I’ve discussed the business of adapting books into films before on this blog, and indeed the increasing phenomenon of the adaptation as opposed to original screenplays. I’ve bemoaned the lack of creativity in the film industry, leading to such a focus on both true stories and transformations of already existing fiction dominating this year’s Oscars, for example. But for all my ranting and raving there’s something irresistible about a good adaptation, because if your source material’s good there’s a good chance your interpretation of it will be. It’s like a kind of quality guarantee.
Then again it’s a treacherous tightrope to walk, especially when you’re bringing not only a good novel but a commercially successful one to the screen. Films based on novels with a huge and devoted following will benefit from the diversity and commitment of that fan base at the box office, but perhaps also suffer critically if they don’t capture the brilliance of the book.
After mingling the words in your mind and arranging them on the page, watching their finely tuned order blossom into a bestseller and basking in the praise and revenue, it must be hard for an author to relinquish control of his characters, no matter what the financial compensations. This is presumably why many decide to remain attached to the cinematic versions of their creations as writer or producer or something, even with the risk of their original being tarnished and overshadowed.
David Nicholls did just this for the adaptation of his immensely successful One Day, choosing to write the screenplay himself. There is now a trailer online for the film, which can be seen over at Empire Magazine via this link: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=30843
I was absolutely absorbed in One Day when I read it and funnily enough I think I read it in roughly one day. It’s one of those books that you have to try really hard not to call a “page turner” because of how limp and cliché that sounds. It really is difficult to put down though. It became an ever present feature of the landscape of bookshops for a long, long time and still lurks prominently in the shadows. No doubt it will enjoy a revival with the release of the film. It was not the usual sort of addictive trash either. There was an organic originality to the concept, a humour and truth to the writing. The two main characters, Dexter and Emma, were fabulously realised. It was at once epic and emotional, experimental and accessible.
It did divide critical opinion, but the overwhelming consensus was that it was a cracking read, a verdict echoed at tills across the country. It’s the story of Dexter and Emma, who meet and sleep together one day at the end of their time at Edinburgh University. In bed they discuss the future, their hopes, fears and dreams for it. The novel follows them on the same date of the year, whatever they’re doing, for every year that follows their meeting. It mostly focuses on their relationship as friends but also charts their development as people, journeying through alternative aspects of British history like dodgy 90s TV along the way.
It was quite a few months ago now that I read One Day but I am still excited about seeing its rebirth in cinemas. It will be difficult to bottle up the simultaneously intimate and epic feel of the book for the audience, but as I’ve said before what really matters is capturing the spirit, the essence and sentiment of a story. The trailer certainly seems to strike some of the right emotional chords, as One Day really was enormously touching and moving as well as gripping. It may simply be that my age, one of transition between worlds, allowed me to inhabit Dexter and Emma’s shoes perfectly and marvel at the rollercoaster of their lives, grounded in those student beginnings. But then again, One Day shows snapshots of its key characters at a variety of ages, so anyone should be able to jump right in and live their human journeys. Perhaps that is part of the secret to its appeal.
Three Cs are very important for a good adaptation: cutting, casting and creativity. Nicholls would certainly have had to ruthlessly cut chunks of his already lovingly crafted and edited novel for the screen, as well as find the right leads. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess are the chosen ones, and they seem to fit the bill in the trailer, in spite of wavering accents on occasion, as Empire point out in their commentary on the footage. I’ve also recently seen and reviewed The American, starring George Clooney, which was based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Screenwriter Rowan Joffe changed aspects of the story rather dramatically, including its conclusion, for a modern and cinematic update to the book. Despite my gripes about the increasing frequency of adaptations, it is possible to be really creative and bold with them, with the added benefit of a proven base material to work with. Joffe was certainly creative, as was Clooney, who needed to exhibit the right physical mannerisms to convey the book’s character in miniscule brush strokes, compared to Booth’s first person narration.
Having now both read the book and watched the film, Joffe appears to have done a good job in creating The American. And as I’ve said, perhaps what is most admirable is that he has created something, not merely transplanted the book to the screen, which can be the worst mistake when adapting something that’s already celebrated art. The original novel, written in the first person about a gun maker nearing retirement, was impossible to adapt as it was. It needed more drama and would lack the charismatic voice of the page. It needed new sources of charisma.
