When it comes to adapting serious fiction for the screen, John Huston has few peers. But the English director Michael Winterbottom continues to burnish his reputation as a master of this maddeningly slippery art at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which is featuring the American premiere of Trishna, Winterbottom’s daring re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Today, by way of exploring the difficulty of transporting stories from page to screen, we’ll look at three Winterbottom adaptations of three very different novels from three different centuries.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Trishna is not Winterbottom’s first foray into Hardy’s fiction, nor the first time he has lifted Hardy’s characters from fictional Wessex and plunked them down in a faraway place. Winterbottom adapted Hardy’s most controversial novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1996, and followed it four years later with The Claim, a retelling of The Mayor of Casterbridge set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains during the gold rush.
But Trishna, set in contemporary India, is by far Winterbottom’s most daring – and successful – adaptation of Hardy. The conventional reading of Hardy is that he was a forward-thinker who railed against the two most confining straitjackets of life in Victorian England: the pressure to conform to social conventions and the stark boundaries imposed by class and gender. Winterbottom offers a much subtler reading. As he told The Guardian recently by way of explaining his decision to set Trishna (and, he might have added, The Claim) far from England: “Hardy’s novels are often about modernity and speed and energy. But it’s hard to get that sense of a dynamically changing world if you set one in this country [England]. Here the problems are more to do with a lack of mobility rather than an excess of it.”
That’s smart, but it carries a risk. While contemporary India offers an abundance of photogenic modernity, speed, and energy, it is also a gargantuan cliche: the gaudy colors, the cows, the slums and traffic and noise and dirt, those nearly visible smells. It’s worth remembering that two of the biggest international hits to come out of India recently, Slumdog Millionaire and Darjeeling Limited, were avalanches of these very cliches.
Winterbottom, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids this trap by streamlining Hardy’s story and using the frenzied urbanization and changing class structure of contemporary India as tools to tell his story, never as mere eye candy. The title character is played by Freida Pinto (who had her breakout in Slumdog Millionaire), a poor girl in the rural northwestern state of Rajasthan who catches the eye of a wealthy hotel owner named Jay (Riz Ahmed) when he passes through her town with a freewheeling gang of rich tourists. Smitten, Jay offers Trishna a job at his hotel in the capital city of Jaipur, which her family pushes her to accept. Inevitably, a romance will bloom.
A composite of the novel’s two love interests, Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare, Jay spirals from seduction to genuine love to fatal cruelty after the lovers move to Mumbai. There are other deft echoes of the novel. Instead of giving birth to her illegitimate child and losing it to illness, as happened to Tess, Trishna deals with an unwanted pregnancy by having an abortion. And in a moment of extreme need, Trishna goes to work in a dehumanizing food-packaging factory, just as Tess was nearly crushed by a ravenous new invention called the threshing machine. Hardy’s fiction, as Winterbottom noted, was suffused with the tension in an urbanizing society – the seduction of modern inventions even as they brutally obliterate old ways. A rural English train depot perfectly captures this tension. It is, Hardy writes, a place where “a fitful white streak of steam at intervals upon the dark-green background denoted intermittent moments of contact between their secluded world and modern life. Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.”
By bringing this tension to life in contemporary India, Winterbottom has captured the spirit of Hardy’s novel without being slavish to its letter. As a result, the movie manages the difficult trick of being both faithful and new, less a reproduction than a rich act of re-imagining.
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
If ever a work of literature deserved to be called “unfilmable,” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is surely it. Laurence Sterne’s great bawdy romp of a novel – a man named Tristram Shandy is talking to the reader about the story of his life he is trying to write as he writes it – is so disheveled, so plotless, so self-referential, so sprawling and messy and repetitive and hilarious that it almost dares a filmmaker to take a whack at it.
For his 2005 adaptation, which he called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom worked from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote the scripts for Winterbottom’s The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, and Code 46. This time out, Boyce cleverly solves the conundrum of the source material by turning it on its head: if Sterne wrote a book about writing a book, then let’s make a movie about making a movie about that book. The cast is led by two more Winterbottom regulars – Steve Coogan playing himself playing Tristram Shandy and Rob Brydon playing himself playing Tristram’s uncle Toby.
