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.
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Each week, my wife and I sit down to watch the most recent episode of Showtime’s The Affair -- a somewhat queasy activity for any married couple. The series, now in its second season, traces the destruction caused by a husband’s lust -- which ultimately leads him to abandon his wife and four children for an unstable seafood-shack waitress. In January, the show won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Ruth Wilson, who plays Alison, the damaged mistress, won the award for Best Actress. It’s difficult to argue with either of those choices. The Affair is an extremely thoughtful, well-crafted show, with a Rashomon framing device that is both effective and unsettling. Its cast -- not only Wilson, but Dominic West, as Noah, the unfaithful husband, and Maura Tierney, as Helen, his betrayed wife -- all burn convincingly. It’s not particularly entertaining, but the level of commitment on display is indisputable. Most of the criticism of The Affair has to do with its pacing: compared to shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, The Affair moves glacially. Certain episodes have left me feeling that, not only has the ball not been moved downfield, but no play has been called at all. Nevertheless, the show is at its strongest when it slows things down: the knowing glances between Noah and Alison as they lie to their dinner hosts; Helen’s father waxing nostalgic in the backseat of a cab. This is what its makers are going for: an undeniable realism that hits its viewers in the chest. In an interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall last year, Sarah Treem, The Affair's co-creator, said, “We wanted to tell a story about two good people...You have kids and then you meet somebody by chance who you think is your soul mate. What do you do?” In attempting to answer that question in a believable way, Treem has set her show up for a peculiar kind of failure: when something actually happens on The Affair to move its story along, it often feels jarring and untrue. When Noah’s teenage daughter bursts into his new home, cursing and furious -- or, far worse, the show’s current engine, a Revenge-level plot about a vehicular homicide -- you can almost sense Treem’s embarrassment. Sorry, she seems to say; I need to build some scaffolding around those knowing glances. In this, she has become a victim of her own success: the greater its authenticity, the more false The Affair often feels. This has been an issue that films have dealt with for decades: how can something be both entertaining and true to life -- which, as we are all acutely aware, is overwhelmingly mundane? From Wild Strawberries to Ordinary People to Drinking Buddies, movies have grappled with this paradox to varying degrees of success. On television, the problem has been exacerbated by the medium’s drama-driven “golden age,” which has allowed showrunners like Treem to create, essentially, movies without end. Shows must now perform an act, from season to season, which once had to be performed only from show to show: maintaining our interest without letting things get too wonky. And this is most difficult to pull off for shows such as The Affair -- and Parenthood, Brothers and Sisters, In Treatment, and many more -- that strive for realism above all else. Well, not above all else. More than anything, they want to stay on the air. And naked emotionalism isn’t the surest path to big ratings. Friday Night Lights, which aired from 2006 to 2011, was, for all its raucous stadiums and bone-jarring collisions, one such quiet show. A conversation between husband and wife, or two struggling brothers, carried greater weight than the Dillon Panthers’ drive towards a championship. As Connie Britton, one of its stars, said in a 2011 Grantland oral history, “It’s not a show about football. It’s a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other.” As such, it was always on the cancellation bubble, and in response, it pulled a nearly-fatal stunt to kick off season two: it had one of its meekest characters commit murder. In the Grantland piece, the gimmick was explained: “We were coming to the end of Season 1, and the show was critically well-received,” said supervising producer David Hudgins. “But the numbers...So we thought, let’s do something big, something shocking and titillating and provocative.” Jesse Plemons, who played the unlikely murderer, said, “I never imagined Season 2 to go like it did, with the storyline about Landry murdering Tyra’s attacker.” Producer John Zinman admitted, “In retrospect, I think we would all say, ‘That was a bad call.’” I didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to tell me that; I remember turning to my wife as we watched the episode and saying, “What the hell was that?” But for the all flagrance of Landry’s ratings-chasing violence, such things happen on such “authentic” shows many times per episode; it’s all a matter of degrees. On Parenthood, it’s an argument that sends someone storming from a room, or a business that gets hit by burglars. On Six Feet Under, it’s a kidnapping by a crack addict, or the accidental ingestion of Ecstasy. On The Affair, it’s Helen getting stoned in Washington Square Park and having vengeful sex with her ex-husband’s best friend. Movies can avoid these speed bumps more easily, because they don’t need to drag us along for a span of years. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a nearly perfect film in which little of consequence ever seems to happen. It’s 111 minutes long. The aforementioned Drinking Buddies hinges on even less, but remains almost mystically entertaining. It runs an hour and a half. TV dramas, however, don’t benefit from such brevity. In Treem’s HitFix interview, she said, “We’re only doing ten episodes the first season, and I had asked for that, because I knew that I had ten episodes of really great story and then beyond that I was gonna start reaching.” The Affair -- now 15 episodes in -- isn’t reaching yet, but it is entering a phase that seems unique and fairly uncomfortable. Its realism is so assured that its necessary, story-moving dramas have come to seem loud and fraudulent. Treem’s goal was for us to believe that we’re just like these characters, and that -- not high-octane thrills or McGuffin-packed storytelling -- is what draws us in to her show and others like it. Who hasn’t thought of being unfaithful -- of burning the whole thing down and starting over, just to see what it’s like? But the difference between our lives and those of television characters is that we don’t need extraneous drama to earn an annual renewal. We just keep on living, and it can get pretty boring sometimes. That’s why we watch TV.
