Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 22, 2013
With the release of the new movie version of The Great Gatsby (I haven’t seen it yet), the subject of book versus movie rears its ugly head yet again. Some books are said to be unfilmable and Gatsby usually falls in that category. Others include Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye (never made into a movie due to the wishes of the late author and his estate) and The Sound and the Fury. Still others have been made into movies far more successful than the books they’re based on, such as The Godfather, Psycho and Jaws. And some authors, Charles Dickens comes to mind, wrote books that absolutely welcome the cinematic adaptation, repeatedly. Everyone has their ideas about why certain books work as movies while others don’t but the one thing that often makes or breaks the deal is the narrator: Who it is and how distinctive is their voice.
Before we get started, let me quote an old proverb I’ve quoted dozens of times before, even here, and I’m going to quote it again because if there’s one thing about book/movie discussions that irks me, it’s when people want the movie to follow the book word for word. The proverb goes like this: ”The wise moviegoer leaves the movie and says, ‘I loved that movie. It was nothing like the book.’” Conversely, it could be rendered, “That movie bored me. It was exactly like the book.” Follow a book word for word and I wonder why you even bothered to make a movie. One tells a story with words, the other with images. Use that, work with it. At the same time, respect the source and try to use the different medium to be faithful, in spirit only if necessary, to the book.
Now, to the discussion.
When books fail as movie adaptations, is it just the director or does the book itself contain something that stands in the way of a rewarding translation? Oddly, I’ve often found, though this is by no means 100% true every time, that most books that fail to work as movies have a strong narrator at their heart. First person narratives fail at a much higher rate than third person narrated books do. Moby Dick has a strong first person narrator, Ishmael. Jaws is told in third person. The Great Gatsby has a first person narrator, Nick. The Godfather is told in third person. In the cases of the first person narrator, that narrator becomes the story. That is to say, if you’ve read Moby Dick or Gatsby, you know that the story is about them and their reaction to or interpretation of what they see and encounter. The Great Gatsby isn’t about Gatsby so much as it’s about Nick and his perceptions of Gatsby and the world they both inhabit. That’s a tough sell on a movie screen because voice-over narration doesn’t always do the trick.
Voice-over narration is at its most problematic if the first person narrative of the book is pure poetry, as most of Ishmael’s narration is in Moby Dick, particularly the first chapters before he boards the Pequod and begins describing whaling in exacting detail. Of course, that neurotic, excruciating, and exacting detail of whaling that occurs once he boards the Pequod is also essential in understanding how weirdly obsessed this narrator is so when you excise that from a film version, you’ve already hurt your chances at success. The way to make a successful movie version of Moby Dick (and I’ve seen many of them from the Gregory Peck, John Huston version to the Patrick Stewart version and I’ve yet to like one of them) is to make a movie about Ishmael, not Ahab, but damned if they don’t keep making movie versions about Ahab.
The Great Gatsby has the same problem. The movies should be about Nick, not Gatsby, but they’re always about Gatsby. The way to translate a first person narrative from page to screen is to make the narrated story background and make the narrator himself, foreground. What that would mean is making a movie that most people wouldn’t recognize as The Great Gatsby, necessarily, but would be truer to the source. The other problem is that Nick is a sieve of a narrator, filtering what he sees but not much of a stand alone character like Ishmael. Thus, focusing on the narrator become an even more difficult task.
Of course, it’s possible to make a first person narrated book work splendidly for the screen. I’m a much bigger fan of the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than the movie but concede that the movie did a remarkable job of translating the book to film by eliminating the narrator altogether. While this same approach would fail with Moby Dick, it works quite well with Cuckoo’s Nest. In the book, Chief Bromden narrates and is unreliable to say the least. He’s on several medications and has strange hallucinations nightly. He sees what happens with R.P. MacMurphy and describes it (though we don’t necessarily trust the story he’s telling us) and that basic story became the movie. Bromden’s narration and hallucinations were thrown out the window like the sink in the washroom.
A Clockwork Orange also works well enough as a movie (the book is more difficult to read than the movie is to watch, at first, but after a while the reader adapts to the language without constantly checking the glossary) despite having another unreliable first person narrator in the book. Voice-over is employed, sparingly, and the movie succeeds on about an equal level as the book.
Something like Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, is all about its narrator, Holden Caufield. Its author, J.D. Salinger, was right to avoid a movie adaptation and here’s hoping we never get one. The story of Catcher in the Rye is the mind of Holden Caufield. His inner workings, his running commentary, his endless monologue – that is the story. It would truly be pointless to make a movie that was anything other than a static camera shot of an actor on a stage reading the book aloud.
Another famously difficult to film first person narrated book, Heart of Darkness, finally saw success in an updated version set in Vietnam with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The book actually has two narrators, one unnamed and one Marlow, and Coppola’s movie version only succeeds because it adapts the story so loosely, allowing it to stand on its own as an original film more than an adaptation of something else.
Books with third person narratives usually rise and fall depending on the writer, director and stars. They don’t have to worry about making a narrator a part of the story. The story of Michael Corleone or Chief Brody and the shark can be told, straightforwardly, with no narration and no need to force another character’s perspective on the audience. It can just tell the story, period. Imagine Moby Dick as a third person narrated book. There might not be any obsessive descriptions of whaling. It might just be a short adventure story of Ahab and the white whale. All the poetry of Ishmael’s narration would be lost and the book probably wouldn’t be as highly revered but it would, most likely, be a much easier sell as a movie.
It’s possible that Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby will one day see excellent adaptations on the screen (or maybe they already have, depending on your point of view) but given the nature of their narratives, it’s going to be difficult. The narrators tell the story and, in the process, become the story, in as much as we only understand it through their eyes. And making that work on a screen, where we can’t read their innermost thoughts, but only hear them through sporadic narration, has got to be one of the most difficult jobs facing any screenwriter’s adaptation. But still, I think it’s doable. Call me crazy, but I think we’ll see a great adaptation of Moby Dick yet. Or call me Ishmael. Whichever you prefer.
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