June/July/Aug 2007

Reflections

James Ivory, Elmore Leonard, Tracy Chevalier, Patrick McGrath, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin, Susanna Moore, Time Krabbe, Irvine Welsh, Barry Gifford, Alexander Payne, Myla Goldberg, and Frederic Raphael


JAMES IVORY

Adapting a work of fiction can have its disappointments for a director. Presumably, when you set out to turn a favorite novel into a film, it’s mostly because of the wonderful scenes that you look forward to shooting; taken all together, they are the reason for making the film in the first place. Once committed to the project, you duly transfer the scenes to the screenplay, and in pleasurable anticipation, you round up the right actors. But, it turns out during shooting, despite all your enthusiasm and planning, you discover too late that you have not carefully thought through one of these favorite scenes, and you end up defeated by it. A good example of this is the famous sequence in the novel—not the film—Howards End, when the insufferable Charles Wilcox (played in the film by James Wilby), driving through the English countryside with his father’s fiancée, Margaret Schlegel (played by Emma Thompson), whom he hates, runs over a dog. This event is described by E. M. Forster as being no more than a bump under the heavy car and a fast-receding scream as a child runs out of her cottage. Margaret, at once aware that something is wrong, asks Charles, “What was that?” Looking back from the open Edwardian touring car, she can just see the wailing child crouching over something at the edge of the road. She commands Charles to stop the car. “It was nothing,” he replies, then tells the chauffeur to step on the gas. “We must have brushed a cat.” But Margaret is sure that it was not nothing, and she tells Charles again to stop the car. Charles ignores this, and the driver goes faster. It being an open car, Margaret stands up in it and leaps out, onto the grass verge, as Charles shouts at this woman in revolt, “What will my father say?”

All of this was shot—though a bit scrappily, as we had waited until the end of the day—when the sun was sinking, and we felt pressed to get done before we lost the light. Thompson’s stunt double threw herself again and again out of the moving car, and we went back a hundred yards or so to the cottage, child, and “dead” dog in order to shoot the moment the big wheel struck it. But how do you shoot that? Who wants to run over a dog, and what English film crew would be prepared to do that for even the cruelest and most insensitive director? What audience, anywhere, could stand to see a dog crushed to death? Yet how could we tell our story without seeing that bad moment? All the most clever editing later on could not solve our problem, nor could putting howls of anguish from dog and child on the sound track, nor could all our messing about with expensive special effects that, in 1991, were in their technical infancy. We could produce no believable image of a dog being run over and did not really want to.

In the end, we threw the scene away, yet it is one of the most dramatic confrontations in the novel. It should have been as thrilling on the screen as on the page. But I hadn’t thought it all through. Luckily, in the film Howards End, we were able to introduce all sorts of nice things that had not been in Forster’s novel, so perhaps the car scene was not missed by many people. Since then, I have done eight more features, not all of them adaptations; in half of these, there have been comparable lapses of thinking something through. If none were comparable in importance to that of the bungled Forster passage, my disappointment and anger with myself afterward were never less. Every director has to be his own devil’s advocate every step of the way. Enthusiasm isn’t enough.

Click to enlarge

Howards End (James Ivory, 1992).

James Ivory’s films include A Room with a View (1985), Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), and Howards End (1992).

• • • • •

ELMORE LEONARD

Writing a novel is one of my great pleasures—writing to find out what the book is about, writing to please myself as long as my publisher likes my work—but I have seldom enjoyed writing screenplays. Whether an adaptation of one of my books or an original, it seems always to become work and not much fun. I suppose that’s because it has to be revised so many times to meet everyone’s perception of what the story is about.

After reading my screenplay based on Glitz, the first novel of mine to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, a studio executive said to me, “All you’ve done is adapt the book, scene for scene.” I said, “Yes?” He said, “You don’t have to be a screenwriter to do that.” I think what he was saying is that the screenwriter is obliged to revise scenes and dialogue, change things around, whether he feels the need to or not.

I was fired from another picture after writing several drafts because, as the producer at MGM put it, “You’re too close to the forest to see the trees.” What did that mean—that I didn’t understand my own book? The same words were used to take the screenwriter, played by Robert Redford, off the picture he was working on in The Way We Were. I think, though, my view of the trees might have come before Redford’s, so I can’t really accuse the producer of stealing the analogy. A week later, I was hired on again and wrote what I was told to write. It wasn’t a good picture.