The movie they’re fitfully making is at times surprisingly faithful to Sterne’s novel. We get Tristram’s botched conception, his botched birth, his botched nose, his botched, nearly disastrous circumcision. Also, as in the novel, we get countless throwaway lines, such as when Coogan tries to gently fend off the advances of a horny crew member with this left-handed compliment: “Your knowledge of German cinema is second to none.” There are snide swipes at Kevin Costner’s interpretation of Robin Hood and a moment when Coogan looks at a copy of Sterne’s novel and marvels, “Can you believe that a book as thick as that doesn’t have an index?” But the best of the lot is when Coogan, who knows how movie stars act and who obviously hasn’t read the novel, describes it to an interviewer as “a post-modern classic written way before there was any modern to be ‘post’ about.” Sterne surely would have approved. After all, he offers this defense of his tendency to digress, to talk to the reader, to leave pages blank, to write chapters out of chronological order and otherwise break every rule of conventional novel-writing: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.'”
While spoken in jest, Coogan’s remark about “post-modern classic” backs up my beliefs that this 18th-century novel is indeed one of the earliest exercises in post-modernism, that Don Quixote was the first, and that Flann O’Brien, not Joyce or Beckett, was the 20th century’s first practitioner of the form. In other words, the novelist’s willingness to expose the creative process, play structural tricks and be shamelessly self-aware was not an invention of the 20th century. Virginia Woolf believed Sterne “is singularly of our own age” and “the forerunner of the moderns,” while Italo Calvino anointed Tristram Shandy as “undoubtedly the progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century.”
Along with the David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I say Winterbottom’s brilliant Tristram Shandy is final proof that the overused word “unfilmable” should be banished from the lexicon.
Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson’s noir novels and stories have been turned into more than a dozen movies. Most filmmakers have latched onto the obvious cinematic allures of Thompson’s fiction – the intricate plots, the stunning double-crosses, the lavish violence – while shying away from what goes on in the dark recesses of the human mind, which is where Thompson did his real work. Maybe this is to be expected since fiction has an unfair advantage over film in this regard. It isn’t forced to rely so heavily on images; it’s freer to explore interiority; it is, in a word, more psychological. Just the sort of material for a filmmaker as smart and literary as Michael Winterbottom. And yet, this time he stumbles.
In 2010 Winterbottom directed a second version of Thompson’s breakthrough 1952 novel, The Killer Inside Me. The first version, a half-baked disaster directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacey Keach, came out in 1976. While Kennedy and his screenwriters, Edward Mann and Robert Chamblee, blithely butchered Thompson’s novel, Winterbottom and his screenwriter, John Curran, remain almost slavishly faithful to the text. It’s a lesser sin, but still a sin and not at all characteristic of Winterbottom, as we have seen. It’s hard to tell if he was suffering from a surfeit of reverence or a rare failure of imagination and will. But what’s on the screen is far too literal – more transcript than interpretation, more homage than distinctive work of art. As a result, the movie feels frozen in amber, oddly lifeless considering what the characters are doing to each other on the screen.
As the story unfolds, we learn that a small-town Texas deputy sheriff named Lou Ford is fighting not to have a relapse of “the sickness,” an adolescent sexual fascination with little girls that morphed into a scandalous, violent liaison with a much older woman. Lou’s step-brother took the fall for Lou years ago and ended up getting murdered for it. Lou has waited six years to get back at the killer, the construction tycoon Chester Conway, because he understands that revenge is a dish best served cold. He’ll exact his by murdering his prostitute lover, then luring Conway’s son to the scene and shooting him, making the mess look like a double murder between illicit lovers. The Conway family name will be ruined. We’re deep in Jim Thompson country here: the novel is less a straight crime yarn than an unflinching tour of a sick mind.
Lou Ford himself serves as tour guide, speaking in the first person to the reader in a voice that gives new meaning to the word unreliable. Sometimes he stands in for Thompson, who enjoyed his first big success with this novel but never apologized for his lack of highbrow aspirations. Here’s Lou Ford delivering a very Thompson-esque piece of literary theory:
In a lot of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He’ll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can’t figure out whether the hero’s laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff – a lot of book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything.
