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.
You can rely on Disney’s well known Pirate franchise for one of the universal laws of cinema. As sure as night follows day and the tide washes in and out, each successive film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series will be worse than the last. Like a basket of juicy fruit left to rot on a sunny beach, the individual ingredients that made the first film so fun gradually lose their enjoyment. You can also bet your house that in increasingly more desperate attempts to recapture the magic of the Black Pearl’s virgin voyage, the plots will acquire more baffling layers with each new instalment. And this film’s ending proves once again that there will always be room for yet another adventure.
However this film does break some new ground. For example for the first time ever, the title is as confusing and vague as the many competing strands of the story. The tides are certainly no more or less important than before and there is nothing strange about the film; within Captain Jack’s world at least mermaids and myths are pretty standard fare.
Things get off to a familiar but promising start. Our beloved scallywag Jack Sparrow is in London to rescue sidekick Mr Gibbs from a trial, which would be swiftly followed by a hanging if the bloodthirsty crowd had their way. After some costumed shenanigans and typically camp stalking about, Jack and Gibbs find themselves at the King’s palace. The crown wish to find the fountain of youth before the crafty Catholics in Spain and they’ve heard Sparrow knows the way.
Jack gets an audience with the King in a sumptuous room and Depp gets ample opportunity to showcase the physical comedy and wordplay audiences have come to love. The King is played by Richard Griffiths in a delightful cameo. Needless to say Jack manages an escape. Later in the film Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa takes the time to mentally plan an escape route, presuming that’s what Depp’s madcap Sparrow does, only for Jack to reply that he sometimes “improvises”. The running and jumping through an impressive CGI London in the film’s opening segment, is ad hoc Jack Sparrow action at its best.
Sadly the film simply cannot maintain the entertainment levels as chase follows chase and sword fight follows sword fight. Most of the action is surprisingly inventive, especially since we’ve had three films already but at times even Jack’s luck over judgment leaps of faith enter ridiculous territory. The stunts become monotonous by the end because of the film’s relentless opening barrage, tarnishing the drama of the finale. There are no explosive cannon battles for those who love their ships and nautical duels. Instead of boarding we get an awful lot of trekking through the jungle.
Having said this, two standout scenes are exciting and engaging. I’ve already mentioned Captain Jack prancing his way around London but the first mermaid attack scene is also terrific. Only the Pirates franchise could deliver such a scene. It’s got frights and bites, fangs and bangs. The mermaids are less interesting by the end, but here they are introduced in a lengthy scene as seductive and dangerous. The attack comes as a real shock and well managed change in pace after they are lured in to enchant some pirates left as bait.
The mermaid battle is an epic, long scene and the film is so long that it loses much of its epic feel. Sub plots like a half formed romance between a mermaid and clergy man could have been slimmed considerably or dropped altogether .The runtime is literally bladder bursting, as a friend of mine dashed from the room as soon as the credits rolled. I was content to sit and watch the names of the cast fly at me in 3D however, because of Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music, which remains the best thing about the Pirates of the Caribbean. There are some nice variations and new additions to the main theme in this instalment but I can’t help feeling it’s time he focused his talents on new projects, rather than continually recycling one stunning track.
Hang on though; surely this is still worth seeing just for another outing from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow? Isn’t he the single most important pillar upon which the blockbusters are based? I always assumed, like many critics, that the romantic pairing of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in the previous films was holding back Depp’s brilliance. But having seen On Stranger Tides, in which Depp must mostly steer proceedings alone, his performance is somehow less effective without them.
He is at his best in this film when dancing around other characters, making light of them. Penelope Cruz is suitably sassy and sexy as a pirate, albeit with an unrealistically attractive cleavage for a hardened sailor, and she and Depp have some fun exchanges, but putting Sparrow at the heart of a love story doesn’t work. Even the filmmakers realise this by backing out of it somewhat at the end. Captain Jack Sparrow is not the emotional type. And what made him so attractive to audiences, was the way he mocked the clichéd relationship between Bloom and Knightley. Making him part of the conventional storyline robs his performance of some of its power.
Depp is still fantastic fun at points though, rising above an overcomplicated script with a bizarre fascination for throwing in random and rubbish rhymes. This film may just go through the motions and it may be far too long, but it’s undeniably grand and fairly pleasing despite the odd yawn.
Rather than fork out for its occasional 3D gimmicks of a sword jutting out of the screen though, I would recommend ditching the high seas for inner city London and Joe Cornish’s critically acclaimed directorial debut, Attack the Block. I saw this just hours before Pirates 4 and without adding anything new to the chorus of praise around it, I will just say go and see it. It is funnier and more thrilling than Rob Marshall’s blockbuster and doesn’t deserve to sink.
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