With high hopes, and thinking I would be good at it, I must have written a dozen or more features, some produced, some not. The only successful one, Mr. Majestyk, was written as an original for producer Walter Mirisch—the book came later. It’s been paying residuals for thirty-three years.

In 1993, Bill Friedkin asked me to write a picture with him, and we had a pretty good time getting the script going, but I don’t think either of us cared enough about the story to take it beyond the first draft, now on a shelf somewhere at Paramount. Friedkin married Sherry Lansing, and I went home. It was the last screenplay I wrote. I don’t remember the title but seem to recall it was a pretty good one.

Several of Elmore Leonard’s novels have been made into films, such as 52 Pick-Up (1986), Get Shorty (1995), and Jackie Brown (1997).

• • • • •

TRACY CHEVALIER

I didn’t write Girl with a Pearl Earring expecting it to be made into a film. However, three years after its publication, I found myself in Luxembourg on a film set that had originally been built for a movie whose setting was Venice. Replace the Venetian arches with rectangular windows, spray-paint on a little textured brick, and bingo—it passed for Holland. Watching it being filmed was a surreal experience. All the private ideas I’d had about the settings of my book were suddenly, brutally public, with cast and crew crawling over them, measuring and moving, pulling and prodding. I kept wondering whether eventually they would pull so hard the story and characters would fall apart and I’d be caught out as a fraud. It was strange, too, to see that my scribbling had spawned a whole industry of Vermeer experts—there were reproductions of his and other Dutch paintings tacked up everywhere in the production offices, and books strewn about that I myself had read for research. When I first walked onto the set of Vermeer’s house, I immediately thought, “No, no, this is far too big— they would never have had this kind of space.” However, once I saw just how much equipment and how many people were needed to film each shot, I understood.

All of the opulent details—the paintings hanging everywhere, the dishes, the furniture, the food—blend into the background. When watching the film, we focus on Scarlett Johansson’s face, not the authentic blue-and-white delftware that some assistant worked so hard to locate. The production designer had designed a spectacular room full of pornography for the house of Vermeer’s patron, van Ruijven; yet it doesn’t even get a look-in on-screen and ended up on the cutting-room floor.

That was another surprise: how many changes were made in the editing. Whole subplots and characters were shed, and with them some of the subtleties of characterization and ambiguities in relationships. What it gained, however, was a focused, driven plot. The changes didn’t bother me. Books—even simple, spare ones like Girl—shuttle back and forth in time, repeat themselves, go in and out of their characters’ heads, and leave gaps for the reader to fill in. No wonder the storytelling has to be different.

Besides, I’m used to other people transposing what I write. After all, that is what a reader does to books. I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring for readers to interpret and make their own. When I published it, I also let it go. I can’t control what readers think or how they picture scenes and characters; nor do I want to. Last time I bought gas, the DVD of Girl was on sale next to the cash register. Seeing my Girl while I pumped gas was a shock, but luckily she’s no longer mine, and it made me smile more than wince.

Click to enlarge

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003)

The 2003 film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton, 2000) was nominated for three Oscars.

• • • • •

PATRICK MCGRATH

Spider, my second novel, would seem on its face my least likely candidate for adaptation to the screen. The eponymous antihero is a floridly psychotic schizophrenic prematurely discharged from a top-security mental hospital, and his thinking, to put it mildly, is bizarre. He is unable to edit reality, nor can he see that the edifice of delusion he has constructed to account for his traumatized childhood is liable at any moment to collapse. This strange, fragile creature wanders the desolate places of the East End of London while his faltering mind attempts with growing desperation to cling to a few last shreds of coherence. He writes it all down in a little notebook, and the notebook is the novel.

It is hardly the stuff of cinema. Not much happens in the present, and what happened in the past is of questionable reliability. Cinematic imagery is loaded with authority: An event occurs on-screen, and you tend to accept it. How then to communicate the idea that what you are seeing did not happen but that its significance lies in the fact that a character believes it did, in order to conceal from himself what really happened? The only answer I could find was voice-over.

