April 15, 2007

Words on the Big Screen

By: Erica Beeney

Clive Cussler had made it very clear that the actor cast to play the lead of Dirk Pitt in the movie Sahara had to have green eyes. Because in the book, Sahara by Clive Cussler, Dirk Pitt has green eyes. This is one of the contractual details that has come to light as a result of the lawsuit brought by Cussler against the production company Crusader Entertainment, which bought the rights to Sahara and hired Cussler to write a draft of the screenplay that was ultimately rewritten by a posse of additional writers.

The opening arguments of the case commenced in January. The action began five years earlier when Cussler, author of numerous swashbucklers, was paid $10 million for the rights to Sahara. Although that’s a sizable payment, it’s hardly enough money in Hollywood to raise eyebrows. What did raise eyebrows, as aspects of the case were revealed through depositions, was, in addition to the money, the amount of power Cussler was given. Besides “sole and absolute” approval rights, he had final say over the director and lead actors. To an outsider unschooled in the Hollywood pecking order, it might make sense that the author of a book would retain some creative control over the process of his book being adapted into a movie. In Hollywood the idea that a writer should have any sort of control over anything is laughable. This case may very well prove the laughers right. Eye-color veto power? That Cussler would insist on a detail so irrelevant to the narrative is suggestive enough; that the producers actually agreed to it makes me suspect they deserve the trouble he is giving them.

The thrust of the lawsuit is not, however, about green eyes (curious, given that Dirk Pitt wound up being played by Matthew McConaughey, who has blue eyes). It all seems to boil down to one of the fundamental questions of book-to-film adaptation. In Cussler’s own words in an Outside magazine interview, “I don’t believe the script they’re using has much to do with the book.”

Putting aside the undoubtedly seizing issues of intellectual property and contract law, the most intriguing aspect of this case is how it hinges on the nature of adaptation.

Adaptation, the process of turning source material — most often a novel — into a movie, has been around almost as long as the movies have. Adapted movies are among Hollywood’s greatest classics (Gone with the Wind, The Godfather) and most notorious bombs (Bonfire of the Vanities, last year’s non-starter All the King’s Men). They have an awards category in the Writers Guild all their own. WGA award nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay of 2006 include some of the year’s best: The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Little Children, and Thank You for Smoking. What do these highs and lows owe to their source material and how closely do they, and should they, reflect them? With regard to movies in general: Is Cussler’s argument sound, or is he, well, pouting?

George Bluestone would answer that a film can stray broadly from the specific content of a work of literature and still be faithful to it. Almost half a century ago his Novels into Film established the presumptive critical opinion that literature and film operate in fundamentally different ways and that the filmmaker is “not a translator for an established author but a new author in his own right.” Bluestone’s widely accepted observation that novels and movies had to be approached as distinct entities was based on temporality: Film can exist only in the present tense. Film can only be in the present tense because the image we see is in the act of happening. This is why, as many people say, flashbacks are rarely effective cinematic devices: It is hard to reconcile something that was supposedly happening before with what our eyes and our brains tell us is happening now.

Per Bluestone’s argument, we don’t have that problem with time in novels because written language exists at a remove from the actions described. Any tale set down had to have happened before the words appeared on the page. In movies, stories seem to happen right before our beady eyes. In novels, the stories seem to have happened sometime before the time the author sat down at his desk and wrote about it. This distinction renders the two forms of storytelling so different they must be approached fundamentally differently.

Using time to defend the filmmaker’s right to re-author a story is tempting, but there are some problems with this defense. The first is the assumption of the present-tense effect of filmic narrative. Time can in fact work in several different ways in a film. Take Christopher Nolan’s Memento, based on a short story written by his brother. In that movie, narrative time might be said to run backwards, or it might even be said that the narrative breaks free from the constraints of time — and is based instead on how memory is subjectively constructed through pastiche. However you describe it, the movie certainly isn’t moving forward in time as we watch.

Another problem with the liberal adaptation stance is the assumption of the audience’s understanding of the action they see on the screen. The movie studio producing Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (the story of a group of people stuck together on a lifeboat awaiting rescue — about as gripping as it sounds) argued that there shouldn’t be a music-filled soundtrack because the audience would wonder where the big orchestra was out there in the middle of the empty ocean. Hitchcock answered that if the audience was going to have a problem with that, they would surely also wonder where the camera crew was. This exchange exposed the difference between two ways of considering the audience’s relationship to a movie: The first (the studio’s) is that they are skeptical viewers looking for something that approximates reality. The second (Hitchcock’s, and I think the shrewder) assumes the audience has made a pact with the filmmaker, a pact first identified by the drug-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an earlier time and oft-quoted since by English majors: “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

What we’re seeing on screen clearly isn’t unfolding before us for the first time. It was recorded on film and is being played back for us. In this way it has no different a relationship to the literal present than a novel does. Pretty much once a reader opens a book or a viewer takes his seat, he or she enters into a bargain with the creator to accept whatever conditions are required for becoming engaged. They will entertain the existence of complex alien civilizations or true love or hair that looks good in the rain or any other sort of implausibility. Because it’s worth it. Because it’s a small price to pay for a good time. Of course, the ticket-holder or book buyer may decide the author or filmmaker isn’t living up to their end of the deal and walk out or discard the book, but even this assumes the existence of the aforementioned bargain. The pact isn’t about temporal proximity or authenticity, it’s about how much satisfaction and delight the consumer gets for their time spent in the dark.

