In the past few weeks something strange has happened, not just once, but twice, that has only happened maybe a dozen times before – I have watched a film of which I have previously read the book.
Now let’s get this straight, I don’t dislike reading. In fact, I enjoy it a lot. The problem is simply that I am not very fast at it. In fact, I am an exceedingly slow reader. From newspapers to novels and (most problematically) subtitles, I read at an embarrassingly lethargic speed. So when, in my mid-teens, I decided to become a film devotee, books fell somewhat by the wayside, and since then I have read only a handful of books each year, and mostly academic books at that.
So watching a film of which I have read the novel is, to some extent, a novel act for me (I make no excuses for excellent punage). I have friends who do their darnedest not to see a film until they have read the book upon which it is based, which is a truly alien concept to me. Often I enjoy finding out after watching a film how it differed from the source material from a friend who has read it (or Wikipedia) – it’s not as if I’ll ever find the time to read the book once I’ve seen the film.
Indeed, because of this, I rarely get that same twang of rage when a film is “unfaithful” to the novel as others do, largely because I am unaware of the supposedly blatant act of fictional infidelity.
Of course, when you bear in mind that, of the twelve or so films I had been literarily familiar with before seeing, eight of them were in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings camp, you truly see what a pathetic spectacle I am, in book terms. So this double blue mooning was particularly unheard of for me. What is particularly of note however is the very different forms of adaptation the two films were.
The Road was a book I read in two sittings, one of ten pages, the second of two-hundred and fifty. I was only familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s work through the adaptation of his No Country for Old Men, a film I have previously lambasted with praise both here and elsewhere. The Road was a haunting, puzzling and obsessive read for me, and as such I was extremely excited about the recently released film.
A huge fan of John Hillcoat’s breakthrough film The Proposition, I was equally impressed by his handling of this story. What The Road manages to do more so than most adaptations I have come across is maintain the tone of the book sharply at all times. The film is as bleak and uncompromising as the novel. Its post-apocalyptic world may not be as dull and ashen as that described in the novel, but it is equally lifeless and empty. While some of the novel’s most grotesque moments are left out, the film maintains the same sense of dread and horror, and hints repeatedly at the inhuman.
Most importantly, the film is not excessively reliant on narration, a burden that so many adaptations suffer. In the novel, the man repeatedly questions whether he can kill his own son to save him from a more gruesome fate should the need arise. This is handled with considerable skill in the film – an “action scene” is inserted whereby the man and boy are trapped in a house inhabited by cannibals; hearing footsteps coming towards them the father cocks his pistol and presses it to his son’s head, before an opportunity for escape soon arises. In Viggo Mortensen’s performance as the man, his hesitation in taking his son’s life is so clear that whole pages of narration are wrapped up in mere seconds. This is expert adaptation.
The Lovely Bones however, does not share this success. Alice Sebold’s novel is often described as a tale of the afterlife of a murdered teenager, but that is just the framework for its story – albeit an original one. The book is about loss, family, innocence and sexual awakening.
Peter Jackson proved with The Lord of the Rings that he is a master of summary, able to take the bare bones (admittedly no pun there, don’t look for it) of a story and tell it with charm and intelligence, even if he did stumble at the odd hurdle. But The Lovely Bones reeks of a complete misunderstanding of the epicentre of its source. No doubt a project he had longed to make for some years, Jackson shows his typical obsession with production design and special effects to recreate an impressive 1970s America and a bizarrely glossy afterlife. But he fails to find the heart of the story, and focuses on two essentially minor elements: the turmoil of the murdered youth looking down on earth and the “mystery” surrounding her killer.
But Sebold’s book is about the Salmon family, not Susie Salmon or her rapist/murderer George Harvey. In the book the family’s grief pours off the page, here it is edited off the screen. A criminally underused Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mother weeps before declaring she can’t take it any more and flees the story. Susie’s sister decides to play detective. Susie’s grandmother gets a comedic montage. Only Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s father succeeds in hitting any of the right notes, showing both a realistic grief, obsession, and a desire to possess the strength to move on. But the script fails to realise that the heart of this is his relationship with his estranged wife – in the film he hardly notices she has gone!
The film barely works as an adaptation because of its emphasis on the book’s less important aspects, but it would be unfair to say it does not treat those elements well (although misguidedly). Stanley Tucci makes a suitably creepy Harvey, and his scenes are perhaps the film’s best, although they are too bogged down in the thriller genre. Susie’s trippy experiences in the “in-between” try their best to capture an element of heavenly joy and human regret, and Saoirse Ronan is mostly able to pull this off, but only with an over-reliance on excessively mystical voice-over. The very concept of the “in-between”, briefly mentioned once in the book but here the film’s focus (Susie is definitively in heaven throughout the novel), shows a lack of faith by Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in the source material. The nineteenth century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote: “Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.” Jackson et al have followed that rule too closely here, forcing Susie into a dramatic limbo that seems desperate to appease and patronise its audience.
The adaptation’s one true success is ironically its greatest straying from the novel. The finalé of Sebold’s novel features a brief “return” to earth for Susie, which is both unexpectedly sudden while also featuring a sequence that, if included in its original form in the adaptation, would have made this unsuccessful film utterly untenable for audiences. Here, the excesses of that chapter (defendable in the book only because of its focus on the blossoming of female sexuality) are toned down, while Susie’s “return” is cleverly triggered by the delayed disposal of her body, a sequence briefly detailed early in the book.
What both The Road and The Lovely Bones reveal is that faithfulness to events, characters or style do not make for a good adaptation; it is all about tone. Good storytelling is all about setting a mood, what happens next is up to the storyteller. Nothing is going to stop Hollywood from turning every airport bookshop bestseller into the next hit movie, but in the end what is important is not cramming every last detail into two hours (I’m looking at you Ron Howard!) and adhering to every development and twist as if they were holy scripture, but in getting to the meat of the novel, and expressing what it’s really about.