The script took six months to write. It quickly found a producer in Catherine Bailey and a star in Ralph Fiennes, but the search for a director lasted years, until David Cronenberg read it. Things moved fast after that. The changes he wanted were minimal. It was all excising, and the script got thinner and thinner. “Don’t worry,” he told me, “I’ll film slow.” The voice-overs had to go, and strangely, nothing was lost. All that suffering, all the hell seething in Spider’s sick soul: It was there in Fiennes’s eyes. But Spider’s interiority remained problematic in that nobody knew what they could trust, until Cronenberg hit on the solution. He asked me to flag each scene according to the psychological territory Spider was occupying at the time. I came up with four distinct designations: Reality, Memory, Infected Memory, and Hallucination. With these flags in place, the director, the director of photography, the actors, and the crew all now understood what was going on in Spider’s mind at any given moment.

The work went forward smoothly, but the money was hell—the reverse, as Cronenberg wryly remarked, of the usual Hollywood situation. The financing of this low-budget independent turned into a twisted tale of gothic proportions, far darker than Spider itself. Three weeks before principal photography, the backers backed out, but Bailey refused to give up. The finished film was submitted to Cannes and accepted into competition, one of the twenty-two official entries out of the thousands that had been submitted. Being at Cannes was an intoxicating experience for this writer, but Spider didn’t win. The Palme d’Or that year went to Polanski for The Pianist.

Click to enlarge

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002).

Patrick McGrath’s novels include The Grotesque (Poseidon, 1989), Spider (Poseidon, 1990), and Asylum (Random House, 1997), each of which has been adapted for the screen.

• • • • •

JERRY STAHL

For some, adaptation is a genre. For others, it’s a lifestyle choice. The decision to hand over one’s own work to strangers packs all manner of trepidation: They’ll fuck it up, I’ll look like an idiot, and If it’s a great movie, no one will remember it was a book being just the first three that come to mind. But imagine, if you will, the extra and mutant joy engendered when the work in question is not just your book but your life. So that, for whatever six-figure agreement your agent can wheedle, you hand over the details that define your identity to strangers. Hoping—not unlike, one suspects, a young mom who trades her baby for crack—that somehow the short-term gain won’t result in long-term torment. In my case, the book in question was Permanent Midnight. Your basic junkie saga. Which I handed over with very little persuasion to a team of cinema experts.

The first-time director and screenwriter was a talented Mormon fellow who had never actually done narcotics. A minor drawback, which resulted, as I recall, in the odd expository nugget like this in the original script: “Jerry shoots up and gets the munchies.” Because, really, nothing whets the appetite for snacks like geezing Mexican tar in your neck.

That being said, there is a certain cleansing sting to the experience of seeing celebrities re-enact the worst moments of your life nine feet high. The trick, for those of you on the fence about surrendering your own book to Hollywood, is to become friends with the movie star. Happily, Ben Stiller proved to be a warm, astute, open-minded, and genius-level actor. And by genius I mean that he let me rewrite a bunch of his lines and insert a voice-over. Plus I was hired on as “needle wrangler.”

In the end, it was a life-changing experience. Then again, it wasn’t my life anymore anyway.

Jerry Stahl’s memoir, Permanent Midnight (Warner, 1995), was adapted for the screen in 1998. He is the author of three novels and a story collection, Love Without, just published by Grove Press.

• • • • •

MICHAEL TOLKIN


My second novel, Among the Dead, was published in 1993, a year after the release of Robert Altman’s adaptation of my first novel, The Player. I could have adapted the new book for the movies, but I refused, as I did with my third novel, Under Radar. Setting aside what I might have made from selling the rights to those novels or from writing the scripts, and then from the bonuses if the movies had been produced, the decision not to sell the books cost me money from book sales, and not only those books that would have been sold with the release of the films. Just the announcements, when the books were published, that I was turning them into films would have increased foreign sales and generated better money for the paperback rights. I said no to protect my idea of literature, and I ended up losing cash and readers, without gaining any laurels. It’s a relief to have no one to blame but oneself.

