You are sitting with the Great Man, and he is holding forth. He made the Greatest American Film of All Time when he was just twenty-five (he has the Newsweek notice from John O’Hara memorized, and he will repeat it for you with only a slight addition here or there, with no prompting.) He’s a legend, an idol, a God of Cinema. He is Orson Welles and, my God, he is such a bitch.
Whether or not to read Peter Biskind’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles is simply decided: do you care, at all, about continuing to admire Orson Welles as an actual person and artist, or are you happy to have that illusion exploded by a sad, embittered caricature performing great feats of persona for a sycophant with a hidden tape recorder?
The “conversations” (90% Welles monologue) in Lunches with Orson provide entertaining, salacious reading for those of us who enjoy old Hollywood gossip delivered with exquisite nastiness (Paulette Goddard “was a wonderful girl, but she’s a living cash register, you know.”) And if the aim of the book is to show the absurd, monotonous viciousness of Hollywood and its poisonous characters, it’s an unqualified success. Yes, it’s repetitive, and it drags, but so does the life of Welles at Ma Maison, the restaurant where he and his tiny dog, Kiki, held forth for the adoring filmmaker Henry Jaglom between the years 1982 and 1985, when Welles died. They spent these luncheons eating California nouvelle cuisine while trying, endlessly, to fund, cast, or complete any Welles project. In the midst of plotting future works, Welles was happy to tell stories of his greatness and dish outrageously petty dirt on any person, film, or concept imaginable.
The gossip is endless, and endlessly amusing: Humphrey Bogart, “both a coward and a very bad fighter, was always picking fights in nightclubs.” Katherine Hepburn “laid around the town like nobody’s business.” “Larry [Olivier] is very– I mean seriously– stupid.” Chaplin is also “deeply dumb” and Garbo is “a big-boned cow.” Lest you think him petty, he shares his generous pimping efforts on behalf of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe: “I would point Marilyn out to Darryl [Zanuck], and say, ‘What a sensational girl.’ He would answer, ‘she’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them. Stop trying to push these cunts on me. We’ve got her for $125 a week.’ And then, about 6 months later, Darryl was paying Marilyn $400,000 and the men were looking at her — because some stamp had been put on her.”
After a certain point in the book, one is very much reminded of the recurring motif within Vertigo (a movie Welles hated, along with most Hitchcock films): are we fated to forever return to same conversation about the myriad betrayals Welles has endured? Are we still waiting for Welles’s 16 millimeter, black and white King Lear to be financed by the French? Is it still so important to claim ownership of every single aspect of Citizen Kane? (His sensitivity over the writing credit is understandable, as Paulene Kael’s 1971 piece for The New Yorker, Raising Kane, put forth the widely accepted — though since debunked — theory that Welles had claimed credit for a script actually penned by Herman J. Mankiewicz. But must Welles also claim sole responsibility for lighting and editing the film, and boorishly refuse to call film in any way collaborative?) Everyone “loves” his new script for The Dreamers, but will anyone actually buy it? Lunches with Orson, with their clear routine of gossip, pontificating, and money-hustling, are repetitive, and never go anywhere. The depressing stagnation and inertia of Welles’s later life is on full display here, and all the fawning and flattery and promises Jaglom offers cannot move Welles’s career forward, or undo his tremendous self-sabotage.
Jaglom claims to have done everything he could to help Welles find funding, but The Great Man’s reputation as a temperamental egotist who never finished a project continually frustrated their efforts. While it seems clear that Welles was often stymied by the profit-driven dullness of the movie industry, he also never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are numerous instances in which Welles talks himself into and out of a deal in one breath (the French have offered him a blank check for Lear…but he cannot stomach filming in France; he could direct The Cradle Will Rock…but he cannot in good conscience direct something he does not have full writing credit on), and any eavesdropper (which, of course, any reader is) might find themselves tempted to suggest, “just do it, you indecisive blowhard!” upon the fourth or fifth dissection of a possible funder’s motives and/or creative purity.
In the book’s most telling instance of self-sabotage, Welles begins to pitch a miniseries about Acapulco to a very receptive HBO executive, Susan Smith. Within minutes of beginning, Welles throws a massive tantrum, insulting Smith and refusing to even speak with her after she expresses interest in a Dominican Republic setting. After Welles has dismissed Smith as someone who simply does not understand his vision, Jaglom tells him how a recent biographer has “put the lie to the myth of your self-destructiveness.” But what have we just seen, if not a frankly ridiculous act of creative immolation?
