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.
There’s something about an ensemble cast. And oh, the pastoral charms of a country house. Though I’d say this cinematic genre is English is certain fundamental ways, it works just as well elsewhere, a demonstrated by the list below (Italy, France, Greece, Los Angeles, Spain, Canada, the O.C.). One of the other interests of this genre is that some of its finest examples (Gosford Park, The Big Chill, Peter’s Friends, and The Anniversary Party), work according to the classical unities (unity of time, unity of place, unity of action). Call them antiquated and fussy if you will, there is a certain satisfaction in a movie that stays put and, in something approximating “real time,” resolves the troubles it introduces.Howard’s EndGosford ParkMargot at the WeddingStealing BeautyThe Anniversary Party (Gwenynth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals and more – fab LA house)Peter’s Friends (The Big Chill, across the pond: Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Phyllida Law)The Big ChillSwimming Pool (Ludivigne Sangier avant nosejob)My Family and Other Animals (the inimitable Imelda Staunton and others – set in Greece, a must for animal lovers)”Arrested Development” (the dystopian take on the “country house”/ensemble cast)Mansfield ParkSense and Sensibility (Ang Lee’s)Loaded (early Thandie Newton – a dark take on the genre)Belle Epoque (a young Penelope Cruz and a bevy of others easy on the eyes)”Jeeves and Wooster” (country estates-agogo, plus young Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)Jules et JimThe Barbarian Invasions (Canadian Big Chill)My Summer of Love (Emily Blunt and Natalie Press – a gorgeous, disturbing watch – a little Swimming Pool-ish)Match Point (from Woody Allen’s recent spasm of Anglophilia)”Brideshead Revisited” (I think they’re remaking it, but a little Jeremy Irons never hurt anyone)Coming Home (a very young Kiera Knightly, Emily Mortimer, Paul Bettany, Peter O’Toole, Joanna Lumley – very “Brideshead”)My Mother’s Castle (ah, Provence)Happy Memorial Day.
I remember when I first started watching The Sopranos: early winter in the small town in Oklahoma where my then-girlfriend (now wife) had gone to work among the Cherokees. I was on a break from college, but my girlfriend got a grand total of something like four days off around Christmas (this notwithstanding the prominence of Christianity in the culture of Tahlequah). And so, from 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night, I was on my own. Believe me when I say: there is no winter like an Oklahoma winter. I’d write in the morning and then, in the afternoon, distract myself from the endless flat grayness of the country outside the living room window by reading books and watching movies.This was back in the days of VHS, and one day at the Blockbuster I picked up a tape with the first three episodes of this premium-cable-channel show I’d been hearing so much about: The Sopranos. It was love at first sight. Aside from the searing performances of the leads and a memorable character turn from a minor hero of mine, “Miami” Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, the show offered all of the addictive pleasures of serial storytelling. This, I think, was what made The Sopranos feel so much like a novel. It was Dickens with gabbagul in place of figgy pudding. (And mightn’t Copperfield’s Barkis have recognized a kindred soul in Silvio Dante? Or Mr. Micawber tendered to Paulie Walnuts some prolix offer of friendship?)Seven and a half years later, the titular Sopranos have reached the end of their long and erratic arc, and heat and humidity are on the rise in Brooklyn. (Believe me when I say: there is no summer like a New York summer.) And the question arises: how to fill the empty place Tony & Co. have left behind? How to pass the long summer afternoons?The obvious quick fix for those suffering from Sopranos withdrawal is The Godfather, but Puzo’s dialogue might feel a bit flat after David Chase’s. So here’s a suggestion: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God bear more than a passing resemblance to The Sopranos, and are similarly well-written and densely plotted. Given that the murderous matriarchs of these narratives are both named Livia, I wonder if Chase wasn’t inspired by Graves. Beneath the disparate Italian settings – Rome at the time of Christ and Jersey in the time of American Idol (how far we’ve come) – The Sopranos and I, Claudius are both sagas of intrigue and betrayal, of men whose ability to trust their friends and loved ones wanes as their proximity to power increases.If it’s the psychodrama of The Sopranos that appeals to you, however, I can recommend an even less likely analogue: Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Here, trust is