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Scenes for the screen

The finest works of literature can sometimes make for the finest works of cinema, and the list of film adaptations is only growing with time

I believe that each reader creates his own film inside his head, gives faces to the characters, constructs every scene, hears the voices, smells the smells. And that is why, whenever a reader goes to see a film based on a novel that he likes, he leaves feeling disappointed, saying: ‘the book is so much better than the film’.”

In other words, he was chasing an atmosphere, a feeling, an emotion, a voice.
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Paulo Coelho, when he says this, echoes an unspoken universal consensus. As far as I’m concerned, a novel differs from its adaptation much as a donkey differs from a carrot. They are two different entities. Of course, there are crossovers, but the most interesting may be the least obvious. I was struck by something John Malkovich said when he wanted to adapt my novel, The Dancer Upstairs. He sought to capture the “sense of loss” that he saw at the heart of the book and which had attracted him to it in the first place. In other words, he was chasing an atmosphere, a feeling, an emotion, a voice. Not enough directors, in my opinion, have this ambition, which is why, for example, so many of Graham Greene’s novels make abysmal films. The atmosphere of Greeneland, a place whose moral temperature would wring sweat out of a refrigerator, is sacrificed or overlooked for the obvious drama, with predictably woeful consequences. Yet when Greene himself was asked to write a screenplay, he understood as could no one else how to peg out Greeneland. The Third Man is for my money one of the best films ever made.

While there have been several attempts across the ages to adapt select literary masterpieces into masterful screenplays, I find that two films by Luchino Visconti – Death in Venice and The Leopard – have come closest to capturing the essence of the texts they are based on. They are faithful to the atmosphere of the original and to the emotion that the reader must have felt when responding to it. The dialogue in the former is minimal – a mere handful of lines. When fidelity to the text is too scrupulous, as, say, in Love in the Time of Cholera, one of my favourite novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the result can be more wooden than the fences around Southfork (in Dallas). I also admire the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. And then there is Apocalypse Now, essentially an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I thought nearly surpassed the original with its rendition of the narrative. Two more films to do the same have been Dr Zhivago and Jaws.

The screenplay aside, another thing that can make or break a film adaptation of a celebrated novel is the casting. Coelho said it too: every reader tends to attach faces to characters, along with a whole lot else. A more potent problem is likely to arise from the actor’s end, however. “Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors,” said Stanislavski. The problem arises when an actor tries to be bigger than the part. I remember seeing Bruce Chatwin after he came back from West Africa, having watched Werner Herzog, film part of The Viceroy of Ouidah with Klaus Kinski. Chatwin thought the adaptation was going to be one of the greatest films, but this was before the barrage-balloon of egoism, that was Kinski drifted loose from his moorings. In my own admittedly limited experience, actors who tend not to be the brightest balloons anyway, have gained too much power over filmmakers. I was marginally surprised when in The Dancer Upstairs, for which I also wrote the script, the lead actress refused to scream out a line, as indicated, saying that “it would be better whispered”.

Bearing in mind all advantages and potential disasters, however, there is something about film adaptations that lends to them perennial popularity as a genre. This is perhaps why many among them are reincarnated over and over again, each rendition articulating a new ethos and new sensibilities – those of the maker, the writer or simply the age within which it is produced. Take Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s iconic play has been translated into over a dozen movies, some of them direct adaptations of the narrative and others comprising more than a few creative liberties. Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Antigone, Cyrano de Bergerac – all named after characters, I realise – are texts that will always find firm foothold in a cinematic universe. A few other masterpieces – among some of the finest works of literature the world has known – might also make for intriguing cinematic experiences if so translated, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat and Vasili Grossman’s Life and Fate.

There is, however, no rhyme or reason why a good novel should make a good film. It is a matter of sheer luck. The novelist is compelled to write a novel because it does something that a film can never do, and vice versa. Perhaps in the end, Malkovich is right and for both filmmaker and novelist it is all about a voice. In The Dancer Upstairs, I began with Rejas in the third person. But I couldn’t get into his skull. The tone was flat. His voice eluded me. There are a 100 ways to write a novel, but only one of them is right – and what I was doing was manifestly wrong. I had this wonderful material, but it didn’t begin to fizz until I thought of introducing the Dyer character as a way of teasing out the story. And then, faced by an English journalist much like myself, Rejas immediately began to babble to me in his voice. Talking of the “voice” that you need to find in fiction, I can’t resist quoting Haldor Laxness: “Some voices never manage to break properly. But in all good men there lurks a true note, I won’t say like a mouse in a trap, but rather like a mouse between wall and wainscoting.” That’s what you’ve got to find.


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