Atmosphere is critical in any noir, and Winterbottom tries to capture the novel’s moral aridity through verbatim dialog and voice-overs from the novel, but it never quite gels. Much more successful at capturing atmosphere is the movie’s cinematography – those bleached colors, stark stretches of desert, and brooding mountains. It’s an extreme place where extreme things seem almost destined to happen. Another strong point is a killer soundtrack that includes works ranging from Enrico Caruso and Gustav Mahler to Hank Williams, Charlie Feathers, and the Western swing fiddler Spade Cooley. (Cooley, in an apt twist for these surroundings, was convicted of beating his wife to death in 1961.)
Best of all is the cast. Elias Koteas, who always looks like he was just dipped in dirty motor oil, plays a deliciously smarmy union boss. Ned Beatty is serviceable as the porcine tycoon. Bill Pullman has a nice little cameo as an unhinged defense attorney. Jessica Alba as the doomed hooker and Kate Hudson as Lou’s doomed fiancee both do fine jobs of living hot and dying (or appearing to die) hard. But the key gear in the works is Casey Affleck’s deadpan portrayal of Lou Ford. His smooth cheeks, lidded eyes, monotone drawl. and correct manners are a mask, his way of convincing the world he’s decent and a little slow, no threat to anyone. Affleck is not capturing the banality of evil; he’s uncovering the evil that can hide behind blandness. He did the same thing in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This is true creepiness, and true art.
So creepy that Lou is capable of beating two women to death with his bare hands while murmuring, “I’m real sorry…I love you…goodbye.” Many viewers and critics had a hard time watching this graphic violence, which begs the question: Is domestic violence supposed to look pretty? Only if you’re in the fetishistically stylized world of a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino movie, where getting your head blown off can look so cool. Thompson – and Winterbottom – are making the point that such violence is both horrible and horrible to look at, and, what’s way worse and way more important, there’s a bit of Lou Ford inside every one of us. The only person who doesn’t get this is Lou Ford. He believes, rightly, that he’s sick, but he also believes, wrongly, that this sets him apart from the rest of humanity, that he’s one of the evil “us” who live in the midst of the sane and good “them.” As Lou puts it, “If the Good Lord made a mistake in us people it was in making us want to live when we’ve got the least excuse for it.” Later he adds, “Our kind. Us people. All of us that started the game with a crooked cue, that wanted so much and got so little, that meant so good and did so bad.”
Winterbottom’s portrayals of violence in this movie have been called everything from “misogynistic” to “feminist.” They’re neither. They’re valid artistic representations of an abiding fact of human life, especially when the humans are damaged goods. Thompson and Winterbottom never exalt Lou Ford or other monstrous characters, the way, say, Oliver Stone did in the execrable Natural Born Killers. I watched The Killer Inside Me with a friend who is a staunch opponent of the Guantanamo Bay prison and the death penalty. Unable to watch Lou Ford beat a second woman’s face into hamburger, my friend muttered, “I’d like to torture that sonofabitch to a slow death.” Then she stormed out, halfway through the movie. I took her revulsion to be a barometer of Thompson’s and Winterbottom’s success. They loosed my friend’s monstrous yearning to torture and kill the monstrous Lou Ford. In doing so they proved that there is, indeed, a bit of Lou Ford in all of us.
It wasn’t until I’d re-read all three novels and watched Winterbottom’s adaptations that I came to understand what ties these three movies together and what sets them apart. First, of course, they were all directed by a man with a high literary sensibility who is a master at casting actors and drawing quality performances out of them. Production values are uniformly high. Marcel Zyskind served as cinematographer on all three films, giving each a look appropriate to the story’s mood and message.
Then came the realization why these movies are so uneven: each had a different screenwriter. In Trishna, Winterbottom’s script shrewdly updates a story about a rural society’s traumatic urbanization; Boyce’s script of Tristram Shandy perfectly captures the antic, self-referential spirit of its source material; and The Killer Inside Me falls flat because Curran’s script treats Thompson’s novel as a blueprint rather than a springboard.
In other words, the hardware of a movie – its direction, acting, cinematography, editing, makeup, music. and wardrobe – can carry it only so far. It turns out that in movies just as much as in books, the writing is, always and forever, the thing.
