Saturday, August 22, 2009

How to Adapt a Great Book to Film (And How Not to)

Film adaptations of great literature are too often like paintings at a local outdoor art show: they make you realize how much effort and dedication and sheer technical skill it requires to produce something utterly mediocre. Great paintings succeed because they move beyond the technical and the well-intentioned, into the realm of genius and madness and inspiration. Successful film adaptations of great books do the same thing, confronting the solitary author with an equal force, a passion for narrative and a visual genius that creates images that match his prose – all of that in the face of uneducated bullying collaborators, money worries and studio interference. Pulling a genuine work of art out of that tangle seems impossible and in fact it almost never happens.

The thought occurs to me because I happened to see a summer art show yesterday; in the park of the Nantucket Atheneum, and last night I watched Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984. To clear my head, I took out my coffee table book of Winslow Homer watercolors and then spent the next two hours watching the DVD of Women in Love.

That Winslow Homer towers over some local matron and her trite, paint-by-numbers view of our cobblestone Main Street is absurdly obvious, and barely worth mentioning. But the ways in which Ken Russell and his inspired screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer outshine Mr. Radford deserves a closer look.

Michael Radford had the best of intentions when he set out to film George Orwell’s classic dystopia. You can tell that from the details he included – the Victory cigarettes whose tobacco falls out when you hold them vertical, the glass paperweight with its trapped piece of coral, the singing prole in the courtyard below the little apartment Winston and Julia use for their secret assignations. Only someone who loved the novel would have bothered to collect so many cherished fragments, from the bogus “Comrade Ogilvy” that Winston invents to replace an obsolete news story not worth falsifying, to the “over fulfillment of the 9th three year plan” propaganda bleating from the telescreen in his apartment. Even the Two Minutes Hate could have been scripted by Orwell himself. So many telling gestures are retained: Julia indeed removes her clothes in a single thrilling gesture just as described; OBrien resettles his glasses on his nose, just as written -- and we don’t need to know how ‘curiously civilized’ a gesture it seems to Winston; Richard Burton shows us, and we feel it ourselves.

Indeed, none of the casting can be faulted – Burton of course, but John Hurt embodies Winston Smith perfectly, and you couldn’t ask for a better Julia than Suzanna Hamilton. Even Cyril Cusak, as old Mr. Carrington, seems to have been chosen out of scrupulous deference to the book. The film remains true to the basic plot, and admirably refuses soften the grim ending.

And yet it fails.

How could that happen? Part of it has to do with those details. So many of them are just off target, wrong-headed, askew. The prole pegging out her wash in the backyard actually sings the lyrics Orwell wrote for her – and which in the novel were composed on the “Versificator”, a song-writing machine used by the Ministry of Truth. They are mawkish and sentimental:

It was only a hopeless fancy

It passed like and April day

But a look and a word

And the feelings they stirred

Still pluck my heartstrings today.

You can just imagine this song’s hurdy gurdy British music hall melody; I know I did. But Radford makes it into a cross between a dirge and an operatic aria. I know this seems trivial, but the same just-missed-it feeling pervades the whole film. Even the aspect ratio of the telescreens (square, like TVs, rather than the ominous and much more invasive rectangles that Orwell described) and the exaggerated crumbling squalor of Winston’s apartment (he hides his diary behind a loose brick in the rotting wall and scribbles on a rickety chair; in the book he wrote at a desk in an alcove originally intended for book-cases) add to the sense of miscalculation.

This bumling extends into the scenes themselves, many of them trimmed or omitted to devastating result. We see Winston in the proletarian pub, but don’t get to hear the tragic conversation he strikes up with one of the proles, looking for some solid memories of a time before the dictatorship to ratify his own. All the prole wants to talk about is beer. It comes in litres and half-litres now, instead of pints and half pints. When Winston fixes his neighbor Parsons’ clogged sink, we don’t get tosee Parsons’ vile little boy hitting him with a sling shot and screaming “THOUGHT CRIMINAL!”, a chilling view of the next generation.

Most importantly, Radford chose to omit the critical scene where Winston and Julia go to O’Brien’s house to be formally inducted into the underground resistance. This scene is crucial for so many reasons. It gives the audience hope, and lets them feel -- along with Winston and Julia -- that the government might be over-thrown. It lets us see the couple being brave and pro-active, risking their lives to join this shadowy conspiracy. But there is another side to it. O’Brien subjects them to a harrowing catechism to gauge their commitment to the cause. What would they be willing to do: spread syphilis, blow up buildings, murder innocent people, throw acid in a child’s face? They agree to each demand. And then, much later, when O’Brien is interrogating Winston somewhere in ‘vast underground ramifications’ of the Ministry of Love, Winston makes the claim that he is morally ‘better’ than his tormentors … and O’Brien plays the tape of that catechism. The effect is devastating, at least in the book, where the scenes exist. Was Radford trying to spare Winston Smith that moment of moral bankruptcy? Orwell was ruthless, and he needed to be. Radford chickened out. Or maybe he was just boxing outside of his weight class, outmatched and overpowered by Orwell as Jack Clayton was by F. ScottFitzgerald, when he directed the film version of The Great Gatsby.

In any case, this catalog of Radford's omissions, elisions and compromises fiinally adds up to a thoughtful but juiceless movie, invoking all the fatalistic misery of Orwell's magnum opus, and without touching on its redemptive beauty: a drag, in other words, the kind of film that steers people away from the source material. That's the real tragedy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Radford worked alone. Movies are essentially collaborative, and it seems that only an inspired, once-in-a-lifetime combination of talents working togegther can pull off such a bravura feat of transformation.

