Tag Archives: adaptation

Page and Screen: Thinking about kids? Don’t read We Need To Talk About Kevin this Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, according to my traditionalist Dad) is when we celebrate the unsung heroes of society. Mothers are the underappreciated glue holding together such fundamentals of everyday life as law, order and excessive cleanliness. There is no higher calling than motherhood. Political leaders, from Stalin to Cameron, have recognised that a good mother, providing a solid foundation for a good family, is the perfect platform for a great nation. Who do men beg for in their darkest hour? Not their wives, but their mothers. Whose betrayal pushes Hamlet to the brink of madness? His mother’s. And who saved the day in the last Doctor Who Christmas special? You guessed it, the mum.

In the build up to Mother’s Day, the commercialised clutter clogging up the high streets is physical evidence of the cult of motherhood. The perception is that this is the one day of the year that we openly show our gratitude to the women who brought us into the world. Lionel Shriver’s now well known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is bold enough to suggest that mothers are often showered with too much praise and attention. In fact, it is largely about the way society continually worships its mums and the burden this places on ordinary women who don’t fall completely in love with the role. The novel has a controversial reputation and this is just one of the big ideas within its pages with the potential to shock.

I’m yet to see Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Shriver’s novel and would be interested to hear your thoughts below readers, because inevitably the hype around the book has focused on the high school shooting that the narrative grows towards. I feel that the themes relating to the violence raised by the story are secondary to other issues Shriver illuminates with her writing. For me the most convincing parts of the book, where both Shriver’s style and substance were at their best, was early on, as central character Eva contemplates having a child and then finds the experience of birth and early motherhood underwhelming and depressing. In an article for The Guardian last year, Shriver claims to be happy with Ramsay’s “thematically loyal” version of her book. But the marketing has focused on Ezra Miller’s angry and angst ridden adolescent, rather than Tilda Swinton’s struggle with motherhood, and one of my friends was horrified that ordinary looking John C. Reilly was chosen to play handsome husband Franklin.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is at its most horrifying when Eva feels totally trapped by her son. She is certain that her bawling infant harbours feelings of resentment and hatred towards her. The book actually becomes less and less frightening as we get closer to the shooting itself. Teenage Kevin is brooding, spiteful and distant, and his mother has come to accept their detachment somewhat. The preceding enforced attachment is far more chilling. In general the characters and ideas are more engaging and powerful early on; in fact the book runs out of steam as we slide towards the atrocity, with the twist at the end not proving revelatory enough to make up for this.

Shriver’s phrasing, imagery and dialogue are all exemplary at times, but occasionally the format, of letters to her absent husband, feels artificial and forced, leading to clumsy writing lacking in subtlety. I was fascinated by Eva as a career woman, gripped by the debate she had with herself about becoming a mother. Perhaps Shriver is at her best during these sections of the novel because juggling a successful career is what she knows well. Eva was pressured into motherhood and it’s appalling to witness her regrets and pure disgust at herself for feeling nothing towards her own offspring. How many mothers feel compelled to have kids because it’s normal, because of peer pressure? How many find themselves chronically disappointed afterwards? The book concedes its originality when it loses sight of this disturbing observation, resorting to painting Kevin as some sort of evil, devil child, ought to wreck his mother’s life.

I am essentially saying that the scariest idea in We Need To Talk About Kevin is not emotionless kids and teenagers suddenly killing their classmates with arrows. It is in fact the notion of something you have great expectations for turning out to be crushingly disappointing. What if that first kiss is just an awkward clash of tongues and intermingling saliva? What if the FA Cup final ends 0-0? What if the sex on your honeymoon is someway short of ecstasy filled spiritual union? As film fans, we perhaps know this fear better than most. Imagine watching Raging Bull or Citizen Kane and thinking nothing more than “meh”. With adaptations, the fear is especially acute. What if, when I finally see Ramsay’s adaptation, she has failed to capture all the things I’ve mentioned above that I liked about this book? But this fear is perhaps a vital part of the thrill of watching adaptations, and life in general. The knowledge that you might be disappointed just makes it so much better when you’re not.

