Monday, October 21, 2002

“White Oleander” And Other Films From Novels

Not too long ago I talked to you about a depressing but wonderful book entitled White Oleander. Like many best selling novels, this one was recently made into a movie. Today, I want to say a few things about this particular novel adaptation, but more importantly, about the whole practice of adapting novels to film, and also a bit about how one ought to judge such efforts.

First, take a moment and count up what you would take to be genuinely successful novel to movie adaptations. I bet it didn’t take long, and I bet you didn’t have to use both hands. Indeed, some of you may still be trying to count enough even for the first hand. The very idea of making a movie from what has been a successful novel is a conservative one; Hollywood hates taking real risks. American movie makers would rather do Rocky 14 or Halloween 6 than risk a good script with a good cast that has not yet been stamped with the mass marketing seal of approval.

Sometimes old novels, especially if they are about the rich, can be made into visually sumptuous film feasts in which all the marvels of expensive contemporary cinematic techniques can be used to visually stupefy the audience. I have in mind here some of the more or less successful adaptations of Henry James and Edith Wharton novels, all of which could be gathered together into a “Lives of the rich and famous” genre. And while I don’t intend simply to pan such efforts, anyone who has read, for example, the complex and intricate House of Mirth by Edith Wharton or the exquisitely detailed The Golden Bowl by Henry James will realize immediately how the movie adaptations failed in almost all ways to do justice to the novels. This was not simply a failing of the particular movie makers; such complete and phenomenologically rich novels cannot be condensed to the screen without losing most of what was excellent in the books. Some of the eight-to-ten hour public television serializing of novels has done a better job of capturing the original complexity of the books, but it is simply not possible in the ninety to one hundred twenty minutes allowed to mainstream movies.

Indeed, realizing how much novels depend on the reader being able to ‘see’ inside the heads of characters, characters who can be both actor and commentator in key scenes, and how novels can sometimes ‘play’ the same scenes several times through the prismatic viewing screens of different characters, one can see the utter audacity of trying to render such complex material in a few visual scenes. How long does it take to read a good novel? How much of what makes the novel a good one is simply extraneous to what might be called the core of the novel? My answer is, “Not much.” The goodness, the excellence, is in the detail

I used the word ‘render’ quite intentionally; think of that word in its sense of reducing to essence or boiling down, clarifying. Now, were films really able to render novels in the sense of boiling down or clarifying, reducing to their essences, that would be a profound and noble undertaking indeed. But novels, at least really good ones, are not meant to be boiled down, to be stripped to their essence. Indeed, it they are really good novels, then their goodness will dwell in their detail, in their complexity, in their life-likeness. In novels, we can sometimes see the development of a character over months, even years, occasionally even over a lifetime. I tend to think that even in the case of novels, the best ones cover relatively short periods of time with only general hints of past and future. But if this is true of novels, it seems to be to be even more true of successful films. Films that cover a day, a week, a month, a year can be much ‘fuller’ and more life-like than those that attempt to cover decades, lifetimes.

But suppose we simply admit (what seems to be true) that films cannot provide the character richness and development possible in novels, and that it is an unfair expectation that they do so. Certainly, many film buffs would insist that films must be judged on their own merits—on how well they do what they can do rather than on how they fail to do what they cannot. How, then, ought we to view and judge films that are adapted from novels?

I suppose what we ought to do first (in our attempt to be fair) is to try to ‘forget’ the novel when we go to see the movie. If we are forever comparing the film to the book, we will find the film wanting in so many ways. Similarly, I want to claim that there are films that are successful only because the film-makers depend on an audience who watches the movie simply as an extension or visual addition to a story-line they already know and love, to a book already read. In such cases, the movie does not have to tell the whole story; the audience will fill in the missed scenes, the internal dialogue, the unseen pasts and futures. (Think for a moment of the Harry Potter books and movies, or even of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings).

Better, I want to claim, to try out films on those who have not read the book. See if much of the important ‘message’ of the novel comes through; see if the characters seem full and believable to these ‘innocent’ viewers. If the film is a really good one, then it should be able to stand on its own. Perhaps it will not be as profound or as rich as the novel, but it will be complete and comprehensible as far as it goes. If films pass this test, then they are good films whether or not they live up to the novels from which they are adapted.

Even with these generous criteria, my list of successful movies adapted from novels does not increase that much, but it at least doubles, probably triples. And, getting finally to the movie “White Oleander,” I would have to say that the movie succeeds as a statement that stands alone, and even further, that it does quite a good job of capturing at least some of what was so haunting and important about the book.

I was fully prepared not to like this movie, and this was perhaps because I liked the novel so much and was so skeptical about the very possibility of rendering it in film. Michelle Pfeiffer is simply superb as the beautiful but icy and self-absorbed mother, a bit too sweet and Michelle Pfeifferish in the first few scenes, but she grows into the hard bitten and icily beautiful character described in the novel. Alison Lohman, who has to play a girl of about thirteen who develops slowly into a scarred and world-wise eighteen year old, does a very good job, especially if she is not compared to the much more complex and conflicted girl, Astrid, in the novel on whom her character is based. Before seeing the movie, I winced at the choices of actresses to play other characters (e.g., Renee Zellweger as the lonely and reclusive actress and foster mother, Claire), but in fact, they all did very well, again, especially if not compared to the naturally richer and more complex characters in the novel.

Of course, so much of the novel is left out; two of the five foster-care situations faced by the young Astrid are simply skipped over. Each omission takes away, I think, from the believability and development of her character, and also from the progressive disintegration of her relationship with her mother. This makes the ending of the movie less poignant and less fitting with the whole. And an even more serious failing is in the decision by the film-makers not to include more of the early relationship between the mother and daughter, which would in turn have provided more context for the crime at the center of the movie and a much fuller picture of the mother. This omission they try to make up for in a few flashbacks, but I know, had I not read the book, I would find the flashbacks more confusing than illuminating and the crime less believable than it is in the book.

So, am I recommending that you see the movie? Yes, and especially if seeing the movie might lead you back to the book. Perhaps that will also put you in a good position to decide on my criteria for judging novel adaptations.

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