Pump up the volumes

 

(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd

(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films

 

Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap.  If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it.  Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film.  And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film.  This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.

 

Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness.  You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book.  For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.

 

Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything.  I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel.  However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.

 

A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy.  Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.

 

Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice.  John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque.  For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”

 

Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal.  An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984.  The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film.  Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually.  Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.

 

(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does.  This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit.  For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor.  MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again.  The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.

 

Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976).  Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen.  This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.

 

More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different.  The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right.  A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.

 

However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).  It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland).  The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry.  At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp).  It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.

 

(c) Minerva

(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment

 

It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film.  There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie.  It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.

 

Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias.  This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in.  The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes.  Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.

 

Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King.  These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth.  Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again.  I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf.  Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.

 

And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen.  Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003.  Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.

 

Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.

 

One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal.  These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2.  Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense.  And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show.  (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)

 

Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment.  Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea.  With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.

 

(c) Berkley

(c) NBC

 

Making it look easy: book review / Walking the Dog by Bernard Mac Laverty

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Belfast-born Bernard Mac Laverty makes writing short stories, and writing generally, look easy – which is a measure of how good he is.  I’ve tried writing short stories myself and I know that it isn’t easy.

 

Furthermore, Mac Laverty writes in a clear, simple prose, shorn of adjectives, adverbs and big words, which looks especially easy to do but – again, I’ve tried – it isn’t.  In fact, the plainer you try to make your writing, the trickier the act of writing becomes.  Mac Laverty once justified his approach by likening writing styles to glass.  The fancier and more ornate the prose, the more it resembles stained glass – gorgeous to look at, but you can’t actually see through it.  And just as it’s difficult to see what’s on the other side of a stained-glass window, it’s difficult to perceive an author’s meaning when he or she shows off by writing in a decorative style.

 

As such, he can be compared with the maestro of sparse, no-frills writing, Ernest Hemmingway.  But while Hemmingway showed off in other ways, by concentrating on hard-bitten, macho characters who were meant to be projections of himself – hunters, soldiers, matadors and self-absorbed, self-sufficient drifters – Mac Laverty deals with the ordinary sort of men, and women, whom you pass every day on the street.  Mac Laverty’s characters are as small as Hemmingway’s characters are big, and they’re all the better for that.

 

The fourth of Mac Laverty’s short-story collections, Walking the Dog was first published in 1994 and reading it now the stories seem further back in time than 20 years ago.  There’s an absence of smart-phones, laptops, the Internet and social media – for instance, Gillian, the unhappy Scottish teenager in The Grandmaster, the collection’s fourth story, would nowadays be venting her misery by posting heavily on Facebook (or Instagram or WhatsApp or wherever it is that teenagers post now to avoid the prying eyes of their parents).  Also, the stories set in Northern Ireland were written just before the Peace Process gathered a head of steam and the Troubles came to an official end, though not to an absolute one; and you feel like you’re reading some of these works, if not through the prism of history, at least from a vantage point a few steps away in history.

 

In any case, there are some excellent stories here.  The title one, Walking the Dog, gets things off to a cracking start.  Set during the worst of the Troubles, it’s the tale of a man innocuously walking his dog one evening who gets seized by a pair of gunmen intent on shooting a member of the other community as some tit-for-tat reprisal.  The problem for the man is that it isn’t clear whether his abductors are Catholic or Protestant terrorists.  The problem for the terrorists is that they find it difficult to establish whether their captive is a Catholic or a Protestant – he has a neutral-sounding name, John Shields, and is insistent about his atheism.  (“I’ll ask you again.  Are you a Protestant or a Roman Catholic?”  “I’m…  I don’t believe in any of that crap.  I suppose I’m nothing.”)  Its final sentence links the events to the story’s most neglected character – the dog – and allows Mac Laverty to make a sly observation that highlights the idiocy of the situation.

 

Also set in Northern Ireland is The Wake House, in which a Roman Catholic mother, worried about being seen to do the respectable thing (Northern Ireland has a lot of mothers like that), forces her son to attend a wake being held for a recently-deceased Protestant neighbour.  Since the neighbour spent his life behaving like a drunken and sectarian arsehole, the son is not enthusiastic about going.  (“Look, why are we doing this?” said Dermot…  “Respect.  Respect for the dead,” she said.  “You’d no respect for him when he was alive.”)

 

Lacking that story’s grim humour, and generating an atmosphere that’s merely grim, is A Silent Retreat, which takes place before the Troubles kicked off in the late 1960s.  It’s about a Catholic schoolboy with plans to enter the priesthood who accidentally strikes up an acquaintanceship – friendship is too optimistic a word for it – with a young B-Specials officer on guard-duty at the jail beyond his school’s playing fields.  The B-Specials, to quote their Wikipedia description, were a ‘quasi-military reserve police force in Northern Ireland… almost exclusively Protestant… disbanded in May 1970.”  The schoolboy’s education (from priests) has made him certain of the existence of God  and his zeal to justify that existence ultimately rubs the B-Special up the wrong way — he prides himself on his own lack of education (“I left school at fourteen and it was the wisest move I ever made”), earthiness and cynicism.  The story ends with the schoolboy retreating while the B-Special points a Sten gun at him and shouts all-too-prophetically, “F**k the future.”

 

Mac Laverty is also good at getting inside the heads of his female characters although, interestingly, the two examples of that here, At the Beach and The Grandmaster, have those characters coming to some sort of understanding of their own natures whilst on holiday in Spain – it’s as if being out of their normal, drab Irish / Scottish environments and being in a warmer, brighter Mediterranean one gives them a Shirley Valentine-type release.  Both stories are smarter than Shirley Valentine, though.  At the Beach sympathetically conveys the aspirations and frustrations of a middle-aged Irishwoman while she stays in a picturesque Spanish resort and is encumbered by a middle-aged husband who, while he isn’t a bad person, is exasperatingly juvenile with his prurient sexual obsessions and drinking binges.

 

The Grandmaster explores the relationship between a mother and daughter on holiday in another Spanish resort.  Their relationship is strained because of the mother’s estrangement from her husband and the strain reaches breaking point when the daughter gets involved in a chess competition held at their hotel – chess was one of her father’s passions and something he trained her to be good at.  The story also shows Mac Laverty’s skill at not directly telling his readers much.  Rather, the background information gets gradually sketched in via the dialogue.

 

And this talent for conveying rather than telling is shown beautifully in Compensations, the story of two boys left in the care of their grandparents while their parents undertake a mysterious trip to Lourdes.  The adults aren’t saying anything, of course, but what’s discreetly being said and what’s discreetly going on around the boys gradually inform us that their father is dying of cancer.

 

If I have a criticism to make of this collection, it concerns the flash-fiction pieces that are printed in italics and alternate with the longer stories.  Each piece occupies one or two pages – the shortest is four lines long – and, inevitably, most of them feel insubstantial.  They come across like filler tracks on a music album — performing the function, say, of Rip This Joint and Ventilator Blues on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, whiling away a bit of time between the band getting on with bona fide classics like Torn and Frayed and Sweet Virginia.  In total, these vignettes add up to 19 pages, and I would have preferred it if Mac Laverty had devoted that space instead to an additional longer story.

 

But that’s a minor reservation.  Generally, this collection shows one of Ireland’s foremost short-story writers – he writes novels too, I know, but I prefer his shorter fiction – at the peak of his powers.  As you get drawn into and seduced by the stories in Walking the Dog, for a little while each one really will feel like your best friend.