Birdsong: Part Two

The concluding part of the BBC’s grand adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong struck some emotional chords but ultimately felt like a sanitised version of the book’s raw honesty.

This adaptation has been swamped with praise from virtually all corners. It has a lot going for it, with fresh faced young leads making a name for themselves in Hollywood, lavish locations and high production standards. But for some reason I never really embraced it as I would have liked to.

Silly little things irritated me. For example the sun drenched trenches. We had to wait thirty four minutes for some appropriately miserable rain in this second episode and it turned out to be nothing more than a slight shower. There was a similar lack of precipitation in the first half. Granted the Somme offensive took place in the summer but Birdsong as a whole tracks Stephen’s progress through the entire war. More than the lack of rain, it was the constantly bright blue sky that unsettled me. I’m sure the outlook didn’t appear quite so sunny to the men.

Predictably the Somme sequences reined in the scale of horror and death presented in the book, although it’s impossible to tell whether this was an artistic choice or one necessitated by a lack of extras or BBC sensibilities. The setup to the battle worked well and I felt a truly moving attachment to the story for the first time, although this was largely squandered by the underwhelming brevity of the “big push” itself.

The key scenes with Jack Firebrace and Isabelle that followed were also disappointing in one way or another, meaning that the story fizzled out somewhat for me. However thanks to impressive period detail and a mostly assured performance from Eddie Redmayne Birdsong remained a worthwhile watch. In the end my hazy, idealised recollections of the book hindered my enjoyment of the story but there was little wrong with it overall.

Page and Screen: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This feature often asks whether some novels really are completely impossible to adapt for the screen. Usually diehard fans of much loved books being made into films are concerned primarily with one thing; the characters. They worry that the actors won’t fit their mental images of them or that the script will fail to accurately vocalise their defining thoughts and feelings. But occasionally a story will depend on the spark of its narrator rather than character, plot or setting.

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is just such a book. In the last Page and Screen I discussed the recent adaptation of One Day and during the opening chapter of that novel English student Emma has a copy of Kundera’s book in her room. The male half of One Day’s story, Dexter, immediately forms judgements about Emma at their first meeting, based partly on her owning the Czech novel.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being can certainly be seen as pretentious. It’s a book about love, politics and ideology, set during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Its themes are high minded and perhaps far too ambitious for some. It tackles unanswerable questions about what it means to “be”, what it means to love and which ways to find satisfying purpose in life.

Aside from the book’s content its form is also thoroughly postmodern. It begins with musings from the narrator on the implications of the concept of eternal return, espoused by Nietzsche. At times it discusses and admits that the events being described are a fiction played out by imaginary characters. Two central love stories make up the narrative of the book and often, once we view key scenes from their lives, the narrator will wryly deconstruct and analyse them.

It’s the wit and self depreciating tone of the narrator that saves the book from becoming an overly serious tale, and makes up much of its appeal. The actual events of the narratives are often told in a simple style and the reader skips rapidly through time on the backs of basic sentences:

They had spent scarcely an hour together. She had accompanied him to the station and waited with him until he boarded the train. Ten days later she paid him a visit. They made love the day she arrived. That night she came down with a fever and stayed a whole week in his flat with the flu.”

In contrast the narrator’s sections are laden with references to philosophical works, religious texts, classical myths and even the music of Beethoven. These passages ought to be random and rambling but in fact range from the profound and insightful to the honest and humble. The problem for any film adaptation is that the voice of the narrator, which perhaps can be viewed as the authorial voice of Kundera himself, hints at a far more interesting character than those in the stories he describes and dissects.