Among the Dead, about a man who misses the flight that crashes while carrying his wife and daughter, started as a notion for a television movie, but sometime after the original inspiration, I read an article about a plane crash in central California. The plane had landed nose first after a long, straight dive, and asked about the condition of the bodies, an FAA investigator said that what was left in the cockpit had the “consistency of strawberry jam.” A movie could never achieve the vibrations of that phrase, so I started writing the book. I put the plane-crash tale away for a few years to finish the novel of The Player and returned to it during the filming of the movie. By then, I was already a little disappointed by how easy it was to write the script, after the novel was optioned, and by how much of what had given me maniacal pleasure while writing the novel was lost in the movie. That pleasure is still the reason I write novels—to stay inside the mind of someone living through the catastrophe of his life. If writing novels was going to be a discipline or practice that I could get better at, and not just a speculative venture in which I was safest repeating a formula that could lead to movie sales, I wanted, at least until I was secure about the differences, or no longer interested in the differences, to write novels without shaping them for film, even, to adjust a thought of Rothko’s, to produce something that was intelligible only to myself.

I might have been wrong. I might have been indulgently vain. The critics didn’t care, or know, about my vow of chastity, and too many assumed that the Hollywood- satire guy, the one who wrote not the novel of but the screenplay for The Player, was now writing strange treatments for unlikely movies. I was working too hard for acceptance as a literary writer instead of ignoring the issue completely.

Or, I might have been right at the time. Rothko made this point about the artist’s private intelligibility: “Society benefits every time an individual improves his own adjustment to the world. . . . How far a single impulse can extend its effect is unpredictable.” I had the impulse to write without the distracting possibililty of adapting for the screen and failing. But I know the anticipation of failing, and that agony is the greater distraction. So The Return of the Player was published, and now, after Altman’s death, I’m thinking about the movie, and what it might be, how to make a film that isn’t a sequel in tone or style to the Altman film. I’m thinking about how to keep it closer to the book, and by this I mean, how to put a book on-screen without losing the strawberry jam.

Michael Tolkin is a filmmaker and novelist. His adaptation of his novel The Player (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) received the 1993 Edgar award for best motion-picture screenplay.

• • • • •

SUSANNA MOORE

It never occurred to me that my novel In the Cut might one day be made into a movie. A friend had sent the manuscript to a Hollywood book agent, who said that the story was so offensive that he not only could not represent it but recommended that it never be published. So my expectations were not high. Consequently, some months later, when Nicole Kidman offered to buy the film rights, I was surprised. My first meeting was with Nicole and the director Jane Campion. Jane made it clear that, no matter how much work I might do on the screenplay, in the end it would be necessary for her to write her own draft. I thought that a very good idea.

As a young woman, my first serious job was script reader for Jack Nicholson, and I very quickly learned that the importuning and anxious writer of a book or treatment is extremely tiresome, if not detrimental, in the long and often delicate development of a script. After writing a first draft of a script for In the Cut, I was relieved to put the work into Jane’s hands. Relieved that she was determined to make it her own. We wrote a second draft together, and then she wrote a third draft alone. It was a sophisticated and satisfying arrangement.

Susanna Moore is the author of In the Cut (Knopf, 1995), which was made into a film in 2003. Her most recent novel is The Big Girls (Knopf, 2007).

• • • • •

TIM KRABBÉ


If you liked the book, don’t see the film. Why let the images that the words stirred up be overruled by some director? No matter how painstakingly a writer describes his heroine, each reader sees her differently. But on the screen, everybody sees Sandra Bullock. As the goat said after it had eaten a few reels of film, “I like the book better.” The book is always better—but why? Perhaps because films cost more and must cater to a wider audience.

A few of my books have been made into films, and I’ve been lucky—two of them, The Vanishing and The Cave, turned out to be very good. The Vanishing, however, a Dutch-French production directed by George Sluizer in 1988, met with an unusual fate: In 1993, it was Hollybowdlerized by 20th Century Fox into a new version with the same director, the same title, but without the story. For one thing, the Dutch title of my novella, Het Gouden Ei (The Golden Egg), refers to the nightmare the hero and the heroine must share before they can be reunited. This came out very well in the original film, but in the remake: no eggs, nightmares, or reunions. It’s as if the studio said: Very good, this Titanic story of yours, we’re going to make it into a movie. Only we can’t have the ship sink—the audience might not like that. So out went the story. They kept just the wrappings—a vanished girl and a sociopath.

But I must admit: I like some films better than the books. It was a long time before it finally occurred to me why: I had seen those films before I read the books. The order is all that matters— when you hear people tell a story that you already know, they will always tell wrong. But why read the book at all? Why let the fantasies the images stirred up be overruled by some writer?

If you liked the film, don’t read the book.

