YouTube HOF: Impossible Adaptations
Editor’s note: David Mitchell’s “unadaptable” novel Cloud Atlas comes to the big screen this week courtesy of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, and while the early word is mostly positive, the potential for a big-budget train wreck remains considerable. Regardless of what audiences make of it on Friday, it’s one of the most ambitious projects in the last few years, and joins the pantheon of movies that everyone said couldn’t be done — some of which proved them all wrong, and some of which, well …
Bill Simmons: Stephen King gets a bad rap for the whole “You can’t make good movies out of Stephen King books” thing. But The Shining became one of the greatest horror movies ever AND one of the greatest Nicholson movies ever, inadvertently spawning nearly as many conspiracy theories as JFK’s assassination. Without Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” we wouldn’t have Red and Andy, and I wouldn’t know how to spell Zihuatanejo without looking it up. And how can you argue with classics like Misery, Carrie, Stand by Me and The Running Man? With that said, there wasn’t a more disappointing King adaptation than Christine, his chilling book about a vintage Plymouth Fury that may or may not have been possessed by supernatural forces. When you’re reading about an evil car, you can let your imagination run wild. But when you’re watching it in a movie? You end up with scenes like this.
Alex Pappademas: The whole “Jenny From the Block” period is supposed to be this inexplicable, crazy moment in the context of Ben Affleck’s life and career, a national embarrassment so cataclysmic he had to become a competently commercial rolling-up-his-sleeves-on-the-cover-of-The Hollywood Reporter director of Important Motion Pictures in order to live it down. It’s not really that inexplicable, though — he was on that yacht for love. What he’s doing in Daredevil is harder to parse. Meeting Jennifer Garner, I guess — she plays Elektra, whose wind-song gets blind lawyer/masked vigilante Matt Murdock’s hyper-senses working overtime. Their fights are cute and choreographed, in a Khakis Swing kind of way. But Daredevil can’t have a romantic moment, because he’s Daredevil, and the city is an enormous radio to him, broadcasting the sound of its everyday suffering — so many purses being snatched! — directly into his brain, and Affleck shows us how hard this is by flexing his face-muscles really hard, like God I just hate crime so, so much, why I oughta …, and sooner or later he has to dip out to his special all-black sensory-deprivation lair, where he listens to Evanescence and pops Percocet and Vicodin to dull the pain of his never-ending battle against muggers. Comics fans worry about comic-book movies being campy, because camp supposedly lowballs the audience and makes comics look uncool by extension — but at least camp tends to have the originality that comes with heedlessness, with playing fast and loose. It’s Daredevil‘s seriousness that undoes it; the only person who seems to be having a good time is Colin Farrell, who to be fair was in his having-a-good-time-all-the-time period when he made this, but still. As Daredevil’s nemesis Bullseye, he dresses like an edgy Vegas illusionist and makes a lot of I’m plumb loco faces at the camera. This clip is the first time we see Bullseye; he’s in a pub drinking Guinness while a House of Pain song plays, which I think is supposed to clue the audience in that Bullseye is French. Show, don’t tell.
Dan Fierman: It is absurd, reductive, and almost fascist to say that there are things that should never be adapted. Any writer, any artist should have the chance to remake and retry and re-sample any piece of art, to change it into something new, to bring it back to life. If you’re a fan of hip-hop, or modern art, or pretty much anything that has anything to do with Internet culture — and I am — to say anything otherwise is downright dumb.
That said: Jesus fucking Christ, they should have left Watchmen alone.
