I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I’m late to the reviewers party for John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and there’s a reason, which Tom Chiarella described in Esquire Magazine back in June:
There is a speed… that the actual movie… does not possess or seek to possess, an urgency that feels manufactured. The music is pulse-pounding and urgent, driven to create absurd expectations of action in a movie that quietly elicits worry about the relative friability of the invisible paths that exist between people and what they need.
Chiarella is referring here to the damn trailer, which is terrible and misleading, a Hollywood marketing mistake; presumably a split-the-difference shot (audience #1: readers of the novel, audience #2: non-readers) on the part of studio execs to fill theater seats. So, however you feel about the existence of the movie or taking the time to see it, don’t let the trailer be a deciding factor. (I wish I’d read Chiarella’s piece sooner.)
The Road is not an action movie, either in the post-apocalyptic-thriller or zombie-genre tradition. Neither, in my opinion, is it a heart-warming holiday film about either the heroicism of fatherhood or counting your blessings (i.e. recession/depression paling in comparison to the utter desolation that is The End of Us All). It is not exactly an art film; its fidelity to the novel’s plot necessitates a just-in-the-nick-of-time and decidedly aphoristic ending, for one. So while it might be tempting to anticipate, read, or experience the film in the above ways, all these interpretations seem to me to miss the mark.
Some years ago, when I worked in the indie film world, we had a saying that there were two kinds of “good” reviews – the kind that said Run, don’t walk, you must go see this movie and the kind that, well, didn’t. In the end, my feeling is this: there is nothing much here for the non-reading crowd. In other words, there are film versions of books that stand alone on their own merits, that evolve as distinct works of art, in some cases surpassing the original literary work; but this film is no Godfather.
If the novel moved you, that’s the main reason to see The Road in film version. (If you didn’t think the novel was perfect, or if it’s not your favorite among McCarthy’s works, and yet still, you were haunted by that desolate, other-worldly, soul-stirring feeling for a long time after putting the book down, this means you, too.) Hillcoat (The Proposition) and screenwriter Joe Penhall had the unenviable challenge of embodying with specific actors, voices and visual landscape a novel whose great accomplishment is that it infuses disembodied universalism (the nameless Man and Boy; McCarthy’s signature floating, punctuation-less dialogue; unidentified planetary catastrophe) with a miraculous depth of palpable, particularized human emotion and experience—all via (McCarthy’s unmatched) language on the page. The result is something that perhaps wants for cinematic merit, strictly speaking — Charlize Theron’s too-frequent presence as the absent wife/mother in flashback, for instance (one of the few marked departures from the novel), seems to accomplish little other than to fill the required feminine quota — but that ultimately, for me, augmented the experience of the novel. And The Road is a novel well worth experiencing, in my opinion, in as many ways as possible.
The “purity” of literary imagination is in some sense its ability to sidestep the clumsy business of real-life physicality. And hearing abstract, spiritually-laden phrases like “carrying the fire” and “What if I said that he’s a god” spoken out loud by a ragged Viggo Mortensen is indeed jarring; but not in an all-bad way. In his gestures, the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) locates said metaphorical fire in his chest, which allows us to feel it there too—a fuller, body-mind experience—in that moment, and whenever we think of it henceforth; and Robert Duvall’s revelatory performance as The Old Man burned that child-as-god scene, those words—and, ultimately, the theological inquiries of the novel—on my soul much more deeply than on first read. I was also struck by the sheer physical mashing together of these two, ravaged father and alternatingly whimpering and shell-shocked son, throughout the movie, in both love and terror (which are pretty much of a piece in this film)—something you can’t quite imagine or feel sensorily as you read the novel in its estranged, ghostly tones.
The narrative shift from literary third-person to voice-over first-person may be similarly unsettling for the devoted reader; but it does personalize The Man—collapses voice into body—which collapses us into his story in a new way. Consider the difference:
He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
All I know is the child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.
An incarnation is by definition distinct from a transcription; it is metamorphosis, not replication — fleshy and earthbound, both more and less alive than the original from which it derives. Problems of representation and debates around accuracy and truth, the relationship between the parent work and its progeny, are bound to flare up; but at the same time, the second generation always does refer back to the first, illuminating if nothing else a fruitful contrast toward fuller understanding. In this sense, for McCarthy readers whose next few weeks will center around memorializing December 25 in particular, perhaps The Road is a perfectly apt choice for a holiday movie.