Tim Krabbé is an author of short stories and novels, as well as four books about chess. His novels include The Cave (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), The Rider (Bloomsbury, 2002), and, most recently, Delay (Bloomsbury, 2005). He adapted The Golden Egg (1984), for the film The Vanishing (1988).

• • • • •

IRVINE WELSH


I haven’t had an extensive background in working from book to film. I’ve had two of my own books, Trainspotting and Acid House, adapted in this manner. Now, I’m on the other side of the fence, being in the process of adapting Alan Warner’s novel The Man Who Walks for the screen.

John Hodge’s adaptation of Trainspotting is a marvelous display of screenwriting: totally empathetic to the spirit of the book, yet completely cinematic. It works because it uses many of the book’s obviously filmic strengths: slangy dialogue, action and comedy sequences, and a then-taboo subject dealt with matter-of-factly. To that it adds, in voice-over, the commentary of a compelling narrator, giving an insight into his interior world and thus allowing the novelistic aspect to come through.

The simple act of condensing around ten hours of filmable material into 90 to 120 minutes inevitably means that compromises have to be made. Screenwriting, compared to novel writing, is cave painting. You want the images that stand out boldest and tell the story. The HBO series The Wire is often referred to as “novelistic.” In some ways, I feel that the series or miniseries may be the best way for the novel to be adapted for the screen.

But shorter formats mean making choices. In the opening chapters of The Man Who Walks, the protagonist beats up a bus driver who attempts to perform fellatio on him and then threatens an old couple who want to have sex with him. Both scenes, in the context of the novel, are rich, evocative, and highly memorable. In the adaptation to film, only one is necessary to show that he is sexually dysfunctional and has a fight-or-flight response when faced with (at least conventional) sex. Every scene in a film (as space is limited) must have a narrative purpose, where the novel can be more about pure aesthetics.

But that’s the terrible choice you have to make—leaving out some of your favorite scenes from one of your most loved books.

Click to enlarge

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996).

Irvine Welsh’s novels Acid House (Norton, 1994) and Trainspotting (Norton, 1996) were adapted for film. An adaptation of a novella from his collection Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance (Jonathan Cape, 1996) is in production.

• • • • •

BARRY GIFFORD

In 1995, when David Lynch, who had directed the film version of my novel Wild at Heart and also had directed my plays Tricks and Blackout for a television production entitled Hotel Room, came to me and asked me to write with him the screenplay for a new film, I could hardly say no. After all, Wild at Heart had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and propelled the book onto best-seller lists all over the world. Besides, we were good friends by now.

David had optioned for film my novel Night People, and we had talked for a year or more about how that could be done, but nothing happened. (He told me his daughter, Jennifer, wanted to play one of the two lesbian serial killers.) He fell in love with a couple of sentences in the book in particular, one of which is one woman saying to another, “We’re just a couple of Apaches ridin’ wild on the lost highway.” What did it mean? he wanted to know. What was the deeper meaning of the phrase lost highway? He had an idea for a story. What if one day, a person woke up and he was another person? An entirely different person from the person he had been the day before. OK, I said, that’s Kafka, “The Metamorphosis.” But we did not want this person to turn into an insect. So that’s what we had to start with: a title, Lost Highway; a sentence from close to the end of Night People (“You and me, mister, we can really out-ugly them sumbitches, can’t we?”); the notion of irrefutable change; and a vision Dave had about someone receiving videotapes of his life from an unknown source, something he had thought of following the wrap of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Now all we had to do was make a coherent story out of this.

David once explained the effect he was after: “You know that feeling you get when you’ve just gotten back from the dry cleaners a pair of slacks, Dacron slacks, and you reach your hand in a pocket, and you feel those fuzzy sandwiches with your fingers? Well, that’s the feeling I’m looking for.” I just nodded and replied, “OK, Dave, I know exactly what you mean.” I kept this incident in mind while he and I sat across from each other and puzzled out the scenario for Lost Highway, which I like to call Orpheus and Eurydice Meet Double Indemnity. We made it work—at least for each other—and I love the result, fuzzy sandwiches and all.