The film does drop key themes of the novel. Interestingly as a student of history, Booth’s recluse (known as Signor Farfalla or Mr Butterfly, as his cover is painting them) is outwardly repulsed by the idea of history and progress, unless it is the history of ordinary men. And yet his narration repeatedly comes back to the idea through imagery, symbolism and anecdotes. Mr Butterfly claims that he is truly influencing history by providing the weapons for assassination with deft craftsmanship behind the scenes. But what the novel hints at, which a film couldn’t do in the same way, is that the narrator is struggling with the idea that after his retirement no one will remember his life’s work. If he has altered history it is unnoticeably so. He never says as much but the light implications are there and extremely fascinating.
Booth was also a constant traveller, as well as a writer of history, which might explain Mr Butterfly’s anecdotes of the world and some of his eye for detail, along with his warped fascination with the past. One of the ways the film captures the incredibly vivid and visual style of the book is through director Anton Corbijn’s direction. Corbijn used to be a photographer, and in the film this becomes Clooney’s character’s cover and he never gains the nickname Signor Farfalla, only The American. This somewhat spoils Booth’s unassuming character blending into any background, but the essence of him remains the same and the parallels with the striking visuals of the film and the descriptions of the book are appropriate.
The American is a very minimalist and restrained production. You get more from the book in terms of the character, but still not a great deal, so Joffe reflects this with the dialogue. This is still a man in isolation with a unique existence, who forms meagre relationships that are still too much for a man of his profession. He is growing too susceptible to these ties with age. What I liked particularly about The American is that it stands alone from the book and one can be enjoyed without the other, just as well as the two together. They are distinctive and different but enjoyable entities of subtlety.
Of course some books should simply never be adapted. Something about them cannot be replicated and without this something any adaptation becomes a pointless exercise. A bad adaptation of such a book is painful and a great shame. I think that Room by Emma Donghue, shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, is such an un-adaptable book.
It’s been a while since I finished reading Room, and in any case my observations and insights would not compare to fellow blogger Tom Cat’s: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/room-emma-donoghue/
I will briefly say why I think any adaptation would fail however. Room is reliant on the first person narration of Jack, a five year old who has been imprisoned since birth in a small room with his mother. This is the controversial novel inspired by the Fritzl case. I was sceptical about reading it and presumed it to be an exercise in creative writing drawing rather shamefully off of ghastly deeds in the media.
After I read the first pages of Room however I was hooked enough to buy it. And Jack himself is never abused. The novel is bleak and harrowing at times, but usually because of what Jack doesn’t say. The obvious implications, for example when Jack counts the creaks in his mother’s bed from his hiding place of the wardrobe, are the chilling thing for the reader.
What Room is really about is a unique five year old, nurtured with extremely intimate and confined love from his mother. As Tom Cat points out in his review, the philosophical points potentially there to be explored are many. Instead of really delving these depths however Room is more intriguing for its characterisation of Jack and the original voice Donoghue gives him. He makes incredibly perceptive observations about the modern world through both his innocence and ignorance. Occasionally his impressive vocabulary doesn’t quite sit right and convince, despite it mostly being explained away by his intense education from an early age; sometimes Jack obviously uses Donoghue’s word or phrase rather than his own. But the fact that this only happens now and then is a remarkable achievement.
For the most part Room is a heartbreaking, funny and thrilling story that takes a fresh view of modern life and culture. Everything good about this story derives from Jack’s completely original and skilfully executed narrative voice though. Many of the reviews of Room call its concept unique, but it really isn’t that astounding, simply ripped from extensive news coverage. It’s the clever angle from which Donoghue approaches her story that’s so wonderful and this couldn’t be transformed into film, no matter how they attempted to do it. Voiceover would not work; we are witnessing the thoughts tumbling through Jack’s head not a commentary of events. Jack’s innocence wouldn’t transfer to the screen, so neither would the appeal and success of the novel.
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Is Chivalry Dead?
In a word – yes. Certainly the chivalry of old perished long ago. I’m not saying it died with the knights, although an early form of noble gallantry may well have done. I’m talking about being a gentleman. And it’s been many years since it was normal for every single bloke to be “courteous and considerate” towards the womenfolk and indeed each other. Or at least since we were expected to be.
A certain type of classically dressed chap, who is both suave and selfless, reliable and romantic, is now nothing but a fictional character. He may have always been so, in reality. A combination of factors conspired to kill off his desirability though, many of them good things, like greater gender equality. But some of them not so good.
I think a form of chivalry, an evolved romance and respect for women, still has a place in modern life. In the past I’ve been shot down and put in my place for expressing some sort of view on chivalry by female friends and I would not dare to raise the subject with male ones. In recent days I’ve been reminded of the conflict and decided to turn to blogging to try to articulate my thoughts.
