Bookforum, Summer issue
NOVELS AND FILMS: A Comedy of Remarriage
By Phillip Lopate
1. The Plot So Far
The relationship between novels and movies is such a seemingly tired subject that one can be forgiven for yawning at its mention. This soporific quality in part derives from the many high school and college English courses that dutifully explore film adaptations of novels as a means of killing two birds with one stone, and luring a visually-besotted generation back to reading. Then there are countless film studies courses that approach it from their end. As the compilers of A Database of Filmed Novels, Despoina Kaklamanidou and Panos Arvanitis, opportunistically note: “Let us not forget that the relationship between the novel and film is studied in almost every film department around the world. Therefore, if our database is used in this context, it could certainly provide a vivid space for fruitful research in the field of film adaptations as well as comparative literature.” At professional conferences, armies of academics present papers singling out the filmic treatment of X or Y novel. Usually the comparison is made to the detriment of the movie, which is seen as crasser and cruder—recalling the cartoon Hitchcock recounted to Truffaut that showed two goats eating film cans, one remarking to the other, “I preferred the book.” Film is treated as the dumb blonde of media. Sometimes, however, the older medium is viewed as “corrupting” the more innocent, populist folk art with its elitist literary pretensions. Let us see if we can bring some fresh air to this stale topic.
First it may be necessary to question the received wisdom. One such premise is that it is easier to make a fine film out of a mediocre novel than out of a superior one, because the adapter will feel less reverent toward the source material. (In reality, any screenwriter who has had to adapt a weak novel can tell you that inheriting lousy plots and thin characters does not make the job any easier.) A short list, barely scratching the surface, of beautiful films made from superior novels might include: Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette, The Leopard, The Life of Oharu, Pather Panchali, Greed, Day of Wrath, Floating Clouds, Little Women (both the Cukor and Gillian Armstrong versions), The Scarlet Letter, Double Indemnity, How Green Was My Valley, Nana, The House of Mirth, The Heiress, Wise Blood, Les Enfants Terribles, The Key, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, Contempt….Even superlative novels that had seemed unfilmable, either because of their size, canonic status or interiority—I am thinking of Great Expectations, The Trial, Remembrance of Things Past, Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary—have yielded creditable versions which succeeded at least partly in bringing these texts alive onscreen.
Another received truth is that the best way to make a vivid movie adaptation is to cut loose from the novel as soon as possible. Some screenwriters boast that they read the novel once, then never go back to it; and there are directors (such as John Ford with The Grapes of Wrath) who state they never read the original novel. There may be some ego-protecting here: Godard was being a bit disingenuous in dismissing his source for Contempt, The Ghost at Noon, as a mediocre novel to read on a train, thereby downplaying the psychological dynamics he had borrowed from Alberto Moravia. But for all the times when a rough, indifferent attitude (or the pretence of one) toward its source material resulted in a successful film, there were others in which the screenwriter and/or director took the original novel very seriously, such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who used the pages of the book he was filming as the shooting script for his beautiful Barren Lives.
One Approach: Hyper-Naturalism
The most famous example of a filmmaker who refused to acknowledge any dividing-line between novels and movies, or to relinquish devotion to his source material, was Erich von Stroheim. The tragedy of Greed, that his nine-and-a-half hour version of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague was whittled down by the studio to roughly two hours and its original negative destroyed, has become the central, cautionary myth regarding film adaptations, like Icarus flying too near the sun or some medieval alchemist perishing in an attempt to convert lead to gold. But we could just as easily view von Stroheim’s Greed (which, even in its butchered form, still appears on ten-best lists of American classics) as an exemplary model of film adaptation. It is generally assumed that Stroheim went about trying to film the novel paragraph by paragraph—and indeed, there are many direct correspondences of that kind—but the truth is somewhat more complicated, as Jonathan Rosenbaum usefully notes in his essay in Film Adaptation: “In fact, Stroheim got so far inside the spirit and texture of the original that, like any good Method actor, he was able to generate his own material out of it: almost the first fifth of the published script of Greed, nearly sixty pages, describes incidents invented by Stroheim that occur prior to the action at the beginning of the novel.”
