Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.
The documentary Finding Vivian Maier recently joined the burgeoning conversation about its titular subject, a reclusive Chicago nanny whose collection of street photography was discovered at a storage auction shortly before her death in the form of thousands of undeveloped rolls of film.
"I think I've been had," John Huston remarked when he finished filming his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, which was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Or at least that's the story the screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald tells. Huston's take was that the film had a darkly comic heart, dressed in religious trappings. He was not convinced that the main character, the staunch atheist Hazel Motes, finds God in the end. That is, until the Fitzgeralds persuaded him otherwise.If anyone other than O'Connor was aware of her intentions, the Fitzgeralds were. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald provided her with a room for two years while she wrote the novel, parts of which she shared with them. Robert became the executor of her estate after she died and Sally edited volumes of her letters and nonfiction. Wise Blood stayed in the family, so to speak, when their sons, Benedict and Michael set out to turn the novel into film, for which they recruited John Huston as the director. The brothers and their mother were present on location during the filming in Macon, Georgia, and among other things, made sure Huston's depiction remained faithful to O'Connor's vision.If Huston was had, it was only because Hazel Motes was too. Haze wants more than anything to out Jesus as a liar and false prophet and to found his own religion, the Church Without Christ, as a response to the evangelism that he grew up with and has thrived around him. The grandson of a circuit preacher who would park his car, climb atop the hood, and start preaching hellfire and redemption, Haze determined early on to become a preacher too - but one who speaks against belief, who disabuses its converts of the false notions, needless guilt, and notions of depravity.After a stint in the army, Haze makes his way to a small southern town called Taulkinham, where he finds a whore, buys a ramshackle car, and sets out to start the Church Without Christ. As O'Connor explained in a letter to the novelist John Hawkes, Haze's striking out against Jesus was a rebellion against a deep-set faith within him: "There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not." With the same fervor that Haze rejects Christianity and the street preacher's refrain, he crashes into it head-on.So it goes with Haze, that in spite of his valiant efforts to discern what is true, he's often unable to see what lies directly in front of him. And he's not the only one. Much is made of eyes and vision in Wise Blood; appearances are often merely facades. The blind street preacher, Asa Hawks, who Haze follows when he first arrives in Taulkinham and later becomes obsessed with, isn't really a man of God and isn't really blind. Asa's bastard daughter, Sabbath Lily, gives Haze "fast eye" when they first meet, and of course there's Haze, whose penetrating eyes, according to Sabbath, "don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep looking." That Haze continues to look becomes his saving grace. When Wise Blood's characters believe they have clarity, it's often the point where they're led most astray. Take Haze's car. He has great pride in his decrepit jalopy with one door attached by a rope; even when it breaks down, he claims it's as fine as any. And as they're sputtering along, Sabbath corroborates, telling Haze it runs "as smooth as honey."In this vein, Huston's partial blindness to O'Connor's ultimate vision while filming Wise Blood may help explain why the film stays so true to the novel's tone and intent. The Fitzgeralds' guiding hand made sure Huston didn't stray too far from the course, but the eccentric characters and the humor of their foibles could easily have slipped into caricature. Instead, they strike O'Connor's unique pitch. Thanks to Benedict Fitzgerald's screenplay, many of the best lines remain untouched, such as Enoch Emery's description of his foster mother whose hair was so thin "it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull." Perhaps the only off note is the musical score, that inserts a punchy banjo riff a la the Beverly Hillbillies during interludes and whenever the town's desperate newcomer Enoch Emery appears, as if to cue laughter. In contrast, Emery's on-screen presence - disheveled, lonely, and naively enthusiastic - is nuanced and pitiably comedic. Had the director been more attuned to O'Connor's religious vision, the depictions could easily have become more-heavy handed, and lost some of their comic potential if not their humanity.To speak of O'Connor without touching on religion is missing the point, but to focus so intently on religion that the story is sacrificed would be the greater loss. O'Connor's genius was that she could perform the balancing act and execute it with near perfection. As she confided to John Hawkes, "I don't think you should write something as long as a novel that is not of the greatest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe with the air of our times." That O'Connor's characters so believably grapple with disbelief makes them more human, and their struggles more profound. In the best sense, Huston's film breathes life into O'Connor's characters, with a single-minded Hazel Motes, a befuddled Emery Enoch, and an elfin Sabbath Lily, along with a host of characters from this small southern town, trying to find their way as best they can.John Huston's Wise Blood was just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Bonus goodies include John Huston interviewed by Bill Moyers, an essay by Francine Prose, and an audio track of O'Connor reading her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
