From Gatsby to Gunter Grass: When Being Faithful is a Drawback
The Great Gatsby (1974): The Great American Novel Becomes an Empty Bore
The slim, direct Gatsby is perhaps an atypical choice for Great American Novel, especially compared to its sprawling, allusive competitor, Moby Dick. The novel’s simple but engaging narrative, clearly defined themes, and vivid, iconic characters, make it appear to be a natural for a cinematic adaptation. However, the much-hyped 1974 film, written by Francis Ford Coppola at the height of his powers, is an unimaginative and instantly dated visualization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inventive text. Original screenwriter Truman Capote lazily transcribed the novel into a “word for word” screenplay. (It is highly ironic that Capote once disparaged Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as “typing, not writing”). However, Coppola’s finished screenplay was equally tedious and half-hearted. This might not be so detrimental to the film’s success if it were directed with verve and filled with excellent performances.
However, the workmanlike direction by the usually inspired Jack Clayton (Room at The Top) and the laughable miscasting make for a staid and often ridiculously melodramatic interpretation of a masterful novel. It is difficult to scoff at a film starring Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Sam Waterston, and Mia Farrow. Indeed, Waterston especially does an admirable job, albeit in the narrative’s most passive and elusive characterization. However, in the key roles of Gatsby and Daisy, Redford and Farrow make for an awkward, stilted, and borderline-unwatchable duo. Farrow reads from the script in a shrill, hysterical clip, as Redford sleepwalks through a role which may have been a defining one. Their sequences often come across as an 11th grade in-class reading, rather than bravura cinema. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern’s whiny, nasally Tom is a horrific misfire; one can only imagine Nick Nolte or Jack Nicholson playing the role with relish.
The film’s combination of conventional adherence and shoddy cinematic craft make for a film without an audience; it offers nothing new for a reader of Fitzgerald’s novel, and not a single incentive for a newcomer to want to seek out the source material. Nearly 40 years later, Baz Luhrmann “re-imagined” Fitzgerald with an equally reverent screenplay and grandiose MTV-style visuals, a hip-hop soundtrack, and flat, disconnected performances. It proves the point that even the most cinematic novels may be unfilmable.
The Tin Drum: When Condensing Becomes Expansive
Unlike The Great Gatsby, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum seems like it would only be a candidate for the most unwieldy mess of a film. Grass’ masterpiece, one of the most highly regarded European novels of the post-war age, is a remarkably dense work that plays with history, reality, and literary voice. The surreal tale of Oskar, a wise-beyond-his-years German child who refuses to physically grow as World War II rages in the background, is told in a loose, episodic, and often rambling narrative. Oskar is a classic unreliable narrator, as charming and misleading as Humbert Humbert from Lolita (another novel with underwhelming film adaptations). The novel is often drolly witty, and the various episodes could reasonably fill three epic-length movies. The book seems as unfilmable as such notoriously complex novels as The House of the Spirits, Ulysses, and The Sound and The Fury (all of which, unfortunately, were indeed filmed).
When faced with the task of adapting this behemoth to film, “New German Cinema” auteur Volker Schlondorff decided to alienate the book’s many admirers by significantly condensing the book, as well as altering the tone from tongue-in-cheek and whimsical to haunting and wrenching. The result makes for a film, despite its deviations in incident and tonality, that is extraordinarily cinematic, intense, and striking. Although the film contains scattered and effective narration sprinkled throughout, Schlondorff wisely eschews filling the screenplay with endless, overly-literary narration. (This has bogged down countless adaptations over the decades). Instead, Schlondorff cherry-picks the integral episodes, cohering into a cohesive, engrossing narrative.
Unlike the bland cinematic techniques of Clayton, Schlondorff fills the screen with enthralling cinematography, an idiosyncratic, effective score, and brilliantly measured performances. The Tin Drum crashes or soars on the strength of its protagonist, and in the tricky casting of Oskar, Schlondorff scored with then-12-year-old David Bennett. Although the goofiness inherent in Oskar’s characterization is muted, Bennett makes up for it with stunning intensity, an infinitely commanding presence, and a remarkable range of emotions. While Grass’ novel purposely kept the rise of Nazism on the back-burner, Schlondorff pushes it slightly toward the foreground without distracting from the overall story arc. The film’s linear and overtly political approach does not taint the original work; it simply makes it more palatable for the cinema, and therefore an ideal adaptation to a unique and challenging medium.
To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘A Children’s Story’ Adapted as a Family Film
Although the widely accepted view is that nearly all novels are better than the films based on them, there have been a few examples of movies that deepen and expand upon the source material to become cinematic masterpieces. Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout turned a simple fable into a richly meditative look at class, civilization, and the elusiveness of communication. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather adapted a trashy, melodramatic mob bestseller into a timeless rumination on family, ethics, and the American Dream. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a perennial favorite of high school curriculums, was an epochal sensation upon its publication, and within a mere two years, an Academy Award-winning film was released. The cinematic adaptation, starring an unforgettable Gregory Peck, is widely considered the gold standard for Hollywood renditions of beloved novels.
