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.

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