To get to the movie theater that’s playing the new documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had to pass a six-story tenement at 170 E. 2nd St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A plaque by the building’s front door reads:
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997) Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kadish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.
The documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, taught me several things about the author of Naked Lunch and other scabrous novels that, along with Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, got the Beat Generation off the launch pad. I learned that Burroughs was fascinated by poisonous snakes, particularly when they were feeding, and he almost died when he rashly positioned a live mouse within range of a Gaboon viper’s fangs. I learned that Burroughs was a gun nut who liked to get liquored up before he started blasting, and that his beverage of choice was vodka and Coke. (This, surely, helps explain the “accident” when Burroughs shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in Mexico City in 1951.) I learned that Burroughs was not much of a father either; his only son died of acute alcoholism at the age of 33. I learned that the poet-rocker Patti Smith, who recently won a National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, used to have a crush on Burroughs and that the cult filmmaker John Waters considers Burroughs a “saint” and that Burroughs had a hard time expressing love because he was terrified of rejection and so he usually turned to young gay hustlers for sex and finally I learned that the poet who wrote Howl and Kadish was the great unrequited love of Burroughs’s life. Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997 and Burroughs died less than four months later and A Man Within suggests, not very convincingly, that Burroughs died of a broken heart.
Whew. That’s a lot of learning to get from a 90-minute documentary. But now the question must be asked: Am I better for knowing these things – richer, wiser, closer to some essential truths about Burroughs’s literary output? Not at all. I’m just a bit more stuffed with useless information because Yony Leyser, the writer-director of A Man Within, is a foot soldier in the army of Beat hagiographers who operate under the illusion that dissecting the personal lives of writers is essential to – even preferable to – understanding their writing. Burroughs’s writing is barely mentioned in the movie, just a quick note about how he appropriated his “cut-up” technique from the artist Brion Gysin. For the Beat hagiographers, not only is the work never enough, it’s almost beside the point. They’re in the business of erecting a cult, after all, and all cults need icons. It’s telling that A Man Within was released shortly after Howl, a documentary-feature hybrid starring the ubiquitous James Franco as the poet from apartment #16. At least there’s some poetry in Howl. At one point an interviewer asks Franco/Ginsberg, “What is the Beat generation?” He replies: “There is no Beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
That may have been true in 1957. No more. Today the Beat generation is a thriving cottage industry.
What makes A Man Within such a dreary viewing experience is that it’s largely a parade of talking heads yammering on and on about what Burroughs meant to them. In addition to Patti Smith and John Waters, we get to hear from Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Peter Weller (who played Burroughs in Cronenberg’s fine 1991 film version of Naked Lunch and also does this documentary’s voice-over), plus assorted lovers, writers, sycophants, enablers, academics, gun dealers, snake handlers and hangers-on.
My favorite of the bunch is Regina Weinreich, who is identified as “a Beat generation scholar.” While it’s no secret that the academic racketeers can turn just about anything into a “discipline,” Weinreich’s job description struck me as particularly delicious. Here is a woman who was canny enough to hitch her professional wagon to the Beat caravan more than 20 years ago. In 1986 she met Paul Bowles while teaching a creative writing workshop in Tangier, where Bowles had moved in the late 1940s. His home there became a station of the cross on the Beats’ holy itinerary. The year after she met Bowles, Weinreich co-wrote a documentary, The Beat Generation: An American Dream, that featured archival footage of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Kerouac reading from On the Road accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. In 1994 Weinreich and Catherine Warnow co-directed Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider, an hour-long documentary about the author of the proto-Beat novel The Sheltering Sky. Weinreich also wrote a critical study called Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics and edited Kerouac’s Book of Haikus. Today she contributes to numerous periodicals, teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, talks into cameras and, for good measure, blogs at Gossip Central.
