye on the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times will tell you that. After death and taxes, the third certainty of life is that the release of a movie adaptation of a classic novel will be the occasion for some littérateur to compare the two forms and find movies wanting. Into this club of the blinkered distinguished whose members include Cynthia Ozick (whose essay on Jane Campion's film of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" was republished in her "Quarrel & Quandary") recently stepped novelist and critic David Gates weighing in on behalf of Edith Wharton and against Terence Davies' film of "The House of Mirth." "Respectful and intelligent" Gates calls the film, which are the sort of adjectives you employ when you've had a lousy time but feel duty-bound to recognize that there's some talent involved.

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If we were back in the old movie days when a credit for a film of "Romeo and Juliet" read "by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor," there might be some real reason to distrust even the thought of literature being made into movies. Hints of the bad old days still crop up. The Demi Moore remake of "The Scarlet Letter" provided a happy ending just as the Greta Garbo version of "Anna Karenina" had (and may God forgive me for mentioning those two women in the same sentence). But especially in the last 15 years -- after Philip Kaufman's movie of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"; Paul Mazursky's film of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Enemies, a Love Story"; Jack Clayton's film of Brian Moore's "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne"; Stephen Frears' version of Choderlos de Laclos "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (helpfully retitled "Dangerous Liaisons" for those who might have mistakenly thought they were seeing a film about lesbian rivals); Gillian Armstrong's film of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women"; the adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess" by, respectively, Agniezska Holland and Alfonso Cuaron; Cuaron's film of Dickens' "Great Expectations"; the films of Russell Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Affliction" made by Atom Egoyan and Paul Schrader; Lasse Halström's film of John Irving's "The Cider House Rules"; and the greatest of all movie adaptations, John Huston's magnificent final bow with his film of James Joyce's "The Dead" -- you'd think that the question of whether movies can successfully adapt literature would be settled. Still, aggrieved fiction writers bleat on, goats against the herd.

Of course, there are exceptions to any generalization. Novelists James Agee and Graham Greene are among the best film critics who ever practiced the craft (I have preferred Greene's criticism to his novels). The work collected in Dwight MacDonald's classic "On Movies" is probably the liveliest film writing ever done by a movie critic with no instinctive feel for movies (as opposed to the refinements of that mandarin drone Philip Lopate, which is the deadest). Norman Mailer has butted heads with the movies over the years resulting in work that's been brilliant, and usually off the mark.

The literary critic Geoffrey O'Brien has shown much better aim. His "The Phantom Empire" is an original and haunting piece of film criticism. There were a slew of vivid portraits in the recent collection "O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors." And there are plenty of novelists whose work is infused with the spirit and influence of the movies. Off the top of my head, Richard Price, Terry Southern with his demonic screwball slapstick, Jonathan Lethem with his feel for the iconography of popular myth, the Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante, even James Joyce who at one point thought Busby Berkeley and Eisenstein should collaborate on the film of "Ulysses." But too many literary figures still treat movies like the poor country cousin with patches on his clothes.

Some of the reasons are easy to guess: jealousy over the fact that movies reach an audience that books simply don't. (Compare the hundreds of thousands who are likely to read a bestseller with the millions who will see the movie based on that book to grasp the disparity.) And then there are the scores of books that have been butchered by movies, the scores of writers chewed up and spit out by Hollywood. Given that history, an animosity between writers and movies is understandable.

But the real reason so many writers don't get movies is that, in their heart of hearts, they believe that only words are capable of conveying nuance, distinction, sensibility, thought. Listen to the phony conflict that Cynthia Ozick sets up in her essay "Cinematic James": "A novel is, first of all, made out of language; it is language that determines whether a novel's storytelling trajectory will land it in the kindgom of art or in the rundown neighborhood of the hackneyed." No argument so far. Unfortunately, she goes on, "A movie, by contrast, despite its all-encompassing arsenal of skills, probing angles, mood-inducing music, and miraculous technologies, is still a picture show [emphasis mine]." Ozick's choice of words gives her away. A novel is "made," in other words, the product of someone's choices. A movie, on the other hand, merely "shows."

