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.
In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.” The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college.
In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty…There was less bulimia and more fights…but the same feminine ethos was present — empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama…on bad.”
The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives — so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now?
The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up.
Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives.
During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the ’70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the ’60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above.
One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed — bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear.
It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women.
At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process — she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison.
For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite.
Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications — not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting — makes it less likely we will act.
In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration — prison, probation or parole — than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one.
Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society.
There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike — while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders — it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around.
But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way — submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery — subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans).
Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals — stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity — confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process — the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles — simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders — people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon — that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions.
Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do.
You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else — the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that.
This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.” This move — my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you — explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies.
At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations.
Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse.
It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision — instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison.
And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly — it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question.
Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like.
We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved — I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe.
Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg
There’s something sort of funny about listening to someone try to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Walking out of Symphony Space one evening last week — David Mitchell was the shy and extraordinarily charming guest of honor at the opening night of PRI’s “Selected Shorts” — I heard lots of people try to explain the book to their companions. “With the ship, and the Pacific, it feels like the last one,” a woman said as we shuffled towards the exits, referencing the first (and final) section of Cloud Atlas and Mitchell’s most recent novel, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. “Ah, well.” Her friend leaned in and said in a knowing tone, “I can see that, but once you get to Sonmi…” The same phrases spilled out onto 72nd Street: “story-within-a-story;” “Russian dolls;” “a bunch of cliffhangers!” One man shouted at his date, “And that leads to the next section!” People were waving their hands in the air, evangelizing a book and its concepts that, at first glance, could strike the uninitiated as inventive or contrived. I’d gone to “Selected Shorts” alone that evening, but had I brought along someone to whom I could evangelize, I’d have described Cloud Atlas as a pyramid — six different novellas set across six different points in time, building up chronologically. Each story is cut in half, and we must climb to the peak, to a dystopian far future (which is presented without pause) and climb back down to reach the conclusion of the other five stories. We begin and end in the mid-19th century. Narrative threads, from big themes to small gestures — the act of drawing a map, for example, or certain words that crop up again and again — extend and echo up and down the pyramid.
One protagonist of the six, crotchety vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, expresses disdain for “flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices” (the same character — he gets all the good lines — says that a critic is, “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely…”). If you’re disinclined to appreciate tricksy devices, you might dislike the book outright; there are, as you can imagine, a lot of coincidences. Mitchell himself was surely aware of the risk: he references it in several self-conscious turns, like when Robert Frobisher, the troubled young composer at the center of the epistolary second (and then, the penultimate) novella, structures his masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” in a similar fashion:
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…
But by and large, Mitchell’s gamble paid off: Cloud Atlas has been widely acclaimed in the near-decade since its publication, not least of all here at The Millions, where it was retired from the Top Ten a few years back and voted #3 in a survey of the best books of the millennium so far. You’ve probably been seeing a whole lot of the book around recently, or of Mitchell himself, who’s been shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles talking to the press. It’s all, of course, because of the film, the publicity for which has been hard to ignore, from the five-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a trailer released this past summer to the completely unhelpful teaser trailer that’s been running in heavy rotation on television (it’s 10 percent crazy sci-fi special effects and 90 percent Tom Hanks saying something folksy). The project is a collaboration between the Wachowski Siblings, Lana and Andy, of Matrix trilogy fame, and Tom Twyker, the German director of films like Run Lola Run.
Much has been written about the filmmakers’ struggle to find financial backing for the project: six storylines set in wildly different time periods and genres — it’s a hard sell however you spin it. And much, in turn, has been written about how they spun it: the process by which such a structurally unique book could be transferred to the screen, and if it could survive such a translation. Mitchell himself told Aleksandar Hemon, for a profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker last month, that, “As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmmable.” Some portions of the book — most notably, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a thriller set in the 1970s that’s the pulpiest of the bunch, complete with a ton of internal monologues — are fairly cinematic to start with. But it’s one thing to ask a reader to stop and start six times, and then repeat it all over again on the way back. In a movie, everyone agreed, this structure would never work.
