From the archives: Adaptations

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Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

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Wednesday Book Club: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Wednesday, 3 September 2008 — 12:16pm | Adaptations, Book Club, Film, Literature

This week’s selection: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote.

In brief: Short, simple, and sweet, Capote’s novella is one of those stories that packs every postwar anxiety about the American Dream into one very enigmatic character. There is something mature about fiction that reflects on the idealism of the individual spirit, and asks us to do the same, through immersing us in a deep sense of wistfulness rather than outright disillusionment.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, keep reading below.)

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License to Slum, pt. 2

Sunday, 31 August 2008 — 11:40pm | Adaptations, Film, Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

This is the second part of “License to Slum: The Novel of the Movie of the Game”, a pentapartite polemic about media tie-in fiction in which I investigate whether my prejudice against them is just a prejudice. I recommend that you start at the beginning.

In this instalment, I continue to assess some of the arguments that are often raised in defence of the tie-in novel, with a particular focus on movie novelizations and the behaviour of the property licensors.

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Where no Grand Inquisitor has gone before

Monday, 21 January 2008 — 11:37pm | Adaptations, Film, Literature

Just shy of three weeks ago, I stayed at the decidedly unhygienic Ambassador City Jomtien, which was by all appearances Thailand’s number one tourist destination for indulgent Russian oligarchs. It was timely, then, that when I endeavoured to head to the beach for a spot of reading under the palms, the next book in my endless queue was none other than The Brothers Karamazov.

This was my first time through Dostoevsky’s magisterial opus, and at more than one juncture I observed that with its high moral intrigue, impassioned cast of players and unreserved Biblical ambition—not to mention the best courtroom speeches in prose fiction (themselves capable satires of psychoanalytic narrative analysis decades before the study formally existed)—surely somebody has had the bravado to attempt a film.

As it turns out, Richard Brooks wrote and directed an English-language film adaptation back in 1958 (read the contemporaneous New York Times review) starring—get this—Yul Brynner and William Shatner. For those of you with access to Turner Classic Movies, it plays 7 February.

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Alas, poor Iorek

Saturday, 8 December 2007 — 2:58am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

Pay attention, because I’m about to coin a new word: amberpunk. It refers specifically to the aesthetic of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much of which carries on in the steampunk spirit, but in the absence of steam.

Thanks to the promotional stills and trailers for the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the visualization of amberpunk was the least of my concerns going into the film. The moment I saw that New Line had commissioned a cinematic adaptation, a list of Reasons to Worry flickered into being, and the visual design was the first item I crossed off the list.

Among the other, more pressing items: 1) In the novels, shapeshifting daemons like Pantalaimon retain a coherent identity before the reader because they are identified by name. How might one adapt that visually? 2) Lyra Belacqua is a role so ludicrously challenging that casting her appropriately could make or break the movie. Could Dakota Blue Richards convincingly fill her shoes? 3) Pullman’s writing consistently appeals to non-visual senses—touch, for example, as in the highly tactile experience of using the Subtle Knife. How might this work on film? 4) Will Pullman’s stridently anti-dogmatic message (which is finally poking the church in the eye with as sharp a stick as he intended, albeit twelve years late) survive commercial pressures for the filmmakers to self-censor? 5) Who is Chris Weitz, and should I be as worried as I am about his very limited directorial experience (About a Boy, Down to Earth and a co-credit on American Pie), or will he surprise me like Mike Newell did with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 6) Are the angels in The Amber Spyglass still going to be naked?

Now, I regret to say I’ve only read Pullman’s marvelous trilogy once and therefore don’t know it backwards, forwards and upside down the way I (used to) know The Lord of the Rings, but my initial impression after seeing the film tonight is a very positive one. The adaptation adhered to its source with the utmost respect, but not slavishly or religiously (how ironic would that be?) to a fault. Devoted readers need not worry. In fact, I had myself a jolly old time right up until the credits rolled.

Unfortunately, the end credits are precisely where a very serious problem with the film appears. (Spoilers follow for both the book and the film.)

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »