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.
Todd Walters is a graduate student at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also co-authors the politics and culture blog Neither Property Nor StyleTonight, the roles of Socrates and Galileo will be played by Horton and the Mayor of Whoville, respectively.This past Friday night, I was dragged to see the new animated film Horton Hears a Who!, based on the well-known Dr. Seuss book published more than fifty years ago. Given my general antipathy to cartoons, I went in with low expectations. But despite my attitude and the lukewarm reviews that Horton has received, I realized that hiding just below the surface of this very simple tale about a well-meaning jungle elephant is a wonderful allegory about scientific and philosophical revolution, the dangers of autocracy, and the political implications of religious faith. Bear with me as I explain.While the screenplay augments the details of the original text, the overall plot remains fairly straightforward. Horton is a whimsical elephant residing in the Jungle of Nool, who one day notices a tiny, circular "speck" of dust floating around in the air. Being an elephant and all, Horton's extra-large ears provide him with a super sense of hearing. Thus, he is the only one in the jungle who hears the high-pitched yelps emanating from the speck, which he eventually realizes are the voices of the tiny people of the tiny town of Whoville located therein. Horton manages to make contact, by way of a tuba-horn-amplified drain pipe, with the bewildered Mayor of the town, who has already surmised that Whoville is not alone in the universe. The action heightens as Horton and the Mayor disclose their findings to everyone around them, and the crux of the story turns on the persecution of both noble protagonists by their respective societies for espousing these unacceptable beliefs.The original book does not depict Whoville or its internal political and social dynamics in any detail, so this must have been the invention of the screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, and it provides an apropos parallel to the events unfolding in the Jungle. There, children of various exotic species are already following in Horton's footsteps by looking for their own inhabited, floating specks of dust. But their fun is spoiled by an authoritarian Kangaroo who will have none of this nonsense. She haughtily dismisses the existence of anything that cannot be touched, seen, or heard, a notion that would certainly register with any moviegoers (whether old or young) who have ever pondered the existence of a higher power or reflected on the debate between materialism and spiritualism. The Kangaroo even goes so far as to hire a hit-man (well, a hit-eagle, actually) to confront Horton and destroy his precious speck along with whatever fanciful worlds live inside it. When the eagle fails in his mission, the Kangaroo then leads an angry mob to imprison Horton to put an end to all the tomfoolery.It seems, then, that we have in Horton a hint of Socrates, a pariah who has broken free from the conventional thinking of his contemporaries by way of an exceptional skill to grasp a deeper reality that is, in fact, real, but that cannot be empirically demonstrated to the average citizen. He has become one of the fortunate few to break free of his chains and exit Plato's cave, where the true nature of physical forms (in our case the speck of dust) can be understood for what they are, not merely for what they appear to be. Horton also stands accused, like Socrates before him, of corrupting society's youth with his alternative vision of the natural world.Similarly, the Mayor, as the only inhabitant of Whoville who senses any danger and, for most of the story, the only one who has actually spoken to Horton, encounters the same kind of resistance. When Horton warns of the potential doom that awaits Whoville, the Mayor takes the bold and courageous step of warning the other Whovillians about the threat. Like Horton, he is asking his society to accept what he knows on faith alone. But when the Mayor goes before the town's oligarchic council of elders, we see that he has no real power, but is a merely a puppet of this exalted body. In fact, when the Mayor suggests canceling an upcoming celebration that will honor the town's uninterrupted history of utopian hedonism, the elders bring down a giant glass barrier - what I can only describe as a "cone of silence" to any fans of the old "Get Smart" television show - in order to prevent the audience, i.e. the attending townspeople, from being exposed to so ludicrous an opinion. So it appears that the Mayor is the story's Galileo in having proven, through scientific instrument, the relation of his own world to the larger universe above and beyond. In other words, he has realized that the sun does not revolve around Whoville (with due acknowledgment to Copernicus).We see, then, in Whoville the dangers of autocratic rule, the secrecies it requires, its outright hostility to any sentiment that might disrupt the narrow party-line or the folkloric pillars on which it has been built. In short, the Council is putting Whoville at risk by not heeding the Mayor's warning. Their commitment to maintaining the town's utopian state of existence and their rejection of pluralism, though not conveyed by Dr. Seuss himself, nevertheless speak to the lessons that he may have been getting at in the post-World War II context in which he wrote - namely, the inevitable evils that lurk around the corner of any attempt to build a perfect society out of, in Kant's words, the "crooked timber of humanity."The events in Whoville also speak to the more general matter of authority and rebellion. A.O. Scott touched on this point in an insightful essay on Seuss called "Sense and Nonsense" in the New York Times Magazine back in 2000. "Seuss's moralism," he said, "was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be. World War II, part of which