The great Lev Grossman has a typically smart and interesting piece in last week’s Time (the issue with the hideous cover advertising 60 different stories inside), on a subject of perennial fascination: books translated into movies. I’ve long been on record with the audacious opinion that virtually every movie version ever filmed is better than the literary work from which it was adapted, and although Grossman doesn’t go quite that far, he’s refreshingly flexible about the whole process, instead of parroting the typical book-person’s assertion that the movie is always worse, always a shadow or travesty.
Naturally, what got him going in the first place was the stunning long trailer to the upcoming movie adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. Grossman is right to imply in his opening that the novel’s brattily intricate structure seems almost designed to be unfilmable, but anybody who’s seen that trailer to the upcoming Wachowski-siblings adaptation isn’t prepared to be so certain (including Grossman, who writes here that his problems with the full movie were very similar to his problems with the book). Mitchell’s book impressed me with its literary virtuosity and irritated me with its innuendo about how badly the desiccated old novel form needed a surrealistic shot in the arm to keep it going (this is my problem with ‘magical realism’ as well – plain-old realism works just fine for fiction’s purposes, if you know what you’re doing when you try to write it), but however I felt about the novel, I, too, for a long time considered it unfilmable – and I, too, was amazed by the trailer. Grossman might just as easily have been talking about the upcoming Ang Lee movie adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi; the book was very nearly wretched – but the trailer for Lee’s movie is heart-racingly astonishing, for reasons Grossman deftly points out:
… directors have to improvise filmic equivalents to literary devices rather than try to transcribe those devices directly onto the screen. Which is about as difficult as it sounds. To do it, the director needs a cinematic voice that’s as strong and confident as the writer’s written one.
This is exactly right, and purists in both camps should remember it. When you adapt something, you change its nature in order to preserve its essence. The problem with adapting novels into movies is that it’s tough to find two people (let alone the 21 million people of a movie’s opening month) who’ll agree on what any given book’s essence is. The director is just one of those people, but directors who have the courage not to kowtow to their literary sources can make vividly memorable work – from Stanley Kramer’s powerful adaptation of On the Beach to Peter Jackson’s deservedly praised Lord of the Rings trilogy to the BBC’s recent intensely clever updating of the Sherlock Holmes canon.
Hollywood is making more literary adaptations than ever in its history (especially if you include comic books under the big umbrella of ‘literary’), snatching up any piece of printed matter that sells well in the hope it’ll translate into dollars at the box office, the theory being that movie-going audiences want to feel comfortable with what they’re about to watch, that they’re increasingly too timid to take chances. Grossman is clever on this basically cowardly process:
There’s a weird aura of manifest destiny around successful novels, a pervasive belief that they must progress through the stages of life and become movies, as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly: the movie industry treats narrative like a precious nonrenewable resource that must be carefully recycled and never just wasted on mere paper.
Examples proliferate – it’s a fun game: Moby-Dick,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Quo Vadis, To Kill a Mockingbird, Doctor Zhivago (to say nothing of the works of Shakespeare) … all have been adapted into superb movies specifically because their directors risked the ire of puritans in order to make the material their own. And dozens more adaptations are headed to movie theaters in 2013.
Grossman has just the right combination of literary depth and cultural reach to write about this stuff grippingly, and he does – for the limited amount of space Time gives him, that is. The space is a two-page spread toward the back of the magazine, and although two pages is still cruelly short for such a big and interesting subject, Time wastes a full one-third of it on a huge and utterly unremarkable ‘illustration’ sitting there slap across the page like a big neon vote of ‘no confidence’ in Grossman’s ability to carry the subject across the finish line unaided. The boring illustration could easily have taken up the space of one of Grossman’s paragraphs – instead of ten paragraphs. The New York Times Sunday Book Review does the same thing, and it’s endlessly annoying.
Fortunately, I won’t have to worry about such old-world things when I’m seated in the audience getting ready to watch Cloud Atlas unfold in all its visionary glory. I hope they get some of the words right.