Apr/May 2008

Penn. and Paper

David Gordon Green makes a melancholy movie out of Stewart O'Nan's metafictional novel Snow Angels.

Bilge Ebiri


Michael Angarano as Arthur Parkinson and Olivia Thirlby as Lila Raybern in Snow Angels, directed by David Gordon Green, 2008

DAVID GORDON GREEN'S haunting and melancholy drama Snow Angels stands alongside his earlier George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) as yet another of the young director's very personal, uniquely big-hearted portraits of typical American communities. So it comes as something of a surprise not only that Snow Angels is based on Stewart O'Nan's 1994 novel but that it didn't even originate as a film for Green to direct.

Green was first approached about Snow Angels in January 2003, when his friend Jesse Peretz, director of The Château, asked him whether he would consider writing a screenplay of O'Nan's novel for Peretz, with Dan Lindau and Paul Miller of Crossroads Films producing. Despite never having adapted anything before, Green plunged in immediately: "I started dabbling in the adaptation as I was reading the book—messing with the structure, eliminating characters, taking all the steps that I would have to take to turn it into a movie version. I just wrote it."

O'Nan's novel is told through the eyes of Arthur Parkinson (played by young actor Michael Angarano), a man looking back on his high school years, particularly to the breakdown of his parents' marriage and to the way the simultaneous tragedy of another local couple, Glenn and Annie Marchand (Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale), sucks an entire Pennsylvania town into its desperate emotional vortex. As these other relationships collapse, Arthur falls in love with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), an odd new girl at his school. The bleak aspects of the story are heightened by the fact that Arthur is looking back from a life of regret and unhappiness: His point of view holds the novel's disparate elements together, working toward the sense that this community, no matter how much it tries to build walls and suppress its feelings, cannot help but be interconnected.

Green approached the book, as he puts it, "naively"—initially writing the adaptation not as a writer for hire but with the eye of a director. He worked on a few more drafts for Peretz and the producers, but then both filmmakers found themselves drawn to other movies. Green says, however, that Snow Angels never quite left him. In 2005, Lindau and Miller decided to resurrect the project, this time for Green to direct. Needless to say, he jumped at the opportunity.

O'Nan had always been excited by the prospect of a film made out of Snow Angels. "Having grown up a film viewer and a TV watcher, my writing tends to be very visual, very concrete," he says. "And Snow Angels seemed to me a very cinematic novel." However, the author adds that the book presented some notable challenges, particularly in its complex toying with perspective. "The book is metafictional, in a way. The character who narrates in the first person also narrates in the third person," he says, noting that Arthur, the narrator, in telling Glenn and Annie's story, imagines actions, thoughts, and dialogue he could never have been privy to. "As the book goes on, I hope we understand that Arthur is mapping his life and the collapse of his family onto the life and the collapse of this other couple, albeit in a much more spectacular way. I wondered how a filmmaker would tackle that. One way would be to do a voice-over, but that immediately raises all sorts of danger flags."

Michael Angarano as Arthur Parkinson in Snow Angels, directed by David Gordon Green, 2008

The book's structure was indeed transformed in its translation to the screen. "When you have a crosscut book, you have to be careful that the reader isn't more interested in one story line than the other," O'Nan explains. "Because otherwise, they will get impatient." Green's version does away with the notion of Arthur the adult looking back and instead establishes his reflection in the present: He's still the central observer in the film, the emotional linchpin, but he has become a more active character. For example, whereas in the novel he recalls that Annie had once been his babysitter, in the film both he and she are also employees of the same Chinese restaurant, thus giving them a day-to-day relationship that establishes their connection and makes them feel more like players in each other's stories.

Green doesn't do away with the temporal remove entirely: The film hauntingly suggests that Arthur and Lila are simply acting out the romance Glenn and Annie had years earlier. At one point, Lila approaches Arthur with her hand painted bright red. Later on, we see an old red handprint on the wall of Glenn's room, as if to suggest that Arthur and Lila's dance has been performed countless times by countless other high school sweethearts before them.

However, by bringing all his stories into the present, Green also allows the film to play out as the impressionistic portrait of a community, giving it some of the off-the-cuff feel of his other films. Indeed, the director encouraged improvisation on the set. "I'm never wedded to anything I write," he says. "I didn't even bring the script to the set. The actors had the script so they'd have the blueprint, and I gave them the novel as a reference." Green recalls that Sam Rockwell would often speak lines that were in the novel but not in the script. "It makes sense, to use the novel as almost like a notebook, a shared resource," O'Nan says.

Another central, though subtle, change Green made to the story was to reimagine some of its class dynamics. O'Nan's novel takes place in a decidedly working-class milieu, a world of dour bars, auto-body shops, drab apartments, and ramshackle houses in creepy cul-de-sacs. Peretz had wanted this atmosphere to reflect a more collegiate environment, and Green agreed: "I had already made two films set among junkyards and rusty, low-income-type environments," he says. "I wanted to try something different, so we upped the class and income level." When Green became the director, however, he found himself going back to a mixture––"a draft somewhere in between the book and Jesse's version." Now, Arthur's father is a professor at a local university, and the setting is a quaint college town, the atmosphere a blend of academic and blue-collar.

But one of the most striking differences those familiar with the novel may carry away from the film is something for which O'Nan himself is quite vocal in his admiration: "I love how David made the character of Lila just pop out," O'Nan says. "Everyone else is completely morose. All their feelings are battened down, and along comes Lila, who in the book is kind of a subdued, weird, outcast creature. In the movie, she becomes a bright, vivid, quirky agent of life." This leads to another observation: that Green allows a hint of youth and promise that the novel pointedly lacks. O'Nan points out that the film refuses to end on the same note of despair the novel did: "I think one of the very last lines in the novel is, 'I could not see how I would ever come to hate the people I loved.' David, to his credit, leaves things a little more hopeful."

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