Seuss spent making propaganda films for the Army...honed his temperamental distrust of authority to a fine political edge."The flip side of the autocratic regime, of course, is the dehumanization of the individual, and nothing defines Horton Hears a Who! if not its famous admonishment, "A person's a person, no matter how small." Scott commented on this dynamic, too, when he noted that, in Seuss's body of work, "An overt concern with social justice resounds through the anti-Fascist allegory of Yertle the Turtle, the satire of racism in The Sneetches and the humanism of Horton Hears a Who!" It is exactly that - humanism - that is the central lesson of the Horton story, and this lesson, we shouldn't have to be reminded, is worth teaching over and over and over again to both children and adults alike. The message was relevant when the book first came out in 1954 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (according to some accounts, the real target the author had in mind), and it remains relevant today for myriad reasons that should be obvious to all.As my brain generated this philosophical mumbo-jumbo while sitting in the movie theater, I had to constantly remind myself that, at the end of the day, for most viewers, Horton Hears a Who! will be nothing more than a colorful story about two imaginary worlds with a simple take-home lesson: Respect the rights of others regardless of their physical stature or societal position. So, despite the entertaining tale that it tells and the rich philosophical foundations on which it was built, I doubt that the film will garner a spot in the pantheon of great Western thinkers for either Dr. Seuss or the screenwriters of Horton. The latter, by the way, have also brought us the recently released movie College Road Trip, which I can only imagine must be an alternative take on Homer's Odyssey.
All readers have seen literary works they adore adapted for the screen, cataloging, scoffing, cringing, and wondering at changes to the original narrative -- or, if lucky, delighting in them. No readers, though, have had the experience that devotees of A Game of Thrones, or more specifically, of George R.R. Martin's in-progress suite of novels A Song of Ice and Fire, are about to. The upcoming season of HBO's Game of Thrones will reportedly push past Martin's fifth and most recent book, extending numerous plotlines beyond where readers last left their heroes. The series will continue to do so until it concludes, presumably reaching its denouement long before Martin can publish the two remaining novels he plans. Fansites are abuzz with virtual hand-wringing about this, their anxiety different from the usual panic about a screen version's faithfulness. Game of Thrones is about to go where no adaptation has gone before, into the realm of the unpublished source, adapting books that do not yet exist, that will become available later -- thus undercutting the very premise of adaptation. Anyone fatigued with Game of Thrones, the socio-technological phenomenon -- most illegal downloads! most on-line videos of viewers watching characters die! -- may find their interest piqued by the show's challenge to modern assumptions about adaptation and the idea of canon. Our notions of original and adaptation logically privilege chronology. We call the first published version of a narrative the original and consider the versions that follow adaptations -- less definitive, and somewhat degraded. We make exceptions, of course: William Shakespeare's plays are adaptations, but their stature is elevated by his genius and cultural context. (For Shakespeare's time, indeed, notions of originality and adaptation would have made no sense.) We are also used to privileging print above screen, but chronology seems to takes precedence: nobody gives a darn that Graham Greene's screenplay and subsequent novella of The Third Man call (absurdly) for the hero to get the girl at the end, because nobody saw his screenplay before the film came out; the novella also arrived afterwards. These principles lurking in our thoughts, we usually watch screen adaptations of our favorite books with a kind of dual consciousness, what adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon calls (with a nod to Mikhail Bakhtin) "an ongoing dialogical process," and "an intertextual pleasure that...some call elitist and others enriching." That is, we watch adaptations and enjoy comparing them to the source, perhaps thinking That's not what happens in the book or I caught that in-joke. The adaptations I have in mind here are neither the inspired by kind, nor the let's focus on two minor characters instead of Hamlet kind. Productions like Game of Thrones are predicated on a large degree of faithfulness. Sure, the series has deviated and bastardized -- every season moves further afield of the books -- but it does so largely in order to keep protagonists in the foreground and Martin's structure intact. Until now. The producers, to whom Martin has revealed his plans for the conclusion of his books, have announced that henceforth the adaptation will diverge significantly. Naturally, they have not announced how much, or starting when, or with which plotlines and character arcs, and that's where this gets interesting. Devoted readers' "intertextual pleasure" will be tempered with uncertainty, as they may find themselves thinking: That's not what happens in the books -- yet! or I don't know any more about this than my idiot friend here does. The commentariat has expressed concern about spoilers for the books, but the fact is, no one will know when the show is revealing Martin's plot and when it is telling a different story. As a corollary, when readers finally receive Martin's sixth and seventh novels, they may be discomfited by literary narratives contradicting the screen version. This reversed chronology of print to screen destabilizes categories of original and adaptation. Yes, the next three seasons of Game of Thrones will still spring from Martin's