Thursday, November 26, 2009

I See Your Lips Moving, But...

Here's something I'd like to see people stop doing: claiming that a novel is unfilmable because of the prose. This is an old conversational ploy that is intended to make the speaker appear superior and more knowledgeable about not only film, but literature, and the process of adaptation, than the person to whom he or she is speaking, particularly if the listener has expressed some enthusiasm for the film under discussion. The statement also betrays an astonishing ignorance.

I bring this up now because I'm stumbling across this particular bit of foolishness again and again in connection with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (for the record, I am not personally aware of any film critics who've gone this route in relation to Hillcoat's film, but I've seen it in comments section of blogs and other websites all across this great internet). The specific adaptability of The Road is irrelevent, because the very idea -- that a book cannot be adapted to film because of the author's prose style -- is bullshit almost across the board. Guess what? Nobody's prose gets "adapted" to the screen. What gets adapted, faithfully or not, is character, story, theme, mood, atmosphere, dialogue. It is impossible to adapt prose to film -- a filmmaker can depict what is being described, but he can't depict the description itself.

Adding to the silliness of the idea is that The Road is written in a style far more straightforward than anything else McCarthy has written, outside of No Country for Old Men. Here's an example of The Road's style:

The following day they crossed the river by a narrow iron bridge and entered an old mill town. They went through the wooden houses but they found nothing. A man sat on a porch in his coveralls dead for years. He looked a straw man set out to announce some holiday. They went down the long dark wall of the mill, the windows bricked up. The fine black soot raced along the street before them.

What can't be filmed from that is the deliberately antiquated phrasing of "He looked a straw man...", but you can sure as hell shoot the image described. Talent, or the lack thereof, dictates the rest.

So Cormac McCarthy's prose won't be adapted by John Hillcoat, or anybody else. You know another writer whose prose will never make it to the big screen? Dan Brown. And Stephen King. And James Joyce. And Charles Dickens. And Vladimir Nabokov. And Leo Tolstoy. And Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although Joyce is maybe a bad example, because, for instance, Ulysses (never mind Finnegans Wake) might actually be unfilmable, at least as a whole, since, in that case, many large sections of that novel contains prose that is so baroque that it obscures action to the point of obliteration. Since this is part of the experience of Ulysses, putting the entirety of it on-screen might be impossible. Well, no. Improbable. I'm sticking with the less concrete word, because I could very well be proven wrong some day.

Oh, also, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!


Kevin J. Olson said...

Damn you Bill! I was hoping to stay away from the blogosphere on Thanksgiving...but your post here is too good not to comment on.

As a Lit major in college I heard this nonsense all the time while my classmates and I tackled a particular novel. I never understood it myself because as you so rightly point out, the filmmakers are adapting mood, character, etc. SOMETIMES the essence of a novelist is captured in the way a film is made (I'm thinking of the new film Disgrace adapted from J.M. Coetzee's Booker winning novel), but for the most part, when filmmakers take on a project adapted other people's material, they are trying to make it their own (just look at what the Coen's did with No Country, or Joe Wright with Atonement) by taking the characters and major themes and putting their own artistic stamp (or, to use a fancier word, elan,) on the material. Nothin' wrong with that in my book.

The one book I always heard this about while I was doing my undergrad was Blood Meridian. I know that I see Todd Field is doing a film version of McCarthy's infamously gory and surreal western I just can't help but smile at all those super serious people I went to school with who refused to see anything that was based on a novel (unless they wanted to bash the film of course) out of principal.

I also heard this quite a bit about graphic novels, and I remember sending a text to a classmate I'm still in touch with after I saw Watchmen (a film I liked but was hindered a bit by being slavishly faithful to images and beats of the graphic novel)in the theater, and the text simply read "close enough of an adaptation for you?" He responded with a list of things they got wrong.

I've never understood it myself...if people are that attached to the source material then just re-read the book. At what point between them reading the book and the announcement that said book was going to be made into a movie did their schemata of that novel change -- where did their visualizations of what takes place in the novel go? Do they suddenly disappear upon the mention of a book they hold dear being turned into a movie? Just re-read the damn book and visualize it all over's the greatest form of ego stroking because when we do that we get to become the filmmakers...we create our own perfect adaptation of the material. And usually we're satisfied with those results in our head...but when someone else tries to visualize those thoughts for us it becomes a war. I mean I guess I can understand that side of it...but please...I'm with you, Bill.

I like your idea of an Ulysses film...what's Terry Gilliam doing? Also (and finally), I like that you use the word improbable at the end of your post. I'm still holding out hope for the oft-aborted London Fields adaptation by David Cronenberg. And I'll always be awaiting a film version of Midnight's Children.