Such industry is exhausting to contemplate but, it turns out, not unusual among the Beat hagiographers. The critical studies keep coming and the documentaries keep piling up, with titles like What Happened to Kerouac?, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, The Source (a hash of TV and film clips spiced with performances by Johnny Depp as Kerouac, John Turturro as Ginsberg and Dennis Hopper as Burroughs), and One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. This last train wreck – people getting weepy talking about Kerouac’s crack-up on the California coast – inspired Slant magazine to ask the one question that must be asked: “Who keeps inviting Patti Smith to these Beat docs?” Writing in The Millions last year, Lydia Kiesling speculated that Smith keeps getting invited back because she’s “perceived as having a never-ending fund of ‘cred.'” That must be it. It can’t possibly be that anyone still cares that she used to have a crush on William S. Burroughs.
I’m no fan of hagiographers, obviously, but I’m only a bit less distrustful of literary biographers. Too often their books slide toward what Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “pathography,” which she defined as “hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” Its motifs are “dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.”
Since we live in an age that’s obsessed with personalities and celebrities, it’s not surprising that so few readers are satisfied with loving a book and so many insist on knowing as much as possible about the person who wrote it. While this appetite has inspired literary biographers to produce a long shelf of pathographies and other monstrosities – does the world really need Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene? – it has also resulted in some well researched and finely written literary biographies that did what such exercises do at their best: they led readers back to the subject’s books. Among these I would include Blake Bailey’s recent biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and, strangely enough, Ann Charters’s thorough and balanced 1973 bio of Kerouac. In her introduction, Charters wrote insightfully, if a bit clunkily: “The value of Kerouac’s life is what he did, how he acted. And what he did, was that he wrote. I tried to arrange the incidents of his life to show that he was a writer first, and a mythologized figure afterward. Kerouac’s writing counts as much as his life.”
I would argue that his writing counts more than his life, much more. Eventually Charters seemed to come around to my way of thinking. In 1995, after she’d edited two fat volumes, Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and The Portable Jack Kerouac, I interviewed her for a newspaper article. “I wanted (the book of letters) to be a biography in Jack’s own words,” she told me. “His life is in his books, but on the other hand the most essential thing is missing from those novels. What he tells you in the letters is that the most important thing in his life is writing.”
At the time The Gap was using Kerouac’s image – and images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and other ’50s icons – to sell its khaki pants. In the face of such shameless hucksterism, Charters’s insistence on the importance of Kerouac’s writing seemed both quaint and heroic to me. It still does today, as the hagiographers keep bombarding us with abominations like One Fast Move or I’m Gone and Howl and A Man Within.
In the end I must admit that “A Man Within” did teach me one thing worth knowing. I’d spent years believing that Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were the Holy Trinity of Shameless Self-Promoters among American writers. (That, by the way, is not a putdown; it’s a compliment laced with no small amount of envy.) Thanks to this documentary, I now realize that Burroughs was easily their equal as a self-promoter. This came home to me as I watched the archival footage of him rolling up his shirt sleeve and shooting dope into his left arm. The effect on me was very different from the shiver Yony Leyser was surely hoping for. My first thought was: No man would allow himself to be filmed shooting dope unless he was eager to package and promote his image as an outlaw.
It’s not hard to see why Burroughs is catnip for documentary filmmakers more than a dozen years after his death. In his late years he became a weirdly irresistible figure – the bag-eyed, fedora- and three-piece-suit-wearing patrician junkie misanthrope with the deadpan baritone who droned on and on about the rot festering at the core of the American Dream. He is the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Jonathan Swift, and he’s to be credited for shunning those who tried to idolize him, including many Beats, hippies, punks and gay libbers. The only organization I could imagine him joining is the National Rifle Association because, as he put it, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the cops and the military.” He shrewdly burnished the Burroughs brand by branching into recording and acting, reminding us that the man who wrote Junkie and Naked Lunch could be caustically funny. His turn as dope-hungry Tom the Priest in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy is not to be missed, and one of the highlights of “A Man Within” is Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer” as Old Glory flutters behind him: “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison…thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes…thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through…” Sadly, the documentary does not include any of Burroughs’s “Words of Advice for Young People,” such as, “Beware of whores who say they don’t want money. What they mean is, they want more money. Much more.”
A word of advice for readers and filmgoers of all ages: Beware of hagiographers who tell you a writer’s life is more important than the books he or she wrote. It never is. It might be diverting to watch a guy shoot dope and shoot guns and feed poisonous snakes. But the books are more important. Much more.