Anyone who has seen Greed—either in its 1925 studio release or in the fascinating four-hour restoration by Rick Schmidlin, which incorporates recently discovered still photographs and dialogue cards—can attest to its thick texture of background objects, signs, faces, clothing, all of which generate a poignantly convincing material atmosphere, brick by brick. Anyone who reads Norris’s novel will notice his similar fondness for amassing physical detail. Norris confessed that his mentor in naturalist fiction was Emile Zola, who also loved to pile up the details, and to roam, like a tracking camera, over his chosen milieux (see, for instance, the marvelous department-store descriptions in Au Bonheur des Dames). If Flaubert, as was frequently observed, could be said to have anticipated cross-cutting in the agricultural fair sequence in Madame Bovary, Zola was much more important to the movies as avatar and inspiration. More than sixty adaptations of Zola’s novels were made since 1902, when Ferdinand Zecca adapted L’Assommoir. What was so useful to filmmakers from the start was, first, that Zola’s descriptions conveyed the constant flow of life, such as was also conveyed in documentaries and city-symphonies from Lumiere on, and which is the right and privilege of the camera-eye. Secondly, Zola’s penchant for deterministic fatalism reined in that flow and gave it narrative point. Jean Renoir, grand master of conveying a cinematic river of life which seems to spill out beyond the frame, lapping in and around his fatalistic protagonists (Toni, La Bête Humaine) acknowledged his debt to Zola, not only by adapting several of his novels, but by stating outright: “I believe that the so-called realist film is a child of the naturalist school.” And: “One usually takes Zola as a purely realist author…but what interests me in Zola is his poetry.”
This filmic discovery of the implicit poetic resources in naturalist realism, which derived from Zola, was so important to Thirties French auteurs such as Renoir, Carné, Duvivier, Feyder, Chenal and Gremillon that their works were even grouped under the name “poetic realism.” Dudley Andrew, in his splendid study of this school, Mists of Regret, is quick to point out the debt that classic French cinema owes to novelists of the day (think Simenon), when he speaks of “the evasive quality of ‘atmosphere’ that stands as an intermediate term between literature and cinema. Although atmosphere at one time may have belonged more properly to the poetic and painterly arts rather than to the novel, which was considered the medium of social analysis and intrigue, in the 1930s atmosphere had descended like a cloud on the narrative arts of novel and film.”
Another Approach: Avant-Garde Stylization
The bane of many filmed novels is the episodic, that hurrying-along effort to cram in so many scenes from the book that highpoints get flattened and everything ends in a blur. One strategy circumventing that pitfall has been a highly stylized, austere, anti-naturalistic approach. In the 1963 Nicht versohnt (Unreconciled), the first of many rigorous features made by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Heinrich Boll’s novel Billiards of Half-Past Nine was used as the inspiration for a film about how a bourgeois German family coped with the period before, during and after the Nazi regime. Rather than try to cram in as many sensational incidents as possible to capture a story spanning several decades, the filmmakers slowed down their fifty-five minutes by patiently recapturing unhurried moments of being (such as a man smoking a cigarette on a stairwell, or sitting down to his customary breakfast at a hotel), which achieved the Bazinian ideal of ontological reality. The result was a masterly contemplation of the way daily life goes on in the midst of historical upheaval. The Straub-Huillet team also adapted Kafka’s Amerika (as Class Relations, 1984), Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily (as Sicilia!, 1999) and made two features from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues With Leucò (From the Resistance to the Clouds, 1979, and These Encounters of Theirs, 2006), in both cases filming Pavese’s elaborate dialogue word for word.
Manoel de Oliviera, in his 1978 Doomed Love, filmed a famous nineteenth-century Portuguese novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, more or less in its entirety, by having a narrator speak voluminous voiceover texts when the actors were not engaged in dialogue. This method imposed an intentionally static rhythm, as the actors were obliged to stand around while the voiceover narration unfurled, though sometimes the camera went its own way, tracking to a window, for example. The somber delivery of long, formal speeches between the non-professional actors violated film adaptation’s received wisdom, which states that a novel’s dialogue must be recast and abbreviated so as to sound as natural as possible in an actor’s mouth. Yet somehow the results were mesmerizing. Oliviera explained that he found himself “making a film from a romantic work—but this work operates on two distinct levels. One is superficial, anecdotal, sentimental and very explicit; the other is much more profound. I didn’t wish to remain with the first level….Since I was adapting a work of literature to an audio-visual medium—a work of great beauty, moreover—I thought it would be legitimate to concentrate on the text, the words, and the let the images have a more serene form.” Oliveira subsequently refined his filmed-novel technique with Francesca (1981) and The Valley of Abraham (1993), loosely based Madame Bovary. All of these experiments stubbornly resisted the conventional wisdom which says that when adapting a novel, one must at all costs avoid the “literary;” and in the process, they challenged that quasi-religious dogma of film studies, that the visual must take precedence over the word.