Recently on BBC iPlayer was a 1988 transformation of the book, starring critically acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems incapable of turning in a bad performance. He plays Czech surgeon Tomas, easily the book’s key figure besides the narrator. He is a womaniser, who feels compelled to sleep with numerous women. But he experiences a crisis of identity and ethics when he falls in love which prompts him to draw a distinction between his desire to make love to women and his need to sleep with, literally fall asleep next to, the one woman he truly loves.

This personal dilemma is the best image of the conflict that shapes the whole book, that between lightness and weight. Is it better to be free as a bird in life or to be tethered to something with meaning? My words cannot do Kundera’s justice and crucially neither can those of the film’s script. The author’s ideas, forged from intense experience of 20th century occupation and thought, make the stories of the lovers in the book standout as something special. Even if Daniel Day-Lewis can convey something of the character of Tomas through a brilliant gesture or look, he cannot replace the heart of the story, which comes from the narrator.

The characters in the book are vehicles for Kundera’s thoughts and feelings, and in the film it’s as though they have been stripped of their engines. The occasional ironic bit of writing on screen to introduce a scene cannot make up for what is missing and is a lame attempt to find the balance of the novel. The film is too reliant on the image of sex and is far too long, coming in at just under three hours.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in my view, can truly be classified as impossible to adapt. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s recent success has proved that intricate, sprawling novels can be successfully transformed if the filmmakers focus on mood and try to make something independent of the book. However in the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being they made something that bore little relation to the feel of its source material, which perfectly illustrates how some works of art are inextricably linked to the voice of the artist.

Page and Screen: One Day (Part One- The Review)

Novels can be described as “cinematic” for different reasons. The prose might have a lush, vivid attention to detail that would translate into award winning visuals on screen. There might be a twisty, zippy, unpredictable plot on the page probably perfect for a gripping thriller. The author may have managed to conjure a succession of particularly fresh and engrossing action scenes or mastered the art of quick witted dialogue. Just because a book is successful and it earns the description “cinematic” however, does not necessarily mean it will work well as a film.

The adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2009 word of mouth sensation One Day has encountered a great deal of critical hostility with its release this week. Some will muse wisely that such disappointment is inevitable with cinematic renderings of much loved books, especially when so many people have read it. And One Day really has been a sensation, reaching into almost every demographic. In 2010 it was the highest selling British novel and its distinctive orange cover continues to be a permanent and prominent landmark in Waterstones stores everywhere, even without the help of the star studded film.

One star in particular, of course, has stolen the headlines. The moneymen behind One Day will be hoping that there really is no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to the ever swelling chorus denouncing American beauty Anne Hathaway’s erratic Yorkshire accent. Most critics have labelled it “distracting” at best and for those that have read the book, falling head over heels in love with lead character Emma in the process, Hathaway’s looks will be no consolation, as her casting in their view trampled on the beloved protagonist’s origins.

For the few of you that haven’t somehow heard about the book’s premise, One Day follows students Emma and Dexter, or Em and Dex, as they graduate from Edinburgh University in 1988, right up until the late noughties. But the unique selling point is that we only drop in on their lives, together and apart, on the same day each year; July the 15th, St Swithin’s Day. It’s on this day that Emma and Dexter almost “do the deed” after graduation and the date continues to have significance throughout their lives and the friendship that follows.

The reviews and summaries of One Day universally categorise it as a protracted “will they, won’t they” rom com. Fans of the book though will expect more than that from the film because of its qualities on the page. David Nicholls wrote something that was not only immensely readable but perceptive, poignant and powerful too, taking in a panorama of growing up and culture in the late 20th century.

For all its merits, One Day does undeniably share similarities with chick lit or trashy airport fiction. However despite its enticing plot and moving emotion, it almost always feels real and complex. Its dialogue is lifelike and witty, its characters’ feelings convincingly muddled. Heavy themes are softened by wry humour. It’s a book about youth simultaneously slipping away unnoticed and lingering problematically well into adulthood. No matter what happens to your career or shifting ambitions or inspirations, sometimes the people you care about most are the ones that were there from the beginning. Most of all it’s a story about life; every dizzying high and sickening low.

