Written on the Wind
by Thomas Delapa
It’s not a novel conclusion that great books commonly make for bad films, and that middling—or downright bad—books are more readily re-booted into good movies.
The cinema is papered with best-sellers transformed into box-office boondoggles. For every Lord of the Rings or Gone with the Wind, there are a dozen blustery duds, whether Bonfire of the Vanities, Beloved, Breakfast of Champions, The Shipping News, the Robert Redford Great Gatsby or the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter, to name only a few. And who can forget (or remember) last year’s abysmal John Carter, an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation that bled red ink by the buckets for Disney.
The Godfather, arguably the greatest studio picture of the modern age, was sired not by a literary classic but a mass-market Mafia potboiler. While Steven Spielberg’s watershed Jaws may have taken a bite out of Moby Dick for inspiration, the actual pages came from the pen of Peter Benchley, not Herman Melville. Ditto, Billy Wilder’s archetypal 1944 film noir Double Indemnity paid off handsomely from the lurid prose of James M. Cain.
Hefty, reputable books are weighed down with baggage, whether based on character complexity, narrative density or unique technique. When a book is underlined as “unfilmable” in Hollywood, it usually means the end of the story for would-be adapters. Complex narration, multiple story lines or anything remotely stream-of-consciousness are a slippery slope on the screen. That means most anything by James Joyce, William Faulkner or their modernist followers. By contrast, 19th-century Jane Austen and Charles Dickens have long been go-to film favorites, both for their linear plots and singular heroes and heroines. In 2002’s wacky Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman poked fun at the Hollywood treatment, turning Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Orchid Thief into a satirical "meta"-movie about the thorny problems of transplanting an acclaimed book to the screen.
Yet the bold-faced question marks that always surround highbrow novels didn’t cause 2012 filmmakers to holster their highlighters. Three major fall releases—Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi and Anna Karenina—were mapped out first on the page; none should make audiences want to pass up their library privileges.
Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas is the Wachowski siblings’ (Andy and Lana, formerly Larry) lofty, fog-bound attempt to tell six intersecting stories in six time periods spanning from the 19th-century past to the post-apocalyptic (aren’t they all?) future. Despite all the Wachowskis’ Hollywood cred earned from The Matrix blockbusters, the big studios wisely passed on the project, sending the siblings and co-director Tom Tykwer globe-trotting to Germany for a reported $100 million in financing. The modern Greece of fall films, Atlas lost most audiences in its dizzying storytelling, whipsawing between far-flung ages and places and likely giving its cast, including Tom Hanks (in, yes, six roles), a historic case of motion sickness. Had the filmmakers read up first on D.W. Griffith’s legendary 1916 folly Intolerance—which tried to intertwine four different historical sagas—they might have predicted Cloud’s soggy forecast.
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee had brighter results with Life of Pi, even if his cinematic equation doesn’t add up to the strengths of Yann Martel’s 2001 prize-winning adventure tale: It’s a Kiplingesque survival story at sea, which might seem unsinkable on paper, at least in the wake of Titanic. Much of the film takes place aboard a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean, where a shipwrecked East Indian boy (Suraj Sharma), nicknamed Pi, must fend off and outsmart a ferocious feline stowaway, namely a Bengal tiger. Shot in 3-D, Pi is a yeasty concoction of realism, fantasy and rich visuals, but the drama drifts into the shallow end. Lee and screenwriter David Magee’s treatment founders in stretches, primarily because the story isn’t firmly anchored in any buoyant dialogue to speak of.
Does anyone remember Robert Shaw’s gripping interlude in Jaws re-telling the USS Indianapolis tragedy? And at least Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat gave his World War II audiences a crew of chatty malcontents and a Nazi; even director Robert Zemeckis gave Tom Hanks' Robinson Crusoe-like Cast Away a volleyball to bounce lines off. But the best Lee can muster is the sight of the tiger’s hungry, hungry stare as the beast threatens to take a piece out of Pi. With scant narration, the movie lists back and forth to an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) mundanely relating his yarn to a journalist. In 3-D, the mostly digitized cat may fool younger audiences, but in standard projection he looks as scary-real as Tony the Tiger.
Crewing again with his lithe Atonement and Pride and Prejudice star Keira Knightley, British director Joe Wright reaches higher on the literary shelf in Anna Karenina, which has been film and TV fodder countless times, including in 1935 with Greta Garbo as the doomed Russian aristocrat. In search of a fresh take, Wright and famed screenwriter/playwright Tom Stoppard boldly turn Leo Tolstoy’s 900-plus page tome into a stylized, modernist musical of sorts—but, um, without any songs. Nearly all of it takes place on and around a visible stage, with the actors weirdly maneuvering through sets and rustic backstage machinery: i.e., Brecht does Tolstoy. The idea, I guess, is that Wright and Stoppard want to shine a spotlight on social role and performance in rigid 19th-century Russia. (Plus it saved the production a ton of money not to have to shoot on authentic sets or location.)
But what might have worked on an actual stage seems doubly artificial and jarring on film, and we search in vain for a sense of a convincing time or place that Anna, her bourgeois husband (Jude Law) and her vain lover (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) inhabit. As striking as Knightley is with those supermodel looks, she always has come across as a resolutely contemporary woman, with ungirdled body language, and seems no more suited to play the pathetic adulterous victim than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the end, despite the jeers or cheers, the movies will always check out the good, great and near-great books for source material. In recent weeks, U.S. theaters have unwrapped at least three more adapted classics, including the Beat bible On the Road, the musical Les Miserables and director Peter Jackson’s premier part to his super-sized Hobbit trilogy, with Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum redux, lifted from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien. In Hollywood and beyond, popular novels are still precious ore, if not always worth their weight in box-office gold.