This is, of course, the privilege of the “artist” in film: to flirt with or deny based on feeling, or temperament, or vision. But the capriciousness of the visionary, when coupled with a sympathetic producer’s pragmatism, can wield great (or at least produced) works. Welles has no such partner here. What he has is Jaglom, a disciple with a vested interest in Welles as the misunderstood, noncommercial artist. Jaglom uses Welles’s dismissal of John Huston as an opportunity to point out what he finds truly rare about Welles: “You mean because [John Huston] doesn’t have a need to really be the creative artist. The fact that you’ve not been able to do that is testimony, in many people’s minds, to a kind of — you’re gonna hate this word — purity. It comes from a kind of insistence on making your own films…” This is lovely talk from an admirer, less useful from a person charged with finding money for your films. After years of teasing, Jack Nicholson finally killed Welles’s “The Big Brass Ring” (his salary needed to be more 1980s, less 1960s), but what could have been if Jaglom had pushed back against Welles’s absurdly racist reaction to the idea of casting Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro in the role of an American president? When Jaglom suggested that these stars had expressed interest, Welles responded, “Not your friend Dusty Hoffman. No dwarfs. Besides, they’re ethnic…No dark, funny-looking guys.”
Ah yes, old man Welles, the lovable old bigot you never knew. Though Welles himself sees through the moral bankruptcy of excusing abhorrent behavior because of artistic greatness (when he rightly criticizes Elia Kazan, who named names for HUAC, Jaglom protests, “You don’t make allowances for people with talent, like Kazan?”), the reader of My Lunches with Orson is urged to excuse what Peter Biskind calls Welles’s “politically incorrect opinions.” In his introduction, Biskind lets the reader knows that he knows that Welles will be surely read as “sexist, racist, homophobic, vulgar (let’s be kind, call it Rabelaisian),” but that he is certain that it was driven by Welles’s “impish” nature. Yes, surely it was his “impishness” that made Welles refuse to hug Jaglom in 1985, saying, “I haven’t gone through my life to be felled by some gay plague.” One can almost see the scampish twinkle in his eye as he pronounces, “no female has guilt. That’s why the Bible is so true!” And any idea that he might be prejudiced (against, for instance, the Irish, Hungarians, Jews, Italians, or Russians, all of whom he neatly reduces into “Rabelaisian” stereotypes) is undone by his many experiences! “I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent.” He certainly couldn’t be racist, as he dated Lena Horne! His way of getting back at a racist club-owner who didn’t want him being seen publicly with her was to find a “big, black mammy, like Aunt Jemima, a Hattie McDaniel type, coal black,” send her obscene letters and harass her, then make it appear that the club owner was in fact her deranged stalker. Great prank, Orson!
In the end, the reader of My Lunches With Orson is left with the queasy, hollow, particularly guilty feeling one gets from too much misanthropy; from imbibing too much bile. Welles is petty and vindictive, and though he is an astute critic of the nastiness, solipsism, and viciousness of Hollywood, he is absolutely of it as well. Reading My Lunches With Orson is akin to spending a long three hours with your amusing, gossipy, bigoted old grandpa.
But of course, your grandpa was probably more than just stupid Hungarian jokes (“How do you make a Hungarian omelet? First, steal two eggs. Korda told me that.”) Lost in this book is any sense of a “real” Welles. Though Jaglom claims they are great friends, Welles generally performs his “Welles bear show,” says incendiary things about various groups, and tells fantastic stories about famous people. Yes, yes, the argument goes: was there a “real” Welles? Aren’t we all performing? Did he not amuse? But this is the kind of tiresome and ultimately lazy dehumanization with which Biskind and Jaglom seem too comfortable. Granted, Welles acts more like a caricature than like a man, but he is not treated like a man either. He is treated as an idol, an embodiment of radical cinema, auteur theory, as a living cautionary tale.
