Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Book-to-Movie Enigma

Every once in awhile when a wonderful novel is adapted to a movie, the punditry gaggle and their snobbish fellow travelers resurrect the ridiculous canard that opines that only bad novels make good movies. A recent article in the New York Times by a novelist Joseph O'Neill cited Phillip Roth's The Human Stain, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day and John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick as prime example of this phenomena.

Oddly, he then cites The Witches of Eastwick as a disposable movie of a disposable novel. He apparently didn't like the novel either.

As near as I can interpret Mr. O'Neill's turgid article with its overuse of superlatives and dismissals, a common media disease, the movies referenced are also The Godfather, which he calls as "too bad a novel to be trampled to death by Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather." On the other hand, he praises Apocalypse Now as "the greatest twinning of novel and film." Note the word "greatest." He goes on to say that Conrad's Novella Heart of Darkness on which it is based contains "some of the best prose ever produced in English." Best ever, my God. Armed with superlatives, how easy it is to self-annoint oneself an oracle.

O'Neill asks the question: How many of you think of Kramer vs. Kramer or Sophie's Choice or The Hours as books first and foremost?"

What he means, I think, is that it is unlikely that the movie versions, however brilliant the adaptations will ever destroy the appetite for the books from which they are made. Does this need explanation?

As one who has been through the mill of Hollywood adaptations of two of my novels, one wonderful, one horrendous, I can offer some personal insight into the argument so clumsily posed by Mr. O'Neill.

In the first instance, be forewarned. Movies are movies and novels are novels. The worth of a novel can only be judged by its individual reader, since it is a one on one communication experience. If it moves, transports, engages, resonates, lingers, inspires, teaches, enhances one's life, it is a good novel. Only in the fullness of time, retrospective and durability, can it be judged a great novel.

What a novel provides for a potential movie adaptation is a ready made, probably original, idea or theme, characters and plot, all hatched from the fertile imagination of novelists. Originality is not the strong suit of movie makers, except in the area of special effects and other manipulative pyrotechnics borrowed lavishly from computer games. In movie terms, the novel serves as an inspirational blueprint for a visual experience designed primarily for the popular culture and mass market.

Thus the imaginative experience of a novel is different than the visual experience of using the novel as a blueprint for a movie. I often think of the movie adaptation as an advertisement for the written novel and note with some evidence that many movies lead people to the books from which they are made.

That said, I would like to rebut the statements made by Mr. O'Neill and, I must add, most so-called movie critics, an oxymoron if I ever heard one, on the merits of The Human Stain, a movie made from Phillip Roth's book about a black professor whose skin color is white enough to pass into the Caucasian population.

Notwithstanding all the psychobabble and carping about this movie and its critical trashing and thrashing it is a movie well worth seeing. It was, in my mind, a perfect companion piece for the novel. I believed implicitly in the characterizations, which is the only logical judgment one can really make about an actors performance. I suspect there was some political correctness, meaning the herd instinct of the moment, that might have prompted the bad press, an opinion that is mostly castigated where it is not ignored.

Another movie trashed by Mr. O'Neill is the adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. I knew Fielder Cook, the director, who died last month. He was a true Virginia gentlemen with a fine esthetic nose for movie art.

It was Robin Williams' first dramatic role. Unfortunately, the movie moguls at the time thought it not commercial enough or career enhancing for Mr. Williams' mostly comic image and it was not widely distributed. I believe I saw it on television. Here again, in my opinion it fulfilled all the criteria of a wonderful adaptation, including a remarkable and believable dramatic acting turn by Mr. Williams, never replicated since.

As for The Witches of Eastwick (Mr. O'Neill's "disposable movie of a disposable novel") I was not moved by it, but then I am a poor judge, eschewing the phantasmagorical. Yet, oddly the writer cites About Schmidt as an adaptation which he says was carried mostly by the charm of Jack Nicholson, (the star of The Witches of Eastwick). About Schmidt, which also starred Jack Nicholson, was an excellent novel by Louis Begley but was apparently discarded as a model before the screenplay was written.

Some may find this article (if you have gotten this far) mere trivia in today's uncertain and dangerous world.