Now I’m in trouble. I’ve taken away one of the cornerstones of the argument giving filmmakers license to adapt loosely and freely: that they have to because the inherent nature of their medium requires it. If we accept that there are qualities not only fundamentally different, but also essential, to the respective media (known in those circles where people wear tweed jackets that smell like old half & half as “the essentialist view”), then we’re going to need to make room for those differences in an adaptation, no matter how faithful. But if we don’t buy those essential differences, then there’s no reason why a film cannot hew very closely to a novel.

One of the first noble attempts to adapt a novel into a film was Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, the intensely faithful version of Frank Norris’s McTeague. It clocked in at somewhere around 9 hours. Imagine actually trying to watch that thing. (I can, sort of, due to an obscure Chinese film I was made to watch in class during my undergrad film school years. It was about a very long, grueling, mind-numbing forced march of prisoners from one prison camp to another. It was six hours long. If you stayed awake through the entire screening you got an “I Survived the Death March” button. It seemed like a feeble joke on the part of the department head, who always chuckled when the first reel began. I didn’t learn until much later of his own real-life forced march as a pre-adolescent running from Nazis and Russians in WWII Lithuania. He survived, we got the buttons.)

Purists (those who subscribe to the essentialist view, whether they call it that or not) are now invited to smile smugly. They think that a story that began in another format can never be as pure an expression of its new medium as one conceived and designed with only the new medium in mind. This argument is very popular, particularly around the snack bars of movie theaters that offer organic chocolate and lattes in addition to the usual coke and bright yellow popcorn. Obviously, it doesn’t always work to translate a novel directly to film. There are clear differences between them. But before we become too convinced of the great divide separating them, let me offer the probably apocryphal but no less interesting tale of John Huston’s approach to making Dashiell Hammet’s Maltese Falcon into a movie. Huston gave the book to his secretary and told her to re-type it exactly, only to put the dialogue in screenplay form down the middle of the page. Somehow the studio head read the transcription, greenlit it with no changes, and that’s what was shot. The book more or less was the screenplay. And what a movie it made.

The worthwhile question to ask when comparing a book with the movie it inspired is whether or not the film was true to the author’s intention, i.e. the underlying nature of the book. The underlying nature of each book is different. Some underlying natures are better suited to coming alive on screen than others. Of the four novels that became source material for current WGA nominees, I have read The Devil Wears Prada and Thank You for Smoking. I’m being charitable in calling The Devil Wears Prada a mediocre book. The film version easily overshot the low bar set by it, helped in no small part by Meryl Streep’s success at giving depth and zest to a character that was flat on the page. Thank You for Smoking worked as both a novel and a movie, partly because it didn’t try in either case to do or be more than it was: a very funny and smart, fundamentally insubstantial satire. I read The Godfather, after I saw the movie, during a rainy Mexican vacation where it was one of the few books in English in the hotel “library” (paperbacks abandoned by departing guests). Mario Puzo’s book made for easily digestible beach reading, but it was clear why it had been left behind. It had little of the gravitas, pacing, visual and emotional power of the movie.

What these successful translations have in common is that in many ways they were already movies to begin with. They are structured in discreet scenes, jumping from action to action. The characters tend to have uncomplicated inner lives. Their struggles are all external, against bad magazine bosses or vengeful Mafiosi. The language doesn’t draw attention to itself. They are ready, like The Maltese Falcon, to be transcribed without losing their essential natures.

If it were simply true that bad books make good movies, however, then Sahara should have been a very, very good movie. Many factors contribute to a successful adaptation. Beginning with a book that has been influenced by the narrative devices of movies helps. And there is no shortage of them. The devices and artistry of film have influenced not only the form of the novel but also the collective consciousness. How did people kiss before they saw kissing in the movies? Somehow, it seems like it might have been different, that is, before we sat in the dark, watched, and said to ourselves: “Oh, so that’s how it’s done.”

Or maybe we don’t feel any tingle in our own lips at all. Whether or not that kiss matters has little or nothing to do with the source material the filmmakers worked from. It has to do with the universals of good storytelling coupled with an understanding of the power
of the visual image. Harness that and audiences will be moved, they will care, they will remember the best parts of themselves and be distracted for a little while from the worst. But perhaps we should forgive Cussler. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re focused on the details.

Erica Beeney is a writer in Los Angeles. She’s written screenplays for Miramax, Sony, New Line, and is currently working on a documentary about the electric guitar.