You get the same thing in David Gates' article on "The House of Mirth." "These two versions of 'The House of Mirth' -- or, I should say, the real 'House of Mirth' and its cinematic representation -- suggest to me that fiction, by its very nature, can do a better job of storytelling than film, which in its purest form is story-showing" [emphasis his]. That a screenwriter, director, cinematographer, editor choose how to show us those pictures simply doesn't enter into either Ozick's or Gates' thinking.

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Like every word a writer puts on a page, every shot in a movie is, for better or worse, a choice. The screenwriter chooses what to show us, the director how to frame what is shown, the cinematographer and lighting director how to light what is shown, the editor how long to show us this shot and in what relation to the images that surround it. Pictures do not materialize in front of a camera to be recorded any more than words magically appear on white paper or a computer screen. "Something," Gates concludes, "must explain why we put down Wharton's novel uplifted and come out of Mr. Davies's film just ever so slightly bummed." Sure. Edith Wharton is a greater talent than Terence Davies; her sensibility is tragic, his is depressive. But Gates can only conclude that, for him at least, it's the inferiority of the form itself. Ozick hastens to add a footnote disclaimer "Who today would dispute that movies are an art form?" Her, for one. I'll trust her declarative statement: Movies are still a picture show. But aren't novels word shows, dependent on the strengths of the showmen?

Let's compare how, in adapting literature to the screen, even a minor choice can bring a work into startling focus. In a scene in James Joyce's "The Dead," Julia, the old maiden aunt, sings "Arrayed for the Bridal" for her assembled guests. This is how Joyce describes it: "Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer's face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight." The implication of that last sentence is clear: Looking at Aunt Julia's face would reveal something less secure.

John Huston shows us the face of Cathleen Delany, the actress who plays Aunt Julia, only briefly. But his choices still manage to capture that uncertainty. Delany employs a voice that's not clear and strong but quavering. Since the actress has made Aunt Julia's inner state palpable in her outer appearance, Huston's camera is free to roam. Gliding through the house she shares with her maiden sister and their maiden niece like a visitor careful not to disturb anything, Huston shows us the rooms, and eventually the artifacts of Julia's dressing table, the items and their careful placement, you imagine, unchanged since she was a very young woman. The combination of those fragile embellishments and Aunt Julia's high, thin voice brings home with an overpowering sadness what it means for a respectable spinster lady to sing an air called "Arrayed for the Bridal." That's a dual focus even James Joyce couldn't pull off. Which does not make his story -- the greatest short story ever written -- inferior to Huston's film. It simply shows why movie adaptations are not just story showing, not simply re-creations, but living things in their own right.

It's strange that writers, who tend to value subtlety in literature, seem to feel that things need be spelled out (or can only be spelled out) in the movies. In that piece on "The House of Mirth" David Gates writes, "If you could plunk a camera down in the middle of [Wharton's] fictional world, you would get the deeds, the words and the gestures; but without her narrator's explanations you would understand only part of what was going on." Yes, if the director didn't know what he was doing, or if you take images solely at their face value.

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Gates goes on to complain that, at the end of the film, Terence Davies, limited to showing us the events of the book, cannot "tell us what's going on in the characters' minds, hearts and spirits." Perhaps the blind wouldn't understand why Eric Stoltz's Selden is so devastated by Lily Bart's suicide. Anyone else who witnesses Gillian Anderson's incandescent performance -- provided they're breathing -- shouldn't have a problem.