also at a premium. The setting is not a mob war-zone, however, but ranges from the WASPy corridors of a Fortune 500 company to the bucolic suburbs of Connecticut. Like Tony Soprano, Heller’s Bob Slocum is an upwardly mobile executive suffering from moral rot. He is as unpleasant to spend time with as Tony has been this season, and yet his intertwined rage and loneliness seem to shed some kind of bleak light on the human condition.Heller is, I think, a vastly underrated prose writer. His prefers a limited diction to the omnivorous vocabulary of fellow-travelers like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, but his syntactic subtlety yields sentences of arresting power. Check out this outburst from Slocum, worthy of Dr. Melfi’s office: “Even fancy bakeries now use a substitute for whipped cream that looks more like whipped cream than whipped cream does, keeps its color and texture longer, doesn’t spoil, and costs much less, yielding larger profits. […] It tastes like s–t. Nobody cares but me. From sea to shining sea the country is filling with slag, shale, and used-up automobile tires. The fruited plain is coated with insecticide and chemical fertilizers. Even pure horses–t is hard to come by these days. They add preservatives. You don’t find fish in lakes and rivers anymore. You have to catch them in cans. Towns die. Oil spills. Money talks. God listens. God is good, a real team player. ‘America the Beautiful’ isn’t: it was all over the day the first white man set foot on the continent to live.”It’s all here, in embryonic form: the rage, the narcissism, the depression, the nostalgia, the soured aspirations. (Not to mention the serial infidelity and a climax suspiciously reminiscent of the death of Christopher Moltisanti this season on The Sopranos.) I don’t know whether David Chase has read Something Happened, but the section headings Heller uses to structure Slocum’s 550-page monologue could just as easily describe the trajectory of seven seasons of The Sopranos: “I get the willies”; “My daughter’s unhappy”; “My little boy is having difficulties”; “There’s no getting around it”…Perhaps most significantly, Chase and Heller are both willing to take literally the Freudian constructs that postmodern discourse has reduced to the level of metaphor, or bumper sticker. Slocum and Soprano are men haunted by a small handful of dreams and traumas (e.g., by their love for and resentment of their mothers). And every interaction out in the great world is in some way a Freudian replaying of a domestic trauma. As psychology, this might not be as nuanced as what you’d get in your local therapists’ office, but it comes cheaper, and in deft hands attains the mythic resonance of art. In Something Happened, especially, we see the way that every conflict comes back to the primal fourfold of Slocum’s household: man, woman, girl, boy. Every man is father, son, and brother, and every woman is mother, wife, and sister. And, returning to The Sopranos, we find that, however baroque the FBI’s organizational charts get, it really is all about family, this thing of ours.In the thirty years since its publication,Something Happened has been obscured by the long shadow cast by Heller’s first novel, Catch-22. But I have no doubt that, on the bookshelves of the future, nestled between the DVD boxed sets, there will be a place for it… as there will be for The Sopranos. This summer, before you move on to Deadwood, or to the BBC’s miniseries version of I, Claudius, you might pick up Something Happened for your maintenance dose of literary misanthropy.
In April of last year, Patrick noted that Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1977 classic film about life in the Watts section of Los Angeles, was finally getting a theatrical release after decades of red tape related to clearing the rights of the music in the film.Though declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the film had been rarely seen over the years. Now, Killer of Sheep is likely to reach an even wider audience. On Monday at 8pm, the film will make its television debut on Turner Classic Movies.More, from Patrick:The story, in so far as there is one, is simple. Stan, an employee of a South Central slaughterhouse (hence the title of the film), is depressed and retreating from his wife. Interspersed with scenes of Stan at home and at work (the footage of the sheep is both fascinating in its gore and haunting, like watching a lake before a storm) are snippets of kids playing, women gossiping, and men scheming to make a few dollars more. What makes Killer of Sheep so memorable is the depth and reality of the characters and the incredibly complex humor the film employs. Indeed, for a movie that says so much about poverty, it’s surprisingly funny.The movie has also recently become available on DVD.
For those of you who still haven’t come to terms with the fact that the Harry Potter franchise has ended, might I suggest Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series? In the wake of the success of the Harry Potter films, the second book in the series, The Dark Is Rising has been made into a motion picture, with a release date in early October.Although the poster and initial information regarding the movie don’t look particularly promising (if low production values and child actors don’t give you pause, the preview’s dialogue certainly will), the books themselves are excellent and should provide succor for young (and young at heart) Potterites interested in continuing their journey into the realms of fantasy.The story follows a boy, Will Stanton, who learns he is the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones. This revelation is soon followed by the realization that he must use his newfound powers to battle an evil force known only as “The Dark” (it’s rising, don’t you know.) Of course, in the grand tradition of young adult fiction, it’s not enough that Will has to deal with the nefarious powers of some ancient evil, he also has to overcome the trials of “growing up.” The books are set in Great Britain in the sixties and seventies and Cooper combines a winning look into British life at the time with extensive use of Arthurian legend and Welsh mythology to tell a story that, although somewhat lacking the light touch Rowling brought to Potter, never fails to entertain. As for the movie, for better or worse, I fully plan to spend ten dollars and two hours of my life this fall reliving the many hours of my childhood spent engrossed in the saga. Here’s hoping it delivers.Bonus Link: A review from the book’s release in 1973
Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”
In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.
Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.
Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.
This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.
In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.
I’ve never been a big fan of film adaptations of books. If I watch the movie version and then decide to read the book, as is currently the case with American Psycho, I can’t help but have an image of the actors in my head. If I read the book and then watch the film, I’m tempted to be that guy who says, “You know, the book is much better.”One time when I was interviewing a Hollywood screenwriter who had just published his first book, I asked him if he’d like to see a movie version of his novel someday. Absolutely not, he said, noting that having turned books into screenplays, he knows that by the end of the process one rarely looks like the other.But what bothers me most is when books for children are adapted for the big screen. I’m not talking about projecting Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! onto a movie screen. That’s fine with me. The book already has colorful pictures and isn’t considered a novel in the literary sense. Instead, my gripe is with, oh, say, the film version of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series.As a kid, one of the things I loved about reading was how I could create an image of what the characters looked like based on the author’s description. Sure, I suppose some of those books had pictures of characters on the cover, but that’s a far cry from seeing Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, on billboards and in commercials for the movies.Admittedly, I also am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I read the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, before seeing the movie, and I had no desire to find out what happened next.I acknowledge the movies probably have spurred thousands of children to read more than they had before, but it’s the kind of reading that concerns me. In the end, kids end up reading books about wildly imaginative characters while being denied the pleasure of imagining what those characters look like. That disappoints me.Who knows, maybe most kids can easily separate the Harry Potter books from the films, especially since some of the screen adaptations allow for some creative license. I just hope the movies haven’t stifled the literary imagination of young readers.
James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine. No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program. He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness. His hair was dyed orange. How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks? Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room?
We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign). “Desire in fiction” was the ostensible topic. The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked. He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand.
I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl. A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction). On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read “Franco – NY Schedule.” The urge to smile was now almost overpowering. I fought it back.
James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.”
I rose out of silence to make my own comment. Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.” Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point. Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco.
When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying. “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee. His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man. He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes. It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility. There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee.
When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken. And I could have saved them that look by simply saying “Sure.” But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco. So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away. Then, just as quickly, turned back. “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious.
Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.”
Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it. It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem.
The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils.
Each section has high points. Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me. I open my mouth and out fly fists.”
Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job. How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone? His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience.
In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making? Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.”
The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco. I couldn’t help it—I was smiling. Okay, I had passed up on coffee. Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much. Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it? But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.