The Stigma of the “Literary”
The cinema being story-hungry, it looked from its first silent days to novels and plays for raw material. At the same time, defenders of this insecure young medium were eager to assert that it had its own unique qualities, thereby putting forward a program of “pure cinema,” and in so doing, trying to distance it from the older media. The original sin, so to speak, was for movies to ape the theater. Gilbert Seldes argued that “not one single essential of the movies has ever been favorably affected by the stage; the stage has contributed nothing lasting to the movies; there isn’t a single item of cinema technique which requires the experience of the stage; and every good thing in the movies has been accomplished either in profound indifference to the stage, or against the experience of the stage.” The advent of talkies made the theatrical menace more palpable, and there were many highbrow film critics, such as Rudolf Arnheim, who thought that sound spelled the death of cinema as an art form.
As it turns out, they were wrong. Talk, lots of talk, even a theatrically-inflected mise en scene, led to many extraordinary movies, from Marcel Pagnol, Sasha Guitry, George Cukor, Jean Cocteau, Joseph Mankiewicz and Orson Welles (who confessed he was always more interested in words than images) down to Erich Rohmer, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen and the “film-theatre” of recent Alain Resnais. My point here is that a fear of language tainting the screen’s noble essence gravitated from the theater as the principal villain to a distrust of “the literary” per se, including novels, short stories and a more generalized, hard-to-define gestalt. When James Agee, in praising the neo-realist Shoeshine to the skies, qualified his enthusiasm by saying: “Such feeling for form as there is, is more literary than cinematic,” it is not entirely clear to me what he meant by calling DeSica’s approach “literary,” but the tone of reproach is unmistakable.
Two forms of snobbism and prestige are involved here: the cinematic and the literary. Novels originally brought cultural prestige to movies. Classics and established novels of the day have always enjoyed the marketing advantage of being pre-sold, familiar names, and the percentage of novels adapted for higher-budgeted, Oscar-friendly pictures (from Quo Vadis to Memories of a Geisha) is much greater than for lower-budgeted ones. It was this built-in prestige attached to novels that raised the hackles of those Cahiers du Cinema critics in the Fifties, who would go on to comprise the New Wave. Truffaut’s attack on the French “cinema of quality,” by which he meant lush, creamy films such as Christian-Jaque’s Charterhouse of Parma (1948) or Claude Autant-Lara’s The Red and the Black (1954), was also a veiled critique of the whole practice of drawing films from respected novels, which seemed insufficiently risky or personal. Of course this hostility was suspended when an auteur they admired, such as Robert Bresson, adapted Georges Bernanos. And Truffaut went on to reverse himself in his own directorial career by making many loving pictures drawn from novels, such as Jules and Jim, Two Englishwomen, etc. But some of the bad odor surrounding literary adaptations has remained. Even now, there are auteur directors such as Otar Ioselliani who go on record saying that they will never engage in such a stinking practice as filming a novel: to be a true auteur, in their eyes, is to write and film an original screenplay.
In line with this anti-literary sentiment is a mistrust of two other devices that are frequently used in novel adaptations: voice-over narration and flashbacks. Screenwriting teachers routinely advise students to avoid these two practices as a form of cheating and caving in to uncinematic practice. (This in spite of the many visually virtuosic films, from Citizen Kane to Goodfellas to Kill Bill, that employ one or both techniques.) Sarah Kozloff, in her excellent book Invisible Storytellers, analyzes the prejudice: “Obviously it is this emotional legacy of aversion to sound in general that provides the bedrock for all complaints against a particular use of the sound-track—voice-over narration. If one believes that all true film art lies in the images, then verbal narration is automatically illegitimate.” Kozloff also nails this prejudice to another questionable dogma, so familiar to literary workshops: Show, don’t tell. “As we know, during the first half of this [the 20th] century, the followers of Henry James waged a battle against ‘intrusive’ narrators speaking in their own voices, and in favor of the dramatization of the action in scenes devoid of overt narratorial mediation, claiming that this allows readers a closer, more objective relation to the action represented and the privilege of drawing their own interpretations….Granted that voice-over narration adds a certain slant, or even definite bias, to a film—why is this bad? Where are the laws saying that films have to be realistic, objective, or impersonal to begin with? Certainly no such statutes govern fiction films.”