Nevertheless, I have one more bullet to fire, the charge that The Godfather is a bad novel. Notwithstanding my youthful friendship with Mario Puzo, The Godfather is a seminal novel of great power that has created a world that has defined the enduring soul of what we call the Mafia. Whatever one calls this alliance of brutality and family values it is, in my opinion, a true mirror of our flawed humanity, the enduring fanatical tribal loyalties, the rewards and retributions, the greed and goodness, the coarse and the carnal, the endless internal conflicts within us all.

Perhaps Mr. Roth and Mr. Puzo, explorers of the Jewish and Italian psyche respectively, had much in common. Both dealt with The Human Stain.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Finding Love: the Last Great Mystery

I have searched for an answer all my life. The characters in my novels, short stories and plays have contorted themselves looking for the answer. Authors, philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychics and scientists from all disciplines have beaten the bushes for the answer.

The question is: Why does someone fall in love with one person and not another?

Why did Jacob work seven years just to marry Rachel?
Why did David go crazy for Bathsheba, sending her husband off to be killed?
Why did Romeo fall for Juliet and vise versa?
Why did Abelard go nuts (or nutless) for Heloise?
Why did Ulysses voyage ten years to retrieve Penelope?
Why did Napoleon go bananas for Josephine?
Why one and not another?

It baffles everyone, including authors like myself who have been exploring this phenomenon in novels, short stories and plays for five decades. Scientists have theorized that it must have something to do with our genes, our DNA, or our senses; something deep in the brain that gloms on to a compatible something in another person.

Others theorize that it is the life force, whatever that is, which motivates us to find the perfect mate, one that will provide the incandescent match of yin and yang, keeping the human race in play.

Of course, there are partial truths to be found everywhere. People continue to thirst for that condition known as "love." The search itself has become an act of desperation and a huge enterprise has sprung up to exploit this totally baffling human condition. Hell, people will do anything to find love. The condition itself is the ultimate high, the nearest thing to paradise on earth. It is no wonder that the condition is celebrated, acclaimed and exalted.

Indeed, not only is it the ultimate high, it is also the ultimate subject. Almost all of the great books deal with love from the Bible upward and onward. No great novel is without it. Few great plays are without it. It is an overwhelming subject matter because it is the ultimate mystery. Love is the most ubiquitous subject in the human experience.

Remember Tennyson's immortal lines in Locksley Hall, "In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." In today's gender conscious, politically correct world, make that "young woman" and the target of either gender. Never mind. The condition, I have concluded, is not seasonal.

Nor is it physical. Fat people fall in love with thin people and vise versa. Tall people fall in love with short people and vise versa. Black people fall in love with white people, as well as every racial shade in between and vise versa. Dumb people fall in love with smart people and vise versa. It is a tangled web of illogic, a human puzzle with no resolution.

In my own personal explorations into this mystery, in my real life, not my fiction generating life, I've calculated that I was conceived on the cusp of spring and born on the cusp of winter. My wife on the other hand was conceived in the height of summer and born at the end of winter. It is doubtful that a computer program would have matched us. Nor can I find anything psychological, scientific or otherwise to unravel the mystery of why we fell in love and why we have been together as husband and wife as long as memory serves, meaning as forever as it gets. One wife, one husband, one enduring lifetime, swanlike marriage.

A matchmaking industry has sprung up on the internet, pulling out more dollars from mate-seekers, make that love-seekers, than pornography. This in itself is no odd comparison since, in an obvious way, the two enterprises are related. The idea behind this matching phenomenon is that intelligent people, searching with dollars in hand, can narrow down their potential pool of mates through a computerized compatibly index based on common values and like interests.

Actually, it's not a bad commercial idea, since it eliminates the bruising rat race of bar hopping, blind dating and hit-or-miss flirtation. It matches up like-minded individuals in a perfectly logical, calculating way to determine the risk level involved in actual mating. Does it have anything to do with love? I doubt it. Some people might get lucky and actually fall in love, which leaves only the longevity factor to deal with.

Like those Russian dolls that fit together and get smaller and smaller, love is a mystery within a mystery. Why doesn't it last in its most pristine condition? Why so many false positives? Why does love wither? Does familiarity breed animosity, loathing, hatred? Is love merely a temporary high, a fragile condition easily contaminated and destroyed by the nitty-gritty business of coping with reality?

