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Adapting good and successful novels: One Day, A Very Private Gentleman (The American) and Room


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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I Saw The Devil


It will be a day of unforgettable celebration. The nation will rejoice in a night of endless partying and universal happiness, or so they’d have you believe. The flags and the bunting will sway proudly in the sunshine in the streets, on the most iconic landmarks and the grandest stately homes. All our troubles will be forgotten, swept under the carpet, out of sight and out of mind. Everything will be the best of British; sweet, comforting and clockwork. As the fizz flows and the glasses chink, polite patriotism will give way to unparalleled scenes of euphoria. Derelict dance moves will stumble drunkenly from graves and tombs long since sealed. Like it or not, success or failure, it will be a date etched on the face of history.

Friday the 29th of April: Wills and Kate shall finally tie the knot. I wouldn’t say I fall into the “like it” or the “not” category. Instead I’d jump in with what I sense to be the quiet, grunting majority; the “don’t give a shit” group. Most of these people will be happy to use the Royal Wedding as an excuse to get “frightfully merry” but I’m not even fussed about that. I’ll just be glad when they bugger off on honeymoon and everyone calms down.

The long awaited date also happens to herald the release of Korean revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. It will hit selected cinemas as the happy couple say their vows and head rapidly to DVD and Blu-Ray for the 9th of May, when I assume they’ll still be relaxing on a lavish honeymoon. I have a feeling that honeymooners in general, not just those benefiting from pure and perfect blood, will steer clear of this one though. That’s unless they are devoted fans of Korean filmmaking or lashings and lashings of gore, or prefer a particularly sick and dirty tinge to the consummation of their holy joining. 

I Saw The Devil is the tale of a serial killer and one specific family he devastates. It begins with a beautiful young girl trapped in her broken down car in the snow. Sounds predictable right? Well I Saw The Devil will continually take seemingly generic set ups like this and make them raw, real and surprising. The refreshing thing about this opening scene was the phone conversation between the girl and her fiancé, who will become the film’s “hero”.

I can never really relate to characters and protagonists like him. He is a slick and successful high flyer with a super cool job (a secret agent in this case). He is so busy and absorbed in his immensely interesting and important work, that he has little time for the woman he is with; a woman he is lucky enough to love and have this love reciprocated. I’m a man with time on my hands, with ordinary clothes and standard prospects, for whom love is usually a one way street. Add into the mix a ruthless ability to kill and a purposeful crusade for revenge and this is the sort of man I fantasise about being; not one I can readily empathise with.

And yet as I Saw The Devil embarks on an unlimited chase through as many deadly sins as possible, prompting comparisons with such notorious projects as Antichrist and endless cuts on the editing room floor, it keeps the moral implications of its action in focus. It’s not simply your typical revenge thriller but a thoughtful one that questions the nature of revenge. Our secret agent swiftly catches the killer of his beloved, only for him to decide that a monster deserves a monstrous death. Butchering him would cause the beast no real distress, so a tracking device is popped in his mouth and the hunter becomes the hunted.

The ethics of this are clearly dubious and as the killer rampages the Korean James Bond wishes he’d ended it when he had the chance at times. But despite my inability to relate to characters of his ilk, the audience sees the twisted emotional logic behind every move he makes. True justice and true revenge is necessarily brutal when confronted with such soulless savagery.

This is a beautiful film as well as a shocking, horrifying and thrilling one. In its opening chapter alone there are numerous stills that would warrant a frame and a prominent place on a wall. The score does a wonderful job of evoking grief, fear, anger and terror. Prior to watching I Saw The Devil, I had heard about a controversial rape scene during which the victim begins to “enjoy” things. This led to even more debate and conflict over its age rating and release than the countless bloody violence. In terms of morality it is the most questionable scene in the movie, but it did not spoil it.

The film could have done with being a little shorter but I was never bored. Things reach a suitably dramatic climax and the whole thing is well paced. But for me a scene from the film’s opening is the most memorable. It’s just as the girl’s body is being discovered and the forensic teams, hounded by the press, swoop on a spot in some marshes to bag and remove her decapitated head. Flash bulbs erupt and officers shout and the head is knocked from the hands of the forensic team. It rolls shamefully in the dirt. The grieving father and fiancé look on aghast.

 It may be over the top but this scene captured something real about the growing phenomenon of the serial killer. In many ways such barbaric deeds are now common place news and the only way to keep the true horror of it all in focus is to focus on the families and friends. Those who really feel the pain. I Saw The Devil is a gripping illustration of what emotional pain can do to a human being. Life never ends with a fluffy wedding dress or a cup of a tea.

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.