Tess Lynch: The Stand is just under 1,500 pages of reverse Ambien. I nearly flunked fifth-grade math because I’d been up all year reading this thing: It was then, and in some ways is still, my favorite book (nostalgia value, how it feels to hold a book that heavy, a link to a certain recurring nightmare I had when I was in kindergarten about being one of 10 people left alive on the planet and walking past a commercial heating vent somewhere in Greenwich Village that would whisper to me “You’re all alone and you don’t even know how to open a can of tuna fish,” Mother Abigail the spiritual leader who was totally ripped off in The Matrix, the emotional devastation of EVERYBODY YOU KNOW dying graphically around you, the scary nuttiness of Trashcan Man and the catchiness of the name Trashcan Man, Las Vegas crucifixions — the list is endless). I had just finished the book when the miniseries aired in 1994 — on network! — and it was the first time I braced myself for adaptation disappointment. Luckily, I was a grade schooler and the series starred Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald (though clearly the sleeper crush in this one is Gary Sinise as Stu Redman &8212; Forrest Gump was also a ’94 release, so for most of that year I projected my fantasies on imaginary boys with superhuman immune systems and no legs), so how disappointed could I really be? Despite the major plot differences, most notably that there is no sex and no “female zoo” (NO FEMALE ZOO?), it was an epic television event that makes me sort of sad to own a DVR. The death scenes were pretty gnarly, and even if I saw it now I think I’d still be genuinely frightened. The bionic flu is really scary!
I think that serializing The Stand was a smart call; it mimicked the sensation of having to close the book for the night and anxiously trying to sleep while I worked Trashcan Man’s name into the haunting “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” song (also ’94. I live in 1994), the sweaty dreams and the horrible longing when I had finished the book and only had a lifetime of envying people who had just begun it left in front of me. I reread The Stand a few years later and found myself imagining Gary Sinise as Stu and Rob Lowe as the deaf-mute. If that isn’t a testament to the kind of synchronicity a person looks for in adaptations, I don’t know what is. I nurse no hope that Under the Dome will be a success in the same way, mostly because Under the Dome was … how do I say this? … King’s I Am Charlotte Simmons compared to The Stand‘s Bonfire of the Vanities. Whatever, though — I missed my bedtime on a few occasions reading Under the Dome in the bathtub. Just put Gary Sinise in it. I’ll make popcorn. You bring some chocolate milk. We’ll watch some people die and I’ll catch you on the flip side, hombres.
Michael Weinreb: An adaptation of an academic satire about a perpetually stoned English professor in Pittsburgh who is in the midst of writing a 2,000-page novel: My hopes were not high, given my fealty for Michael Chabon’s novel (I’d still argue it’s the best thing he’s ever done), but somehow Curtis Hanson made it into one of the best movies about writing I’ve ever seen. In large part, this is because of the casting, because Hanson found four actors in particular who happened across this project at the optimal moment in their careers: Michael Douglas, whose rumpled and world-weary and Oscar-worthy portrayal of Grady Tripp made me wonder why Hollywood had wasted 20 years dressing him up in Armani; Tobey Maguire, who was not yet Spidey and could still play the naif with unparalleled aplomb; Katie Holmes, who was still cute as a button and had not yet been sucked into the Thetan vortex; and Robert Downey Jr., on the rebound and essentially playing the gay literary agent iteration of what would become Robert Stark. Add to that Frances McDormand, Rip Torn, and one of the best Bob Dylan aughts-renaissance songs, and you have a great movie about the absurd conflagration of writing and academia. It came out just before I left the real world for graduate school. I watched it at least once a month.
The Golden Compass
Emily Yoshida: Ugh. That opening title card. Unforgivable.
If you’ve never read/heard of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, here’s the Cliff’s notes version: They’re a series of young-adult (yeah, sure) sci-fi/fantasy novels about a girl who finds out that the church in her universe has been severing children from their souls (it’s complicated) and ends up leading a multi-parallel-universe army in a gigantic war on God. There’s also talking bears and witches and lots of horrific violence. It’s really hard for me to get too hyperbolic about how important these books were to my adolescence; if I’m being completely honest, I’d say a very small, very dreamy, but very earnest part of teenage-me decided to go to film school so that I could perhaps have a shot at adapting them someday. In many ways both Hollywood’s and my desire to see a big-screen adaptation is understandable: Pullman’s prose is naturally cinematic; he paints his settings and characters in a rhythm that closely mirrors film editing. There are big action set pieces and vaguely steampunky gadgets (including the titular truth-telling compass) begging for visual rendering.