Oh well. Anyway...good rant for Thanksgiving morning. Sorry for my own rant, hehe. I hope you have a great holiday!

David N said...

I understand the view that The Road may be close to unfilmable because of the prose, though I think its often badly put. McCarthy's prose is so beautiful and lyrical in describing some of the bleakest scenes imaginable that it would take a truly visionary director to adequately replicate the effect on screen.
There is the possibility that the film gets the plot and characters right but that its otherwise just a visual trudge through one grim, nightmarish scene after another. McCarthy's prose ensures that the book is always more than this.
i haven't seen the film yet but I've liked Hillcoat's previous work, and Joe Penhall is a hell of a playwright, so i have high hopes. Which is probably dangerous...

I would also say that McCarthy's style is slightly different in the Road than previous books. He's mostly dropped the polysyndetonic syntax of the Border trilogy and the writing is filled with shorter, snappier, punchier sentences, while still recognisably his work.

One last thing: as a Dubliner born and bred, I can tell you there is one half-decent film of Ulysses in existence. Joseph Strick's 1967 adaptation fits most everything in, in terms of plot and character, and even makes a brave attempt to translate Molly's closing soliloquy to the screen. Most of the dialogue comes directly from the novel - and unsurprisingly, given what a great ear Joyce had, works splendidly - and Milo O'Shea makes a fine Bloom. Its chief pleasure, however, is as a time capsule portrait of Dublin in the 1960s, a time and place little captured on film. Its available on a R2 DVD and, coincidentally, is being revived at the BFI in London this month.

And oh yeah - Happy Thanksgiving to you too...

Greg said...

This post is unfilmable.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg, you clearly have not heeded the lessons of Bill R. But Bill has inspired me: I'm going to make I See Your Lips Moving, But...: The Movie, and prove you wrong. The scene where Bill reads the excerpt from McCarthy's The Road is going to be a classic some day, you watch.

Ryan Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Howard said...

RE: Nabokov. Someone adapt Pale Fire. I dare you.

I don't know. In theory nothing is "unfilmable," and literary faithfulness certainly isn't everything: the best films made from novels tend to divert from the source rather than following it slavishly. But I do see why some novels are considered "unfilmable," which is often just an awkward way of saying that it's hard to imagine a film made from a particular novel actually working, or being anywhere as good or worthwhile as the novel itself. To take my example above, in theory you could adapt the plot of Pale Fire, to the extent that it has one, but what would be the point? The book relies entirely on literary devices and its real story is entirely implicit and hidden beneath the surface.

That said, there is the interesting case of the extreme formalist, litarary adaptations of Rivette (Wuthering Heights, Don't Touch the Axe), Rohmer (Perceval le Gallois) and Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fontane Effi Briest). In all those films, the directors make varied attempts not simply to adapt character and plot and mood to the screen, but to actually capture the original source's prose, often in a self-conscious way that calls attention to the fact that this is a film made from a novel. They're all interesting experiments, and Perceval and Don't Touch the Axe are rather subtly funny in the way they call attention to the original source, mocking the conventions of literary adaptations and the call for "faithfulness" by being so faithful it's absurd. These films point out how ridiculous it is to ask for "faithfulness."

bill r. said...

This'll teach me to spend a holiday largely off-line!

Kevin - Well, my objection is mainly to the idea that the prose itself, the writer's style, makes certain books unadaptable. I myself can get cranky if a film adaptation veers too far away from the contents of the novel or story. For instance, Neil Burger's THE ILLUSIONIST, which was adapted from a Steven Millhauser short story. If you've seen that film, there is a prince and a romance and I believe a murder of some sort. All of these things are the core of the film's plot, but not one of them was a part of the story, and I couldn't understand how someone could read Millhauser's unusual story and be inspired to make such a conventional film out of it.

Still, I'm not that hardcore. A SIMPLE PLAN is a favorite novel of mine, and the film, which is another favorite, really changes things up, story-wise, about halfway through. But the film still works beautifully, and the essence of the book is maintained.

David - I'm not sure I agree with what you say people who claim that THE ROAD's prose is unadaptable really mean, because, well, that's not what they're saying. Your larger point, about it being difficult to adapt McCarthy, that it would take a visionary director to do it, is fine, but it doesn't really counter anything I've said. It's sort of like saying that it takes a good director to make a good film. Sure, THE ROAD could be bad, but it won't be because the prose is too hard to film. You can't film the prose anyway.

I did also point out in the post that McCarthy's style is far more straightforward than in most of his books (I didn't use the word "polysyndetonic", though, because I'd never heard it before, and it's now one of my new favorite words), which makes the argument that it's unfilmable even more ridiculous.