So do I think it works as a film? Twenty minutes in I had written it off. From the start there were bad signs. The actor’s names appeared scrawled across the screen in an atrociously pretentious font, completely at odds with the tone of the sourcematerial. Aside from such minor aesthetic quibbles though the inescapable fact was that the concept, dropping in on just the one date every year, did not make a smooth or effective transition from ink to celluloid. I began to form an opinion that didn’t even rate One Day as an average romantic comedy.

Back to that word “cinematic” then. It was the fresh idea of parachuting into the story via the same date annually which many book reviewers had labelled “cinematic”. On the page it did feel filmic, partly due to the pace but mainly because of the added intensity. Emotional punches usually came from nowhere because we’d skipped twelve months of Emma or Dexter’s lives. With the written word we also steadily accumulated information, so that we literally got to know them. But the first few years flash by at the cinema and we don’t care at all.

Why doesn’t the novel’s unique selling point work on film? One reason is simply the economy required by the runtime. Nicholls wrote the screenplay, as he was too reluctant to hand over control of Emma and Dexter to anyone else, but he has had to be ruthless with their experiences. And he did a much better job adapting his own Starter for Ten, which is currently on BBC iPlayer, starring James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall.

We miss out on the heartfelt letters between Em and Dex that both cements their friendship and hints at a stifled romance. Emma goes straight to work at a Mexican restaurant on screen, whereas in the book after graduation she tries to chase a dream working with a theatre company, whilst he, equally unsure about his future, travels in India.

The other key reason the jumps in time don’t work is because we lose the inner voice occasionally provided on the page. Nicholls does not resort to it often, preferring to let events and dialogue suggest meaning and propel the plot along, but now and then we see inside Emma’s head. We’re reminded how caring and clever she is but how confused and scared she is too. And we also glimpse Dexter’s heart now and again; he cares about her beneath the raving, off the rails exterior. I began to understand why some critics had called for a jumbled order to events, as in 500 Days of Summer.

Thankfully for the film it ends strongly. There are enjoyable performances from both Rafe Spall and Romola Garai, as Em and Dex finally grow up too late. The years gradually tick over and we do get to know the characters that seemed alive almost instantly in the book. The dialogue gets less expositional because the background has been established with the disappointing opening. For me the turning point was a moment when Dexter, superbly played by Jim Sturgess, lifts his mother, who is suffering from cancer, up the stairs to bed. It’s the first time in the film that heartstrings are properly pulled and the first convincing scene of character development.

There are a number of scenes in the film where I cried and several more in which I laughed. Like the book, the film is both sad and funny. However as diehards will be quick to point out you do not laugh as much or cry as much, at the film. It also lacks the depth of its literary parent. But by the end the narrative was certainly hitting some strong emotional notes.

One Day the movie ended as an above average, emotionally involving romantic comedy, which ultimately didn’t do the book justice. And I’m not sure those that haven’t read the book will even think it’s above average.

The final word then is, of course, on Anne Hathaway’s accent. She apparently watched Emmerdale to school herself in Yorkshire tones. She would not fit in on Emmerdale. Her accent is off-putting and her overall performance is incomplete. Hathaway is a very fine actress but there’s no doubt she was miscast here.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this One Day feature and I’ll explain who might’ve done a better job. And in Part 3 I’ll sing the praises of Jim Sturgess, who overshadows Hathaway throughout.

(In defence of the beautiful Anne, her voice makes no detrimental difference to the film once she stops trying too hard.)

Page and Screen: Must Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby be set in the Roaring Twenties?

Some stories will always be set in certain times and places. It’s impossible to imagine most Dickensian tales grounded in a world without workhouses and industrial poverty, for example. Similarly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would feel out of place investigating crime anywhere other than
a London stuffed with Victorian villainy. Hang on though, wasn’t last summer’s hit Sherlock on the BBC, created by Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, set in the present day?