I recently had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life while sitting two rows in front of Terrence Malick’s 99-year-old mother. The special screening took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small town north of Tulsa. Malick spent part of his youth in Bartlesville and recently returned to film his still-untitled next project (though some have called it The Burial) starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The film was screened in a fairly unassuming shopping mall located just off of state highway 75. Okay, so it wasn’t the most majestic setting possible, but it was good enough. Not scheduled to be officially released in Oklahoma and the surrounding region until later this month, I heard about this “secret” happening a couple of days before from an acquaintance that lives in the area. It was touch and go until the day of the screening as to whether or not I would be able to attend, but I was greeted with an early morning text that simply said, “You’re in.”
I’ve been a Terrence Malick fan since my late teens when my father, having loved Badlands since its original release in 1973, took me to the video store to rent a somewhat-scratchy VHS copy of that landmark road movie. The films that followed, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) all mean a great deal to me both artistically and personally. So it’s no surprise that I was just a little excited several years ago when word first began to circulate about The Tree of Life. I followed the rumors, the casting changes, the false starts, and the rest with a great deal of attention. With each new morsel of information (dinosaurs, space, asteroids) my hunger grew. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to both know everything and absolutely nothing about this film before I saw it.
I left work a little early the day of the screening, giving myself ample time for the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville. The road between is straight and flat, peppered with occasional cattle, goats and abandoned cars. I blasted classical music, recalled my previous experiences with his films, and pretended the late evening light was meant just for this moment.
I sat in the second row back from the screen. The theater was small and I wanted as much of my field of view as possible to be taken up by the film. Among the other attendees were relatives and friends of the Malick family, none more important than the director’s mother, Irene, sitting behind me in a wheelchair. According to Malick’s wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Malick, who spoke briefly before the film, this was Irene Malick’s first time seeing the film. Malick himself was characteristically absent, as was his father, Emil.
If you’ve seen or even read the copious amount of press this film has already received, you know what a personal statement it is. The central story is set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s and follows a father, mother and three brothers through the eyes of the eldest boy, Jack. Terrence Malick was the oldest of three brothers. He lived as a boy in Waco. One of the brothers in the film dies at 19 under mysterious circumstances. Malick’s brother, Lawrence, is said to have taken his own life around the same age. Terrence Malick’s remaining brother, Chris, died in 2008 at age 60. A cause of death was not released. Though it’s been portrayed as obtuse in its telling and abstract in its ideas, this film is as starkly autobiographical as any by Fellini.
On the drive back to Tulsa, completely wrecked by what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t get Malick’s mother out of my head. What did she think? Was it obvious to her? Did she get it? In the film, the mother is portrayed as an ethereal, almost angelic archetypal figure of grace and beauty. Yet sitting behind me, in a stainless steel wheelchair, having lived on this earth for nearly a full century, was the woman herself in flesh and blood. As images of an imagined afterlife flickered on the screen, I wondered if it would ever cross her mind that her son may have created for her, the only true afterlife that really exists.
I saw Million Dollar Baby last night and enjoyed it. As with most boxing movies, there are some cartoonish moments, but the acting is great. The film relies upon a good deal of narration supplied by Morgan Freeman, and much of that narration comes directly out of the book from which the script was adapted. Rope Burns – which has been rereleased as Million Dollar Baby to tie in with the film – is a collection of boxing stories written by F.X. Toole, the nom de guerre of Jerry Boyd, who, before the book came out in 2000, “had been a bullfighter, a bartender, a cement truck driver and, for the past 20 years of his life, a boxing trainer and cut man,” according to this profile/movie review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jerry Boyd died in 2002, but before he did he sat down for this very entertaining interview with Terri Gross.I’ve decided I’m going to follow the story of the impending big screen version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections because 1) I think The Corrections is one of the more important books of the last ten years, and 2) like Scott at Conversational Reading said a few days ago, I’m skeptical that “Mr. I-don’t-want-The-Corrections-lowered-by-Oprah is going to be cool with a full Hollywood version of his opus” So, here’s the latest casting speculation from the movie rumor site Dark Horizons: “The latest word is that it will be starring Judi Dench (playing Enid, the family matriarch), Brad Pitt (playing the central character Chip), and Tim Robbins and Naomi Watts playing the other two grown children of the family.” Brad Pitt as Chip? (shudder)