A Curious Case for Adaptation Readers

The prestigious holiday season is written in books

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Each year, the multiplexes offer more translations from page to screen. A quick glance at 2008’s literary screen gems features entries from the comic and graphic novel frames (Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man along with the recent Punisher: War Zone, DC’s juggernaut The Dark Knight and the forthcoming Frank Miller project The Spirit), breezy mass-market reads (21, The Ruins and Nights in Rodanthe) and more serious literary tomes (Snow Angels, Miracle at St. Anna, Blindness and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).

Of course, projects to be released during the year-end awards season seek to gain added luster, and what better way to do so than to secure rights to a beloved work or an undiscovered gem from a literary master? The resulting films offer audiences the chance to feel like they’ve broadened their horizons, and the meaty roles attract top-notch performers seeking golden gifts from the Hollywood magi.

Speaking of literary giants, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button serves as the inspiration for the new feature film from director David Fincher (Fight Club and Zodiac) and screenwriter Eric Roth (The Insider, Ali, Munich). But it must be said that the one project that hangs over Roth and Fincher’s film, as it pertains to the curious time-shifting story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), is Forrest Gump.

There is magic in Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), but it comes from an earnestly sentimental, largely misplaced sense that his intellectual deficiencies make him the perfect cipher to appreciate the flow of history. While it could be argued that Benjamin Button has its own issues — like the treatment of the elderly — that doesn’t seem to be the intention behind either Fitzgerald’s story or a particularly strong social concern at the moment. Instead, Benjamin Button exists more clearly within its literary conceit — the mirror effects of life at the extremes and how we as a people grow and find ourselves regressing towards the end.

The simple beauty of the premise isn’t diminished by Roth’s decision to reconfigure the time and setting of the film. Here, Button’s life is recounted by his longtime love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. History has its role in this curious structure, but the past remembrances of importance are personal markers, not iconic, globally relevant events. The wars and riots and hurricanes take a backseat to the moments of discovery in the life of a man whose life unspools in reverse, like a second hand moving steadily counter-clockwise.

The revolution for the next adaptation seems to be located in the sepia-toned suburbia of the mid-1950s. Richard Yates’ classic novel Revolutionary Road, written in 1961, has been hailed by no less than Kurt Vonnegut as “The Great Gatsby of my time. ... One of the best books by a member of my generation.” And it would seem that the most likely filmmaker to render the gripping dissolution of a marriage and generational identity would be Sam Mendes, a director already acknowledged for his sharply realized take on contemporary suburban angst in American Beauty.

To add to the firepower on this domestic front, Mendes leads his own wife, Kate Winslet, and her Titanic co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, as April and Frank Wheeler, the bright and seemingly happy couple on the verge of tragedy that will strike from within as they betray themselves and a generation.

Revolutionary Road digs into cracks forming between April and Frank, but where the book broadens the world and links related characters to the pair, the screenplay and film narrow the drama down to its core. Winslet and DiCaprio benefit from this decision in some key ways because it allows audiences to draw upon the earlier associations we have with the performers, like a form of shorthand.

Frank holds the honor of being the central perspective from the book, although, as is the case with novels, there’s a sense of following other strands and characters to the point that the narrative belongs only to Frank to a most tenuous degree. But the film sharps things by drawing a clear bead on April, who is allowed to become the central figure in ways she fails to achieve on the page. The credit surely rests with Winslet and her ability to command the frame when there is little, in terms of narrative discourse, to distract the reader/viewer.

Readers will likely find the smoothest translation from page to screen in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of the Bernhard Schlink novel The Reader — screenwriter David Hare is a veteran of literary conversions like The Hours and Damage.

This unusual, somewhat taboo love story, which concerns a teenage boy and an older woman in Germany, is merely the tip of the iceberg in The Reader. Both the book and the film peel away the outer layers of the budding romance to question what happens when those we love have long-buried secrets, disturbing and haunting secrets that shatter our faith in them and force us to reconsider ourselves for having loved them in the first place.

Michael Berg, the young protagonist, happens upon Hanna Schmitz, a single woman of few words, and over the course of a summer falls deeply in love with her. The pair spends hours making love with Michael reading to Hanna in between. Then, just as suddenly, she disappears from his life, only to return years later when Michael is now studying law. Hanna is now on trial for her role in the deaths of 300 Jews who were trapped in an abandoned church under her watch as a guard for the SS.

Schlink, through Michael, offers the following thoughts on the matter: “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.”

Writers are constantly told to “show, not tell,” but what is the expectation in a format that can only show what many would argue can only be told? Film is a visual medium and as such gets knocked hard for having too much voice-over narration. Yet, as is the case with The Reader, so much of the novel is about Michael talking through his feelings — his angst over the situation, his relationship with Hanna and the impact it has had on his entire life.

Hare and Daldry’s solution comes in the form of Winslet (again). This might be the perfect time to ask what is Kate Winslet if not the embodiment of our hopes and fears, the joy and pain of the human experience.

As Hanna, she conveys, in a glance or a gesture, everything Schlink unleashed on the page. She is able to show the carefully worded lines of text plainly and approximate the sense for us of having read them completely.

Winslet and a host of performers, writers and directors have lined up to be our readers this season. They are eager to seduce and inspire the audiences by transforming the word into flesh. And so we have these curious double gifts to savor now and forever.