Of course some will say that the likes of Sherlock, transplanted from the usual setting and loved by audiences and critics alike, are the exceptions to the generally reliable rule. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But if that is the case, then why make yet another Jane Austen or Charles Dickens costume drama? If nothing else, Sherlock proved that changes in period setting, previously unthinkable, could be just as true to the original creations and successful to boot.

Nevertheless a certain mould of classic novel would perhaps not work at all if ripped from its historical birth place. Often the events of the narrative are meaningless without the context they play out in. Many truly enduring fictions from the page last not because they are well written or engrossing but because they also say something definitive about the world in which they were hatched. Shunting a beloved story about Italian merchants into the setting of a modern stock exchange, for no other reason than to claim an original slant on the tale, is tantamount to cultural vandalism.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those books that is no longer thought of in terms of its plot, but as the symbol of an era. It distilled the excesses and immoralities of the Roaring Twenties, which would eventually lead to the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929, into not much over a 100 pages of exquisite writing. In no time at all Fitzgerald says so much, beautifully and ambiguously. On the surface it’s the story of the jealousies and loves of a group of wealthy socialites, detached from real life, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that’s why any attempts to adapt it for the screen fall so short of what the book was really about.

The most famous big screen version of The Great Gatsby is Jack Clayton’s 1974 picture starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. Wherever you read about this film it is described as “one of the most hyped movies of the summer of 1974”, in a way that strongly implies that the expectations far exceeded the results. On paper it had all the ingredients of an excellent adaptation but ultimately it’s a desperate pretender compared to the book’s brilliance.

Baz Luhrmann is the latest filmmaker to try his hand at The Great Gatsby. He already has a suitably titular actor lined up for the lead in Leonardo DiCaprio, along with a strong supporting cast in Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. Mulligan in particular could be crucial, given the misjudged caricature of a performance given by Mia Farrow as Daisy in the 1974 version. Farrow was whiny and hysterical, failing to show the audience any reason at all why a man such as Gatsby would be in love with
her. Mulligan has the talent to provide a far deeper portrayal.

In fact, despite delivering recent turkeys like Australia, there’s no reason why Luhrmann can’t dramatically improve on the letdown that was the 1974 version. Robert Redford was ok as Gatsby but DiCaprio, with some
bolder direction, can probably do a better job.  But the script will have to be top notch. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay in 1974 almost tried hard to do the novel justice, quoting large sections of dialogue and even chunks of Carraway’s narration in voiceover. In the end though trying to transform the magic from the page so straightforwardly led to a very literal film. It told us rather than showing us the feel of the book, hammering it home so that we felt unable to connect with the characters. The book was immensely symbolic and
atmospheric. The film explored almost none of Fitzgerald’s key themes and gave its characters very little depth. Bruce Dern, as Tom Buchanan, was the only actor to come close to the essence of his character.

Luhrmann’s film is likely to land up with similar disappointments for those that have read the book though. The Robert Redford film focused firmly on the look of the story and The Great Gatsby is very visually written at times, especially in terms of lighting. But it is primarily about what we cannot see or know or express, like the mysteries of Gatsby’s character, the might-have-beens of the past, private lives and telephone conversations with distant “business associates”. The 1974 production made a fetish of grand appearances. Visual details are so important that in every scene every
single character is sweating, the lights twinkling off their brows. All this
succeeds in doing is illustrating how artificial an adaptation it is, with
everyone involved literally sweating with the effort of doing the book justice.

Perhaps then a Sherlock style time shift would help get back to the true roots of the story. Seemingly The Great Gatsby is a story forever tied to the 1920s but many of its themes would translate to the modern day. Fitzgerald was fascinated by technology, from telephones to cars, from the cinema to the street lamp. Today the world is coming to terms with social networking, new methods of communication and technologies like the iPad. There are still huge inequalities in terms of wealth and opportunities. We are still fascinated by enigmatic and elusive stars. We have just emerged from an economic crisis caused by banking excess and a rampant culture of consumerism, born in Fitzgerald’s time.