I've used myself as a kind of guinea pig to test and contemplate the various manifestation of this phenomenon. The War of the Roses is a case in point. While it is only one of my 28 novels, it has defied time and, after 25 years, continues to resonate. The movie plays somewhere on the planet about three times a week and is now having a third life in live theater and a fourth life is contemplated in musical theater.

Its longevity baffles me, but I think it's because the story deals with the direct opposite of the ultimate high, love's exhilaration and joy, through hatred, dark deeds and even death. People must enjoy tales of destruction, especially when it comes to marriage, either as a cautionary exercise or the sheer excitement of seeing the damage unfold. It does not even matter what side they choose in the war between the parties.

It raises the question: Why is the ultimate end of the ultimate high so compelling?

Forgive me, but everything gets pretty much convoluted when dealing with the mysterious love question. People go round and round trying to understand it. Considering its consequences as a life-changing experience, love certainly deserves our attention and our most ardent investigative effort. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere. I can attest that the search for answers leaves only more questions. One can't even take comfort in the great Shakespeare quotation, "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Actually, love signifies "everything." That's why people will move heaven and earth to find it.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Writing Life

It was my freshman English teacher at New York University who inspired me to become a writer. His name was Don M. Wolfe and he hadn't a clue that he had lit the fuse that set me on my lifetime path.

I was seventeen years old. In those days New York University had an uptown facility in the Bronx, overlooking the East River, a beautifully landscaped campus with a number of Georgian type buildings and a famous promenade called "The Hall of Fame." I lived with my parents and brother in a two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, an hour and a half subway ride from the campus.

Each morning my mother would rise, cook my breakfast and prepare two egg salad sandwiches for my lunch. In those days such motherly conduct was not considered pampering or female exploitation or fear of not being loved by her offspring. Mothering was a deeply respected, sincere and accepted occupation and to me, loving one's mother and father and visa versa was an inbred fact of life.

The savory and memorable sandwiches never lasted until lunch. In those days, I was always hungry, not by deprivation, simply an irresistible appetite. The cost of college was twelve dollars a point and since my father's employment was sporadic and we were always short of money, my mother had prevailed upon one of her successful brothers to pay my tuition.

After classes I would work at odd jobs for pocket money. I did not consider it a hardship. I get a laugh out of people who cite their humble beginnings. Never once did I feel humble or deprived or poverty stricken. In fact, life growing up in New York City was a never-ending carousel of excitement and wonder.

Dr. Wolfe would assign us compositions to write and comment in red ink on our various literary efforts. His emphasis was on imagery, originality, and language. It was these comments of encouragement and criticisms that lit the fuse and confirmed what I barely suspected, that I had, indeed, found my calling. Or, by chance, it had found me.

Although I had to take the required science and math courses, it was my English courses, particularly the European Novel class taught by another inspiring professor, Professor Ranney, which further buttressed my ambition. In that three hour back and forth subway ride to the Bronx campus, I lived in the dazzling imaginary world created by the great novelists and peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters who seemed more real than my fellow commuters. This total immersion, which transported me far from the cacophony and tumult of the speeding underground train, convinced me that the only occupation I would ever aspire to or cared about was to write novels.

Burning ambition is a glorious but debilitating affliction, especially to a college graduate barely out of his teens facing a formidable and fiercely competitive post war environment. The only job I was able to get was that of a copy boy at the New York Daily News, nightside, fourteen bucks a week. Jobwise, it was just about as close to the written word that I could get at the time.

All this biographical trivia is by way of introduction to the defining moments of my career validation, the quintessential flowering of my sworn and absolute fealty to the notion that I must become a writer, whatever the odds, however many detours or forbidding obstacles I must face.

After graduation, I registered to take an evening course in creative writing at the New School in Manhattan, given by Dr. Wolfe, that same professor of English that had defined my calling. The classes attracted a disparate group of all ages and income levels, of both genders, a number of returning veterans, some with jobs, some unemployed. I think I was the youngest of the class of thirty odd students. We had one thing in common, the burning urge to create works of the imagination, novels and short stories, to learn the craft, be guided and inspired by a wise mentor and, perhaps, by each other.

We were truly birds of a feather. To a man and woman, we knew exactly what we wanted and dreamed about. All were serious and determined people bonded by a single unquenchable ambition, to express our deepest thoughts and desires and communicate them through characters and environments of our own creation. I know it sounds a bit lofty and ethereal, but we had this palpable obsessive need to tell people what was inside of us. A real writer knows in his soul what I mean.