But there are about five times as many reasons that adapting HDM is pretty much asking for trouble, not the least among them that aforementioned WAR ON GOD, that made all those parent groups that had been trying to take Harry Potter out of school libraries realize they had a much bigger, not to mention vocally atheist, fish to fry. And then there was the whole matter of how to make the Quantum-Theory-lite that Pullman built his world(s) around make meaningful sense for a megaplex crowd. And why does everyone have animals on their shoulders? And so on and so forth. As tempting as it is, you can’t even blame writer/director Chris Weitz (who’d go on to helm the Twilight sequels, probably to his relief) so much as you can blame the New Line execs who green-lit what they thought was a fun family adventure about a girl and her shape-shifting animal sidekick.
Look, the film’s not a complete disaster. But for everything Weitz got right (Sam Elliot as a Texan hot air balloon pilot! Holy shit, that bear fight!), there are 20 things that made crushed geeks like me plant our palms firmly on their faces for its two-hour run time. The Golden Compass‘s dark, wild weirdness was sanded down to a generic nub; it opened to a sad $26 million and went on to earn back about one-third of its $180 million budget. Needless to say, I stopped holding my breath for The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass about four years ago.
Prince of the City
Sean Fennessey: Trust me when I tell you that this is a terrible movie to watch if your father is a police officer. Two hours and 47 minutes of pure, heart-choking paranoia. It’s based on Robert Daley’s Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much and is one of the most accurate, sympathetic, and damning portrayals of local law enforcement ever written. Daley’s career was fascinating. He wrote more than 20 books, fiction and non-; he did time as a publicity director for the New York Giants; he worked six years as a European sports correspondent for the New York Times; and in the early ’70s, he was the NYPD’s deputy police commissioner in charge of public affairs. Prince is a 350-page whopper about Detective Robert Leuci, pulled at both sides: from within a corrupt NYPD and from federal forces eager to sweep up the dirt in the department. It sprawls across time, with bureaucratic detail and twitchy life-death situations. In Sidney Lumet’s adaptation, Treat Williams (who should have been very famous but wasn’t) plays Daniel Ciello, a modified Leuci. There’s a reason this movie creeps near the three-hour mark: It probably should have been a TV show. If it were optioned today, it’d appear on FX, would be written by Terrence Winter, and would star Casey Affleck as a swaggering narc turned inside man for the feds. This great, daring, but flawed Lumet version will do. For now.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story
Andy Greenwald: The central joke of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s bawdy 18th century doorstop, is that the strange, digressive journey of a human being through life is basically unwriteable. Any potentially solemn lesson is highjacked by a disquisition on the importance of noses or undercut by a surprise circumcision. And so Michael Winterbottom — a whimsical and experimental British filmmaker (24 Hour Party People) whose last name could have supplied a punchline for one of Tristram’s dirty jokes — did the only logical thing in 2006: he made a loose, shaggy movie about the impossibility of adaptation.
There are many pleasures to be found in this Cock & Bull Story, but the greatest may be the blooming frenemy-ship between Steve Coogan (playing “Steve Coogan” playing Tristram) and Rob Brydon (playing “Rob Brydon” playing Uncle Toby). The road to The Trip, and the duo’s amazing duelling Michael Caine impressions, begins here, as they bicker about fame and tooth color (“Tuscan sunset”) while being primped and pampered for a movie that will never — that can never — be made. Like the source material, this oddly affecting adapatation actually manages to say quite a bit about life in its inability to say anything at all.
Steven Hyden: Yes, the graphic rape and murder scenes in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho are what really made the book appear unadaptable before Mary Harron’s expert 2000 interpretation. But it was the long, Rolling Stone Record Guide–style diversions on the discographies of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News that seemed inherently un-cinematic. Not only did Harron capture Patrick Bateman’s astute dissection of “Hip to Be Square” on film, she was able to combine it with some gross-out ax-murdering action.
