October 17, 2007

Guest Blogger: Ed Champion, Return of the Reluctant

Today's mystery guest is writer, blogger, and podcaster Edward Champion, whose seemingly fearless feats of derring-do and opinionated expostulation appear daily at his popular pit-stop for lovers of all things literary, Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant. Here, Ed turns our attention to the failures and successes of contemporary book-to-film adaptations. --Kim

Over the past three years, the kind Kim and amicable Amy have vigorously tracked the grand topography of literary adaptations. But I'd like to take advantage of their kind invite to throw a few curveballs into their benign little ballpark. Classically speaking -- at least, if we're talking nineteenth century novels and not the kooky craziness of Fellini's feral adaptation of Petronius's Satyricon -- it goes without saying that the Royal Shakespeare Company's ten-hour adaptation of Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one of the finest literary adaptations to have graced all mediums in my lifetime. Being a wee lad when this all went down thousands of miles away in the West End a good twenty-seven years ago, I tempered, or perhaps perpetuated, my conspicuous love of Dickens by watching this fine production in my early twenties on a grainy VHS tape that had been delivered to me third-hand, drinking in vigorous performers in multiple roles committed to expressing the careful behavioral hues and shades that the great Dickens had happened upon through mere prolific routine! I now understand that this fine dramaturgical gem is now available on DVD. So perhaps a reinvestigation is in order.

What I speak of here is the contemporary novel done right by an intuitive screenwriter's hand. The average auteur, at least judging from recent film adaptations, does not appear to be much of a literary person. Today's cinematic emphasis is on slapdash editing designed for an ADD-impaired crowd, expensive digital effects whose sole purpose is to disguise glaring deficiencies of a slipshod story, and fine actors whose talents are often wasted with preposterous dialogue. But sometimes being literary isn't always enough. Let us not forget that even a screenwriter as talented as Francis Ford Coppola took transformed F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic in 1974 into a vacuous film starring the starry-eyed and wholly unsuitable Robert Redford as Gatsby. But when Coppola applied his talents to a more populist-minded novel, he gave us a masterpiece which spawned two sequels: one equally great, one not so. Perhaps having learned a few hard lessons from tackling Fitzgerald solo, The Godfather's pitch-perfect screenplay might be equally credited to Mario Puzo, who likewise turned the Superman legend into the Greatest Story Ever Told. That's subtlety for you. But it worked.

I suspect that the popular novel is likely a better form for these cinematic experiments. Not even Faulkner or Hemingway could grapple with the intricacies of a three-act screenplay as magnificently as they poured their talents into their fiction. Stanley Kubrick -- himself, a fine literary transpositioner of Anthony Burgess and Thackeray -- made an amusing enough film out of Lolita, but it is Nabokov's novel that stands as the true exemplar. To my mind, the last notable literary adaptation involved the five (!) writers led by Alfonso Cuaron who converted P.D. James's somewhat preposterous novel, Children of Men, into one of the finest dystopian films to hit our screens since Blade Runner. Could such a distinct and detailed vision have been effected if James were a more literary author? And while we're on the subject, if too many cooks spoil the broth, why then was High Fidelity such an effecting adaptation with four screenwriters? Was it because this quartet had the foresight (pardon the pun) to set Nick Hornby's novel in Chicago? Or was it because Hornby's novel fit the criteria of popular novel?

Frank Darabont's adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption is based on a novella by Stephen King, perhaps one of America's most popular writers, and is widely regarded as one of the great films of the '90's. And yet Darabont faltered somewhat with The Green Mile. Is it because novellas translate better than novels? Or is it because King designed The Green Mile as a six-part serial? Tom Perrotta's Election was transformed into one of the great satirical films of the '90's by the dynamic duo of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. The duo have a pretty solid literary adaption track record with Rex Pickett's Sideways and Louis Begley's About Schmidt, the latter of which was transplanted to Omaha, Nebraska. Is topographical transposition one of the secret ingredients to a successful literary adaptation? Or just in these particular cases?

Another unusual film adaptation in recent years-- one executed with considerable success -- is Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Bergman's adaptation of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor and Our Cancer Year. If one can quibble with their failure to capture the horribly debilitated Pekar as he is undergoing radiation therapy during his cancer, one must likewise applaud not only the way in which they included the real-life exemplars of Pekar and company, but the manner in which the comic book medium transcends itself upon the cinematic.

These are just a few examples. To delve into these issues any further is to promulgate another blog. And it's hard enough maintaining just one. I think Kim and Amy are wiser than I am. Their concentration on nineteenth century novels-turned-films present enough fascinating talking points. I've only just dipped my toe into their pond, and I now appreciate their interests greater than before.

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