However, what this perception omits is the fact that Harper Lee’s novel is deeply flawed and ideologically confused. In its atmospheric evocation of the mystery and promise of youth, Lee’s novel is clearly an accomplished work. However, when compared to her more prolific Southern predecessors, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor among them, it is transparent that Lee’s literature is childlike, sentimental, and lacks a true grip on reality. O’Connor infamously referred to To Kill a Mockingbird as “a children’s story,” and indeed, its outlook on life is as short-sighted as that of a young child. The story presents Atticus Finch as an eternally benevolent lawyer, eager to defend African-Americans during an era of horrific racism. Yet, this trait is the sole defining characteristic of Atticus, rendering him as a one-dimensional “white knight.” The central dramatic conflict in the novel- the framing of a presumably innocent African-American male for rape- is muted by the novel’s inability to turn this character, named Tom Robinson, into anything more than the type of vacant, passive symbol often depicted in Sidney Poitier’s films. The novel’s view on race relations is rife with contradictions, as Lee condemns institutionalized racism while parading in stereotypes, from the Finchs’ maid Calpurnia to an insulting portrait of black churchgoers. This is in striking contrast to the complexity found in Ralph Ellison’s portrayal of a tortured African-American who emigrates from the South to Harlem in 1951’s Invisible Man.
The 1962 film adaptation, directed by Robert Mulligan, clearly wanted to remain faithful to the overwhelmingly popular novel. It would have been braver to move the narrative’s presentation of race to the foreground and to humanize, rather than glorify, the character of Atticus Finch. Instead, the characterization of Tom Robinson is even more one-note, and the stereotypical but multifaceted Calpurnia is reduced to a few lines. The one aspect of Mulligan’s film that nearly all cinema fans remember is Gregory Peck’s performance. It is difficult to imagine a role more suited to Peck’s warm everyman persona than Atticus, but his portrayal fails to bring the character to life. Rather than a flawed and recognizably human Atticus, Peck’s presentation clings to the saintly caricature found in Lee’s novel.
Overall, Mulligan’s adaptation is content to skim the surface, failing to flesh out a frequently superficial novel. The critically and commercially acclaimed film soars in its casting, luminous black and white cinematography, and its ability to capture the unique atmosphere found in Lee’s canonized classic. Where it critically falters, however, is its refusal to expand upon the book’s muddled view of race and reliance on stock characters. As it stands, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a beautiful and stately adaptation of a profoundly tainted work of literature.
Short Cuts: Merging Carver Stories into a Cinematic Poem
In contrast to Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is easily one of the most inventive and irreverent takes on a literary source material ever filmed. The concept- taking a dozen short stories by the then-recently deceased Raymond Carver and arranging them into one sprawling and non-linear cinematic event- was initially scorned by the writer’s fans and literary purists everywhere. How could the direct, simple character studies of Carver, a writer second to only John Cheever as America’s short fiction maestro, mesh with Altman’s sensibilities? After all, this is the man who made a movie about a bunch of rebellious Korean War medics (MASH), not to mention that strange semi-musical ensemble piece about country music (Nashville). However, Altman’s profound love for taking risks and alienating his audience does not hide the close attention to his characters. From his boldly original take on Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye to his enthralling look at Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo, the wounded, achingly quirky characters in Altman’s films are as fully realized as those in Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Despite the film’s epic running time (188 minutes) and 24 major roles, the combination of melancholy and biting wit, in addition to the convincingly human characters, make it a clear Carver adaptation. Although the characterizations (with the exceptions of Annie Ross as a jazz singer/Greek chorus and Lori Singer as her violinist daughter) all derive from Carver stories, their trajectories are often altered to fit in with the narrative’s overall arc. Purists also sneered at the film’s transplantation of Carver’s work from the rural Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles (although at least it is suburban L.A., keeping with Carver’s preferred locality).
The real message from Altman’s film is that even in the twisted heart of Greater Los Angeles, there are flawed, vulnerable, and oddly endearing individuals who cannot see that their decisions are both foolish and quintessentially human. This element is the epitome of Carver’s fiction, and it is clear that Altman shares a surprisingly large amount of sensibilities with the late writer. Carver was noted for his ability to find warmth in the most cynical situations, while Altman largely was known for spiking humorous scenarios with cyanide-grade pathos. These seemingly disparate outlooks on the world are in fact just different sides of the same coin.
Carver, more than nearly any other modern American writer, was fixated on character, not plot. Altman, with his brilliant casts and chaotic, lifelike “storylines,” was identical in this regard. As fleshed out as Carver’s characterizations on the page are, a filmed adaptation would fail without skilled actors embodying them. In Short Cuts, Altman hit the jackpot, whether the Carver creations are portrayed by A-list stars (Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Robert Downey Jr.,) character actors (Lili Taylor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn) or even stunt casting of popular musicians (Tom Waits, Huey Lewis, and Lyle Lovett). Each and every performer nail not only the nuances of Carver’s singular characters, but also Altman’s. It is rare that a filmmaker is able to alter the source material to fit his or her unique vision, while simultaneously honoring and staying true to the original author. With Short Cuts, Altman did just that, and in the process, he created one of his best films and the ideal Carver adaptation.
Although it is perpetually inevitable for a best-selling or influential novel to eventually become adapted for the cinema, it is rare that all fans of the book are satisfied by the result. The actors may look slightly different from the author’s rendering of the characters, one or two major incidents are often omitted, and the setting may be drastically altered. When a book is faithfully adapted from the source material, nearly all fans of the novel are profoundly relieved. Yet, it must be remembered that literature and cinema are disparate mediums. What works on the page does not necessarily translate well to film, and vice versa. Films that slavishly honor the source material often can make for a talky, static, and tedious cinematic experience. However, filmmakers who intend to keep the spirit of the source, while acknowledging that certain elements must be tweaked, often make for the most accomplished cinematic adaptations.
Altman’s Short Cuts and Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum may not be word-for-word transcriptions, yet both films honor the intention of their respective authors while speaking to both directors’ unique visions. Clayton’s The Great Gatsby and Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird are remarkably attuned to the source material, yet in the process they are dead on arrival as celluloid visions. The best adaptations convey the humanity and depth of thought embedded in great works of literature, while at the same time wowing an audience with the immersive experience that only the cinema can provide.
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