fictional world, but when the series becomes first to portray developments beyond the books' chronology, when its narrative unfolds in dialogue not with a prior text but only with fan speculation, labeling it an adaptation will seem wrong. What if Martin revises his plot under the influence of the show? (Will anyone know that he has not?) Which then becomes original, and which adaptation? The conceptual binary is inadequate. Similarly disrupted by the particularities of Game of Thrones is the notion of canon, the designation of certain texts as authentic at the expense of others. The term dates to the early Christians, who felt the need to legitimate the real gospel created by the right people under divine guidance, as opposed to apocryphal spin-offs. Our current idea of canonicity derives from this sense of a unified and godlike authority. Its 20th-century paradigm is perhaps the case of Sherlock Holmes: when Arthur Conan Doyle, tired of churning out detective stories, killed off the beloved sleuth in 1893, readers filled the void with fan fiction and biographies, even after Conan Doyle bowed to pressure and resuscitated -- and copyrighted -- the character in 1903. The preponderance of Sherlockiana was termed non-canonical by the literary industry, despite much fan dissent. It is an example that highlights canonicity's deference to the powers of the creator, authorial intention combined with intellectual property law and the marketplace. In recent years, the deployment of canonicity has resurged as technology has exponentially expanded the dissemination of texts. It is especially present in the context of science-fiction and fantasy, genres that are set in fictional realms, worlds subsequently used in adaptations and continuations, whether licensed (such as recent novels depicting Isaac Aasimov's Foundation world, or commercial video games, role-playing games, etc., based on film and book franchises) or unlicensed (fan fiction, costumed play). The idea of canon helps those who care maintain clear divisions between what really happened in that universe, according to its creator(s), and what is some loser's version of what could have happened. Of course, there are disturbances in the force: the Star Wars films re-edited and revised by creator George Lucas in the 1990s have been anointed by their creator as canon. But so many enthusiasts publicly denounce Lucas's rewriting of specific moments -- such as when Han Solo is fired upon by Greedo first, and only then shoots back -- that the significance of canon diminishes. Lucas's reaction has been to make the revisions the only versions commercially available and claim that the original reels are ruined. The canon, it turns out, is auteur theory beholden to intellectual property rights and to estates covering their assets, but may be challenged by audiences voting with their mouse-clicks and wallets. Game of Thrones makes all this clearer, even as it offers the possibility of a less monolithic sense of canon. It may be, years from now, that the novels will be seen as canon, that audiences will instinctively defer to Martin's vision. But Martin himself, by inviting the show creators to deviate from his plot, has opened up the possibility that two versions can exist on equal terms. Then, as now, more people will have seen the series, and seen it first, than will have read the books. Someday it may be considered as canonical as the second of the two Adam and Eve stories in the Old Testament.
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1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!” After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 -- publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash -- and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later: One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty -- should she buy a doll or something else? -- and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light...It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision. The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt. The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest -- in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.” Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing -- alone and miserable and shunned -- into a depression equal to hell.” This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!” 2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices -- the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy. With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago -- all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country. Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional -- and tepid -- ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley. Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.” Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other -- Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting...when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.” What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley. 3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.” For all her documented flaws -- there have been two scrupulous biographies -- Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt: Little Crimes for Little Tots. Things around the house -- which small children can do, such as: 1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip. 2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it. 3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible. 4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge. 5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen. 6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs. 7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion. 8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle. This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise -- the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of "Little Crimes for Little Tots" attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.