When a film adaptation is criticized for being “literary,” it may also be a matter of sets, costumes and overall smugness. In film buff circles, we learned to scoff at the BBC Masterpiece Theatre or Merchant-Ivory adaptations of classic novels as stuffy, meaning, visually uninventive. In truth, there was often something drearily mechanical about the way each scene from a Trollope or Bronte novel got broken down into establishing shot, two-shot and sneering or teary reaction shot, as coercive in its emotional signals as soap opera. On the other hand, Merchant-Ivory made some subtle, astringent film adaptations, such as Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, and British television rises above its own cozy-adaptation formula occasionally, as in the recent Bleak House or Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.
Generally, one looks to television more and more for the transposition of a novelistic mind-set onto film or videotape. I realized this with a shock when, some years ago, I saw a televised series, From Here to Eternity, with Natalie Wood, that came much closer to the feeling of the James Jones novel, thanks to its relaxed unfolding over several nights, than had the original, overheated, Oscar-winning movie version directed by Fred Zinneman. Edgar Reitz’s remarkable Heimat series, made for German TV, has all the qualities of a great thousand-page novel. For that matter, any television series with a developing story, be it The Sopranos or The Gilmore Girls, allows more scope for the novelistically shaded, progress-and-relapse evolution of its characters than a feature film, where the main character is expected to be “transformed” only in one direction, usually positive. Television drama allows the writer to slip the noose of the three-act structure, and all the Robert McKee/Syd Field prescriptions for plot points, and to invite a more leisurely, discursive, novelistic sense of time.
Some filmmakers persistently exhibit a novelistic temperament. Visconti, after adapting Giovanni Verga, James M. Cain, Thomas Mann and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, had plans before he died to film Mann’s Buddenbrook and his own Proust. Stanley Kubrick seemed always to require a novel to get his cinematic juices going. Not only did Mikio Naruse turn again and again to Fumiko Hayashi and Yasunari Kawabata for source material, but even when he filmed original screenplays they continued to de-emphasize the dramatic in favor of novelistic atmosphere and the patient accumulation of behavioral patterns. Of course the influence flows the other way too: hardly a major novelist in the last hundred years has not been profoundly influenced by the movies.
George Bluestone’s Novels Into Film, which first appeared in 1957, is the ur-text of film adaptation studies, and the source of many received truths on the subject. Though rather dated (it is drawn from American movies between 1930 and 1950, when the Production Code still exerted a puritanical influence), it does raise key questions, and I have to admire the thoroughness with which Bluestone drew the parameters of a then-new field. Bluestone summarized the difference between the production of novels and films as follows: “The reputable novel, generally speaking, has been supported by a small, literate audience, has been produced by an individual writer, and has remained relatively free of rigid censorship. The film, on the other hand, has been supported by a mass audience, produced co-operatively under industrial conditions, and restricted by a self-imposed Production Code.”
Bluestone’s method was “to assess the key additions, deletions, and alterations revealed in the film and center on certain significant implications which seemed to follow from the remnants of, and deviations from, the novel.” This plodding, back-and-forth comparative approach had at least the merit of clarity, and it led him to some conclusions that are still valid, up to a point: that movies privilege plot at the expense of character; that they de-emphasize anti-clerical, sexually experimental or politically activist elements to ensure the largest mass audience; and that they gravitate towards happy, triumphal, redemptive endings. Bluestone quoted a study which showed that forty-three per cent of the novel adaptations sampled were altered to give them a romantic happy ending. I doubt the figure would be that high today, but studio executives remain in thrall to the falsely redemptive. Still, many film scholars have argued since Bluestone that a happy ending tacked on at the last minute of a feature does not negate all the feelings of anxiety and pessimism that preceded it. The happy ending is a convention that audiences know to take with a grain of salt.
Bluestone came down hard on Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary for its overly moralizing frame story of Flaubert’s trial. Today, our greater interest in auteur directors might incline us to give more leeway to Minnelli (or Renoir, also lambasted for his Madame Bovary) and find intriguing their separate treatments of the Flaubert novel. There are also side-dividends in the way of individual performances: both Anna Karenina adaptations made with Greta Garbo may have dropped the Kitty-Levin story, as Bluestone charged, but Garbo brought something new to our understanding of Tolstoy’s heroine, a weary angelic forbearance, perhaps, just as Jennifer Jones ardent, dreamy, self-righteous Emma Bovary (still dewy from her Song of Bernadette triumph) captured a piece of that moral sleepwalker’s ambiguous character in the Minnelli film. In short, it is possible for a film adaptation to “betray” its source plot-wise and at the same time contain elements that augment our appreciation of the original novel.
