They shoot novels, don't they?


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.

Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story offers, surely, the most useful lessons for film-makers keen to adapt densely playful literary novels. Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the 2006 film, uses Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy as a mere jumping-off point for a consideration of time, the storytelling process and the perceived rivalry between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

We can’t say with any certainty that Sterne would have loved the film. But he would surely have appreciated its irreverence. The novel stops, starts and twists back on itself in a way that is impossible to represent in a script.

Quite correctly, Boyce and Winterbottom didn’t really try. Setting their movie among actors filming a version of the book – shades of Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter’s take on John Fowles’s mildly unfilmable The French Lieutenant’s Woman – they strive, instead, to capture the spirit, tone and narrative strategy of the text. Crucially, one doesn’t walk away from the film wondering why they bothered. The film works as a film.

Achieving that feat is more important than remaining faithful to the text. After all, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was faithful to the graphic novel and it was more boring than yesterday’s porridge.

By way of contrast, one can’t quite grasp the justification behind either adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both Joseph Strick’s similarly titled 1967 film and Sean Walsh’s 2003 Bloom feature strong performances from first-class actors: Milo O’Shea plays Leopold in Strick’s picture; Stephen Rea excels in the later piece. Dublin locations are nicely used. Everyone looks lovely. But the pictures feel like staged readings of a text that doesn’t want to be made into a film.

Those movies exist because Ulysses is a “great work” and all “great works” need at least one outing in the cinema. Otherwise, we wouldn’t know quite how terribly any such adaptation could turn out.

Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch occupies ground somewhere between the faithful Joyce adaptations and the hell-for-leather Sterne reinvention.The film could hardly be more typical of its director. All flesh is disgustingly alien and all objects can, if viewed through a sufficiently potent chemical haze, take on the quality of that flesh. Unfortunately, the story retains too much of Burroughs’s scattershot Tourette randomness. As with the Ulysses films, one senses The Naked Lunch being constantly bullied by the original text. “Remember me! Remember me!” it hisses through slimy, insect jaws.

Another, less-interesting class of unfilmable novel takes in those that once seemed resistant to adaptation because certain incidents were too fantastic, too extravagant or too outlandish for the cameras. Many reviews of Ang Lee’s fine Life of Pi described it thus. One can certainly imagine a less talented director making a pig’s ear of Yann Martel’s book. But it has, for the guts of a decade, been technically possible to put a convincingly animated tiger into the same boat as a wary youth.

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable until it was filmed. The problems Peter Jackson overcame were very different to those tackled by Michael Winterbottom with A Cock and Bull Story. They were to do with logistics rather than narrative. Once the technology was up and running (and the studio had been convinced to finance three films) Jackson found himself fighting the same battles fought by John Ford and Cecil B DeMille in the previous century.

No. The most interesting class of unfilmable novel comprises novels that aren’t novels at all. After becoming a phenomenon, a book invariably transforms into “a property”. What, however, do you do when the biggest selling title of the year is a self-help book called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)? You allow early, funny Woody Allen to turn it into a portmanteau film that barely qualifies as a third cousin to the original text. That’s what. You could go further. Shepherd Mead’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying ended up as groovy musical starring future Mad Men man Robert Morse.

Listen and learn. Obviously, if somebody asks you to direct an unfilmable novel, your first reaction should be to place your hands over your ears and run screaming into the nearest cupboard. Remember how Spike Jonze soiled his reputation with the mordantly depressing Where the Wild Things Are (adapted from a lovely, but tiny, children’s book). Or how the admirable Walter Salles went astray with the meandering, bland On the Road (adapted from a tediously onanistic screed that never deserved its cult status).

If you must, however, proceed then have a glance at A Cock and Bull Story and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*. Then throw the postmodern epic, meaningless self-help book or vast, literary experiment in the fire and make whatever the hell you want to make. It’s what Hitchcock would have done.

Cloud Atlas opens next week

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