Luhrmann loves his fancy productions and like Jack Clayton in 1974, may end up worshipping period details rather than the characters and the meaning of the story. Changing the setting in some way might help counteract this temptation.

Alright my argument to transport Gatsby through time is forced and there remain many reasons to leave him be in the 1920s. But my point is essentially that there is no reason for yet another remake for the sake of it. Especially in the case of The Great Gatsby, where the captivating soul of the book is probably impossible to transform to film, there is no point playing it safe to produce something mediocre. Remakes should be better than what went
before and say and do something different to shed new light on the original
story. Otherwise they do little more than fuel the fires of Hollywood money
making machines, which trample on the talents of undiscovered storytellers with new messages and ideas.

Page and Screen: Libraries vs. Cinemas in Fahrenheit 451

In 1966 England won the World Cup. And firemen stopped
putting out flames with water, to start them with kerosene to burn books.

Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s classic
20th century novel Fahrenheit 451 was released in 1966. It starred
Julie Christie in a dual role and Oskar Werner as main character Montag.
According to IMDb, Truffaut wanted Terence Stamp for the lead role but the
British screen legend was uneasy about being overshadowed by his former lover
Christie. Truffaut and Werner, with his thick Austrian accent on an English
production, had fiery differences about the film’s interpretation of Montag’s
character. It’s not surprising that there was passion on set because there was
a great deal within the pages of the book.

Bradbury’s book is the tale of Montag, a fireman whose job
it is to burn books. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which
book paper catches fire) the state has banned the owning and reading of books.
Indeed in the film Werner is shown “reading” a newspaper or story consisting
entirely of images, without even speech bubbles. Why the ban? Books are “the
source of all discord and unhappiness”. Materialism, based on equality, is
encouraged, as opposed to the competing lies and raised expectations sold by
authors. Montag’s wife is reliant on state sponsored drugs and spends her days
in front of state television. She barely speaks to him and all are ignorant of
impending war.

Bradbury was a master of science fiction and he churned out volumes of beautiful and imaginative short stories, as part of collections like The Martian Chronicles. But Fahrenheit 451 merely has elements of sci-fi. For the most part its world is uncomfortably close to our own.

Truffaut’s adaptation has a fairy tale quality, and indeed
the novel is somehow magical. It is an incredibly intelligent book, packed with
literary references and joining the likes of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the great prophetic dystopias with powerful
warnings about society. But it is not at all patronising and far more uplifting
than both of these books. It lays out its moral arguments more passionately and
poetically and tells a breathtakingly absorbing and thrilling tale, laced with
beautiful metaphors. Orwell and Huxley’s books were urgent and thought
provoking but lack the vibrant colour given by Bradbury’s imagery of flames.
Bradbury could also be funny rather than drab and his ideas were grounded in the realities of modern culture.

In short then, Truffaut had an enormous task to match a book
which simultaneously had pace, power, poetry and passion. I was therefore
surprised by how much I enjoyed his adaptation. It lacks the book’s excitement
and indeed many of its qualities but its opening scene, six minutes
uninterrupted by dialogue, is suitably atmospheric. The film as a whole evokes
the experience of reading and the worth of literature through the relatively
new medium of cinema: not an easy achievement. By quoting from great works as Bradbury often does the film benefits from some of the novel’s rhythm and can show the mesmerising effects of fire, leaving pages “blackened and changed”, shrivelling up like dying flowers.

All in all it was an entertaining watch, faithful to the book’s message, even if it was not “the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells”, as Kingsley Amis described the novel. It was inventively shot and hauntingly scored. And its wonderful final scene got me thinking.

