In The Beginning Was The Word


In The Beginning Was The Word Essay, Research Paper

In the beginning was the wordIf Scott Rudin wasn’t a millionaire Hollywood producer, it might be possible to feel a little sorry for him right now. Because Rudin has engineered a couple of years of headaches and resentment for himself which, recent history suggests, will end up in an unsatisfactory outcome. First, he found a director (Stephen Daldry) and a writer (David Hare) to adapt Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the film rights to which he optioned personally before the book was published. Then, last week, he got together with New Line to produce the film version of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius . So far, so good. But The Corrections will be hard work to adapt. (It is interesting that Rudin has called in Brits to tackle the current contender for the Great American Novel.) A Heartbreaking Work… will be almost impossible, which is why, despite the film rights going for a hefty $2 million, the project had been sitting around at New Line for a year before Rudin showed an interest. The lure and the curse of these books lie with their readers. It’s the struggle going on right now to get filmgoers interested in The Shipping News: the obvious audience, the people who have read E. Annie Proulx’s novel, are the most sceptical. You can tempt them with the Newfoundland scenery and a heavyweight cast but they are wary. The Corrections will have the same battle. When Rudin bought the rights, the most he could expect was another well-reviewed, little-read literary novel. But it turned into something else and joined books such as The Shipping News, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Snow Falling on Cedars, Birdsong, The Secret History and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in that elusive category: the big bourgeois hit. There seems to be one every season. Books which everyone you know suddenly seems to be reading. Books you get given several times as presents. They are all novels that seem clever enough to be respectable yet suit people who don’t have time to read that much fiction, and they work for various generations and both genders. Often they are books that appear from nowhere and achieve a fame that eclipses everything else the author has written; on the poster for the film version of Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray, there’s a bright red circle telling us that it is ‘by the author of Birdsong ‘. In theory, those readers should provide a core audience for the film version. That should be part of the advantage of adapting a bestselling book, and it worked for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Lord of the Rings and Bridget Jones’s Diary. You don’t spend $57m on a Captain Corelli without hoping that there is a large group of people who want to see it. But it didn’t work for Corelli – or for Snow Falling on Cedars and Smilla. (’Have they made a film of Snow Falling on Cedars?’ I was asked a couple of times while working on this article.) And it hasn’t worked for The Shipping News which has struggled at the US box office. It’s not a bad film but it’s not a particularly good one either. It is as forgettable as E. Annie Proulx’s novel is memorable. It lacks strangeness: director Lasse Hallström has found no cinematic answer to Proulx’s sparse prose and unsettling sense of place, and he has got close to admitting as much. ‘Annie so boldly uses everything she knows about the island, piecing it together like a collage, a mix of poetry and trivia, comedy and drama, the lyrical images, the tapestry of disparate elements. The challenge to capture the atmosphere of the novel for the screen was a somewhat crazy idea. I’m very happy that I was able to try.’ Proulx’s ugly, hulking central character doesn’t sound like any known leading man, certainly not John Travolta who was originally pencilled in for the role. But although Travolta would almost certainly have been a disaster, the eventual cast of Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Pete Postlethwaite and Cate Blanchett has a bullying aura of Quality Cinema to it. Hallström, too, has a track record with this kind of project, having made The Shipping News straight after Chocolat and The Cider House Rules. When it comes to Hollywood and contemporary literature, the same names keep cropping up – Rudin produced Wonder Boys (not to mention Iris and Angela’s Ashes); Miramax made the three Hallström films and were involved with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin , The English Patient and All The Pretty Horses (another flop). And then there’s Steven Spielberg (The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun, Schindler’s List). The Color Purple and The English Patient are the interesting ones here. Alice Walker’s novel was a classic word-of-mouth success. There were issues of race and sexuality, it was told in the form of letters and in this country it came in a distinctly unglossy Women’s Press edition. People felt righteous reading it. Steven Spielberg probably did too, which might explain why he chose to make the film that was going to transform him from that shark-and-aliens guy into a serious director. The strange thing was that, while Spielberg got attacked by gay and black pressure groups and failed to win the Oscar, he found an audience for the film. But that success said more about his populist instincts than about the book’s own appeal. The story around The English Patient is a seductive one in Hollywood: it is a film that tapped into that elusive older audience. After a traumatic production, the film made money and won Oscars, but from the start it was more famous than Michael Ondaatje’s novel. And while there were Ondaatje fans who thought that the book had been grotesquely simplified, they were outnumbered by people for whom The English Patient only existed as a film. That was never the case with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Shipping News which will always be – like Mike Nichols’s Catch-22 – ‘the film of the book’. It’s rare to find a Doctor Zhivago, a Room At The Top or a Trainspotting where the book and the adaptation have similar status. The tricky part is the voice. That might be why The Secret History has been gathering dust for most of a decade, although Gwyneth Paltrow now plans to produce it. Donna Tartt’s book is hardly serious literature: it’s an enjoyably lurid murder story about a bunch of spoilt college students. But reduce it to those bare elements and it could be little more than a generic teen thriller starring a couple of kids from Dawson’s Creek. What the director and writer need to do is find a way of permeating the snobbishness and high intellectual pretension of the book’s narrator. And the voice is why trying to turn A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius into a workable script will be a fearsome task. Attempt to replicate Eggers’s relentless playfulness, which starts on the copyright page, and you have the makings of an immensely annoying film. Take out the knowing games and you could end up with a sentimental tale about a young man bringing up his younger brother after the death of their parents fit only for Channel 5. That won’t stop producers from buying the next smart book to creep on to the bestseller list. Lynn Pleshette, the agent involved in getting The Shipping News to the screen, explains: ‘Hollywood will always buy novels because too many scripts in development or spec scripts lack interesting characters living in newly created stories. As you know, Hollywood thrives on being derivative, although any novel or original script could always be ruined. This is a collaborative medium where wrong turns in development, casting and direction can be taken – yet producers and studios will never give up hope that a fresh piece of material could make for a great film. Hope still springs eternal.’ But perhaps the bookishly inclined need to take less direct routes. It’s easy to see why Iris Murdoch’s life seemed a better starting point for a film than most of her novels. Better still is The Royal Tenenbaums, due out here on 15 March. It’s a film in love with books in which most of the characters have written books (the immaculately designed covers of which we see). There are characters at least partly based on Oliver Sacks and Cormac McCarthy, and the whole thing is steeped in the spirit of J.D. Salinger. There is even a stately narrator. But it’s not based on a book, it was written for the screen. Everything in it fits perfectly, and it has no readers with impossible expectations to meet. Charlotte Gray opens on 22 February, The Shipping News on 1 March


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