Monday, April 19, 2010

Should certain stories never be made into films?

Authors have great intentionality when crafting their works. In the HBO Miniseries John Adams, based on the book by David McCullough, there is a scene where Adams, along with Franklin and Jefferson, are reviewing the draft of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson has inked. The author has a pained expression on his face for although both Adams and Franklin give great praise for the tone of the work and the overall sentiment, a casting of the break with the mother country as assertion of the rights of man, both do take issue with particular aspects of the document. Adams for his part is troubled by how slavery is or isn't treated in the document. He and Jefferson are in agreement on the abomination that is slavery. But they differ on how much of that should appear in the Declaration. Franklin, for his part, doesn't want to see the document as a religious testament. Where possible, he wants to purge the text of religious references. In what I take to be ahistorical, but fitting with the characterization of Franklin as possessing more street smarts and sensibility than the other two, he comes up with the line, "We hold these truths self-evident…" to substitute for different text that Jefferson had written. Jefferson tolerates the ordeal because he understands the necessity of getting the Congress to approve the document. Yet he goes out of his way to relate to both Adams and Franklin that every word and sentence were specifically selected for the purpose he had in mind. Jefferson could barely stand to see his creation so altered. While submitting to the necessity for the edits, he couldn't endure his pain in silence.

I've learned to endure, even to appreciate copy editors. Their allegiance is to the readers and because they are true to that I've found that I can have a fruitful negotiation with them when producing pieces where I'm the author. The published piece is almost certainly an improvement on my initial draft. I can't say the same for people who perform the copy editor function but don't do it as a full time job. During the time I was part of the Campus IT organization, there were a variety of cases where other people in the organization were tasked to edit things I had written. I wasn't the only one producing content so there was an internal editing process that performed a requisite function. But I was quite different from the other authors regarding the pride I take in my writing and my background in producing written works. The process couldn't be designed to be sensitive to those considerations. So I endured it because life goes on and work has to get done. Yet it pained me to see my work altered in a way where I felt the final product was not as good as my early draft.

Readers make their own meaning of works in the process of reading them. The reader's experience connects to the stream of thought evoked by the printed page. Mental imagery is conjured up. The moral to the story may readily appear. Other information the reader has gathered, for example biographical information about the author, intrudes on the making of meaning. The reader may find he is solving a puzzle in deciding on the meaning of what he has read. If this is what the author intended, what was his motive for delivering that message? Perhaps, when the reader's interpretation seems novel, relative to what he garners from the impressions other readers have articulated, the reader may feel certain ownership in his interpretation, similar to if not identical with the feeling of having authored the piece himself. He may then not want to see that interpretation be changed by others for fear that will lessen the impact of the story.

Of course, it is a truism with many movies that some of the viewers will say after having seen the film, "Not bad, but the book was better," or something else to the same effect. I've been that viewer on more than one occasion. In some cases the film seems rather a large departure from the book, not simply an adaptation. One example, is A Beautiful Mind, where Ron Howard's movie is an attempt to bring to the viewer what schizophrenia is like, while the book by Sylvia Nasar is a much more complete biography of John Nash, most of which is entirely omitted in the film. Is it ok in this case to have the film, as its own departure?

Presumably the author of the book should have first say. Publishing is a business. When there are apt to be substantial royalties to the author from the film release as well as a feedback effect on the demand for the next work the author will craft, there is a strong business reason for the author to accede in having his work made into a "major motion picture." There is also the possibility of an altruistic motive. Films are more democratic than books. More people have watched Howard's movie, imperfect though it might be, than have read Nasar's portrayal of Nash. Films often have mass appeal while books find their niche. An author may appreciate having the best of both.

What happens, however, when the author is deceased and the film itself is intended for a niche audience? Is this just a matter of purchasing the rights to the written material for film production? Or is there some further artistic obligation, to stay true to the author's intent in crafting the story. And what, especially, can be done in film when much of the action in the written story happens in the mind of the main character, where there is a fierce internal dialog, but no words are uttered and even the facial expression hardly reflects the inner drama that unfolds. How can film portray this and be true to the story? Doesn't the artistic obligation then require the film never gets made?

Let me return to those questions momentarily and remark about something different. Recently I have been having the experience of thinking through something on my own, writing up those ideas, and then discovering that somebody else has previously published on essentially the same thing. Many others have written on the topic and most of the other authors don't bring up the points I find essential. But one does and the person is somebody well known in the area. This gives some reassurance to me in my formative thinking – I find my way. Even when somewhat lost, that eventually rights itself. The path I'm on is not a bad one to follow. So keep at it. Finding these other writings is also a little disconcerting. I stumble upon them, looking for something else. Must I do that much more fact checking before making a conjecture in my blog? I don't do systematic research in advance at all. That's not the way I learn. It's all happenstance. Taking that away would kill much of the joy in my own learning.

