Sunday, March 24, 2002

Pentimento: Paper Projections

Before I saw the movie myself, I took in several reviews of Billy Bob Thornton's take on Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, most of which echoed a lazy sentiment: The Book Was Better. I've been a reader since before kindergarten, worked among books for more than a decade now, and this phrase increasingly annoys, belying as it does a blanket disregard for storytelling in a medium other than that of the printed page. If the filmmaker made a bad movie, okay. But saying "the book was better" is a reaction particular to one's appreciation of a book, not a review of a film. In that regard, what I would really want to know is whether or not the film does justice to that source material -- the Story Itself -- and not the novel by which one came to first know that Story.

I believe there exists, like a diamond floating somewhere on the ethereal plane, an Essential Idea for a story, of which a book, channeled through one particular writer, is only a single facet. It should be that Essential Idea which is followed -- a smart filmmaker should reach beyond a novel and into that idea -- fully aware he's using a different medium (nobody would expect a painting or a radio show or a stage version to be the same as a book -- why do we expect it of film?).

Writers like John Barth or Kurt Vonnegut, whose works present particular difficulties for the Silver Screen, might be the first to argue that a story is, first and foremost, in the telling. It was an argument good enough for Twain, after all. But moviemaking is a specific and very different way of telling a story than is writing. The currency of language is images, not words. Think for a moment about great movies which were conceived as movies -- and how poorly they might fare as novels. Citizen Kane. O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Even Night of the Living Dead draws a great deal of its effect from what is seen (and also by what is not seen) and heard; a textual version would lose a fair amount of impact -- unless of course major changes are implemented.

A few movies do manage to change or even transcend their source material. Jaws. Love Story. Forrest Gump. Think what you like about their content -- the makers of these movies openly accepted the books as mere source material, and by not attempting mere visual translations of what was already on the page, but warping the situations to befit the celluloid medium, perhaps they produced something that improved upon the textual basis, and perhaps revealed more of the Source. Why should we think a book is automatically the best way to tell a story, simply because it appeared to us first?

There's terminology in the painting arts to describe evidence of change to the original composition: pentimento. Often the opaque pigment with which the artist covered a mistake or an unwanted beginning will, with time or injudicious cleaning, become transparent, and a revelation of original intentions will become visible through the finished composition. A celebrated example is Caravaggio's Lute Player (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) in which X-ray photography was used to uncover evidence of the painter's original intention. 

Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, for example, uses Washington Irving's famous tale as a transit point for a loving exposition and homage to Gothic storytelling traditions. Irving's legendary headless specter was an excuse for a bit of fun between rival suitors, a 19th century version of The Blair Witch Project; in Burton's version, the Horseman is a visceral revenant, summoned forth by a witch for purposes of greed and revenge. In execution, the stories are nearly mirror-opposites, but both respect a central idea -- the way we weave tales in our lives ultimately gives shape to those lives.

On the other hand, the filmmakers of The Name of the Rose didn't pretend they could bring to the screen all of Umberto Eco's philosophical and religious musings, the intricate symbolic structure, the deep political machinations of the Inquisition. At best, within a 2-hour celluloid environ, these things could only be mentioned or evoked, rather than expounded and invoked. Indeed, the opening credits name their attempt a "palimpsest" of Eco's novel -- terminology for a partially erased and written-over manuscript. But boiling the 500-page novel down to its murder-mystery core was a moot exercise -- all the meaning of the book lay in the clues, not the solution -- and the filmmakers offered nothing new or different as an offset.

Billy Bob Thornton faced the same sort of puzzles by taking on Cormac McCarthy. Celluloid cannot possibly convey the moment young John Grady Cole looks out across the plain and envisions the exodus of the Indians: "…nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives." It is, in total, a passage less than a thousand words -- but an equal number of pictures (about 41 seconds, at 24 frames per second) could never match their worth.

A moment later Cole picks up, Hamlet-style, a horse skull he finds in the sand, and turns it, and listens to the sand shifting inside it. And while that alone is certainly a filmable event, the narration that precedes and follows it, which lifts the scene aloft in meaning and character, evokes things which cannot be seen, or filmed. Film, therefore, must necessarily try something else.

Thornton, for his part, tried to reach beyond McCarty's prose; he spent a lot of time capturing the sweep of the Mexican vistas, but ultimately finally fell victim to the same trap as did, say, Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter (for which, I am sure, Nathaniel Hawthorne is still a-spin). In these books, much of the action takes place by way of character monologues, or observances and impressions -- Thornton follows McCarthy's book too closely with his camera, and when the characters finally open their mouths to explain themselves, the results are staged, stilted speeches. The only way around this would have been to change the story itself to fit the visual medium (well, I'll give Moore's Letter an A for effort in that regard -- I sure don't remember any sponge-baths in Hawthorne's novel).

These are also matters of perception and expectation, in our visual age. We have to acknowledge that movies can't be books, nor should they want to be. Still, a rare success, when truly successful, fuels that expectation -- and so we sit through a thousand more bad film adaptations, hoping to be treated again. The film that comes to mind is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I recently (and correctly, in my opinion) heard described as a "perfect distillation" of the novel, to the point that "we think we're remembering the book, when we're really remembering the movie."

I can think of only one other book that could be paid such a compliment -- Dracula. The nuances of Stoker's elongated Victorian melodrama are now all but forgotten as we recall simply the icongraphic mugging and hypnotic gaze of Bela Lugosi, who drills down to the very sinister heart of the character and takes viewers through the story in just 70 minutes. Lugosi was chosen for the film (after Lon Chaney turned down the role) thanks to the strength of his performance in the stage production. Which brings us back, finally, to what someone else once said, about being true to the Muse, about the Play being the Thing…

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Double Images: On Paper, On Screen," March 24 2002

See Also:
Ode to the Headless Horseman
The Scales of Myth