Adaptations are nothing new. Some of our earliest recorded stories – Greek plays and epic poems – are basically adaptations of oral history. Every instance of deus ex machina was the playwright, be it Euripides or whoever, borrowing elements from a shared mythology to tell a compelling story. Shakespeare adapted classics like The Twin Menaechmi and historical accounts right out of Holinshed’s Chronicles. West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet and we all know what Peter Jackson’s favorite books are.
Some adaptations aren’t so easy. Charlie Kaufman made a whole movie about his (failed) attempts to adapt a meditative book about flowers to the screen. Pretty much ever video game movie ever has been a monumental disappointment – unless you enjoy feeling terrible about how Raul Julia ended his career. I’m surprised on a daily basis by the continued success of American Idiot: The Musical.
Why do adaptations often flop? When material makes the leap from one media format to the other, crucial information inherent to the original is inevitably lost. The way words sit on the page, how a game responds to the player, the fourth-wall-relationship between audience and stage performer: these qualities rarely translate across forms of media. And if a work’s success hinges on these specific elements, its adaptation is bound to suffer.
Film, being by far the most universal medium at this point, has become the go-to format for adaptations. Books and other written works, being by the far one of the oldest treasure troves of ideas, continue to be strip mined for their stories and themes. And to many aspiring film adaptors, however, the aforementioned obstacles are mere stepping stones on the path to greatness. Unfortunately for them, the potential to trip and fall flat on your face is all too great.
For years, Francis Ford Coppola’s been assembling the requisite parts for an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Having finally settled on Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) to helm the project, Coppola brought Jose Rivera on to finish the screenplay. Actors attached to the project include that guy from Troy, a creepy-looking British guy who once played Ian Curtis, Kirsten Dunst, and the recently announced Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen.
Forgive me for potential heresy, but is On The Road still relevant? It’s regarded as a monumental novel and still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many an educated youth who dreams of running away. Kerouac’s semiautobiographical account of his cross-country exploits resonated strongly with the generation who first read it then gained traction over the years. But the world of On The Road has almost completely faded away. The kind of anonymity Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise explores, the kind of restlessness that spawned that sprawling text just isn’t as easily found today. The Internet’s pervasive tendrils make falling off the grid and discovering oneself through folly after folly a monumental undertaking – a far cry from the ease with which Sal hopes on the back of a pickup.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think On The Road is completely worthless. But its worth today is best measured by the novel’s influence as a work of literature: its impact on structure, its use of subjective syntax. Just take a look at Sal’s account of a jazz performance in New York City:
“And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea.”
Kerouac’s prose is just as rambunctious and overwhelming as the music he describes. He wraps the reader in words, much like the pianist Shearing consumes his audience’s ears with music. I can’t think of a way to capture this on film that wouldn’t be either too short or too slow. I worry a “faithful” film adaptation of this would resemble something like Anchorman’s protracted jazz flute sequence; in efforts to drive the mood of the scene home, the filmmakers might end up missing the point entirely, pushing it into parody.
Sam Mendes’ 2008 film Revolutionary Road also struggled to fully realize the author’s style on the silver screen. Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 story of suburban disappointment is a moody mess of a movie. It accurately channels the pain encoded in its source material, but it (for reasons particular to film) lacks the inner storytelling of the novel.
Yates’ original is not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Inception in its layered approach to narrative, though Yates constructs his tower out of memories not dreams. The point of view will subtly shift from Frank Wheeler, bored and recounting his day to his wife April, to Frank Wheeler, a little buzzed and bluffing his way through a meeting with his new boss, to a memory of Frank Wheeler, a young boy following his father around the office. The film doesn’t grapple with these flashbacks, which serve primarily to bring the reader deeper within Frank’s particular suburban ennui. Mendes also balanced the story’s characters a bit more, adding focus to April (played by his wife Kate Winslett, duh). Yates chose to isolate April’s narrative voice to one desperate chapter, but Mendes grants her more screen time, leveling the playing field and undercutting some of the relationship’s structural tension. I enjoyed the movie mostly as a chance to revisit an excellent book. Those looking for what the movie version has to offer should be satisfied with these excellent Nick Drake-scored television spots (here and here).
Continuing on this “Road” kick, let’s not ignore the recent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Many critics praised the movie as a faithful, effective adaptation, and I won’t critique them for finding the good in it. But I will say that I didn’t make it past the first twenty-five minutes. It felt simultaneously too detached and too busy. McCarthy’s text, precisely laid out on the page like a starving farmer’s last handful of seeds, fed into my perception of that world. The negative space around each word was the grey and white ash keeping the man and the boy from the light of the sun. The simple black and white of the page supported the stark morality the father desperately needed his boy to accept or else survival would be impossible. Never is their isolation more apparent than in the lonely columns of text that are their conversations:
“Did you have any friends?
Yes. I did.
Lots of them?
Do you remember them?
Yes. I remember them.
What happened to them?
All of them?
Yes. All of them.
Do you miss them?
Yes. I do.
Where are we going?
We’re going south.
I don’t want to hear these conversations out loud. The painful pauses, the pressing need for conversation, the inability to find the right words – I want to see them on the page and hear them in my head. And of course, they made Viggo (yet another venture into adaptation land for Aragorn) do some voiceover work, delivering McCarthy’s prose as best he could, but it ultimately lands flat.
Language is a peculiar thing, used by particular artists for specific purposes. It affords opportunities in literature quite different than those in film. Few screenwriters turn their characters loose on meaty heaps of dialogue – only Sorkin and Tarantino come to mind. Still, they are writing words to be spoken not delivered directly to the reader for consumption. And there’s a particular collaborative process at work between the written word and the imagination of the reader. A film camera can show me only that at which it’s pointed.
Adaptations have their place, of course. It’s impossible to ignore the successes that were There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, both book-to-film adaptations. But for every Oscar-winning accolade machine, there will be at least three disappointments. Three movies overhyped for their “unprecedented adherence” to the original. Three books I’d rather read in an armchair than watch hollowed out onscreen, popcorn in hand.