By Maud Newton
Adapting fiction for the screen has always been a tricky endeavor. For every “Apocalypse Now,” “The Big Sleep” or “Rebecca,” there are scores of butchered classics and box office duds, and in recent years, Hollywood has only continued to perfect its reverse-alchemy process, transforming narrative gold into the dullest, heaviest lead, topped off with a giant packet of saccharine.
For details, see Roland Joffe’s “The Scarlet Letter,” featuring a pearl-bedecked, shiny-bodiced, utterly vacuous Hester Prynne, or the soul-sucking “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which drove the Guardian’s John Patterson to call for a ban on the making of all movies based on books. It’s easy to sympathize. We’re talking, after all, about the machine that reduced ZoÃ« Heller’s brilliantly satirical “Notes on a Scandal” — a teacher’s obsessive chronicle of her female colleague’s affair with her young male student — to a cautionary tale with all the subtlety of “Fatal Attraction.”
Still, the best fiction can offer what most industry vehicles don’t: a compelling narrative, vivid characters, surprising but realistic plot twists — and sometimes all three. It’s hard not to imagine how “The Secret History” and “A Confederacy of Dunces” would play out as films, had they not gotten sucked into the black hole of pre-production. Some books — like Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” so stripped-down novelistically, it tended to read like stage directions — actually work better on screen.
Julian Jarrold recently took his own cinematic run at Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus “Brideshead Revisited,” contending with not only the daunting original text but the beloved 1981 miniseries. Amid all the reviews and speculation, I’ve been thinking about novels and short stories I’d like to see adapted. Ten of my top picks are below. Add your own wish list in the comments.
Rupert Thomson’s “Divided Kingdom”
Overnight the entire population of Great Britain is administered a personality test and reassigned to one of four quadrants based on an ancient system of psychology that divides people into groups: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. Thomson’s very young, sanguine narrator is ripped from his melancholic parents, sent to a reprogramming camp, and assigned to a new family where the father mourns the absence of his wife, and the hot older sister consumes the boy’s fantasies. As our narrator grows older, he plays by the rules, even becoming a trusted civil servant, until, by virtue of his job, he crosses into the phlegmatic quarter and is contaminated — and captivated — by the depressive mysticism of the place. Slipping off to a mysterious nightclub, he’s snapped out of his chronic, low-level malaise by visions and concrete memories of his parents. When a bomb goes off shortly before he’s due to return home, he takes advantage of the chaos and goes underground.
Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist”
Set in a city much like New York, but before the Civil Rights Era, “The Intuitionist” centers on the unexpectedly fascinating intrigues of the Elevator Inspectors Guild, whose members pledge allegiance either to the Empiricist, or, yes, Intuitionist mode of inspection. The Empiricists search for defects, while Intuitionists just sense them. With a hardboiled momentum that recalls Dashiell Hammett and a satiric vision that builds on Ishmael Reed’s, Whitehead’s first novel opens as young “colored” Intuitionist Lila Mae Watson learns that a high-profile elevator she inspected just days before has crashed. The accident casts doubt on the Intuitionist school, and leads Watson to suspect foul play.
Scarlett Thomas’ “The End of Mr. Y”
Ariel Manto, an aimless and dodgy-looking but very smart grad student with a penchant for callous men and willingness to submit to light bondage, is finally settling on a thesis topic when her adviser disappears. She discovers among his belongings the only remaining copy of a Victorian novelist’s last book, “The End of Mr. Y,” from which she learns to make a mysterious concoction involving charcoal and holy water. Drinking it transports her into another dimension where mice talk, CIA agents hunt her and the whole world depends on what she does next. Recovering English majors: think Derrida, the video game.
Pagan Kennedy’s “Confessions of a Memory Eater”
Win Duncan, a historian whose career took off and then fizzled, has settled into a bland professorial career and even blander marriage when an old friend offers him the chance to test Mem, an experimental drug that allows the user to relive any moment in his or her past. Soon Win is addicted, avoiding real life to live in his memories. When he loses his job and his wife, he’s left only with a limited supply of drugs and mounting questions as to the veracity of the experiences to which he keeps returning.
Kate Christensen’s “Jeremy Thrane”
Jeremy Thrane, the unemployed and slightly paunchy kept man of a hunky, closeted and very married movie star, worries that his relationship and lifestyle are in jeopardy as the actor grows critical and detached and seems increasingly focused on his wife. When a gossip columnist overhears Jeremy complaining at a party, and questions the actor’s orientation in print, our narrator finds himself kicked out of his cozy brownstone and adrift in New York City.
James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”
After his fiancÃ©e goes on vacation, a young and closeted American living in post-World War II Paris begins an affair with poor Italian bartender Giovanni. Torn between passion for his lover and the conventionality his father has always expected of him, the narrator finds solace for a time in Giovanni’s room, but abandons him in favor of the straight life, with its bourgeois comforts. Later he regrets his decision, but he’s too late to change Giovanni’s tragic fate.
Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea”
This highly allegorical 1978 Booker Prize winner is the journal of an idealistic lothario director who retires to live the simple life, alone or perhaps with a comely companion, in a very strange seaside house. For the first few days he’s content to exult over afternoon swims and meals of crusty bread, good cheese and table wine, but soon he spies his first love in a nearby town, and though she’s shockingly gray and wrinkled for a woman of her age, resolves to break up her marriage and unite with her once and for all. Soon he’s sending unhinged letters, orchestrating strained encounters, and peering into windows.
Victor LaValle’s “The Ecstatic”
An enormous, intelligent and highly delusional Cornell undergraduate is rescued from his squalid Ithaca apartment by his mother, sister and grandmother, who return with him to the family home in Jamaica, Queens. There they functionally imprison him, but are clearly also a little bit afraid. They cower in bathrooms as our hero makes atrocious breakfasts covered in ketchup. “I expected more sympathy,” he says. “I wasn’t the first one in my bloodline to go zipper-lidded.” And indeed, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that any return to sanity will come in spite, rather than because, of his family.
ZZ Packer, “The Ant of the Self” (from “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”)
A college-bound debate champ borrows his mother’s car to pick his hustler father (and his mother’s very unwelcome ex-husband) up from jail. He intends to drop the man off and return home, but soon finds himself on a cross-country trek with a load of screeching exotic birds that his dad hopes to unload in Atlanta at the Million Man March.
In this harrowing story, a man’s son, Carl, is either possessed by a furious horde of demons, or exacting revenge on his father for the events of September 11, 2001, and his mother’s disappearance. The boy issues punishing indictments in a strange, multilayered voice, and returns to his angelic, boyish self only when the man slams his fingers in drawers. “What do you want?” the father asks. “You know it,” the voices say from Carl’s mouth. “Every day we tell you. Justice. Satisfaction. Vengeance.” The penance required by the demons — or by Carl — only escalates.
[Photo: “Brideshead Revisited,” Miramax Films, 2008]
Maud Newton blogs at MaudNewton.com.