Working with David is, for me, a great treat, because I know that as the director he’s going to add an extra dimension to whatever we come up with on the page. Visually, it will take one giant step beyond. This gives me the confidence to let everything loose, a great privilege for a writer. Both Lynch and I believe that films are, or should be, as dreams. When you enter the movie theater, the “real” world is shut out. Now you are in the thrall of the filmmakers, you must surrender and allow the film’s images to wash over you, to drown you for two hours or so. And David is relentless in his imagery. Lost Highway, like Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, especially, is filled with unforgettable images. And we are set in a place, a city, a landscape, that is neither here nor there, a timeless form, presented within a nonlinear structure—a Möbius strip, curling back and under, running parallel to itself before again becoming connected, only there’s a kind of coda— but that’s how it goes with psychogenic fugues. Figure it out for yourself, you’ll feel better later; and if you don’t figure it out, you’ll feel even better, trust us.

My friend Vinnie Deserio once said that the reason Dave and I work so well together is that he takes the ordinary and makes it seem extraordinary, and I take the extraordinary and make it seem ordinary. Maybe so; it sounds goods, anyway. But there are no easy explanations for what occurs in Lost Highway or Eraserhead, nor should there be. When you go on a journey with David Lynch, it’s a trip you’ve never been on before. Time to fasten your seat belt, as Bette Davis so memorably instructed (words by Joseph Mankiewicz) in All About Eve, because there is no speed limit on the lost highway.

Click to enlarge

Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

Barry Gifford’s novel Memories from a Sinking Ship was recently published by Seven Stories, and The Cavalry Charges: Writings on Books, Film and Music is just out from Thunder’s Mouth Press.

• • • • •

ALEXANDER PAYNE


My screenwriting professor at UCLA used to ask us, “When adapting a piece of literature, what do you owe the original writer?” We were trained to call out in unison, “Nothing!” Yes, one is adapting because one admires the original, but one is creating a piece of cinema, and adapting often means marauding. “I’ll take you and you and you, and the rest of you can die,” says the screenwriter. “And I’m adding this and this and changing this and this. But it’s for your own good.” One way my coscreenwriter and I adapt is to read the novel a few times, make a few notes, and then rarely refer to it again, creating the screenplay largely from memory. Also, I am attracted to a piece of fiction as a source for a film precisely because I wish to have a dialogue with it. The only unforgivable sin is to remove something’s teeth; one should not subvert the original.

Good literature succeeds on terms exclusive to literature. Good cinema succeeds on terms exclusive to cinema. The better the book, the more literary, the more the screenwriter must alter, adapt, or simply jettison the source material in order to conceive a work of cinema, although I very much enjoy the challenge of creating cinematic equivalents to literary effects. The less literary the book— the more it recounts simply what the characters say and do—the easier the film adaptation may be, the more faithful, but now the screenwriter must invent elements that make the film more cinematic. Movies that, due to the perceived expectations of the “fan base,” are slavishly faithful to the best sellers on which they are based, amount to filmed books on tape.

Julio Cortázar said something to the effect that the novel wins by decision, while the short story wins by knockout. In general, narrative film resembles the short story more than the novel in its search for economy and the expectation that its elements are to achieve a singular effect at the end. The best way that cinema can approach the enviable, superior scope of a novel is to use cinematic means to suggest more incident and more emotion than are actually shown. Great cinema always involves the viewer in the creation of the narrative, by designing elements that are to resonate in the viewer’s mind—you tell them two plus two, but you don’t tell them four—and this is especially true when attempting an expansive, novelistic story. Another useful tool is voice-over, which many deride as uncinematic, but which I feel, when well used, is one of the greatest contributions of the sound era and clearly helps cinema approach fiction’s first person.

Click to enlarge

Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)

Alexander Payne has directed Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), and Sideways (2004), all adaptations of novels.

