Tag Archives: The Proposition

I think I read about this in a book somewhere…

Are you sure it was a book? Are you sure it wasn't nothing?

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.


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Gomorrah – a new realism

The crime movie genre is one of those genre nomenclatures that doesn’t quite make sense. The more obvious example of this mistaken identity is the western, a genre that seems to be defined by location rather than by rules, styles or themes. Who is going to argue that The Proposition is not a western? And why do I keep finding Hud buried amongst the westerns in video shops – is it because of the hats? Cause that’s not something I want to be defining a genre by.

The crime genre is similar, in that “crime” refers rather to the focus and setting than to the themes – crime films can have elements of comedy, action and thriller. But by and large the best gangster movies are studies of men, generally great men, their rises and their falls. Gomorrah, however, takes a far different approach, viewing the world of organised crime from the very bottom. And it is likely to be counted amongst the great gangster movies.

The film, set in the world of the Neapolitan Camorra, views its utterly alien location with a naturalistic, almost documentary eye. Scenes move between the Italian countryside, which contrary to traditional depictions appears scorched and wild, and a hellish accommodation complex, a series of grey cement slabs that resemble what they represent; a massive staircase to nowhere.

Into this world of modernised and organised biblical sin, director Matteo Garrone places five only slightly interlocking stories that represent different elements of the grunt work that make a crime syndicate. The film is based on the book by journalist and co-writer Roberto Saviano, whose writings have earned him a bounty on his head. But even without this information Gomorrah’s sheer style and courage leave you undoubting that these fictional tales are accurate portrayals of real people and real situations.

The stories are as follows: a nervous moneyman begins to fear he is over his head as the clan goes to war around him; a tailor who produces counterfeit high fashion attempts to make extra cash by training the Chinese immigrant workers of a competitor; a business graduate believes he is finally successful until he becomes disillusioned with the recklessness of his toxic waste-burying boss; a 13-year-old becomes indoctrinated into the Comorra but quickly learns that honour and betrayal go hand-in-hand; two teenaged gangster wannabes do their bests to become respected Mafiosi but haven’t the smarts to pull it off.

Together the stories paint a broad picture of the damage the Comorra does. But there are no Don Corleones, no Tony Montanas. These are the soldiers and their victims, those who are not the focus of your average crime drama. Austin Powers joked that no-one cares for the family of a henchman, and indeed it is easy to forget that there are real minds behind the thugs, heavies and moneymen of the world of organised crime. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) finally becomes a member of the clan only to find a friend but family rival must become his first victim. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) begins to find the unknown world of the Chinese fascinating while hiding the fatal secret of his moonlighting. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) find that guns and robberies do not help them get prestige and women, only the wrong end of a gun barrel.

Of all the notes Gomorrah hits however, one strikes a most noteworthy chord. There is something utterly pretentious about the gangster existence; pathetic, even pitiable. The film’s prelude features a hit at a tanning salon, where a group of Mafiosi beatify themselves as best they can, unaware that the undertakers will take care of the rest. Young Toto, when he is not working for his mother or being hazed by gang members (being shot at point blank range while wearing armour, no less), is seen plucking his eyebrows in the mirror, aspiring to an ideal that involves none of the blood and none of the guilt that will follow. Worst of all, poseurs Marco and Ciro re-enact scenes from Brian De Palma’s Scarface – the position of crime boss has been given a legendary status amongst these hopeless youths.

But there is redemption. Pasquale finds beauty in the work that nearly kills him. Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) leaves his boss, who insults him by saying he should “go make pizza”, though Roberto has realised that a status-less job is better than one that would risk losing your very soul.

Gomorrah is a film that utterly refuses to compromise, and deserves all of the accolades that are still coming its way. It features a style of realism that is discomforting in how utterly real it feels, sometimes too much so – the gloss of Bertolucci and Tornatore has been peeled away to reveal a very different Italy to the one we had previously come to know.

It is often shocking, regularly thought-provoking and occasionally shows a strong sense of humour, most memorably when Marco and Ciro find the firearms they have stolen double as grenade-launchers.

The film’s coda places the effects of these localised events on a global scale, but what came before has already been evidence enough that the damage being done is simply too great. Gomorrah tells stories that deserve to be heard.


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