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 the edge of a dark crater of thought, moved by its silence, brushed by its breezes. The problem comes when you take an object of thought-a literary novel-and treat it with something-cinema-for which thought is only a yearning. Why yearn for it when you have it between the covers?
In Cunningham’s book, Streep’s character, Clarissa, a fiftysomething New York lesbian publisher, goes out to buy flowers. The novelist catches the rapture of her walk. As she is about to step out of her apartment, she “delays for a moment the plunge, the quick membrane of chill, the plain shock of immersion. New York in its racket and stern brown decrepitude, its bottomless decline, always produces a few summer mornings like this.” Lovely thoughts. A film cannot generalise about the New Yorkiness of that morning, nor the contrast between decline and momentary transcendence. If Stephen Daldry had filmed Streep pausing for a moment, then cut to swirling camera moves, we would have scoffed. He does not, because he is a very good filmmaker. And yet ‘The Hours’, alas, is not a very good film. It does not fall into the trap of trying to match the fleeting joy Cunningham describes in this scene, but it is in other ways encumbered with paragraphs behind shots. Its great actors often seem vaguely distracted, as newsreaders are when being given instructions in their earpiece. They are hearing things that we are not. All we see are pregnant pauses. ‘The Hours’ is a moving film which reaches for complex ideas, but Hare’s screenplay is not bold enough. It is a pragmatic, “whatever works” kind of adaptation; the screenwriterly equivalent of unideological politics.
Cinema’s relationship to novels, literary and otherwise, has been a series of ram-raids, headbutts, genuflections and bear hugs. In the first type, producers smash and grab a book because it is a bestseller, or because it has a good title or characters, plot twist or scandalous theme. The famous example of this is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘To Have and Have Not’?far from his best work?which Hemingway bet director Howard Hawks he could not translate to the screen. Hawks took up the challenge, turned it into a vehicle for Bogart and Bacall and won the bet. But he threw out most of the plot in the process.
The second method is radical inversion: reverse key elements of the novel to accommodate the fact that films start from the outside and work in, where books do the opposite. In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, the monster is talkative and eloquent. In James Whale’s film of the book, he is entirely mute, which works beautifully. Usually, characters who are quiet in books but think a lot, talk more in films. With ‘Frankenstein’, it is the other way around. In ‘The Hours’, David Hare makes the famous climax of Cunningham’s story talkative rather than mute. Just to complicate matters, I would say that, while the ‘Frankenstein’ inversion works very well, Hare’s, in the opposite direction, does too. It is the biggest change between book and film and the moment where both work best. If only there had been more bold changes like this.
Another, extremely rare kind of adaptation is the literal one. The Soviet film theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin dreamed of film versions of books where every sentence would have its equivalent shot. This is almost exactly what happened in Greed, the silent masterpiece by Erich von Stroheim, a meticulous transcription of Frank Norris’s great work of 19th-century naturalism, ‘McTeague’. Attempting to match the novel’s detail, Von Stroheim nearly bankrupted his studio. The film originally ran for eight hours but, even in its massively truncated form, it is a marvel.
Then there is the most productive exchange between page and screen: the analogous adaptation, where the film replaces the literary structure of a book with a cinematic one which symbolises the original. ‘Apocalypse Now’ did this, substituting Conrad’s journey up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness’ with Martin Sheen’s journey into Vietnam. The most famous example of analogous adaptation is Harold Pinter’s screenplay of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by, of all people, John Fowles. Pinter has written 24 screenplays, every one of them being an adaptation of “difficult” material, either other people’s novels or his own plays. His Go-Between, from the LP Hartley book, is perhaps his best, but ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ illustrates more clearly the principle of analogy in adaptation.