The sadness that runs throughout the book is tangible, and even when we are driven to distraction by the unbelievable amount of pretension and egotism on display (it’s like being seated next to a massive blowhard — who also happens to have the voice from Transformers — yelling about how he’s an expert on everything from the Renaissance to Latin American politics, for 14 hours), the overwhelming feeling is one of pity. Pity that this man could not be a man, but had to be an idol, and pity that he did not have better, more human friends. The reader senses the weariness of this Welles pose, the expectation of constant persona becoming too great for him to escape. As they wait for the Lear money to come in (it never does), Jaglom suggests Welles make a short, experimental film “in the meantime.” In one of the rare glimpses of the humanity and desperation behind the Great Man persona, Welles responds,
There is no meantime. It’s the grocery bill. I haven’t got the money. It’s that urgent. That what drives me off my…nut. I can’t afford to work in hopes of future profits. I have to hustle now. All I do is sweat and work. I’m imprisoned by a simple economic fact. Get me on the screen and my life is fuckin’ changed.
This is the real, de-auteured reality of Welles in his last years. Here was a man who had to shill for Paul Masson wine (and then beg to shill again), do voice-over for Magnum P.I., and haggle over a possible Love Boat appearance; the man who wished, bitterly, that he could land a McDonalds campaign like his nemesis John Houseman.
And in the end, no matter how Jaglom protests that Welles knew of the Ma Maison lunch recordings and approved of their eventual use, we are left with Welles’s own words on the foolishness of “knowing” your Gods. Welles had recently read biographies of Isak Dinesen and Robert Graves, his own “Gods.” Though the Graves book was written by an admirer, Welles says:
I learned a lot of things about him I didn’t want to know. If you do the warts, the warts are gonna look bigger than they were in life. If these people were my friends, the warts wouldn’t be as important to me as they seem in the book. We all have people that we know are drunks, or dopeheads or have bad tempers or whatever, and they’re still our friends, you know. But in the book, you focus on it. And these biographies have diminished these people so much in my mind. They deny me someone who I’ve loved always. I like Dinesen a lot less, now. In other words, Dinesen was brilliantly careful to present herself as the person I wanted to love. And if she was somebody else, really, I’m sorry to know it. And I suddenly think to myself, “You know, there’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
When Christopher Tolkien recently broke a 40-year public silence in Le Monde, he did not have kind words for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, and it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”
Tolkien snubbed an invitation to meet with Jackson, and, as his father’s literary executor, he has sworn not to allow adaptations of material over which he has control (like The Silmarillion). Had it been his choice, Jackson’s blockbusters would likely never have been produced, and certainly not in their present form. But it wasn’t his choice. In 1969, United Artists made a prescient purchase from the elder Tolkien: £100,000 for full rights to movies and derived products for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. And that was that.
The result, according to Christopher Tolkien, was nothing less than disastrous: “[J.R.R.] Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”
Admirers of Jackson’s work may find such comments a touch melodramatic, if not downright inaccurate. Salman Rushdie, for instance, appears to favor the films over the originals: “Jackson’s cinematic style, sweeping, lyrical, by turns intimate and epic, is greatly preferable to Tolkien’s prose style, which veers alarmingly between windbaggery, archness, pomposity, and achieves something like humanity, and ordinary English, only in the parts about hobbits.”
Then again, there’s A.O. Scott on The Hobbit: “Tolkien’s inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.”
Taste is a difficult thing to arbitrate, making debates like these fun but virtually irresolvable. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the participants all share a common assumption, which often remains unexamined. Rushdie puts it simply: “Everyone accepts that stories and movies are different things.” Indeed. But how, exactly? Is one a higher art form than the other? More illuminating? More demanding? Does one strengthen children’s brains while the other is more likely to rot them?
Perhaps it would be best to leave pronouncements of relative quality to the critics, and instead take this opportunity to reflect on the objective differences between books and movies.
There is no better place to start than with J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who analyzes precisely this issue in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which appears in Tree and Leaf. Concerned about the potentially deleterious effect of illustrating fantasy, he devotes a long footnote to the difference between “true literature” and all art (including drama and the “cinematograph”) that offers a visible presentation:
Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show “a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.
This is strong language from a man whose color illustration of The-Hill-at-Hobbiton served as the frontispiece for most early editions of The Hobbit. Was Tolkien ruining his own book, forcing impressionable readers to accept his picture, denying them the opportunity to exercise their imaginative capacities?
The idea that books leave more room for the imagination is a commonplace, and this quality is usually understood as a virtue. Books, even trashy ones, require some effort from the reader, while movies allow for unadulterated passivity and laziness. Tolkien’s so-called “dramatic producer” does the work for you, making the artwork easy and less personal.
