Page to Screen: Adapting the Unadaptable
The Wachowskis have become the latest, and perhaps the most spectacular example of filmmakers attempting to boldly adapt books that common sense and the laws of God and Nature say ought not be adapted. However, they are certainly not the first! Here are five other examples of filmmakers tackling unadaptable works of fiction and delivering what is at the very least one hell of a show.
Why It Couldn’t Be Done?: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, is a dopesick stream of conscience rant, barely coherent as narrative, which is rather the point. Something of a midway point between the autobiographical novels Junky and Queer that made Burroughs literary reputation and the non-linear, anti-narrative, “cut up” style that would define his later work, it’s still hard to imagine just how anyone thought that they could get a film out of the thing.
How Did They Do It?: Basically by ignoring the book. While Naked Lunch does draw plenty of imagery and concepts from the novel, it also grafts them onto a much more conventional narrative framework based on Burroughs life and some of his other short stories (most notably Exterminator).
How Did They Do?: Director David Cronenberg has made something of a hobby in adapting unadaptable books (he also delivered a film version of JG Ballard’s ode to sexual fetish Crash, and this year’s Don DelLillo adaptation Cosmopolis). He got to a good start with Naked Lunch, which may not be technically an adaptation of the story, but is a near perfect translation of the novel’s feel of paranoia, madness and decay. Aided by performances by Peter Weller and Ian Holm that are deadpan perfection and his grounding in horror movie imagery, Cronenberg makes Naked Lunch a fascinatingly visceral experience, one that regards the creative process itself with a kind of horror.
Why Couldn’t It Be Done?: Let’s set aside for a moment that Watchmen is a huge complex narrative that has a central cast of dozens, a story that spans over fifty years of meticulously constructed alternate history, and a structure so complex that it would cause Bach to shudder. The fact is that Watchmen is a work of art that is meant to be read as a comic book.
For example, when you read the chapter involving Doctor Manhattan’s sojourn on Mars in which the superbeing drifts through time, you not only experience the events in the order that Alan Moore and David Gibbons portray it, but you also understand that the way the comic page is set up–with each panel representing a distinct, separate moment of time that is nonetheless simultaneously visible and occurring–is how Manhattan himself now perceives time. Film editing, even in the form of a nonlinear montage, cannot replicate this effect. Watchmen’s artistic symmetry, its twelve-part reflective structure, even its incorporation of “straight” prose in its story are all things that come intrinsically from the comics medium. Like very few other works, the medium in Watchmen truly is the message.
How Did They Do It?: By more or less adapting it straight. Though it tones down a few of its more fantastical elements (most notoriously the means of its apocalyptic final event, which I will not reveal) Watchmen may not get the feel of Moore and Gibbons’ novel, that as established would be pretty much impossible. However, it comes as close as one can get.
How Did They Do?: Well, let’s just call it an A for effort. After the initial shock of its very existence wore off, Snyder’s film has been turned into a bit of a punching bag for the geek set, who criticize everything from the musical choices (ignoring that several of the cues such as “All Along The Watchtower” come from the work itself, while others such as “99 Luftballoons” comment on the story beautifully) to the casting (in some cases unfairly, Billy Crudup and Jackie Earle Haley are both brilliant, in other cases like Malin Ackerman and Matthew Goode, the criticism is unfortunately pretty much dead on).
What these critics ignore is all that Snyder was able to preserve about the work. Examples include: keeping the 80s time period when a modern day switch must have looked very tempting to the studio, managing to keep most of the narrative and moral complexity of Moore’s work, and resisting the temptation to graft an action movie structure onto the end. When Snyder’s film connects, he knocks it out of the park. The moments in his film that work, work so well that there is an exhilarating amount of frisson generated. A good example would be the opening ten minutes that sets up the history of the alternate timeline, with a perfectly used song, The Times They Are A Changin’ along with the scene of Dr. Manhattan striding out of the Vietnam horizon vaporizing the VC fleeing before him. These moments are jaw-dropping realizations that Moore’s vision (whether he likes it or not) is intact, and at the very least, Snyder’s Watchmen is a more fitting and genuine tribute to his work than the disgustingly mercenary Before Watchmen cash grab that DC is currently operating.
