Thursday, September 23, 2010

Send in the Clones

I am not a proponent of the faithful film adaptation.  Many of my favorites (like Stanley Kubrick's Lolita or Terry Zwigoff's Ghostworld) veer wildly from their equally magnificent source material, and others (like Tim Burton's soul-consuming masterpiece Big Fish) actually improve upon the so-so books they tackle.  To me, the important thing is not that a movie is true to the vision of the book upon which it's based; I only care that the movie is true to its own vision, that it creates, in its characters, settings, and story, something that takes advantage of the visual medium and creates a world unto itself.

However, when a film adaptation systematically skips over all of the incidents that made the novel original, poignant, and tenderly observed, when it drops out emotional complexity and internal conflict from its depictions of the characters, when it strips settings of their power and objects of their meaning, and when it neglects to replace any of these elements with anything, anything at all, besides horrible treacly predictable Hollywood schlock -- well, it's at those times that I wish I'd waited for the DVD.  In his lovely and accomplished novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro describes a landscape through the eyes of the main characters, who have just, for the first time, left the boarding school where they grew up.  "We could see hills in the distance that reminded us of the ones in the distance at Hailsham, but they seemed to us oddly crooked, like when you draw a picture of a friend and it's almost right but not quite, and the face on the sheet gives you the creeps," he writes.  Mark Romanek's mediocre film adaptation of this very novel gave me a similar feeling, except that instead of "the creeps," one could more accurately say "the intense desire to cram Junior Mints in my ears to muffle the awful score."

Inside, I was screaming.

To be fair, the movie isn't all bad.  Romanek used to be a music video director (he also did the spooky Robin Williams vehicle One-Hour Photo), and he's decent at creating the film's visual world, which alternates in mood between a scruffy-preppy teen fall fashions photoshoot and the chilly operating rooms of Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.  And the actors are all right, although in the later parts of the film, the exaggerated naivete and perpetually open mouth of leading man Andrew Garfield made me wonder if maybe his brain was in fact his first organ donation. 

But the real problem here is the screenplay, a despicably shallow and mechanistic interpretation of the irreducibly complex relationships evoked by the book.  After a 10 PM showing last night, I actually went home and reread over a hundred pages of Never Let Me Go, just to make sure I wasn't crazy for having liked it in the first place.  I wasn't.  One of the things the book excels at, above all else, is revealing the thorny and delicate nature of lifelong female friendships.  The main character, Kathy H., and her best friend Ruth are close from the age of six or seven on, but this closeness isn't static: they draw close and pull apart, again and again, in a kind of dance.  Superficially, Ruth is charismatic and social, more "popular" than her quieter friend, and there are moments when she holds this over Kathy.  Yet Ruth is also intensely needy and vulnerable, desperate to be loved.  Kathy understands this about Ruth in a way that no one else seems to; her attunement to Ruth's often minute internal fluctuations of mood make her irreplacable, but also provide her ample opportunities to call Ruth out on minor pretensions and casual half-truths.  Neither girl is perfect, but their friendship with each other is precious, the defining tie of their childhoods and early adult lives.

The famous "Bechdel Test," taken from the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," was derived from a panel where a character states she only will watch a film if it satisfies the following three requirements: it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.  I think treating these components as prequisites is misguided and limiting -- many terrific movies feature only male characters, or only a man and a woman, or only a single woman navigating a male-dominated environment.   However, I do think that this rule speaks to something that is regrettable about the way that female interaction is often depicted onscreen. 

Case in point: in the stupid, stupid screenplay for Never Let Me Go, Ruth and Kathy's entire relationship is reduced to their mutual attraction to Tommy, a boy from Hailsham.  Kathy loves Tommy.  Ruth steals Tommy.  Ruth gives Tommy back.  The film turns Ruth into an evil man-eater and Kathy into a pathetic, sniveling victim.  In this scenario, there is no reason for the girls to be friends, nothing between them except for barely concealed hostility, resentment, and competition.  Yet the movie, for some reason, expects that viewers will invest in the girls' connection with each other -- that when they reunite, after ten years of separation, we'll care.  Huh?

Moreover, this set-up reduces Tommy to an object, a pawn, entirely and inexplicably under Ruth's control.  It's clear he and Kathy are sweethearts from day one; as small children, they exchange loving glances with such irritating frequency, it's like they're auditioning for an episode of the Wonder Years.  But when Ruth decides she wants him, he takes her hand without hesitation.  If the movie chalked this up to the fact it's Keira freaking Knightley, I'd believe he was just under the spell of an intense sexual attraction.  But instead, it's weirdly apparent that he takes no pleasure from their love affair -- he even covers his eyes while they get it on, I guess to think of Kathy.  So why is he with Ruth at all?  I guess because he's a pathetic, sniveling victim too.  He and Kathy really are soulmates... that is, if they have souls at all.  I have to say that, by the end of the picture, I still wasn't entirely convinced.