This distrust of expression other than words is nothing new. In "Terrible Honesty," her social history of Manhattan in the '20s, Ann Douglas writes about the resistance that writers put up to the emergence of what she calls "post-print media" (by which she means broadcast and recorded music, and movies). Drawing on Vachel Lindsay's 1915 "The Art of the Moving Picture," Douglas writes, "The biggest contrast in modern culture was not between literacy and illiteracy but between two different types of literacy." It's the whole concept of visual literacy that writers seem so unwilling to even consider. Douglas comes close to not considering it herself when she writes that, unlike words printed on a page, we don't need to figure out "an image in a film, or a sound on a record or the radio; we just get it." Yes. Or, if you're watching a Godard movie or listening to the later John Coltrane, maybe not. And even that's too easy. All good work, even work that's immediately accessible -- a movie by Howard Hawks or a song by the Beatles, say -- rewards heightened attention.

Because we first experience movies as a pleasure, a treat, something that doesn't have the "improving" quality of school books, there's a natural tendency to resist believing that they require any special knowledge to comprehend. That would put them in the realm of the dutiful, of work. The truth is, though, that we learn (or choose not to learn) to read movies in the same way that we learn to read novels. In both cases, comprehension requires something beyond just the basic, mechanical work of scanning your eyes over what's in front of you. A child who has learned how can "read" a novel by Thomas Hardy or Vladimir Nabokov or Edna O'Brien but of course he won't understand it. In the same way, as a young moviegoer, my first exposure to directors like Renoir, Godard, Satyajit Ray left me bored, puzzled, irritated. Their movies weren't immediately comprehensible like the pictures I was used to seeing. Getting them meant doing more than simply looking at the pictures in front of me.

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And yet, reading literary figures on the movies, I often get the feeling that for them the work stops on the surface. About 10 years ago, I got roped into watching the Oscars with a literary and theater critic acquaintance, and let's just say that if I had to choose who I felt more sorry for, flood victims or the actors this guy reviewed, it would be a toss-up. A clip from Tim Burton's "Batman" came on-screen and the critic, whom I'll call Zeppo, immediately started railing against the movie, claiming it didn't make any sense. "Of course it did," said another film critic who was present, "it made visual sense." From the look on Zeppo's face it was clear that this was an entirely new idea to him. The fact that images can have a coherence that seals up narrative gaps, or that finds a graceful way around expository clumsiness, eludes many literary critics. You could argue that because a movie is freed from the necessity of having to explain the meaning of action, it allows for a much subtler means of conveying it.

The greatest movie adaptations have always found visual equivalents for their sources. Think of the image that appears in the title sequence of Stanley Kubrick's wonderful film of "Lolita," a man's hands delicately painting a young girl's toenails. As the first shot in the movie it sets the tone for what follows, the comic tone of erotic dementia, and then the tragic tone of erotic loss. Or take a look at Philip Kaufman's great film of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Kaufman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere had the nearly impossible task of blending Kundera's philosophical musings about lightness and heaviness into a narrative. Kundera's opposition is first expressed with a couple of witty visual throwaways: a shot of some men in a pool gathered around a floating chess board (the cerebral "heaviness" of the game contrasted with the floating "lightness" of the playing pieces), and then a shot of the lithe Juliette Binoche sprinting out of the pool past a lolling bruiser who watches her, his enormous gut floating before him.

Curiously, the more faithful a movie adaptation, the more likely literary critics are going to ignore the choices it contains. When Kenneth Branagh was nominated for Best Adapated Screenplay Oscar for "Hamlet" he suffered immediate derision. The film was an uncut version of the play. What could he have possibly done? It was embarrassing to have to point out that a screenplay is more than just dialogue. It was Branagh, not Shakespeare, who chose to stage the "To be or not to be" speech in front of a mirror. It was Branagh who showed us Hamlet and Ophelia in bed, thus giving Polonious' threats to his daughter even greater cruelty. And it was Branagh who showed Polonious' bloody corpse taken out past the screaming Ophelia, thus providing a direct link for her descent into madness.