After a weak year for movies, this Sunday's Academy Awards promises more than the usual number of surprises. Will we watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button rack up 13 Oscars, eclipsing Ben-Hur... or will we watch it edge out The Color Purple for a dubious record: most nominations without a single award? Will we thrill to the wit and wisdom of austerity-measures host Hugh Jackman... or will we find ourselves longing for the deft comedic timing of Charlton Heston? What we surely won't see is a sweep for the film version of Revolutionary Road, which strikes me as more startling than any of the scenarios outlined above. To put it bluntly: Revolutionary Road is pure Oscar bait. It boasts a powerhouse production team (director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and co-producer Scott Rudin) and a terrific ensemble cast. It has the kind of marketing hook Oscar loves: it's Kate and Leo's first joint outing since The Highest Grossing Film of All Time.Most importantly (with apologies to The Reader and Ben Button) it has the most impeccable literary pedigree of any movie released this year. "Hollywood is a visual town that reveres what it reads," as The New Yorker's Tad Friend wrote a few years back. "A classy book connotes New York, taste, and depth." And yet, when the nominations were announced last month, Revolutionary Road was up for a paltry three statuettes. What gives? The most plausible explanation is some sort of baroque intra-Academy intrigue of the sort that robbed Bruce Springsteen of a nomination for The Wrestler. But I'd like to suggest, for the sake of argument, that the problem lies in the source material - that Revolutionary Road, the novel by Richard Yates, may, for fairly interesting reasons, be unadaptable.Revolutionary Road now looks like some kind of high-water-mark of urbane fiction. Soon after its publication, loose, baggy monsters such as Giles Goat-Boy and Gravity's Rainbow would seize the high ground of literary fiction, reflecting the entropic tendencies of the larger culture. But in 1961, the novel still seemed perfectible, and with this book Richard Yates came as close as anyone has to perfecting it. A synopsis sounds straightforward: Frank and April Wheeler settle in suburban Connecticut at the peak of the postwar boom, only to find themselves spiritually and aesthetically ill-at-ease with their surroundings. They dream of being something more than (respectively) a Man in a Gray Flannel Suit and a housewife. Yet their pursuit of the numinous will threaten to destroy them.This story is easily caricatured, by those who haven't bothered to read the book, as a denunciation of suburban life - precisely the sort of novel Frank Wheeler might have written. Yates makes painfully clear, however, that the obstacles the Wheelers face are as much internal as external. An ironist of almost infinite subtlety, he spends much of the book revealing Frank and April's grasping as no less "hopeless" and "empty" than the neat little subdivision streets that give the book its title. Whatever greatness they possess falls victim to their self-absorption.For all its bleakness, Revolutionary Road is often quite funny. The mediating principle between the comedy and the tragedy, the satire and the sympathy, is Yates' pitch-perfect voice. His free indirect narration hews for the most part to Frank's point-of-view, so that even as we see Frank's posturing, we are drawn into sympathy with him. At times, the subjectivity of Yates' descriptions borders on the visionary:How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! . . . . The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.Even as Frank sees his town-and-country life as "comical," his eye (for "canyons", for manly "containment," for those supreme clouds) betrays its attractions. Flattering himself as a man apart, he is acting out his own "passionate little dumb show." This foible is, of course, not unique to Frank. And as with Jonathan Franzen's Lamberts forty years later, we can't sit securely in judgment; we don't even quite know where to stand.All of which is to say that I was concerned when Sam Mendes - surely one of our most portentous filmmakers - was directing Revolutionary Road: The Movie. It seemed likely that Mendes might miss the irony and give us American Beauty meets American Graffiti: a jeremiad against the Cold War dorps of the Metro North. True to form, Mendes does go a bit crazy with the foliage toward the end of the movie; it's as if he believes that beauty (and his films are beautiful, in a way that sometimes borders on kitsch) only serves as a mask for the general hideousness of human beings. For the most part, though, my fears were unfounded. Mendes is as finely attuned to the posturings of Frank and April as he is to the fatuousness of their real estate agent and the generic idyll of their neighborhood.Moreover, the acting in Revolutionary Road is excellent. Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, and Zoe Kazan turn in fine supporting performances. DiCaprio takes a little getting used to - he still looks like a teenager to me - but as he grows into the lead role, he reveals the depths of Frank's frustration. And the great Kate Winslett turns in a terrifically intense performance as April. Mendes, who is her husband, loves to fill the screen with her, and for good reason.The film earns its nomination for an Art Direction Oscar. It is lovingly upholstered, filled with the trappings of the Eisenhower era. (Rarely does a scene pass without its complement of martinis and coffees and cigarettes; no wonder these people are so moody.) Despite (or perhaps because of) its reverence for its source material, however, the movie misses the key ingredient: the voice. Subjectivity is easy for a novel to do; indeed, we might say that objectivity in fiction is merely an illusion. Film, however, is relentlessly literal, and Mendes never bothers to figure out a way to finesse this - to give us that "great silent insectarium," for example.He does offer compelling interpretations of certain scenes, the way one might interpret Shakespeare or Chekhov. He is particularly interested in the constraints April suffers because of her gender. But Yates is not a playwright, he's a novelist, and the magic of this particular novel is its ability to take us inside its characters. Only in the final seconds of the film does Mendes abandon his handsome neutrality and attempt to figure out how to make film do what literature does. It is too little, too late.And so one ends up wondering, what's the point? Revolutionary Road, the movie, has resisted the temptation to condemn a particular set of social circumstances; instead it has gone to the other extreme, making Frank and April's problems so particular that it seems to have little to say to anyone who isn't them. The solution to their unhappiness? Suck less.Up against this year's other Oscar bait, Revolutionary Road holds up fine. But it has to meet a higher hurdle: it's up against a great book. For all its fine craftsmanship, its entertainment value, its essential dignity, it doesn't add anything. Unlike Yates' novel, it does not command our sympathy; it merely commands our gaze.Bonus link: Your printable Oscar ballot (pdf)
It seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode: Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to arrive…in The Twilight Zone.
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