Friday, September 9, 2016

Page to Screen

By Art Taylor

This week's question is a fun one: "What's the most successful book-to-screen film you've ever seen? What was the least (and why)?"

I've actually taught a course here at George Mason University that examines several pairings of books and films, specifically with a focus on crime stories and specifically with an eye toward adaptations that are different in key ways from their source material. Here's a sampling of the texts for that class:
  • Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (not a direct adaptation, I know, and The Glass Key is as much an influence as Red Harvest, but we look at resonance between all these works and also glance at both Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars and Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place and Nicholas Ray's adaptation
  • Two stories by Daphne du Maurier—"The Birds" and "Don't Look Now"—and the respective adaptations by Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg
  • Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye and Robert Altman's adaptation
  • Jonathan Nolan's originally unpublished story "Memento Mori" and the much, much better-known film adaptation Memento by his brother Christopher
  • And Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and the Coen Brothers' adaptation, which also provides opportunities to look at two works by the Coens side-by-side
I love each of these adaptations in many ways—often in very different ways. (And yes, I know that The Long Goodbye has its many detractors, including our own Criminal Mind, Paul D. Marks, and I understand where those folks are coming from.) What I think makes each of the listed films a success isn't—as I think the question here assumes—how faithful they are to the original book or story, but instead how each adaptation translates the source material for a different medium and how each director re-envisions the source material to make it his own ("his" in this case, because I realize writing this that all the directors are male, even as the writers of the source material show greater diversity). Robert Altman's Long Goodbye, for example, is much more clearly an expression of his own aesthetic sensibilities than it is Chandler's and yet somehow combined the two, commenting on the original in the process, homage and critique all at once—and to my mind, the stronger for all that. (Paul, I'm ready for your rebuttal.)

I'm not sure, from the list above, which films I'd pick as most successful—even though that is exactly the question that I gave to my students as the final reading response of the semester last time I taught this. However, I will say that Don't Look Now may well be the film here that sticks with me the most, that I think about most often.... The story is already troubling in so many ways, and the film adaption brings it all to life so vividly. I can't entirely shake it, the tone of the film, some of the images and the combination of images—some sign of success there, I believe, in how haunting the film is. (I'm not alone in my assessment, I should point out. A 1999 poll by the British Film Institute ranked it eighth among the top 100 British films of the century, and another poll in Time Out London in 2011 ranked it first. As for me, I keep finding myself drawn toward the new Criterion Collection edition of the film just to delve into it again more deeply, though my wife Tara says that for her, having it seen it once is more than enough.)

Beyond that list of films I've taught, however, several other films jumped immediately to mind as soon as I read this week's question—and all by the same director. Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather and Godfather Part II are no doubt among the greatest films of all time—and (I don't mean any offense) strike me as an improvement over Mario Puzo's book, whose prose can't compete with the lushness and the grandeur and the tragic vision of the films. (I'm thinking again now of that baptism scene and the power of those competing images, crosscutting between different parts of the story, points and counterpoint.) And while I can't fault Joseph Conrad's prose for lacking in any way, I'm similarly in awe of what Coppola did adapting Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now—a masterpiece in so many ways, updating that story and those themes into a more contemporary setting and offering through that a nightmarish and unparalleled vision of the Vietnam War.

As for worst adaptation.... Well, I can't say for certain (since I walked out of the film in disgust) but Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on James Ellroy's novel, might well top the list for me. I loved the book, but I couldn't stand the choreography of the opening riot scenes (like some musical number) or the way the actor seemed acutely aware that they were playing in a period piece—as if all that was missing were the winks and nods. 

More to say on all this, I'm sure—both good and bad—but maybe that's enough for now. 


Art Taylor said...

I'm gonna be on the road today--so apologies in advance if I don't respond to comments. I hope I get some feedback anyway, and look forward to answering later!

Paul D. Marks said...

Well, Art, now that you’ve put me on the spot ;) . Let’s see. I think my major problem with the Altman version of The Long Goodbye is its irreverence. Especially in Gould’s portrayal of Marlowe (and the character’s tone), Marlowe’s changed-in-the-movie relationship with Terry Lennox…and the ending, which I won’t give away here. It’s definitely a Marlowe for the 70s, but it isn’t Chandler’s Marlowe. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it has as much to do with Chandler’s book and Marlowe as the David Niven-Peter Sellers version of Casino Royale from 1967 has to do with Ian Fleming. I will admit that I’ve grown to dislike the movie version of The Long Goodbye less over time, but I think that has to do with the shock wearing off and just being numb to it.