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Some of the sharpest recent writing on the differences between film and literature starts with this hand grenade: "There is no such thing as a faithful adaptation." The writer is the British film critic Robin Wood in his book on Iain Softley's film of Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove" (one of the slim volumes in the British Film Institute's Modern Classics series where a writer is invited to do a book-length essay on a film of his or her choosing). "When people talk about faithful adaptations," Wood writes, "they usually seem to mean that the film follows the plot of the novel ... To reduce a great novel to its plot is merely to reveal a total incapacity for reading it." If you watch Henry Hathaway's film of Charles Portis' "True Grit," which completely misses the novel's portrait of the grace in Puritan forbearance, or the appalling Merchant-Ivory film of "Howards End," the equivalent of those vellum-bound volumes that sit plummy and unopened, decorations more than books, you know how a film can be faithful to a book's plot and not get the point.

Complicating the matter, Wood continues, "But the notion of the faithful adaptation is equally insulting to film. It implies that film is the inferior art and should be content (or even proud) to reproduce precisely what it can never hope to reproduce: the movement of the author's words on paper." What distinguishes Wood from the literary critics who agree that movies are incapable of that reproduction is that he understands there are means of transferring those verbal movements into visual ones. For Wood, Softley's "The Wings of the Dove" (a movie he loves) is a success because Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini completely transform "its surface while, at the same time, preserving its essentials with such sensitivity and intelligence ... The result is a triumphant paradox: the experience of 'reading' the film is totally different from that of reading the novel, yet one almost ... never feels that James has been betrayed. Here for once is an adaptation completely 'free' yet faithful to the novel's essence."

And that's the only kind of faithfulness worth having in a movie adaptation. Of all the movies I've praised in the last few years, one that has gotten nearly the most "How could you have liked that?" letters is Alfonso Cuaron's overpoweringly sensual film of "Great Expectations" starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. I'll stand by my estimation of the film, one of the best movies of the '90s. I was happy to see Wood call it "splendid." He goes right to the heart of the free vs. faithful debate in adaptation when he says that "the adaptation is so free that, after a while, one ceases to think of Dickens at all." That's because Cuaron and his screenwriter Mitch Glaser love and know the book deeply enough to go on instinct. Understanding the book in their gut, they are free to re-create it. One detail can stand as an example of what they do. Changing Dickens' protagonist from a blacksmith's apprentice to an aspiring artist in '90s Manhattan isn't just a function of updating the story. Art allows the hero a vessel into which to pour all his unrequited longing for his beloved and distant Estella.

Orwell said that Dickens had a talent for the "visualizing tendency" of childhood. That tendency may be nowhere greater than when we convert the books we read into mental pictures. The "faithful" film adaptations that are not slavish and empty but capture the inner life of a book really are something like seeing the novel come to life. I think that Dickens might have been delighted to see the faces of Bernard Miles as Joe, Finlay Currie as Magwitch and the young Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket in David Lean's earlier film of "Great Expectations." And I think Thomas Hardy might have felt the same to see the actors inhabiting the skin of his farmworkers in John Schlesinger's underrated and lovely 1967 film of Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd." They seem to have sprung right from the 18th century (so much so that it takes a few minutes to get used to seeing Julie Christie and Terence Stamp acting -- superbly -- next to them).

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If I had to choose one comment that encapsulated the blindness of the literati toward movies, it would be Mary McCarthy's comment in her "Ideas and the Novel" that with the movies man had invented a narrative medium "incapable of thought." That's one of the dumbest statements ever made by a really smart person. It's useful, though, because it illuminates a couple of prejudices that help us understand the animosity between literature and movies. First is the old canard that reading is active while watching is passive. Doesn't it depend on what you're reading or watching? It's just as easy for a reader to tune out reading pulpy trash (or, if they're really unlucky, a "literary" snoozer like Michael Ondaatje ) as it is to tune out at a movie or in front of TV. (No one making the "watching is passive" claim has ever explained how a viewer can be passive and still follow a plot.)

What's at the heart of that claim is a self-serving myth that writers like to tell themselves. If they can make reading the province of thinking, they can envision themselves as superior to the doltish masses.

