Stephen Daldry's "The Hours" typically trips over its source novel. Cinema's relationship to literature is a story of ram-raids, genuflections and bear hugsby Mark Cousins / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Woody Allen once said that if he had his life to live over again, he’d want it exactly the same, but without seeing the film version of John Fowles’s novel, ‘The Magus’. Michael Caine thinks it is the worst film he’s been in, which is saying something. Fowles, who himself adapted it for the screen, called it “a disaster all the way down the line.” ‘The Magus’ stands out from cinema’s long line of botched filming of books because of the particularly wrong-headed way in which Fowles tried to shoehorn all the layers of his complex 600-page novel into two hours of screen time.
‘The Magus’ comes to mind because another complexly layered, “difficult” novel, Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Hours’, is currently gracing our screens. Adapted by David Hare, it is directed by Stephen Daldry (who made Billy Elliot) and stars Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, who also appears in the original novel as herself-in a way. In the film she doesn’t play the part of herself. Rather, she is the character who, in the book, thinks she sees Meryl Streep on the street; except that this incident doesn’t occur in Hare’s adaptation. Following this so far?
‘The Magus’ isn’t the only precedent for ‘The Hours’, of course. The films of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Pasternak’s ‘Dr Zhivago’, Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ and Zola’s ‘Germinal’ were all bad or worse, and they are just the tip of an iceberg. The film versions of these novels added nothing to the literature; even if they had been good, they would have been superfluous.
Those who disagree would argue that books like Cunningham’s, Joyce’s or Kundera’s are so good that they overspill the minority literary world and enter the broader culture. If they become part of the landscape of our lives (as ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and ‘Catch-22’ certainly did) then cinema, which prides itself on being contemporary, has every right to deal with them, just as it does with news events, scandals and changing trends. I would go further. Where a novelist has only one medium (words), a filmmaker has four: photographed images, dialogue, music and even written words (captions and titles); quadruple the expressive means of novelists. Words are intrinsic to thought, but they can only imply space, visual appearance, colour and light. Film can be precise about these things but can only imply thought. Cinema stands on…