In it the “book people” are wandering in the woods by a lake. They are all reciting or learning a book. The book people commit a book to memory and become that book. So when Montag meets a pair of brothers, one is introduced as Pride and Prejudice Part 1 and the other as Part 2, a woman is Plato’s Republic and a shabbily dressed man Machiavelli’s Prince and so on. In effect the community of peaceful outsiders are a human library.

But aren’t we all libraries really? We may not have devoted
our lives to the word for word memorisation of our favourite books but our
opinions and outlook on the world are shaped by them. The impressions and
traces of good and great books we read can truly change us, inform us and
enlighten us, as well as entertain us.

Equally us film lovers are archives of all the movies we’ve
ever seen. Some of them will be forgettable but should we get a jolt to remind
us memories of even the poorest film will come flooding back. Others made us
stretch new emotional muscles or were so terrifically dramatic we had never
felt so alive and full of possibility.

The copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I own contains an
introduction written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary
edition in 2003. He describes how he wrote the novel on a typewriter in the
basement of a library, darting up the stairs now and then to do rapid research
and pick randomly inspirational quotes to sprinkle into the narrative. His love
of libraries is evident and he calls himself a lifelong “library person”. I
couldn’t help but think that a cinema or movie theatre could never give birth
to a work of art or vital piece of culture in quite the same diverse and
autonomous way.

Of course some fantastic films have their beginnings in
great directors being inspired by other great directors in a darkened cinema.
Last year Christopher Nolan’s Inception was seen and adored by millions, with
the director freely admitting influences as varied as James Bond, Stanley
Kubrick and the Matrix trilogy. There’s no doubt that I would prefer to spend
an afternoon in my local cinema than my local library. Both are arenas of
escapism but both are changing.

At the cinema 3D may or may not breakthrough as the next big
wow factor for audiences. Box office figures continue to remain high and
records were broken throughout the global recession. People will always flock
to the multiplex to give themselves up to the immediacy of film. They want to
be transported to another world in moments.

Libraries are undoubtedly in decline. In the UK local
libraries are understaffed, underfunded and short on stock. The coalition
government is happy to snatch away even more support for them for tiny savings, despite promises about getting more children to read from Education Secretary Michael Gove. Children’s author Patrick Ness used his Carnegie medal acceptance speech to launch a stinging attack on the policy.

As a child I got into reading because of the ease and
assistance of a library. Its poor range of choice wasn’t good enough as I got
older but I might still use it now if it were better equipped. In any case
libraries are a vital stepping stone into independent reading and education for
youngsters. The grander buildings full of history and knowledge have the
potential to be truly magical gateways to new novels, screenplays, election
campaigns or God knows what. Libraries empower the imagination and the
intellect. But so do cinemas, just in a different way. Both can keep us
entertained and thinking, as Fahrenheit 451 proves. Both deserve to thrive.

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?

The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.

Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.

This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.

As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.

Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.

Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.

Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.

You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.

Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.

The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.

The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.

Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years.  If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.

Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.

In the mood for a romantic comedy – a distracted review of True Grit on DVD

I always eagerly watch the trailers before a film. The best snippets of releases that are “coming soon” can be tremendously exciting. There is also an art to making good and great trailers, with the best of them standing apart from the movies they promote or making a crap film look irresistible. Many movie buffs appreciate this. But more often than not I’ll be watching something with someone urging me to skip to the film we’re actually watching. When I’m fortunate enough to be in control of the remote, I always insist on watching the trailers, even when I’ve seen them dozens of times before.

The first trailer of quite a few before the menu screen on the True Grit DVD, was for Morning Glory, starring Rachel McAdams. I’m mildly interested in seeing this at some point because of a rather different comic role for Harrison Ford, the strange appeal of the breakfast show subject matter and the feminine charms of McAdams. She is cultivating a line in cheeky but likeable performances, with a turn in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the news that she’s been cast as Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman. There’s also a shot of her rounded rear that does the film’s appeal no harm in my book.