The other canard lurking in McCarthy's comment is the assumption that art is -- or should be -- about ideas. Phooey. Great artists are very rarely great thinkers, and when they are their intellectual capacity doesn't necessarily enhance their art. Except for Godard in the '60s, whose ideas were often impetuous, imperfectly formed, I don't know of any other great filmmaker I'd be willing to call an impressive thinker. In fact, some of the greatest are terrible thinkers. If you could boil the "ideas" in Ingmar Bergman or Bernardo Bertolucci down, what you might be left with is "Kierkergaard for Beginners" or "Marx for Beginners." In Bertolucci's case, his greatness stems from his allowing his sensual and emotional instincts to overwhelm his tinny ideas.

And if we were to boil down some great works of art -- say "King Lear," "David Copperfield," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Blue Velvet" -- to their "ideas" they might look pretty trite. Their greatness is elsewhere. Intelligence in art has little to do with "ideas" and everything to do with fidelity to experience and emotion, and innovation in finding ways to express those things. Let me cite a more recent example. "The Body," the episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that ran in February, dealing with Buffy and her friends' reaction to the sudden death of her mother from a brain aneurysm, is a work of genius. Nothing I have ever read or seen captured the disorienting texture of grief, the way, in the immediate aftermath of loss, time itself becomes rubbery and uncertain, as that hour of television was. I could sit down scene by scene, shot by shot, and point out the intelligence behind it, particularly the sublime and transcendent cruelty of the moment when Buffy's younger sister sneaks into the morgue to see her mother's body and is confronted by a vampire coming to life, a grotesque mockery of her wish that her mother would rise from the dead. I'm damned if I can tell you what the idea of that scene is. But I know it takes a fearsome (and fearless) intelligence to envision it.

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The superior attitude of some literary critics is especially depressing given the kinship that exists between movies and novels. When studio bosses tried to tell D.W. Griffith that audiences wouldn't be able to follow intersecting story lines, he asked them, "Doesn't Dickens write that way?" In the introduction to the screenplay of his novel "The Cider House Rules" John Irving is uncommonly gracious about literature being made into movies. "I am the screenwriter," he writes, "the screenplay is mine. Lasse is the director. The film is his. I've said this before: When I feel like being a director, I write a novel."

And, it might be said, there are some filmmakers who, when they feel like writing a novel, get behind the camera. The continuous peeling back of layers to reveal more and more detail, nuance and perspective in the films of Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray, or the way contemporary filmmakers like Gillian Armstrong or Lynne Stopkewich wade into the psyches of their protagonists in "High Tide" and "Kissed," have the richness you associate with reading a novel. (On the other hand, the driving pace of some contemporary crime novelists, George P. Pelecanos for one, often makes me feel like I'm watching a movie.)

A few years ago, just before Gus Van Sant's Xerox of "Psycho" came out, I got an e-mail from a young film critic saying he hadn't seen Hitchcock's original and wondered if he should before seeing Van Sant's film or whether it would be better to go in "fresh." I told him that as a matter of professional literacy he was obligated to see the Hitchcock. Offended, he wrote back and said, "That's like saying I have to read the book a film is based on."

Danger lurks in that kind of laziness. Any book worth reading should be read before seeing the movie version. Not only so the book can have a life of its own in a reader's mind, but as a means of evaluating how the movie adaptation fulfills those twin obligations of faithfulness and freedom. A movie that dares to adapt an established work of literature deserves to be measured against its source. But it also has to be evaluated in its own terms.

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I'm not interested in making a case for movies as being greater than books. I doubt I could live without either. And I know reading has been crucial for the well being of my writing, if for no other reason than nourishing me and entertaining me during those times when movies don't. You don't judge the potentialities of an art form by its worst, and the best movie adaptations have shown the ability of movies not to merely replicate or replace literature, but to concentrate it, to make it breathe. Movies have never succeeded in replacing books, nor have they ever aimed to. Often, they've sent viewers to books, anxious to relive and deepen the experience they've just had. Is it so hard for literature to return that generosity?


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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