The first rule is that there are no rules. Anything I might say about or against the derivation of movies from great works of literature is gainsaid by what’s at the top of my all-time-top-ten list, the adaptation of “King Lear,” by Jean-Luc Godard (and, high on the list that follows it, of younger filmmakers’ greats, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz”). And, of course, some of the very best filmmakers, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, have made a lifetime’s work of literary adaptation. That said, the practice—which has burst into the headlines again with the news that Baz Luhrmann’s take on “The Great Gatsby” has been pushed back from this Christmas to next summer in order to give Luhrmann “more time to finish its extensive 3D effects and a planned all-star soundtrack”—runs on the Catch-22 double curse of fidelity and infidelity. The best response to the Gatsby news came via Twitter from the critic David Ehrlich:
of course THE GREAT GATSBY was delayed. i mean, *you* try rendering “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” in CG.
He’s right, of course, and it wouldn’t be any easier without C.G. Ehrlich rightly emphasizes the thing that marks the novel as great—emotional insight by way of language—as the part of the novel that filmmakers usually fail to match onscreen. Rather, the typical run of novelistic adaptations involves the plot, the dialogue, maybe some voice-over, in a kind of Classics Illustrated surrogate for the book.
If not rules, there are, at least, a few guidelines…
…that prove of interest in watching, if not making, a movie based on literature. The most obvious is that good filmmakers make good adaptations no less than they make good movies based on original screenplays. The fact that two of the best recent adaptations have been made by Wes Anderson and David Fincher should come as no surprise—they’ve also made some of the best non-adaptations. Robert Bresson was as great at Dostoyevsky (“Une Femme Douce,” “Four Nights of a Dreamer”) and Tolstoy (“L’Argent”) as he was at Bresson (“Au Hasard Balthazar,” “The Devil, Probably”), Max Ophüls as great at Maupassant (“Le Plaisir”) as at Cécil Saint-Laurent (“Lola Montès”), Howard Hawks as great at Hemingway and Chandler (“To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep”) as at any Western or screwball comedy, Douglas Sirk at Chekhov (“Summer Storm”) and Faulkner (“The Tarnished Angels”) as at pulp romance.
That said, many of these film adaptations have something in common—they’re based not on full-length novels but on short stories or novellas, which give the director and his or her screenwriters the chance to expand and elaborate, rather than condense and truncate, the literary source. “Benjamin Button” takes a bare-bones story with a surprising span and locates the grand historical fresco it implies; whereas, when filming “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Fincher was obviously limited by the literal storytelling that the familiar novel dictated (and he did well to make his illustrations so mercurial). Writing here recently about Hawks’s “To Have and Have Not,” I noted the ruthless extraction and abstraction to which he submitted Hemingway’s novel in order to make a good movie from it.
I recently had the privilege of meeting a novelist whose work I greatly admire. He informed me that one of his books is currently being adapted for a movie and asked me what I thought of the screenwriter and director hired for the job. I answered that, for all their talent, I hope that they dare to betray the book in a way that will surprise (if not dismay) the author. My favorite story of adaptation is one that I mentioned here a few years ago, concerning the purchase of rights, in 1965, to two Maupassant stories (which weren’t yet in the public domain) by the producer Anatole Dauman for Godard’s “Masculine Feminine.” When the completed film was shown to a representative of the (long-deceased) author’s estate, that representative declared that the film so little resembled the stories that Dauman would retain the rights to make another film based more closely on them for no additional fee.
That said, there is something potentially special about the adaptation of a great work of literature: the sheer pleasure of hearing the author’s language spoken by able actors. My favorite movie by Orson Welles is “Chimes at Midnight,” in which his grand performance of Falstaff arises from his cut-and-paste of Shakespeare’s plays featuring that outsized character. Yes, “Citizen Kane” is pretty great (and, of course, of crucial historical significance), but Shakespeare is still a better screenwriter than Herman Mankiewicz (just nosing him out at the finish line…) and Welles transcends the cinema—even more than with his versions of “Macbeth” and “Othello”—to give one of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary creations a definitive incarnation. It remains to be seen whether Baz Luhrmann can do anything onscreen with the great last line of “The Great Gatsby,” but at least we can hope that, as Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire will have the chance to deliver it and will give it a memorable spin. And David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” opening in New York on August 17th (there will be time to say more about it), affords a noteworthy declamation of the shimmery techno-shards of Don DeLillo’s dialogue.
The subject of the cinema is the world, of which good books are a crucial part; whether filming with documentary curiosity or with artistic ambition, they’re hard for directors to avoid—and there’s no reason for a director to avoid them. But there is a rule of thumb that’s worth noting: a director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others of modest and practical insight—but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own. Welles and Godard are in their element when they film Shakespeare, as is Bresson with Dostoyevsky, Hawks with Hemingway, Sirk with Chekhov. Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.