But all three directors were so enamored of Cloud Atlas that they decided to give adaptation a go. They broke the book into plot points — “hundreds of scenes,” Hemon writes. “[They] copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period.” They pulled out arcs, drew connections, and read the reconstructed stories aloud. Then the cards went back on the floor, and were reshuffled and rearranged. They found an initial way into the eventual restructure with Dr. Henry Goose, a major character from the first novella, which is set aboard a ship in the South Pacific in 1849, and Zachry, the protagonist of the far-future dystopia, set a good deal after “the Fall,” when modern civilization seems to have totally collapsed. Henry is morally weak, cowed easily by greed and violent urges; Zachry spends most of his story struggling to throw off these same human impulses, cloaked in ignorance and fear. Mitchell’s six main characters are loosely linked by destiny, physically manifested in comet-shaped birthmarks and half-found (well, half-lost) works of art; the directors wanted to draw links between major and minor characters across every era, linked by common ideals and struggles.
And thus what Mitchell has characterized as the “‘transmigrating souls’ motif” was born: a single actor for multiple characters, certainly one of the most publicized elements of the film. Tom Hanks plays the two aforementioned characters, as well as a blackmailing manager at Frobisher’s hotel, conflicted nuclear engineer Isaac Sachs in the ’70s, and in the modern era, Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, a thug who throws a book critic off a balcony (at a screening of film critics, this earned some seriously awkward laughs). If you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to line these characters up side by side: it’s easy to see the moral arc here, and as a reader, it’s an interesting exercise to re-cast the book, as it were. Some actors — Hugo Weaving, as unwavering evil, and Hugh Grant, as an eternal sleazebag who always succumbs to it — play stagnant foils. Others — Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw — dance around each other in delicate balances of power. But the repetitive casting, the filmmakers’ big tricksy device, is one that, with the movie’s release, has drawn more ire from critics than praise. Many early moviegoers were distracted by the frankly bizarre-looking prosthetics, particularly in 22nd-century Nea So Copros, re-named in the film world a more recognizable “Neo Seoul,” where genetically-engineered clones, or “fabricants,” are bred to do humanity’s dirty jobs without complaint. And some of the accents — Tom Hanks is certainly the biggest culprit here — are distractingly poor as well.
There’s an obvious futility in comparing a book to the subsequent movie, but Cloud Atlas is no mere adaptation: it’s a big, ambitious structural overhaul, one that has been likened by Mitchell, amongst others, to a mosaic, all of his Russian dolls smashed to pieces and carefully reassembled. The plotlines are interspersed, with tight transitions between moments that often mirror each other in action or in theme. Sometimes that’s rewarding — it’s easy to get mired in a single section of the novel, and the quick steps between eras feel freeing by comparison at times. But we lose a fair amount of breathing room in the process, and fans of the book may mourn that loss. Sonmi~451, the fabricant hero of the Nea So section, still gives her orison to the archivist, but many of the meditative qualities of the year-long storyline are gone, replaced by fast and loud action sequences that boil down the sharp edges of what is in the book a deeply complicated narrative. In fact, grey areas turn black and white all across the six stories, either altered or overshadowed by the movie’s broader themes, or shortened for time’s sake.
And then there are the moments when Mitchell calls his own narratives’ truthfulness into question. Sonmi~451’s first words are, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” But Mitchell enjoys undercutting this idea, like early on, when Frobisher discovers half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the account of the first novella, and writes, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t quite ring true — but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The film is always pressing forward in time, and is largely, unflinchingly earnest — there’s no halting for the novelist’s tricks, and the storylines seem shallower for it.
Despite all this, Mitchell has given the alterations his blessing, telling The Times:
None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable…[The filmmakers] want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril.