• • • • •

MYLA GOLDBERG


The process of adapting a book to film is so complex and so fraught and 99 percent of the time so disappointing that when a director manages not to make a mess of it, it’s rightly viewed as an impressive achievement—unless the director is Stanley Kubrick. He pulled off this transcendental act of translation with such habitual aplomb that he made superlative adaptations seem like the norm rather than the cinematic equivalent of winning the lottery. Kubrick knew that the process of adaptation was one of permutation; his job was to find the visual analogues that would breathe cinematic life into literary devices. Too many directors suffer from the lazy notion that finding a good book to adapt makes their jobs as filmmakers easier. Kubrick embraced the notion that film adaptation is as demanding a creative and imaginative task as writing the book itself. Case in point: The Shining, which is not only a masterful feat of adaptation but one of the scariest movies ever made. The majority of the film’s most striking moments are solely Kubrick’s inventions, the book’s literary ideas used as jumping-off points for cinematic pyrotechnics. The psychologically scarring climax of the film, in which an ax-wielding Jack Torrance chases his son into a massive hedge maze, is all Kubrick’s. In Stephen King’s version, there is no maze, only a haunted hotel topiary, and Kubrick’s ax is refashioned from the book’s more obscure and less viscerally terrifying roque mallet. In each instance, Kubrick took the gist of the idea and transformed it into something that would pack a stronger visual punch. The most devastating example of this is the manuscript that Jack toils over as he becomes infected with the malevolent spirit of the hotel. In a masterful feat of literary-cinematic titration, Kubrick converts the play being written by the Jack Torrance of King’s novel into a filmic icon of artistic insanity that doubles as the best-ever representation of writer’s block run horribly amok. Of writer’s block run horribly amok. Of writer’s block run horribly . . .

Click to enlarge

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).

Myla Goldberg’s most recent novel is Wickett’s Remedy (Doubleday, 2005). Her first novel, Bee Season (Doubleday, 2000), was made into a movie in 2005.

• • • • •

FREDERIC RAPHAEL


In adaptation, the basic material is spelled out ahead of time; the better the book, or play, the more respect it seems to warrant. For this reason, it is often more enjoyable to work on material that falls short of excellence. Piety is not of the essence: More bad films have been made from masterpieces than from potboilers.

In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, I had never read the basic material, a novella by Arthur Schnitzler, who is best known for the sexual ring cycle filmed by Max Ophüls as La Ronde. The original Traumnovelle (Dream Novella) is set in fin de siècle Vienna. My first question to Stanley Kubrick was whether he wanted to do the film in period. I was not surprised by the answer no, which I did not question: He was the Master. However, as in the game of bridge, so in the arts and applied arts—the biggest mistake is often made at trick 1. Buñuel’s adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s Belle de Jour is remarkable in its intercutting of (again fin de siècle) past and present. The switches in time make the issue of periodic consistency irrelevant. When it came to Eyes Wide Shut, admiration for SK impelled me to believe that he was likely to be right in transposing both time and place, from old Vienna to today’s New York.

All adaptation from uncinematic sources is a form of translation. Since my classical education was based on translating chunks of English classics into the styles of great Greek and Roman writers and translating the latter into English, I was inadvertently schooled in some of the skills needed to go from original text to screenplay. Vladimir Nabokov, of all people, argued for literal equivalence as the only honest form of translation. He attempted this in his curious Eugene Onegin. In cinema, literal translation is never possible: The logic of a picture language is essentially different from that of print. In the case of Traumnovelle, there was an added complication: The entire text reads like the description of a dream.

The problem of translation from a different era and a different language was compounded by the need to invest the piece with the vivid intangibility of dream life. The difficulty was that film does not leave the same room for imagination as text. The orgy scene, for manifest example, is presented quite tersely by Schnitzler: He relies on the reader’s fanciful complicity when it comes to sexual transgression. Kubrick wanted to shock, but in the context of the market, he felt obliged to put on a naughty show. He dared not do what Bergman did in Persona: rely on one character simply telling another what happened. In Eyes Wide Shut, even when Nicole Kidman is telling Tom Cruise of her sexual experience with a stranger, Kubrick felt obliged (not on my suggestion) to cut away to a flashback. Illustration does not always illustrate; it can also deprive the audience of the urge to imagine. The essence of the erotic in cinema is the seduction of the viewer into complicity. Kubrick’s literalism excludes the audience; balked from dreaming along with the spirit of Dream Novella, critics woke up to its implausibility and absurdity, both of which may be everynight ingredients of the dreamworld but here defied translation to the screen. Since Kubrick did not wish his film to be stained, as one might say, by my contribution, he weakened the dialogue and hampered its possibilities, by recourse, when it came to the married couple’s exchanges, to the most unreliable of all “realistic” methods: improvisation by actors who do their brave best to be revealingly loquacious but have nothing of interest to say.

Click to enlarge

Far from the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, 1967).

Frederic Raphael wrote the screenplay for Far from the Madding Crowd (1967).

Advertisement