Wednesday, September 9, 2009

From book to movie

Most serious readers are used to Hollywood's propensity for turning good or great books into, well, let's be gentle and just say not as good and pretty much never great movies. (My most recent personal experience with this was Revolutionary Road but there have of course been scores of others over the years.) I have a small private hunch about why even cinema artists with the best intentions, even those unbound by studios' and producers' profit requirements, not that such artists exist, but even if they did, why they would, generally speaking, not be able to make a movie that achieves what a book can. I call it a hunch because it's not thought through enough, I don't think I could make an unimpeachable enough case for it, to call it a theory. I've no right to be theorizing anyway, never having studied cinema or literary theory. But in my own groping way this miasma of inchoate inklings has over the years been trying to cohere around a core notion that has something to do with (how's that for a string of advance mea culpas for knuckleheadedness!!) the role of the literal in art. The extent to which creativity has to soar free of the literal to reach great heights. And how just maybe film is necessarily too chained to the requirements of the literal to ever be able to break free in the way that writing can. Oh I don't know. I'm babbling. And this isn't even what I came here to talk about!

I want to talk about not the adaptation of books into movies, but rather the making of movies about historical figures or events. As in the case of the new movie about Charles Darwin, Creation. Olivia Judson at the New York Times is happy that it focuses on Darwin's grief over the death of his daughter and thus shows the humanity of the great scientific thinker. I can't say till I see it, but I'm guessing my reaction will be different, that I'll be left frustrated that here the filmmakers had one of the most fascinating topics of all in their hands--evolution itself, as well as the story of how Darwin and others formulated their theories about it--and instead of doing something original and groundbreaking like making a movie about world-historic ideas they made a movie about the same thing almost every movie is about, love and relationships.

Maybe it's sort of the same complaint about literalness. Here you have the stuff of the ages. Ideas, human progress vs. religious reaction, and so on. You could make a movie that soars, that makes viewers think, that grapples with great questions. Instead you make a movie about husbands and wives and daughters and sons and the dailiness of the lives lived, instead of the anything-but-daily essence of what this life, Darwin's, was lived about. Please. Please, won't someone make a movie about the grand matters that truly move this world forward?

For example, next month is the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry led by John Brown. Wow (and here, just so no one can accuse me of consistency, I drop all complaints about cinema literalness)--what a fantastically exciting, action-packed movie this could be. But also, of course, a movie about the clash of classes, the effort to overturn feudalism, the battle against slavery, the struggle against racism. I can think of so many more examples of the great movies that could be made that would be about so much more than love love love, have such a broader scope than the individual lives the focus on which blinkers out the big picture, but still with all the drama, all the human stories, that can make movies come alive.

Has there been a movie about Harriet Tubman? About Eugene V. Debs? The Bonus March? The Flint sit-down strike? Great characters, great stories. Oh how I want to see them.

There was one such movie not long ago that just came to mind. Not out of Hollywood, of course. It is Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It brings the Irish republican struggle to vibrant, gripping life. There's lots of deep emotion portrayed, and there's an utterly wrenching clash between two brothers, but it's not over women or money or whatever else most movies tell us most brothers might break over. The brothers stake out opposite positions on a most vital political question. What I really love are the scenes where the brothers and their comrades argue out this issue. It is so real, so accurate, in its portrayal of these revolutionaries trying to forge forward, and how the split happens, and what it means--for these two young men but also for their whole nation, and the emotion that grips the viewer is about both, these individual lives but also the lives of the whole Irish nation. Now that's great filmmaking, in my opinion.