“I saw that book.” Are we likely to hear this more and more from the next generation? A reviewer recently described a book by Joan Didion as “a novel that doesn’t have to be filmed to make you feel you’re watching it, not reading it.”
Television adaptations of fiction are notoriously common these days, and the results are not always B movies. But box office success seems to depend on exposing the hidden lives of various characters we had once believed to be stable. Take the cleverly filled-out case of Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave, or the recent Great Expectations. The problem is complicated when the subject includes both the writer and his works. The film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, for example, depicts a Hollywood hack at his worst and invites the viewer to peer directly into Fitzgerald’s own life.
In major fiction, the yeasty chaos of creation has taken place, once and for all. The pundits of postmodern philosophy—Lacan, Derrida, Stanley Fish—may help us find fleeting cultural power in film, but such brilliance as we see in something as orderly as Citizen Kane owes to the use of a mechanical process. That process dates. Printed books may possess enduring craft, in their own right. And that right, affirmed in a famous essay by T.S. Eliot, suggests that true creation comes out of a tradition.
What if, then, there is no tradition behind your cultural form, only so many Festschrifts for famous directors like Hitchcock or Godard who, in Contempt, put his hat on a favorite actress (Brigitte Bardot) and called it direction, while in Hail Mary he portrayed the Virgin as a basketball-playing gas jerk?
Is the cinéaste meant to reply that such a director is creating tradition for the unenlightened future? Whole texts have by now appeared requiring our assent to the preeminence of French cinema, of Russian cinema, of the black-and-white mode, of pre-sound techniques. There is supposed to be a tradition of German cinema, represented by Josef von Sternberg and Werner Fassbander, although the latter’s tradition is that of the Baader-Meinhof group.
The diminished role of characterization in modernist movies deprives us of illusions. The text—let us not call it a novel—was often heavy with coincidences, as in Dickens, Ibsen, and the 19th-century repertoire of fiction. John Sutherland has specialized in exposing absurdities of fact in this treasury (e.g., “Where does Fanny Hill keep her contraceptives?”). And there is surely something charming about the sewing together of relationships denied us in real life.
Obviously enough—pace McLuhan—today’s cultural tense conspires to laud the visual over the verbal. Yet the French philosopher Lyotard insists that words can make us see. In discussing Francois Truffaut’s indebtedness to certain fictions by Henry James (a novelist pur sang if ever there was one), Adeline R. Tintner refers to her cinematic renderings of James as “careful, almost reverential productions, faithful to the originals,” but then adds that no film could ever possibly be “faithful” to a novel—”the media are simply too different to allow it.” Is this the cardinal point we are left with?
Radical TV can be the gifted work of film editors and screenwriters for which we should be grateful; it can also be so many technical mutilations. Take one magisterial translation from fiction to film, namely, the recently resuscitated 1955 Night of the Hunter, based on a 1953 novel by the now-forgotten Davis Grubb. This production is notable for its director—Charles Laughton in his first and only effort—and its writer, novelist and film critic James Agee, as well as a good cast that includes Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and an aging Lillian Gish. Superlatives were rained on this movie; Pauline Kael called it “one of the most frightening movies ever made.” Today, how many “saw that book”? Perhaps the answer may be found in the words of the almost equally forgotten poet Karl Shapiro: “I didn’t go to the funeral of poetry, I stayed home and watched it on television.”