The story in question is by James Joyce. It's from his book of short stories Dubliners, The Dead, the last story in the collection and considered to be one of the greatest short stories ever written. We've discussed it in our Motley Read where Alan gave his critique and, both in the commentary to that post and in a subsequent post of my own, I gave my idiosyncratic interpretation of the story. While I won't repeat that analysis here, let me affirm that the central part of the interpretation is not the epiphany that happens at the very end of the story, but rather the fall from grace that precedes it, driven by an insurmountable lust that the protagonist feels for his wife, which he falsely conjectures is reciprocated by her. It is this prior state of intense feeling coupled with wrong belief that is the key to the story.

The story was written in 1907. Joyce had extreme difficulty getting his work into print. The book ultimately was published in 1914. The movie adaptation is from 1987, directed by John Huston, featuring his daughter Angelica as Gretta, the wife, with the screenplay written by his son Tony. It was Huston's last movie. He died soon thereafter. I watched the movie over the weekend.

I asked my wife to order the movie from NetFlix a few weeks ago, while I was reading the story, which I didn't do in one sitting, a start and a stop before getting it all. Several of us in the Motley Read felt it a struggle to get through the stories though a reward for having read them. There is a cascading effect in doing a group read. One wants to contribute to the discussion and add to it. With limits to our own sensibilities, one looks for other fodder upon which to make a contribution. I found out about the movie for that reason. That it seemingly got good reviews made it seem like something to watch.

But I am also protective of my own sensibilities. When the disc came in the mail, I started to watch it. A few minutes in, I stopped. It seemed such a literal rendering of the story. Yet I had developed my own mental image of the story and I didn't want to find it in conflict with the film version. So I put it aside and waited a couple of weeks to view, until my sense of the story had dulled a bit, as all my memories seem to do. It wasn't quite like watching the film without having read the story at all, in which case I suspect I'd have liked the film very much and then would have reacted to it much like Vincent Canby did in this review or like Siskel and Ebert did in this At The Movies clip.

Infected with my prior reading, however, I was prone to fixate on my interpretation. So in some sense I was fortunate to have my attention focus on something different. The actor who played Gabriel Conroy, the husband in the story, is named Donal McCann. He seemed familiar to me and much of the movie I tried to place where I knew him from. I never figured that out, though his speaking voice sounded to me remarkably close to Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot and I tried to imagine whether visually they were similar as well. Then too, I thought McCann was a little old for the part, seemingly too self-assured in his demeanor, encouraging the confidence of others. As with Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, I believe that Joyce had every little piece of the story calibrated perfectly in his mind. Gabriel is nervous about giving his speech in the story. But McCann appeared as if he shouldn't be. That bit matters because, perhaps though unconsciously, Gabriel has given himself to the purpose of pleasing others, his spinster aunts in particular. He is humanly invested in the activity. This obligation would not be a burden for a more mature man, who would take it in stride. Whey else the nervousness but that he cares and that there is still some novelty in that?

Other than this little inconsistency, however, McCann is the right man for the part. The issue is not McCann's portrayal, which I thought was quite good. Read this review by Ebert, written only a few years ago, well after he did that clip with Siskel. Ebert seems to have had a change of heart here, almost perfectly in line with my own thinking about the movie. In particular he says

When I first saw "The Dead," I thought it brave and deeply felt but "an impossible film," and I wrote: "There is no way in the world any filmmaker can reproduce the thoughts inside Gabriel's head…."

Ebert recants from this position, focusing on the epiphany Gabriel comes to at the conclusion of the movie, delivered as a soliloquy with Gabriel's voice produced by a reading off screen, the camera not on him but on the countryside covered in snow. The effect works there quite well. And Ebert is right about how faithful most of the production is to Joyce's story. But on the matter of Gabriel's lust for Gretta in the cab ride to the hotel, there is no soliloquy. There can't be a soliloquy at that juncture because events are still to unfold and it is not yet time for reflection. As a result, the movie simply doesn't convey the depth of his emotion. There is a deep crescendo in Joyce's story at this point. Yet there is no parallel in the film. Ebert was right before he recanted. The film was impossible. It shouldn't have been made.

A miss is as good as a mile.

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