The 1969 film version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love started with a ruthlessly faithful script by Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart, Faggots) that kept everything essential in the book, and cut everything else. The story of school teacher Rupert Birkin (an obvious stand-in for Lawrence, played by Lawrence look-alike Alan Bates) and his friendship with coal magnate Gerald Critch, the book told the story of their love affairs with the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula. Gerald’s destructive lust for the passionate and destructive Gudrun (" her sisTry to love me a,little more and want me a little less") runs parallel to the ideal vision of romance enacted by her siter Ursula andRupert Birkin. Though the struggle for power finally tears Gerald and Gudrun apart, and eventually pushes Gerald to suicide, the only problems facing Rupert and Ursula are his lingering feelings for wealthy wack-job Hermione Riddice and his insistence on the equality of friendship and love. Ursula finds the woman vile and the idea preposterous. Theser relationships are made vivid by the sheer florid power of Lawrence’s prose. For example, one of the first moments when the girls see Gerald Critch. He’s on horseback, at a train- crossing, goading his horse at the train as it roars past:

“The Fool,” cried Ursula loudly, “Why doesn’t he ride away until it’s gone by?”
Gudrun was looking at him with black-dilated, spellbound eyes. But he sat glistening and obstinate, forcing the wheeling mare, which spun and swerved like a wind, and yet could not get out of the grasp of his will, nor escape from the mad clamour of terror that resounded through her as the trucks thumped slowly, heavily, horrifying, one after the other, one pursuing the other, over the rails of the crossing.

The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks, rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her forefeet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate her heart.

How could you translate this wildly over-wrought scene to film?

Hire Ken Russell.

This director, later known for voluptuous extravaganzas like The Devils and Tommy was a perfect match for Lawrence: just as inspired, just crazy, and in his own visual, cinematic terms, just as talented. So that may be the secret: pull two mad geniuses of excess and spectacle together with a rigorous screenplay that brings out the best in both of them. And then you need some luck. Luck with casting – Glenda Jackson, Jenny Linden and Oliver Reed were equal to Alan Bates (Glenda Jackson won the Oscar for her role); and luck with locations. Many of the places they filmed simply don’t exist any more, loughed under for housing subdivisions and shopping plazas. But forty years ago the early twentieth century was still alive and well in Northern England. They found a closed, but working coal mine, and reactivated it for the sequences set there. For a scene that required a great house with a pond you could drain, they found one, complete with the nineteenth century mechanisms for pumping out the water. Hermione’s ‘summer cottage’ – in fact one of the great manor houses of England – was loaned out to the company for the exterior shoot. But the elderly owners enjoyed the film-makers so much they let them film inside, whose lavish d├ęcor could never be duplicated by the finest production design or the most elaborate CGI, no matter what the cost.

It doesn’t have to be amicable – Kramer and Russell fought all the time, and some scenes in the movie wound up there over Kramer’s howls of protest. But the only person he had to fight with was Russell: he owned the script and produced it himself. There were no ‘notes; or suggestions (“Does Gerald have to die?” “Gudrun is so unlikable – can we give her a puppy?”) from studio executives. The script remained intact and it kept the whole movie under control. You can read the book with the script at your side and see the exact moment when Kramer cuts into a ten-page dialogue, using the perfect kernel of Lawrence’s text to evoke the full meaning of the scene. It’s surgery and poetry at once. Every word in the script comes from Lawrence … but shaped and pruned to fit the narrow confines of a two hour film. Kramer had his own moments of ecstatic inspiration. One of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the al fresco luncheon where Birkin compares the fig to the vagina is taken from another source – one of Lawrence’s poems. Here’s a sample:

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That's how the fig dies, showing her crimson through purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That's how women die too.

Here, too you can see the steely precision of Kramer’s editing. The poem is perhaps five times longer than Birkin’s speech, but, as delivered by the incomparable Alan Bates, no less powerful or disturbing.

So that’s how it’s done: find a great novel that suits itself to the screen as Women in Love does, write a rigorously faithful script with full understanding of the novel’s complexity, hire a lunatic visual artist whose mad vision harmonizes pitch-perfectly with the author’s, cast it with the greatest actors of your time and film it in spectacular locations with no interference from businessmen and fools.

Then instead of a film about a future London whose shabby cluttered roofscape is dwarfed by four white pyramids (the Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty) -- which never shows that iconic panorama, you’ll have a film whose images of a snow-white Rolls Royce parting a coal-dark sea of mineworkers, or two men wrestling naked by firelight, or a drowned couple entwined at the bottom of a drained lake in the exact pose of the living lovers nearby, will stay with you forever.

Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe too many variables have to line up perfectly, some bizarre artistic trifecta. Maybe you’d be insanely arrogant to even to try it.

As I write those words I can hear Hermione’s sardonic drawl: “It sounds like megalomania, Rupert.”

Maybe, but when it works, there’s nothing better. And the third or fourth time through Women in Love you start to think, maybe Ken Russell deserved his megalomania, after all. It’s what Michael Radford aspired to, as those local painters aspire to the austere resonance of beauty of Winslow Homer. Aspiration is fine. But it’s the achievements we cherish, the achievements that keep us going, the achievements that make all the effort worthwhile.

Don’t take my word for it, buy the book, find the DVD and enjoy this ferocious bludgeoning awkward word-drunk image-soaked masterpiece in both its forms.

You might just get inspired, yourself.

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