Never Let Me Go is a science fiction story in that it has a speculative premise: these characters are being raised to donate their internal organs as adults.  But even in the novel, this premise is the weakest part.  I never really found it believable that the majority of ordinary people would accept the practice of raising clone children just to slaughter them for their livers and kidneys.  I can't imagine what kind of science would necessitate the creation of full-fledged human donors with personalities rather than organs grown independently, or harvested from insentient bodies cultivated in farms.  Even the widespread passivity of the donors is tough to swallow -- although I believe it about the students from Hailsham, whose misplaced loyalty to their alma mater keeps them from entirely turning their backs on the purpose for which they were raised.

Yet though I do think these logistical problems mar the novel, Ishiguro manages to deflect attention from them by keeping the focus on the personal, the everyday: the shades of meaning in an off-handed comment, the inside jokes and odd slang, the awkward hedonism of the characters' one night stands and communal porno collections.  (As a sidenote, I think it's interesting how much sex Hollywood removed from this story.  In the book, donors are unable to conceive children and thus are encouraged to enjoy casual sex for pleasure, even as young teenagers -- Kathy herself sleeps around compulsively. In the film, of course, she's treated as a repressed and saintly virgin, while smokin' hot Ruth stalks around post-coitally in a short robe: yet another way their friendship is dumbed down to fit catfight cliches.)

In other words, Kathy, as the book's narrator, is not concerned with the big picture of the world in which she lives; she's interested in the particularities of the people and places who have meant the most to her in her life, and she evokes these characters and settings so skillfully, so effortlessly, that it's tough not to feel like you've known them yourself.

In the movie, though, there is no such veil of minutia to shield us from the plot's gaping holes and so, at the very moments when we're meant to feel, we find ourselves thinking instead: about how the hell all of this could come to pass, about when it's going to end.  Fortunately for us, if not for the characters, it's all over sooner than you'd expect.


scott g.f.bailey said...

The problem, as I see it, isn't so much in the adaptation of good books as it is with the formal conventions of commercial films. It's almost impossible to have any kind of real depth in a two-hour work that isn't tightly focused on a single event. Film makers allude to thorny and interesting topics without actually exploring them and audiences say, "Wow, so deep!" It's not just most adaptations of books that are artistic failures, it's most films.

Kubrick's "Lolita" is a masterpiece but let's recall that Nabokov wrote the screenplay and Truman Capote rewrote some of the dialogue. So you had Kubrick, Nabokov, Capote, James Mason and Peter Sellers playing in a quintet, as it were. It would be more amazing had they done a bad job of it, I think. But you're right in that they made the film a thing true to itself, a work of art not requiring familiarity with the original. Too many of today's films seem more like weird fan fiction, or simply the filming of a couple of scenes from a book you're assumed to have read; the audience does all the narrative work for the film maker by already knowing the story when they come into the theater.

This is a mostly unfocused comment just to say that yeah, most books-into-movies suck but that's only because most movies suck. I blame it on the idea of high concept. Sorry for the curmudgeonness; it's that sort of day.

The Chawmonger said...

Hmm... Scott, I think the problem you're getting at is that, unlike most literary novelists, filmmakers have a lot of incentives ($$ and otherwise) to sell out. You have a point when you say here that the "formal conventions of commercial films" conflict with the aims of art -- but I don't think the conventions of film in general are synonymous with the conventions of *commercial* films (just as the conventions of fiction aren't synonymous with the conventions of *commercial* fiction). I would argue that it isn't any more "impossible to have any kind of real depth in a two-hour work that isn't tightly focused on a single event" than it is impossible to have real depth in a three-hundred page novel that isn't tightly focused on a single event. It's just a much bigger financial risk.

You're right on about the "weird fan fiction" effect. That is the best way I can think of to describe something like that horrible Last Airbender movie, which I imagine wouldn't just be boring but incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't seen the series.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and commenting -- I've been enjoying your blog too :-)

Meredith said...

There definitely is an art to adaptation. And it sounds like Mark Romanek either doesn't understand the art or he was pressured into making a more commercial film. This post reminded me of a book and its' film adaptation that I consider to be both masterpieces--The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although Philip Kaufman was told by the author to simplify the film which he did, he did not simplify it in a way in which the essence of characters and story were changed. If he had done what Romanek did he would have ditched Sabine, kept in Tomas' wife and child, and made it another boring adulterous affair movie. It seems simple when talked about but somehow it must be harder to accomplish because there are so many poor film adaptation.