But the language of the adaptation — and yes, it’s a little shameful to turn Mitchell’s well-crafted metaphor into something so literal, and I apologize for that — does leave something to be desired. Mitchell is a brilliant linguistic shape-shifter. In the South Pacific, Ewing’s Victorian diary entries are both lively and endearingly stiff. In the 1930s, Frobisher’s sentences fly past like whip-cracks, and the lyricism is oftentimes so charming that we’re distracted from his prejudices and his flippancies. Some of the lines remain, but the narrative voices are mere echoes of their originals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Neo Seoul: in the book, in a world where people worship fast-food mascots and project advertisements onto the moon, language has been deviously corporatized — citizens are consumers, fabricants like Sonmi~451 are servers, and they all read sonys and watch disneys and drive fords and remove their nikes at the door. I imagine legal complications kept these terms out of the film. But even the language that carries over loses its impact aloud: Xultation is much more strikingly written. And in the far future, where English has shriveled to a bastardized pidgin strain — “Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies.” — it’s often much harder to follow the words aurally, rushing so quickly out of the actors’ mouths, than it is to read and translate for yourself on the page.
In the end, it’s a question of mosaics and Russian dolls — of a set of stories, a pile of reshuffled index cards, and the new stories that emerge. If the film is the book distilled, its characters and their choices are sometimes easier to follow and appreciate. But the depths and complications of the novel must lie at the heart of why so many readers — including the filmmakers themselves — loved it to begin with. We are told, for the entire duration of the movie, that everything is connected. But Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us outright: the six stories are, at their hearts, the same.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration — to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here.
Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy.
But the novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something — to anything — produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction.
This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are:
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.”
The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work — or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it.
The Imitation Game
The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees — and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon.
The Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.”
Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays.
This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you.
Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on — you guessed it — a novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.
I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.
The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.
The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.
Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,
I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.
Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”
The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.
Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,
No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.
The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.
Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr
For more than half a century, the struggle for civil rights in America has provided a volcano of inspiration for all sorts of writers. The flow of words started with eyewitness reports from the front lines of the battlefield — Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Nashville, Anniston, Jackson, Birmingham, Selma — written by some brave and dedicated journalists, black and white. It soon grew into a river of books – memoirs, biographies, reportage, histories, autobiographies. Eventually filmmakers followed the lead of these writers, and their labors, both documentaries and features, have finally stepped into the spotlight with this year’s Best Picture Oscar nomination for Selma, the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Win or lose on Oscar night, Selma has already performed a valuable service. Along with critical kudos and box office success, it has inspired loud dismay that its black lead actor, David Oyelowo, and its black director, Ava DuVernay, were snubbed by the Oscars — and, beyond that, that there are no persons of color in the Best Actor, Best Actress, or Best Director categories. For good measure, loyalists of President Lyndon B. Johnson have howled that Selma paints him, unfairly, as a reluctant advocate of the Voting Rights Act.
While this storm has been fascinating to watch — or infuriating, depending on your point of view — it should not come as a surprise. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is, after all, still very much a boy’s club — make that a white boy’s club or, better yet, an old white boy’s club. The Academy is more than 90 percent white, men outnumber women three to one, and the members’ average age is 63. The five movies in the Best Adapted Screenplay category are a telling reflection of this club’s makeup: each one is a portrait of an extraordinary gentleman — a civil rights leader, a sniper, a mathematician, a cosmologist, and a drummer. Not a woman in the pack.
The uproar over this year’s monochromatic and heavily masculine Oscar nominations threatens to obscure an important fact: Selma may be an artistic astonishment, but it did not come out of nowhere; it is the climax of a cinematic crescendo that has been building for years.
The civil rights movement’s long journey to Oscar recognition began in the 1970s, when Ernest J. Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman inspired a TV movie of the same name, the story of a remarkable woman who was born into slavery and lived to 110, long enough to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The movie, starring Cicely Tyson, was a breakthrough for American television, putting civil rights activists front and center and treating them with sympathy and respect. (Feature films were by then slightly more accommodating to black characters, especially if they were played by Sidney Poitier.) The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was followed by King, a TV mini-series based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton’s decorated 14-hour documentary of the civil rights movement. Such movies about the movement set a high standard, one that many later filmmakers would fail to meet.