Why even speak of betrayal when we can view these deviations as alternate paths that the novel might have taken, alternate lives it might have lived? The novelist pauses indecisively to consider whether to deal the heroine a happy or unhappy fate, and chooses in the end a miserable one, but the alternative, joyful, romantic one is inscribed like a shadow buried in the body of the text; and the film adaptation helpfully uncovers it. The same holds for vulgarity. As a sometime novelist I have often fantasized that one of my novels would be adapted to the screen and made much tawdrier, in ways that my refined good taste had regretfully prevented me from indulging.
This raises the whole issue of faithfulness when novels are made into films: is it a foolish expectation or a valid one? Over twenty years ago, the film scholar Dudley Andrew called for a moratorium on articles which narrowly applied “the discourse of fidelity.” An entirely sensible position. And yet, after we have mouthed for the millionth time those platitudes about how each film needs to function as an autonomous artwork, about what is important is fidelity to the spirit rather than the letter, about the inevitability and even necessity of change from one medium to another, about the film adaptation being perforce no more than a “digest” appropriating some of the characters and plot lines for its own ends, might there still not be something unstoppably human in our hope that beloved novels be rendered faithfully onscreen, or at least not distorted beyond recognition? I am of two minds here. On the one had, I think it silly to regard novels as a frail, endangered species that must be protected from the brutal movie producer’s hunting-knife. I agree with Andre Bazin when he questioned the sacrosanct, historically recent notion of “the untouchability of a work of art.” Every screenplay, after all, is an adaptation of something or other, a pastiche of experience and quotation. If a film delights audiences, maybe that should be the end of the matter.
There are many stimulating movie adaptations that use novels merely as a point of departure, radically updating the plot, such as I Walked with a Zombie (taken from Jane Eyre), Apocalypse Now (from Heart of Darkness), Clueless (from Emma), Cock and Bull (from Tristram Shandy) or Pola X (from Pierre). The problem of fidelity seems more acute when the film adaptation presents itself as intentionally following the book. In such cases, I admit, I am personally appalled by certain movie adaptations. What bothered me about the movie version of Tom Jones (one of my favorite novels) was not that Tony Richardson tried to find modern analogies for Fielding’s parodic humor, but that his silent-comedy speed-up shtik seemed too cheap and patronizing. Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady drifted so far from the spirit of its model that I could not help agreeing with Cynthia Ozick’s accusation that it “perverts” James, even as I told myself that it was perfectly valid for Campion, an auteur in her own right, to make the story more relevant by turning it into a Generation X erotic thriller. In sum, I do not think we can ever wholly discard concerns about fidelity, but we need a more sophisticated approach.
Two recent books, Film Adaptation, edited by James Naremore, and Literature and Film, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, attempt just that. Both are collections of essays by distinguished film scholars and critics. The good part is that these authors are much more open-ended and receptive toward the experimental, non-industry product, and challenge the old literary-cinematic dichotomy; the discouraging part is that they tend to do this by putting everything through the theoretical strainer of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Bakhtin and Gennette. Adaptation studies are freed from the onus of fidelity, only to be chained to the wagon of “dialogism” and “intertextuality.” Fassbinder is quoted as saying that his novel adaptations constitute “an unequivocal and single-minded questioning of the piece of literature and its language.” In other words, a film adaptation should be the filmmaker’s critique of the novel. So we have evolved from the notion of the filmmaker as barbarian decimating the work of literature to that of postmodernist critic deconstructing it. I suppose it’s an improvement.
Film adaptations are like biographies, in that even if the writer starts out sympathetic towards the subject, a time may come when deference turns to hostility, by having to live in such close, subservient contact with another intelligence. Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial is both a superb spatial recasting of the novel, and an insouciant repudiation of a kind of spiritual anguish with which the filmmaker seems to have been fundamentally at odds from the beginning.
