They shoot novels, don't they?
Cooking the books: Peter Weller in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch
Cooking the books: Steve Coogan (or is it Tristram Shandy) in Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
To get us in the mood for the Wachowskis’ adaptation of David Mitchell’s supposedly unfilmable novel Cloud Atlas, out next week, DONALD CLARKElooks at the tricky business of shepherding difficult books from page to screen
Alfred Hitchcock never much concerned himself with pointy-headed literature. The closest he got to high-falutin’ adaptations were his rarely unearthed take on Juno and the Paycock and his three skirmishes with Daphne du Maurier. The big man took a utilitarian approach to source material: fillet out the bits that seem cinematic and bung the rest in the bin. If none of it looks filmic, then pass on the option.
There’s no arguing with that.
Hitchcock would, one imagines, have been utterly baffled by the need – common among the snootier class of director – to adapt the “unfilmable book”. In a week’s time, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer bring us their take on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Weaving together six obliquely related stories that career across time and location, the film fights with many of the characteristic problems of the classic unfilmable text: vast scope, dense narrative, ambiguous storytelling.
Jeez! It’s almost as if the novel is an entirely different medium to the motion picture. Where’s your three-act structure, Mr Mitchell?
Film-makers have been at this lark for ages. In 1958, while Hitchcock was turning pulp into masterpieces, Richard Brooks was transforming Fyodor Dostoevsky’s colossal Brothers Karamazov into an ungainly, unsettlingly melodramatic film starring Yul Brynner. Few novels defy the adaptor’s art so aggressively as does William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The first part of the book comprises a rich, dense stream of consciousness that obscures as often as it clarifies.
For no good reason, a year after Karamazov, Martin Ritt cast Brynner – shiny patron saint of the unfilmable novel – in a largely pointless, exhaustingly worthy take on Faulkner’s southern saga. At about the same time, Hitchcock slashed Robert Bloch’s shabby Psycho into a massive hit.
He really was on to something. Wasn’t he? The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury and Cloud Atlas manifest one particular strain of the unflimable filmed-novel virus. They are all adapted from highbrow novels that bury the narrative in dense literary tangle. The most obviously forbidding books in this category spring from the modernist and post-modernist era. We think of James Joyce’s Ulysses (filmed twice), William S Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch (source of a David Cronenberg film) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (filmed disastrously in 1999). But the granddaddy of all self-referential literary puzzlers was published as long ago as 1759.