Next up was the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. I’ve read a lot about this movie, including some pretty hilarious but ultimately unflattering reviews. I’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s part of a trend of stories trying far too hard to be modern, about “friends with benefits”. In the 21st century what is wrong about a man and a woman, who know and trust each other, having casual but enjoyable sex on a regular basis? Well the rom-com likes to point out that love is the big stumbling block; it always gets in the way when you least expect it. I mean it’s frankly just an inconvenient and inconsiderate emotion. We all ought to hate its lies, its deceit and its inevitably devastating consequences.

And yet it always conquers all. Even those like Portman and Kutcher’s characters, avoiding love like the plague by making sex a satisfying physical transaction, get bitten eventually by that pesky love bug. Cinemagoers too are always infected because soppy idiots fall for the obvious, predictable, signposted, cliche and crappy happy ending.

Today I must’ve been after a happy ending. I wasn’t really in the mood for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar nominated True Grit. I was inexplicably captured by the trailer to No Strings Attached, which as I’ve said I’ve seen several times before and I’d long ago concluded I wasn’t bothered about seeing. Perhaps its my persistent crush on Natalie Portman’s pretty and sexy features. Perhaps its simply my starved and hungry libido. Or perhaps it’s a longing for the perfect emotional satisfaction of the romantic comedy.

Whenever there was a lull in the action of True Grit and I was no doubt supposed to be reflecting on or contemplating the rugged wild west landscape or the moral terrain of the story, my mind drifted into daydreams prompted by No Strings Attached. I don’t think a trailer has ever disturbed my enjoyment or concentration of the following film in quite the same way.  

I pondered again and again what would happen to the relationships I had with people now, how friendships would shatter, grow or change beyond recognition. I planned imaginary grand gestures and pictured the romantic epiphany when I realised that yes, she was the one. I imagined myself living a busy, varied and satisfying life. The social groups that encircled it would be populated exclusively by young and attractive people, and some of them, perhaps just one or two, would care about me. And I’d have lots of sex. In short: I surrendered to fantasy.

What does it mean to be a romantic nowadays? At times I am happy to embrace the label and at others I am disgusted by it, depending on my mood or the particular definition. Is Mattie Ross, the heart of True Grit, a romantic? Some might say that’s nonsense given her realistic and often pessimistic outlook, with a tough maturity well beyond her 14 years. But she is also idealistic about bringing her father’s killer to justice, about the intentions of the law, and indeed her naive and childlike distinction between evil and good men, proven simplistic by her choice of hero.

Maybe it’s the peculiary romantic, noble and heroic ideas of Ross that helped my wandering mind off track. It could equally be of course that the isolation of True Grit prodded my loneliness into creating deluded distraction. The Coens have certainly crafted a film with darker and deeper depths than the 1960s typical John Wayne outing.

True Grit can also be surprisingly warm though. Mattie Ross is a character it’s impossible not to invest in and care for. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a cold and hardened gunslinger at times, and a hilarious layabout drunk at others. There’s some wonderfully teasing interplay and banter between him and Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf. And the dialogue at times evokes the homely West so vividly that you want to take a trip there away from the boring variety of British dialects by comparison.

True Grit is as not as “fast paced” as some of the quotes on the cover would have you believe. But it’s not a dreary, arty take on the Western, as many attempts at the genre are these days. Its runtime is agreeable and its characters playfully portrayed. There is a fairly snappy climax with some good action and shocks. And Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie is a truly remarkable breakthrough. The plaudits have mostly been lavished on Bridges but she is the real star and the glue holding True Grit together. Damon is good too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. But then I was barely paying attention. I know should be talking in depth about a film that chose to adapt a novel’s true nature rather than remake a Hollywood classic badly. The Coens usually make great and intelligent cinema. So perhaps it was majestic; I was simply in the mood for a cruder and more direct, perhaps even a crap, tugging of my heart strings. Is that a crime?

I suspect it probably is.


Page and Screen: The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.

The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.

What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.

Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.

The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.

The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”

Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.

Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.

One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.

Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.

It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page.  It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.