That’s not to say that a book from the 50s couldn’t be updated to the 70s (or today) and include some modern sensibilities. But I think they way did it showed no respect for the source material. And if Altman wanted to do an irreverent detective for the 70s why not create one? I know it was a time of iconoclasm but some things deserve respect. Chandler/Marlowe is one of them IMHO.

And, as you know, there are certain films where I think the movie is better than the book, so I’m not an absolutist about sticking to the book. In a Lonely Place is one, as we’ve talked about several times. And there are changes in that movie from the book, but I think in that case they work to the betterment of the story. I don’t think the changes in The Long Goodbye do.

There’s a line from an old song that goes, “The book you are reading is one man's opinion of moonlight.” My comments here are just my opinion of “moonlight,” as I know many people like the film…even if they’re wrong ;) .

Art, I just saw your comment about being on the road, but if you have a chance I’d be curious to know more of why you like it.

Paul D. Marks said...

PS -- I know Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay. And I believe before Altman came on board. Nonetheless, film is a director's medium so ultimately he bears the responsibility. Plus I think he added to it.........

Scott Adlerberg said...

I'm in full agreement about DON'T LOOK NOW. It's a great story by a superb writer (Du Maurier really was a terrific storyteller) and the movie is remarkably unnerving. The mood of the film, the eeriness, the acting of course by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and just the overall sense of disorientation it creates are brilliant.

Jeffrey Marks said...

Definitely agree with some of your best. I might add Rebecca as a great adaptation from book to film. If we're just talking Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train was a tad disappointing compared to the book.

Worst adaptation ever. Burglar with Whoopi Goldberg as Bernie Rhodenbarr. I was 3/4 of the way through it before I recognized the source as a Lawrence Block novel. Ugh...

RM Greenaway said...

What a great course to get to teach... I bet your students worship you! Don't Look Now was one of those movies that lodged in my psyche too - only topped by Oliver Twist, which I saw when I was quite small, so it was my first shocking confrontation with tragedy and murder, and probably turned me into a crime writer. Also I didn't know Daphne Du Maurier wrote Don't Look Now... am interested to read it now. Also, how's this for a book-to-movie adaptation: O Brother Where Art Thou? :) Put that one to your students next time!

Susan C Shea said...

The question clearly came to the right person this Friday. I learned a lot reading this, thanks. I am too uncritical or specifically critical of films, I think. I just o a thumbs up, thumbs down kind of assessment in most cases. Nest week's question has me doing research to look smarter than I am re Hitchcock films, in fact.

Art Taylor said...

I'm very behind here--out of town and not online enough to comment thoroughly.

Paul: I agree about the irreverence verging on disrespect in Long Goodbye, and I understand why so many fans of the book are troubled by the adaptation. The novel is my own favorite of Chandler's--one of my favorite mysteries of all time, in fact--but what I appreciate about the film (and about the commentary on the film and the discussions it provokes) is that it forces me to see Chandler and Marlowe from different perspectives, to think deeper about the character and his roles and his context and about how fully historical and cultural context are important to thinking about all this, not just with this book but with many books. So in my experience, it's about more than faithfulness to or respect/disrespect for the source material and more about larger questions of reading and understanding texts period. Additionally, and back to specifics, I think both book and film provide examples of how clearly a work of art expresses the vision of its creator: In many places, so many, Altman's film is Altman more than it's Chandler, admittedly, and it's fascinating to examine which changes from the source material reveal Altman's (and Brackett's yes) preoccupations, values, visions as distinct from (in opposition to, even) Chandler's. (I'm not sure I'm expressing myself well--much more to talk about all this generally.)

Scott: Thanks for the comments on Don't Look Now. I admire always your comments and reflections on films, so it's very nice to see you chime in here!

Jeffrey: Yes to Rebecca!

Rae: I think you're spot-on with that phrase "lodged in my psyche," which I think is a great description of what it's done with me. The original was a short story, so pretty easy to find, I'd think--and brilliant in so many ways. It's one of my favorite crime stories of all time. As for O Brother Where Art Thou?, I'll admit I find it more interesting from an academic perspective than I actually enjoy it. (I remember watching the film in the theater and hearing people on each side of me talking about it as we filed out--to the right, they loved it, and to the left, they despised it. It's divisive like that, I know.)

And finally, Susan: Look forward to next week's panel--and thanks for the kind words here!