Tristam Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story
Why Couldn’t It Be Done?: The Life And Opinions Of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman is the closest thing that English Grad Departments have to a practical joke. Arguably the first work of meta fiction and post modernism, the book is presented as a memoir, but is so filled with digressions that by the novel’s end it has barely gotten around to its subject being born. Tackling a work that is about narrative inertia is not usually seen as a recipe for adaptation success.
How Did They Do It?: Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, and acerbic duo Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, take The Naked Lunch route, making their film about the creation of the work, though in this case instead of following the actual author, the film intercuts scenes from the novel with a group of filmmakers who slowly realize that they have absolutely no business trying to turn Tristam Shandy into a film.
How Did They Do?: Quite well. Those who know Coogan and Brydon’s particular form of vicious one upmanship will pretty much know what to expect here. Aided by a particularly game Naomie Harris and Gillian Anderson, Tristam Shandy becomes a fiercely literate farce that blends absurdist humor with some particularly deft verbal sparring. (Sidenote: Like many directors on this list Michael Winterbottom has another crack at an “unfilmable” book in his oeuvre with Casey Affleck as the star of an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That one unfortunately ended in tears).
A Scanner Darkly
Why Couldn’t It Be Done?: In what is arguably Phillip K. Dick’s most personal novel, addiction and the shambles of a broken life are viewed through the eyes of a personality in full-fledged meltdown. In the near future, the use of a highly addictive, personality-destroying drug known as “Substance D” has reached epidemic proportions. An undercover cop attempting to discover the source of the drug soon finds himself too lost and broken to detect much of anything. Trippiness ensues.
How Did They Do It?: Well for one, they actually stuck to the story. It’s an odd fact that for an author as frequently adapted as Phillip K. Dick, precious few of said adaptations actually treat him as though he deserves to be adapted. Most simply take the story’s hook and build an action film around it, leaving plot, theme, and character on the cutting room floor. A Scanner Darkly takes the daring step of not only keeping Dick’s story in place, but incorporating much of his prose into the dialogue and perfectly-deployed voice over.
How Did They Do?: Excellently. Using the refined rotoscoping technique that he pioneered in Waking Life, Richard Linklater perfectly evokes the book’s feel of unstable, ever-shifting perspective, all while delivering the types of flourishes (such as one junkie’s encounter with a many-eyed “creature from between dimensions” who reads him his sins ceaselessly) that both defined Dick’s style and would derail a straight live action adaptation. Using his trademark conversational style, and a perfect cast of 90s stars (including Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder) Linklater brings Dick’s bruised, bracing novel to the screen intact, preserving not just its daring but the tender wistfulness at its heart. Only if this same creative team were unleashed on Ubik!
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
Why Couldn’t It Be Done?: It’s the Moby Dick of outlaw fiction. Hunter Thompson’s violent eulogy/curb stomping of the 60s has all the stream-of-consciousness of Naked Lunch, as much of its zeitgeist as Watchmen, the digressiveness of Tristam Shandy and is as surreal as Scanner Darkly. It is, simply put, one heck of a mofo to even contemplate, let alone film.
How Did They Do It?: Like Watchmen and A Scanner Darkly, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is actually a pretty straight narrative adaptation. Love it or hate it, and there are plenty of folks on both sides of that aisle, but what is on the screen is what’s on the page to a degree is that is downright shocking.
How Did They Do?: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is the result of two very distinct artistic voices, those of Terry Gilliam and Hunter Thompson, colliding. Both are extremely binary artists and your mileage, as they say, will vary. I’m more or less completely in the tank for both of them, so for me watching their over two hour rampage is nothing short of exhilarating. Buy the ticket, take the ride. (It should be noted that Depp’s second attempt to bring Thompson to the screen, last year’s The Rum Diaries, met with much less success. Despite bringing the legendary Bruce Robinson out of retirement, the film was a dull, simplistic, hagiography, in short everything that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas wasn’t.)