The problem facing Pinter and director Karel Reisz was this: Fowles’s book told the story of a Victorian Englishwoman, ruined by an affair with the lieutenant of the title, who enters into another relationship. To contrast the mores of the past with his own time, Fowles filtered his 19th-century narrative through the prism of the 1960s. Plus, he intended a pastiche of Thackeray. Plus, he wrote alternative endings. Pinter’s analogy? He invented a modern story in which Meryl Streep-who plays the Englishwoman and who is becoming the patron saint of literary cinema-is making a film with actor Jeremy Irons, about the characters in Fowles’s book. In this new story they begin an affair. The film narrates the characters’ story and the actors’ story simultaneously. It worked not only because there were two interlocking plots, but because the second contained the first-a richer philosophical premise. Fowles called Pinter’s screenplay “a brilliant metaphor” for the book.
‘The Hours’ attempts no such rethink. In a way, it does not need to, because the novel’s cutting between the lives of three woman in three different time periods seems custom-made for cinema. From DW Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ of 1916, filmmakers have delighted in the almost magical way that film can act like a time machine, connecting temporally distant events. The book of ‘The Hours’ does this, but the film, almost giddy with the opportunities, over-eggs the pudding. In the novel, a disturbed and unravelling Virginia Woolf lowers her head into a washbasin, then pauses, afraid to look up again to face herself in the mirror. In the film, when Nicole Kidman as Woolf does this, director Daldry cuts to Meryl Streep lifting her head. This is getting carried away. Such editing links between the women happen frequently at the beginning of the film, before we have had time to get to know the characters. The effect is strained and simplistic.
The creative challenge in adapting ‘The Hours’ was not to be faithful to a great book, but to work out why that book is great and, as Pinter, Coppola, von Stroheim and James Whale did, reinvent that greatness for the movies. Film history is full of very talented people like Daldry, Julianne Moore, Streep and Kidman toiling towards literary rather than cinematic complexity. It is wonderful that an adult, intellectually challenging film like ‘The Hours’ can be made. But in its respectful distillation of the novel’s many semantic vectors, it has ended up being tentative.
Amongst the very best films derived from literary novels are these: ‘Journal d’un Cur? de Campagne’ (novel by Georges Bernanos, director Robert Bresson, France, 1950); ‘Solaris’ (novel by Stanislaw Lem, director Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1972); ‘Le M?pris’ (novel by Alberto Moravia, director Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963); ‘Crash’ (novel JG Ballard, director David Cronenberg, Canada, 1996). Notice one thing: none of them are Anglo-American commercial films. An astonishing three quarters of Oscar-winning films have been adaptations of books; and, during the 1950s, the same proportion applied to all American films. Yet it is with the middlebrow novels of Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, James M Cain, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Louis Stevenson, rather than more highbrow fare, that Hollywood has distinguished itself. Mainstream cinema has almost completely failed to achieve anything creatively from more difficult literature. It is too afraid of ambiguity to do so.
So why try? I think the answer lies in a starchy 1908 film called ‘L’Assassinat du duc de Guise’. Before it, cinema was a medium of sensation, a fairground attraction. This film was a self-conscious adaptation of a semi-literary work and, when it was released, a new audience came to the cinema: the middle classes. There had been literary adaptations before the ‘Duc de Guise’, but it rang the box office bell and replaced sensation in cinema with a certain type of contemplation.
This has been very good for the art of cinema, except that since then too many people in the film world have felt that they must go eight rounds in the ring with big intellectual books. Cinema’s inferiority complex has been plain to see since its earliest days. Few countries respect their films as much as their novels; when it comes to the crunch and national film industries have to prove their worth, many still point to their literary adaptations. When they do not feel threatened, when they are buoyant and on a winning streak-as France was in the 1920s and 1960s, Germany in the 1970s, Iran and Denmark in the 1990s and Latin America today-they seldom adapt literary books. Or, if they do, they tear into them with the hungry conviction that there’s cinematic meat in them somewhere.
I’m with Woody Allen’s hero, Ingmar Bergman. “Film has nothing to do with literature,” Bergman said. “We should avoid making films out of books.”