So I do think it is possible to still aspire to be a gentleman, even admirable to do so. But it’s become ridiculously taboo to hold such a good natured view. Try an act of classic chivalry and you’re liable to criticism or it’s assumed you’re a fake using it as a means to a very predictable end. Try to criticise a man for being an arse by saying he’s not living up to gentlemanly standards and duties and you’re being sexist. The last bastions of chivalrous behaviour are under attack not just from the loutish disrespect of some men, which are ever present opponents, but also from feminists who seem to view what was once common decency as a slippery slope back to women being tethered like livestock to the kitchen sink.
I do not mean to sound pompous and arrogant. Of course everyone is entitled to their view. I admit I am entranced by a nostalgia for the past and eras I was never a part of, eager to taste and preserve attributes of times that seemed more honest and honourable, with more to discover and greater purpose to existence. I can be something of a hopeless and foolish romantic at times. I don’t see what is wrong with that; indeed I think it’s refreshing, given that mostly I’m realistic and pessimistic like the world around me.
People striving to capture the essence and best intentions of aspects of the past should not be ostracised. Just because the historical balance of power between men and women has been grossly unfair, does not mean that all the elements of the way women were once treated were wrong. In fact some of the things incorrectly lumped together with the tools of male oppression ought to make a comeback.
If it seems like I am struggling to make my point it’s because I am. The problem is that I can’t really explain or argue my point of view persuasively because it’s something vague I just instinctively feel is right. I don’t have masses of evidence to call upon, just a sense of moral conviction.
I can understand why women might feel patronised by certain gentlemanly acts. I tried to rationalise this by saying to myself that I reserve most of my chivalrous compassion for those women that earn it. This is what I’d say to the feminists, I thought. I am simply considerate and caring to good friends, people I know to be nice or those that I love. That is not solely down to gender.
But then I thought, I’d still hold the door open for a female stranger. I might turn my head a little more if they were attractive but that wouldn’t be the reason. Monster or model, most of the time, if I had the opportunity, I’d hold the door. And I’ve done it for men too, more than most people, but there’s no question I’d be more aware of the ladies and they’d take priority. For example if it was busy and at some point I’d have to pass through the door myself, I’d cut in front of a man far more willingly. Why?
For those of you familiar with Friends, Phoebe’s claim that there’s no such thing as a selfless act will spring to mind, when I say that doing something needlessly kind like holding the door for a stranger, makes me feel good. Regardless of whether the pretty girl flashes me a smile or the less pretty one looks grateful, I’ll feel better about my day. To an extent though this would be true if I was holding the door for a 60 year old chap.
Perhaps that goes someway to answering the issue; being a gentleman now can mean being kind and thoughtful to anybody, not just women. The fact remains though that I still feel an inexplicable duty towards “the fairer sex“, an outdated term which could have petrol bombs and bricks flying through my windows. And I still feel passionately that I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about that.
If I’m really scraping the barrel for reasons behind my vague, fluffy and inconsistent philosophy, I’ll resort to my ignorant grasp of science. Could it not be said that it’s simply a natural part of humanity, an evolutionary trait, for the man to be protective? We may have rightly moved beyond the idea of the man being the breadwinner but physical differences alone show he can still be a protector.
Women ought to be the equals of men in everything that matters but they’re still held back by a glass ceiling. Cracks might start appearing in that barrier if we admitted that whilst the sexes are unquestionably equal, they still have undeniable differences.
This isn’t really an aspect of the argument I’m all that convinced by though, I hate the overuse of scientific theory and the constant linking of everything to evolution. I am aware I’m treading on controversial ground and I just needed something concrete to say. I come back to the fact that I just feel strongly about this. Probably all because of misplaced and naive romanticism.
I’ve had conversations with friends about relationships, in which I said something like that the girl shouldn’t have to bother herself with extravagant gifts and presents for her chap. I was met with fierce disagreement, unanimously against me. I see the weaknesses of my position, believe me. I know relationships are two-way and as I said earlier I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what is right for them. I feel very irrational at times holding the view that I do; but nevertheless I hold it.
I think for me it boils down to the fact that I enjoy being romantic and even in friendship I enjoy being supportive and helping out however I can. I like to actively care for people I give a shit about. Shoot me if this is wrong. I know I haven’t put forward any compelling arguments in favour of chivalrous behaviour. But if people are willing to do it and get satisfaction from it too, I don’t see what is so bad about what is essentially kindness and respect.
In an increasingly self-involved culture I think that the ideals of chivalry and the symbolic figure of the gentleman are very British and very necessary influences, that should not be destroyed by misguided taboos.
P.S. I do apologise for such preachy, waffly and poorly expressed writing. I’ll try to deliver something manly and thought through soon-ish
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
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