Yet the notion that movies are by nature limiting needs to be nuanced. Sure, there are no visuals in an unillustrated book. But it is not therefore true, as Jen Doll asserts at The Atlantic Wire, that books are simply “a compelling descriptive outline,” which you can “play your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.” One virtue of books is that authors can reveal characters’ inner motivations in great detail — a virtue that limits the readers’ ability to speculate about those motivations. (Proust’s Narrator isn’t exactly up for grabs in In Search of Lost Time.) Another virtue of books is their length — which allows authors to narrate scenes that in films must be left to the readers’ imagination.
And while we’re on the subject, what’s intrinsically great about freedom? If we push Tolkien’s logic a little bit further, authors do readers a disservice whenever they narrow the scope of imaginative possibilities. James Joyce turns me into a passive lump of receptivity when he describes his protagonist, Gabriel, in “The Dead”:
He was a stout, tallish young man. The high color of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes.
Better: “He was a young man.” Now my imagination can run wild!
Similarly, dramaturges would be doing us a disservice by putting on plays, directors would be cheating us by bringing screenplays to life, and chefs would be destroying the pure literature of recipes by specifying both appearance and flavor.
One rarely hears complaints about vividly detailed descriptions as such. Nor do people assert that “adaptations” of screenplays into movies or plays into stage productions somehow reduce aesthetic and philosophical impact. The upshot of all this is that exercising the imagination, whatever that means, is not always best, and books aren’t necessarily better at doing it than movies. (Which is a great relief to me, since I don’t want to feel bad about passively populating Roald Dahl’s entire universe with Quentin Blake’s fantastic illustrations.)
Even the most die-hard critics of cinematic adaptation have their own favorite exceptions. I love Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it by reading Kesey’s book. And so, if we accept that books aren’t formally superior to movies and adaptations aren’t necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment?
Part of the answer is that Tolkien is wrong: when we read about bread, we don’t just think of bread in general. Our minds fashion a specific image of the bread upon first encountering it, and then that image stays with us, in all its specificity, as we continue reading. The Elvish bread known as lembas does not change form each time it appears in Tolkien’s ouevre: my mind decided what lembas looked like when I first read the word, and it supplies that initial vision whenever I read it again.
These fixed images then compete with the fixed images provided by a director, and the power of first impressions is difficult to overcome. For that reason, even skillful novelizations of good movies (like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars novels) can feel like they miss the mark. Attachment to original experience is a powerful force.
Another problem is that adaptations are usually inspired by masterpieces. Richard Brody puts it well: “A director is likely to stumble when taking on the work of a writer who is a greater artist. Many directors of moderate merit do well in capturing their own experience or that of others… but when they lay hold of works of genius, they simply aren’t up to the material and reveal not the vastness of the author’s imagination but the limits of their own.” Asymmetry of ability favors the more talented artist, regardless of form. That’s why Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss is better than Cameron’s original. Arthur C. Clarke + Stanley Kubrick = Great. Arthur C. Clarke + Pretty Much Anyone Else = Doubtful.
That said, there is one quality of films that makes them susceptible to being lousy. They are expensive. Studios must ensure the profitability of their product, and when it comes to good art, the customer — or the product placement sponsor — is not always right. Limiting artists with the demands of consumers often hampers the creative process and product. (In a similar vein, the limitations on filmmakers imposed by MPAA ratings are nicely documented in This Film is Not Yet Rated.)
In this sense, Christopher Tolkien is right to bemoan commercialization. The upcoming adaptation of Candyland from board game to film will undoubtedly fail to do justice to the original. Why? Well, I don’t think I’m remiss in suggesting that Hasbro Studios, the force behind films like Battleship, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Candyland, might be less concerned with good art than with profit. The same principle explains the frequency of bad film sequels (a phenomenon that is substantially less common with books).
The recent explosion of extraordinary graphic novels is evidence that bias against a particular art form is likely unjustified. (A comic book? scoffs my mother when I recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories.) Contra Tolkien, “true literature” is not inherently more progenitive. Great art of any kind can work from mind to mind. And, in the end, it is not books but great art that is sacrosanct, and it is great art that is threatened by adaptation.
That’s why the goons at Hasbro would do well to heed Brody’s cautionary words before reducing the aesthetic and philosophical impact of Eleanor Abbott’s Candyland: “Those of us who are standing on the shoulders of giants shouldn’t try to wrestle with them; only giants can wrestle with giants, and adaptation, if it’s any good, is no mere mark of respect but an active and dangerous contention, an assertion and self-assertion that is as brave and as daring as it is potentially catastrophic.”