I went to work for the film industry in 1994. I’d never done it. Oh, I’d dabbled -- as a teenager, I’d worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency for a summer -- but past that, not really. I was a child of Hollywood, my father was and still is a successful talent agent, and my mother was a well-produced screenwriter. Everybody I knew, every last person I’d grown up with, it seemed, had dutifully entered an industry that’s much like the Mafia in this respect. Casa Nostra runs in the blood. Having scrupulously avoided the movie business for most of my 20s -- I was a schoolteacher, in San Francisco, had exiled myself in search of work that had meaning -- I found myself in that most cinematic, and criminal, of positions. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Director of Literary Acquisitions. That was the title I was offered. It came about, I think, because I had a reputation among my family’s friends for being well-read, and because there was a moment -- it’s a little hard to remember it now -- when books were a particularly hot commodity in Hollywood. Adaptations were the wave of the recent past (The Firm), and so, quite possibly, the future. I was approached first by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom I’d once read a handful of scripts. He had the somewhat nostalgic notion that 1940s films had often been predicated upon short stories, so why not do the same thing now? Soon after that, I began talking to Danny DeVito, whose company, Jersey Films, was producing a soon-to-be-released movie called Pulp Fiction. Might I consider moving to New York to scout books? Robert De Niro piled into the mix as well. Surely one or all of them could persuade me to take a 200 percent pay raise to move to New York City and read? My 20s had been full of difficult decisions, but this was not one of them. I went to work for Danny and De Niro, combined -- they partnered to hire me, while Francis went on to revise his idea, eventually, into the magazine Zoetrope: All Story, which would launch in 1997. But for a moment it seemed plausible to believe literature and film were in alliance, that one could simply pounce on books -- there were so many of them! -- that would “make great movies” and have at them. After all, what did you need besides a bankable box office star to make this happen? (I was, indeed, green.) I figured I had the ear of two of such stars. What was going to stop, say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History from hitting the big screen now? Before I left, however, I was given a word of advice. One of DeVito’s partners, a shrewd, literate woman who’s since enjoyed a highly successful career of her own, called me into her office. “You have excellent literary taste,” she told me. “Thank you.” “That’s not entirely a compliment,” she said. “Remember. Great books make bad movies. And bad books often make great ones.” Hmm. I’ve since heard this bit of folk wisdom from many sources over the years -- it isn’t untrue -- but at the time it was new to me. I left the room thinking, Ha. So I’m supposed to be looking for bad books? Once again, and not for the last time, I’d underestimated the film industry, and the elegance of the people in it. This is not a story of the injustices of Hollywood. I’ve heard that one before, and honestly, there’s no need to reiterate the notion that the movie business rewards mediocrity, treats excellence with contempt, and that producers, specifically, are idiots who don’t read. Occasionally, this is true, but no more true -- and no more often so -- than it is in the world of finance or accupuncture. What people don’t really consider, I think, is that people in film are gambling with vast amounts of money. If the $80 million were your own, would you feel comfortable staking it upon something you simply felt was “good?” Or would you look for patterns of past performance? Confronted as I was with a dispiriting number of books that were described to me as “Die Hard in a ______” (i.e, “Die Hard in a submarine;” “Die Hard in a public school.” The idea being that something was set to explode and someone was set to stop it, the basic pattern for Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusters at the time), I found my bosses more receptive to those than they were to, say, Rick DeMarinis’s The Year of the Zinc Penny, or Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (which nevertheless did get made several years later). They weren’t foolish, though, or vulgar. They just understood what I didn’t. That making a movie is a ground war, and an enormous risk of capital, and that it’s just as hard to make a big, dumb thriller as it is to make an intelligent film of quality. So why not put the effort, at least most of the time, where the reward is more likely to equal or exceed it? Why work harder for less? I sound like a corporate stooge. I was a schoolteacher (and I am a novelist), so I know perfectly well why. Because aesthetics and ethics both matter, and if all you’re trying to do is profiteer off a steaming pile of crap then you belong in a different business, if not in prison. The difficulty was, during the 1990s, there was no business to which this condition didn’t seem to apply. I worked cheek-to-jowl with people in publishing, in fact my job had a great deal more to do with the world of publishing than it did with the world of film. I saw my bosses in Los Angeles a couple times per year. I spent every day on the phone with literary