The format of Dr. Wolfe's class was simple. We were to submit a piece of work each week. Dr. Wolfe would read and evaluate our efforts, write his red inked comments of suggestions or praise on our papers and choose a few of these works to be read in class each week. Throughout the course everyone had his or her chance at reading to the class. We would discuss the work and offer our own comments. Most of the criticism was supportive and kindly and there was the sense that our fellow students recognized that each individual voice was original and to be respected and it was our profound duty to encourage each other.

One thing a course in creative writing cannot teach was talent. In my entire life I have never before or since been exposed to so much rich writing talent. It was truly extraordinary, an awesome literary explosion.

Some of us developed strong bonds. Once a week was not enough. We broke up into groups that met at other times. We'd sit around each other's kitchens and read our work to each other, comment and criticize, always supportive, always in pursuit of the great goal, to be published, recognized, make our mark. One of my fellow students was Mario Puzo. Others, I remember were John Burress whose first novel was headed to publication and Harold Applebaum, whose poetry appeared frequently in the New York Times when that paper used to published a daily poem. Another was an ex-wife of Ira Gershwin whose name escapes me and others whose work was, in my opinion, of equal merit or better than those who captured the golden ring of fame and fortune.

Another class at the New School was taught by Charles Glicksberg, a professor of English at Brooklyn College. Among his writing students was William Styron. In my second year I took Professor Glicksberg's courses and found him and my fellow students equally inspiring.
Some of the material in those years found their way into anthologies published through the New School. You cannot image the joy we took in being published, many of us for the first time. We are talking about the years 1949 and 1950. The books were entitled American Vanguard 1950, Which Seed Will Grow, and a paperback whose title I can't remember.

A number of the writers in these classes became published novelists, most of them within a decade of their courses. We all know what happened to Mario Puzo and William Styron. Others published as much as a half a dozen novels of great merit. The "star" of those years was the late Leonard Bishop, who published a number of novels and eventually became a teacher of creative writing. Another was Sigrid DeLima, a fine writer who also published a number of novels. There were others whose names escape me and their books are probably gathering dust in attics or disintegrating on bookshelves.

I had to struggle through two more decades of frustration and rejection before my first novel was published. Other considerations intervened. I had married young and the priorities of family support intervened, although I never really put my dream on hold, writing my novels and stories each morning before going to the office. But that is another story to be told at a later date.

In a sudden burst of nostalgia, I recently went back to those books published through the New School, mostly to see if I recognized any other names of those fabulously talented aspiring writers. Fifty-five years have elapsed. Except for Puzo and Styron, and those mentioned above, I could barely recognize the names of any of the others. Some I remembered only vaguely. If author name recognition is a test of popular success, I am sorry to say that except for the two mentioned above, none of the authors in those books have withstood that test. In no way does that imply that their writing talents were lesser than those whose names are more recognizable. It does, however, imply that lady luck, the favor of the publishing and movie Gods and the lottery nature of timing and coincidence have more to do with authorial success than talent.

Through a gauze of tears I looked over each name and read their one-paragraph bios. All of them had this great need, this grand obsession to write, publish, be read, tell their stories. They are, for me at least, all lost to the mists of time.

Were those who were published disappointed in the public reaction to their work, unable to take the blows of pompous critics long forgotten? Did the publishers abandon them because of poor sales? And what of those who were unpublished? Did rejection destroy their incentive, discourage them from continuing, defeat them? Did they live their lives with their dream still intact? Did fear of failure take hold on their psyche?

Since I was the youngest of this group, I can only assume that many of them are dead. Did they die with their obsession still resonating in their souls? Or did they turn away in despair and frustration?

The writing life is a tough, cruel game, as is the life of every artist. To a real writer, the kind I met at the New School, commercial success was both tantalizing and suspect. The fear of "selling out" was the subtext of their striving. Was "making it" really about money and fame? Or something less tangible and mysterious, like some secret and impossible longing for immortality? I mourn for them, especially for the ones whose names I do not recognize.

To one for whom the dream is still pulsating and very much alive, I can only speculate about my fellow writers of those halcyon days. However their lives turned out, to me they were among the best, if not the best of their generation.