A prime example of such a failure — and a prelude to this year’s dust-up over the immaculate whiteness of various Oscar categories — was the director Alan Parker’s 1988 feature film, Mississippi Burning, which received seven Oscar nominations but little love from black critics or audiences. The movie focuses on a pair of mismatched white FBI agents — one played by Gene Hackman as a gruff former Mississippi sheriff, the other by Willem Dafoe as a gung-ho young Yankee — who are sent in to solve the disappearance of three civil rights workers during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The two agents spar at first but eventually work together and close the case. In addition to pushing the black characters deep into the shade — a source of much anger at the time — Mississippi Burning posits that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was a protector of civil rights activists. Nothing was further from the truth, as Selma points out, and as Brent Staples noted in The New York Times shortly after Mississippi Burning was released.
“The Hoover FBI was not, as Mr. Parker suggests, made up of jaunty, sympathetic types, who bit their nails bloody over civil rights deaths,” Staples wrote. “Hoover was decidedly hostile to such investigations, thought the movement was a Communist conspiracy and went after civil rights violations so slowly that he often came near openly defying the President and Attorney General.” Parker has defended casting two white actors in the lead roles because, as a simple matter of fact, there were no black FBI agents in 1964. But conspicuously absent from the movie, as Staples, noted, were dedicated black activists who were in Mississippi at the time, including Robert Moses, John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
Movies about the civil rights movement — the successful ones– have tended to follow one of two strategies. They focus either on the well-known leaders or on the faceless foot soldiers — or, for lack of better terms, on the “big” people or the “little” people. In the former category are movies about King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, and the Tuskegee Airmen; in the latter category are movies about the students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, the students who sat in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, the Freedom Riders, the participants in Freedom Summer, the journalists who covered these events, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC and pronounced Snick, including Robert Moses, Diane Nash, and James Bevel.
Among its many virtues is the way Selma deftly straddles this line, putting King at center stage but surrounding him with supporters and antagonists, both black and white, both famous and unknown. The movie even dramatizes the often-overlooked fact that King faced opposition from within the movement, as when disgruntled SNCC students accuse him of selling out for refusing to lead the way across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on the second of three tries, the so-called “Turnaround Tuesday” that followed horrific “Bloody Sunday.”Stephen Somerstein. Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches, 1965.
One filmmaker who has built a stellar career making documentaries about the movement’s “little” people is Stanley Nelson, who has produced vivid portraits of unsung journalists (The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, 1999); a teenage murder victim (The Murder of Emmett Till, 2003); courageous barrier breakers (Freedom Riders, 2010); and the fateful summer of 1964 (Freedom Summer, 2014).
“I’m interested in the people behind the big figures,” Nelson said by telephone from Park City, Utah, where his new documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, was having its premier at the Sundance Film Festival. “We learn about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks in school. But what would motivate somebody who lives in Selma to become a part of the march to Montgomery? That’s what interests me — the people behind the scenes.”
Another fascinating glimpse of the people behind the scenes is on display now at the New York Historical Society, in a show called “Freedom Journey 1965.” It consists of photographs, mostly black and white, taken by a New York college student named Stephen Somerstein, who walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery and chronicled the marchers, spectators, and police he encountered along the way. The show is a knockout. We see the “big” people — King, Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte — and, better yet, we also see the “little people,” including black women on porches with their babies, white hecklers, rapt families watching from the side of the road, and many of the 25,000 people who get swept up in the euphoric spirit of the march. (For more photo-documentation of this and other civil rights marches, see Dan Budnik’s splendid book, Marching to the Freedom Dream.)
Nelson has high praise for Selma. He says he was especially impressed by the way Oyelowo “channeled” King — as opposed to the way Jamie Foxx “imitated” Ray Charles in Ray. Nelson found the portrayal of an ambivalent LBJ “brilliant,” and he was delighted that DuVernay brought out the internecine friction between King and SNCC.
In the end, the filmmaker in Nelson sees virtues in Selma that have as much to do with craft as with race. The movie, he says, “has shown that you can make a film that looks good on a fairly limited budget. And it has shown that if you make a good film, people will come.”
In this contentious Oscar season, that may be the most uplifting news of all.
Image Credit: The New York Historical Society.