I know about Strick's film of ULYSSES, but I've never seen it (I did see BLOOM, though, which was, er, not successful, in my view). I thought the Strick film mainly focused on the "Nighttown" section of the novel, but I guess I'm wrong. Either way, if you say the film's good, that only strengthens my point: if ULYSSES can be successfully brought to the screen, then by God, THE ROAD should be a snap.

Greg and Ryan - I'm already working on the script for this post, and I'm finding it a breeze. This is going to be THE film of 2018.

Ed - Could PALE FIRE be adapted? I don't know. But if it can't, again, it's NOT because of the prose, but rather the complex and obscure narrative. Prose is what makes literature literature, as images are what makes films films. If you can't find a cinematic equivalent for Nabokov's prose, then you're not the guy to make the film, but that doesn't mean no one can do it. I'd be very interested in someone taking a shot at that one, actually.

I haven't seen any of the films you mention as examples of filmmakers trying to literally adapt a novel's prose. I honestly can't imagine how that would work, or what you could even mean by it. Which isn't to say I don't believe you, because I do, I just can't think of any device for bringing that across, beyond copious narration, or simply scrolling passages of the novel on the screen. But that can't be what you're talking about, can it?

Broadly, to everyone, I don't mean that a novel doesn't exist that can't be adapted as a film. All I'm saying is that if something is unfilmable, there are factors that render it unadaptable that have nothing to do with the style in which it was written. Unless, as with FINNEGANS WAKE, the prose itself obscures anything that might traditionally be called cinematic.

Greg said...

Ed's comment is unfilmable.

Greg said...

Ryan's is.

Greg said...

The third paragraph of David's is not.

Ed Howard said...

Now that I think of it, I'd love to see, say, Peter Greenaway attempt an adaptation of Pale Fire, approaching it with his collage sensibility.

As for the films I mentioned, I don't mean that they actually achieve true faithfulness to the prose, which I agree is impossible, but that they all try to engage with the problem of adapting literature in various ways. To some extent, this does involve using onscreen text at least a little, but also quoting directly from the prose at various times, and calling attention to the ways in which the construction of a prose narrative differs from cinematic narrative. One of my favorite examples is in Rohmer's Perceval, which is adapted from an incomplete 12th Century text. At one point, at a banquet, Rohmer shows a table being set up, but then pans away to a servant, who says that he can't describe the food, since the tale says only that they "ate well." My review of that film focuses a lot on the film's approach to literary adaptation, so I won't repeat it all too much here.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg's face is unfilmable.

Oh yes, I went there.

Greg said...

Ryan's comment is filmable, as all mediocre hack work is. Hmmm... guess that means his whole blog is filmable.

David N said...

Bill, I wasn't really disagreeing with your post, just reflecting on it, I guess.

The major problem with all "unfilmable" claims is the use of the word "unfilmable". As you say, most everything with characters and a plot is filmable. I think people are really just expressing the view that they love the prose in a novel and worry about how it's absence will affect a movie of the same story. Which is sort of redundant, though it can make for good, if unfilmable, debate.

I think I first came across the term "Polysyndetonic" on the Wikipedia page for McCarthy. Don't get to use it much though...

Adam Zanzie said...


Ebert's original 2 1/2 star review of The Road (which mistakenly got put on his website in Octobor only for him to immediately take it down a day later) complained that the film didn't match the hypnotic prose of McCarthy's novel. In the same review, Ebert claimed that he did not believe it was at all possible to adapt McCarthy's Suttree to the screen; it's just too overrun with stream of consciousness.

I would most definately side with the sentiment of your blog piece because I have always tried to make myself believe that any great novel can be adapted into a great film. But I say this with the realization that Faulkner- my favorite author of all time- no longer gets film adaptations because Martin Ritt and Tony Richardson learned the bitter truth about Faulkner's stories when they tried adapting them during the golden Holylwood era: Hollywood can't get in bed with him. I've tried to imagine The Sound and the Fury as a film and the only way I can see it happening is through an Altman approach. It's the same with Light in August, a book that reads magnificently on paper but on film might feel dangerously close to Paul Haggis territory.

Back to The Road, though. Ebert's changed his mind on it. He's boosted his rating to 3 1/2 stars, though his review still implies that the film does about the best it can to adapt an untouchable book. I'll try to see the film today or tomorrow, but knowing Hillcoat (I was a huge fan of The Proposition0, I expect to be impressed. When I read the novel, I imagined the father with the image of Viggo Mortensen in mind, so I don't think I'll be too disappointed with the end result.

Ryan Kelly said...

Damn, Greg, that was a bit of a stretch in logic, but insult registered nevertheless, ya big bully.

Greg said...

Ryan's comment is unfilmable.