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In Orlando, Virginia Woolf explains that “No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.” This precise breed of rage has compelled me to write a defense of Michael Grandage’s Genius. Critics have been merciless and viewers were equally unimpressed -- 48 percent and 59 percent respectively on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw the film twice in its brief run and I’ve since read Look Homeward, Angel. The Maxwell Perkins biopic (based on A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) had been on my radar for over a year and I harbored skepticism over whether the filmic medium could do justice to a pivotal figure in American literary history. The movie won me over completely and though it had its faults I recommended it to anyone who would listen -- booklover or not (which I now realize may have been misguided). Genius focuses on Perkins and Thomas Wolfe’s friendship, working relationship, and the events that led to Wolfe's leaving Scribner's to prove he could be successful in his own right without Perkins’s editing propping up his work. The plot also follows Perkins’s relationship with his wife and daughters, and Wolfe’s tumultuous romance with Aline Bernstein. The film asks questions: What proportion of his life should a man devote to his work? Is this proportion different for an artist? What role should an editor play to a writer? Did Perkins exert undue influence over Wolfe’s work? When I read the reviews I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction, but more surprised that there wasn’t at least one high profile review that lauded the film. Major critics were uniformly unenthused. They say Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe was hammily acted. The foot stomping and hand clapping and “Aw, shoots" likely inspired this maligning of Law’s portrayal. These manifestations of Southerness are too unsubtle and cliche. But the writer was a ham. He is known for his larger than life personality and verbose style. Also criticized: Law’s southern accent sounded too hillbilly and not aristocratic enough. In Look Homeward, Angel -- Wolfe’s virtual autobiography (or as near as a work of fiction can be) -- the Gants are no aristocrats. They are poor folk. Wolfe is from a humble background and his accent and his southern affectations have only become cliche, have only become affectations, because they are used as quick identifiers for Southern fictional characters. The Southern gimmick is rooted in the reality of authentic Southern qualities and behaviors that existed in real people at one time. A.O. Scott of The New York Times excuses the actors, instead blaming the screenplay, “the actors can perhaps be forgiven, since they are continually pushed into scenes that seem designed to halt subtlety in its tracks.” This lack of subtlety contributes to the primary criticism of “cheesiness,” which is identified in Jude Law’s “hammy acting” and the bromance premise of the movie. I formed a self-righteous theory: those panning the movie were unsympathetic to the world of Perkins, Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. This theory is self-aggrandizing certainly, but it may explain the extreme divide between polemical reviews and paeans to the film. Reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it appears Genius suffers from a love-it-or-hate-it polarization that is likely rooted in its somewhat abstruse subject matter. Maxwell Perkins is a hero to lovers of American literature, but he is unknown to the general public. I would expect that the majority of people who saw Genius during its short life in theaters were already acquainted with Perkins and his authors. This precondition could explain the 10 percent gap between critic and audience ratings. Say audiences had at least a tenuous grasp of Perkins’s story and a fondness for the publishing industry in the 1920s -- they would be partial to the movie before stepping into the theater. These are the reviewers who would advise you to ignore the philippics (“Don't allow other reviews to prevent you from an opportunity to experience something very special”), express regret for the unflattering reviews (“Sorry to see your low score”), and care so much as to experience indignation (“I'm incredulous at the bad reviews of this movie”). David Fear levies what sounds like an accusation of intellectualism: “Every scene seems to be lit in a way that screams ‘you are watching a prestigious period pic.’” Could it be a fair accusation? Is it possible that being estranged from the works of the famous writers depicted prevents the audience from fully engaging with the movie and misinterpreting a director’s reverence for pretentiousness? There is a mythic quality about Maxwell Perkins for those who worship at the altar of American literature. Non-believers may not be able to see how or why such a figure commands such interest if they are unfamiliar with the history he helped create. Of course a movie should not only be appreciated by an audience that already favors its content, but it should be noted that the biggest fans are often the harshest critics. Consider any superhero film -- the diehard fans pick apart inaccuracies and find innumerable faults. What matters and ultimately decides if the diehards approve of an adaptation is whether it is respectful to the spirit of the source material, even if the details are impossible to stay entirely true to. Genius is true to the spirit of Thomas Wolfe -- he is how I imagine the author of Look Homeward, Angel must have been. For the movie to resonate you must have either an appreciation for the works Perkins edited or a prerequisite interest in the questions listed above. I came to the movie with both. I judged the movie as I judge most -- did it accomplish what it set out to do? I believe so. I was inspired to write; I was moved by the friendship; I was scared by the power of pride and love and regret. But it is possible that my love for the film is due to my furnishing of details, my reading into a richness of character that was not spelled out in the film. Herein lies the movie’s greatest weakness: Genius relies on a sympathetic audience. And so what I wish to impress upon you is that if you are of this number you may find the film not only lovable, but moving and worth re-watching. I do not believe Genius should win Best Picture or even be nominated. But I do believe it was dismissed unfairly and that its main criticisms are misplaced. Reviews penned by those who do not have a predilection for the Lost Generation and the works they produced state that a movie about editing is simply not cinematic. Many critics belabored the red pencil circling and underlining shots as demonstrative of the unimpressive and uncinematic act of editing. Peter Debruge says, “it’s nobody’s idea of interesting to watch someone wield his red pencil over the pile of pages.” Genius is about more than editing, but it does successfully illuminate its perils, and the moral crisis editors face in shaping someone else’s work. I will not deny that more people are interested in organized crime than book editing when it comes to sheer volume -- but that does not classify editing as unfit for cinema. “Cinematic” is not a fixed quality -- any story can be cinematic if it is told artfully. The criticism that the process of publishing a book is not cinematic speaks more to narrow-mindedness and generalizations about what the masses find interesting than any failure on the movie’s part. But again, this takes us to the interests the audience must bring to the film. The film itself may not be able to inspire an interest in editing for someone who did not already harbor one. My message is for those who may have been interested in Genius but were deterred by the widespread and unvaried denunciations of the film. You should give Genius a chance (especially if you have read something Perkins’s red pencil touched) and trust that critics’ rejections might have been misplaced. Anyone who has ever loved an author through his or her work should find something to love in this film.
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