agents, all my free hours taking editors and writers to lunch, drinks, and dinner. I witnessed the rise of the “literary thriller,” and saw first hand the explosion, the wild proliferation of the gargantuan advance for stylish, usually young, writers unlikely to earn out. Just weeks before I started working for my two actors, Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer stirred up an enormous sensation by selling, on the basis of a slender proposal, for $3.15 million at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In other words, the book business, that fabled bastion of intellectual integrity, seemed to me to behave exactly as the film industry did. To be driven by hype, and hot air, and to involve the placement of outsized bets on individuals perhaps a little more glamorous than they were talented. It was the nature of business, and not even any particular business, that it be so. The '90s were of course a decade of mergers, and so a number of independent publishing houses were smushed together under one German umbrella. I saw this too. Eventually, I got picked off by a corporation. One of the studios invited me to come work for them instead. More money, bigger office, better furniture: why would I say no? And when I noticed that my new digs were in the same building as one of the Big Six publishers, this didn’t surprise me either. We were owned by the same multinational conglomerate, and played by the same rules. Is there a moral to all this? Well, even today, people seem to complain about Hollywood. Or, they’ve given up complaining, because the patterns by now are so established. Every Memorial Day, and throughout the summer, studios roll out their tentpoles: films based on comic books and graphic novels, sequels to superhero franchises and adaptations of popular children’s stories. The beginning of the year is a dumping ground for Jason Statham and Mark Wahlberg movies; Judd Apatow gets two or three comedies salted throughout the next 12 months, and come November there’ll be “quality” from Spielberg, Scorsese, and at least one director named Anderson. It hurts to sound so cynical, but I can’t imagine anyone wonders anymore what’s coming. The movies roll around, the same ones, every year. So what’s left to learn from Hollywood? (Besides, you know, you’d best re-develop that spec into a pilot script while you can.) During the last of my time at the studio, I went to a corporate retreat. I’d been dispirited by my time as an executive. It was a fun ride, and I seemed to be endlessly promoted precisely because I had no fear of being fired, but I was tired of doing a job that had no need for me to do it: my own sensibility never came into play. I was ready to quit, but I had no plan for what I’d do after I did. But first, I listened to a speech -- no, an admonition -- from the head of the company. He told us, the assembled executives of the three feature film divisions of the studio, that we were permitted to make a certain kind of inexpensive movie. The Full Monty, which had recently been a big hit, was the example he used. At the other end of the spectrum, it was okay to spend big on epic spectacles. Titanic was set for release at the end of the year, and he argued that this was a good bet. In-between, however, were the middling expensive vehicles for not-necessarily-bankable stars. “Middle class movies,” he called them. And we were not to pursue those under any circumstances. Forty, 50 million dollar budgets? The kiss of death. “No more middle class movies,” we were told. “Never. Ever. None.” I will admit that this assertion sent chills through me. In part because I understood that my own job (which I still needed) would soon go. But also because I understood what it meant for the culture. If there were no more “middle class” movies, then in what other arenas would an ostensible middle class suffer? Publishing, for sure. But what about . . . everything else? An economic disparity, which was being sketched out for us in terms of what we could spend, seemed to have an obvious corollary in terms of what we, or at least the movies, could hope to earn. Or rather, the “middle class movie” was being told it could no longer justify its continued existence. It wasn’t difficult to extrapolate from there. After all, the movie business had already proven itself a reliable bellweather for the behaviors of other sectors. It turns out the movie business, just like the rest of it, has survived. The wealth gap has gotten about as wide as it possibly can -- I suppose Occupy Wall Street can stretch itself to accommodate the 99.5 or the 99.75 percent if it must. Art has fled to television (it’s no accident that the well-heeled novelists who used to moonlight for studios now do so for American cable networks), and Hollywood gimps along in bloated and predictable fashion. But it would be wrong to imagine the lessons of the industry have finished, even if, as the writer Michael Tolkin remarked when I asked him why the movies were so terrible, “they’ve run out of myths.” No, these lessons are sadly ecological in nature. They apply to every system, and every business, and have something to do with a finitude of resources. You can build your blockbusters -- and your skyscrapers -- ever higher, but as you do they sustain fewer people. And eventually, of course, they will come down. Bad habits die hard, apparently, but customs? Truly fossilized institutions? These, it would seem, die even harder. Image Credit: Wikipedia