The judgments we make of film adaptations must always be placed in historical context and in the light of changing fashions. John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, which seemed revolutionary because of its sympathy for the Common Man when it first appeared, now looks rhetorically inflated, almost like a piece of socialist realism, with its camera shots tilting to the clouded sky. (Also, there are so many better Fords that we don’t need to protect this one.) Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangeureuses 1960, which transposed Laclos’s classic to contemporary France, seemed the height of raciness when it first appeared; now it is memorable mostly for its Thelonious Monk score. Greed and Doomed Love still have the freshness of their lunatic integrity. Recently I saw The Painted Veil, a movie directed by John Curran from a W. Somerset Maugham novel. It was a competent and affecting picture, with a terrific performance by Naomi Watts as the beautiful, shallow, adulterous wife of an idealistic doctor, who is transformed by her husband’s death. Many film critics tempered their praise by saying that it was “old-fashioned,” and indeed it was, not only because the adultery-in-the-colonial-tropics story and the theme of sacrifice seemed fussy for today’s audiences, but also because the craftsmanship of the adaptation was so unobtrusively intelligent. By 2006 standards, The Painted Veil is criticized as old -fashioned for making human sense of a now-dusty Maugham novel that would have been just the rage in the Twenties or Thirties.
Can movies think?
When someone like George Bluestone states that “the cinema exhibits a stubborn antipathy to novels” (a claim I resist), I think that what lies at the bottom of this assertion is the idea that movies cannot think. “Or rather,” writes Bluestone, “the film, having only arrangements of space to work with, cannot render thought, for the moment thought is externalized it is no longer thought.” Leaving aside the exception of the essay-film, which assuredly and overtly does think, I have to say that when I am in thrall to a sublime film masterpiece, such as Ophuls’ The Earrings of Mme de or Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (both, by the way, literary adaptations), I experience it as a continuous flow of consciousness—observant, melancholy, detached, worldly, commenting…thought. Perhaps I am being simple-minded here, and missing some subtle nuance. Bluestone argues that film “can show us characters thinking, feeling, and speaking, but it cannot show us their thoughts and feelings. A film is not thought; it is perceived.” His confident assurance that film “is incapable of depicting consciousness” is partly based on the idea that metaphors cannot be rendered onscreen, because the camera supposedly turns all phenomena into literal fact. I consider this an overly literalist understanding of the way metaphor operates. Similarly, I would take exception to the French aesthetician Etienne Souriau when he argued that films are incapable of inhabiting one character’s point of view, the way novels can, and that they therefore lack “interiority.” Film is capable of much more subjective interiority than these aestheticians will allow. Even Siegfried Kracauer, who in Theory of Film peddled the old malarkey about language being the enemy of the cinematic, allowed that “inwardness” was possible in films, concluding: “in general, the differences between the formal properties of film and novel are only differences in degrees.”
But Bluestone would have it that they are fundamentally at odds, impossible to cross-pollinate, like “apples and oranges.” He writes: “what is peculiarly filmic and what is peculiarly novelistic cannot be converted without destroying an integral part of each. That is why Proust and Joyce would seem as absurd on film as Chaplin would in print.” I don’t know about Joyce (although The Dead was a pretty good film), or Chaplin (who wrote a decent autobiography), but Proust has actually been well-served in recent years. I am thinking of producer Paolo Branco’s commissioning of various auteurs to adapt different volumes of Proust, which led to Raul Ruiz’s amazing Time Regained and Chantal Akerman’s superb La Captive. What Ruiz did was to take soundings of the Proust novel, and to reorganize them into a symphonic whole. Ruiz also boldly challenged the Bluestone assertion that “The novel has three tenses; the film has only one” by transporting a seated Marcel as spectator into his own recreated memories. Proust mixed up past and present, dream-self and real self, and this is what Ruiz does too with his thoughtful cross-sections or samplings of Proust’s text.
I have been arguing that novels and films have more in common than is generally asserted. Perhaps they are like one of those screwball-comedy couples, analyzed in Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, who marry, divorce and then, understanding that despite past infidelities they are better off together, submit to the comedy of remarriage. Kracauer’s maxim is suggestive: “Like film, the novel aspires to endlessness.” Once we understand that there is no limit to the intellectual or artistic complexity of which films are capable, we will be in a better position to appreciate the past and potential symbioses between novels and the cinema.
Books Consulted for This Article:
Novels Into Film, by George Bluestone, 1957, The Johns Hopkins Press.
Film Adaptation, edited by James Naremore, 2000, Rutgers University Press
Mists of Regret, by Dudley Andrew, 1995, Princeton University Press
Invisible Storytellers, by Sarah Kozloff, 1988, University of California Press
Theory of Film, by Siegfried Kracauer, 1960, Oxford University Press
Literature and Film, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 2005, Blackwell