Dan Silver: Sometimes a film’s ambition has nothing to do with scope, scale, or concept, but rather with interpretation. As was the case with Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with the adaptation of Susan Orlean’s 1998 nonfiction book The Orchid Thief. When Kaufman hit writer’s block, instead of opting for more traditional remedies, he wrote a screenplay about his troubled experience adapting the book, even going so far as to craft a fictional twin brother for himself and an imagined romance between the book’s two main characters — who just so happen to also be real people. It was a grand and surreal idea, and one very easily deemed “un-produceable” as a film. But after the breakout success of 1999’s Being John Malkovich, another brilliantly fantastic adventure, director Spike Jonze and Kaufman were in the rare position to dictate their own next move. It could be argued that Nicolas Cage gave his last great performance in this film, and I’d go so far as to say that his dual implementations of Kaufman’s split psyche as Donald and Charlie is the defining performance of his career. The film also contains one of my favorite scenes ever — Meryl Streep, high on orchid dust, drifts through a hotel room until she’s interrupted by a call from Chris Cooper, and the two of them attempt to re-create the sound of a dial tone. Significant real-life themes and cutting-edge special effects are big factors in Adaptation, but when you see it for the first time, the film feels intimate and small; it never thrusts its boldness in the audience’s face. The film’s beauty is in its subtlety.
Brian Phillips: Henry James’s classic English-country-house-as-nexus-of-nameless-dread novella The Turn of the Screw is basically unfilmable, because the horror of the book depends on the fact that you can’t really tell what happens — it’s either a terrifying ghost story or a terrifying story about a woman going insane, unless it’s both. So naturally, since its approach is antithetical to the entire medium of film, it has been adapted for film something like 15 times. By far the best of these adaptations is The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who may or may not have accidentally picked up a babysitting gig for the malevolence that lurks beyond reality. The Innocents gets two things totally right. Decades before every horror film started using flickering hologrammy second-graders to signpost the curse of the week, it understood that children — with their inaccessible minds, their amorality, their complacency about other people’s suffering — are freaky as hell. And as the clip above shows, it understood that film can convey the horror of subjectivity’s innate ambiguity … THROUGH HUMMING.
Jonah Keri: There’ve been so many straw-man arguments about Michael Lewis’s Moneyball over the past decade, and so many refutations of said straw men, that nerds like me became as sick of defending this excellent book as critics were of hearing about it, the Oakland A’s, or Billy Beane. But OK, one more time, with feeling: Moneyball isn’t a how-to guide on building a baseball team using nothing but players with high on-base percentages. It’s about an idea. That is, the idea of market inefficiencies, and how skilled operators, in baseball or any other industry, can exploit said inefficiencies. In 2002 that inefficiency was on-base percentage and the low cost of acquiring players who excelled in that one skill. Later, it was defense. Five years from now, who knows.
I was genuinely excited to see what a skilled filmmaker could do with a book that, for instance, mentioned Baseball Prospectus six times (I was at Baseball Prospectus when the book came out, and trust me, I counted). But I wasn’t alone in doubting if a film based on Moneyball could work. Making a movie about an idea seemed to be even more impossible than making one about stats.
I was wrong. Director Bennett Miller and the 82,000 writers who contributed at one point or another to the screenplay produced a lively film that took advantage of what the book’s author does best: vivid portrayals of interesting characters. So we got Lewis’s vision of Scott Hatteberg and Lewis’s vision of Chad Bradford, blown up to multiplex size, albeit also shortened to avoid overwhelming the movie’s larger arc. And what the movie did best was bring in casual baseball fans, or even people who didn’t much care for baseball. It did this by drawing out the gamut of Billy Beane’s presumed emotions, with Brad Pitt as the conduit. Watch this final scene and you can see why your baseball-indifferent mom might’ve liked this movie even more than you did.
Crazy people like me might’ve geeked out over Peter Brand’s obsession with hitter hot zones. But a baseball movie actually making money and gaining critical acclaim? The mushy stuff did that, and it did it well.