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Film: The High Art of Adaptations

Cracking open the holiday season's literary presents

By tt stern-enzi · December 11th, 2007 · Movies
  Casey Affleck (left) and Michelle Monaghan star in writer/director Ben Affleck's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's crime novel.

Casey Affleck (left) and Michelle Monaghan star in writer/director Ben Affleck's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's crime novel.

The Hollywood dream factory shifts into a slightly different gear this holiday season, as it becomes a subsidiary of the publishing houses. Apparently there is box-office gold to be mined along the aisles of our chain booksellers and there is also the compounded yield from capital gains like the stamp of approval from Oprah's Book Club and other specialty markets. 'Tis the season, and there's something for every discriminating taste.

Highlights so far this year include Alice Munro (Away From Her), Mariane Pearl (A Mighty Heart), Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild), Eileen Chang (Lust, Caution), John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road), Anonymous (Beowulf), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Love in the Time of Cholera), Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass), Ian McEwan (Atonement) and Upton Sinclair (There Will Be Blood). And that's just a teasing compilation ranging from contemporary best-sellers to literary giants whose words have or are expected to come to life in the multiplexes.

But the burden of the gift lies heavily on the givers -- not the studios themselves, but the filmmakers. In a recent interview with Mike Newell, director of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, he spoke of how "with a piece of art, you will make a version. You bring a tribute, a sacrifice to the god of the novel." And with his or any of these versions arriving this holiday season, we are being given a gift that might inspire us to go back to the source for an even greater reward while enjoying the golden threads flickering festively across the screens.

An early entry seeking to land on the literary to screen gift-giving lists, Feast of Love, curiously enough, comes close to the narrative daring found in Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman-penned translation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, noted for the screenwriter's reworking of the book's framework and his barrier-breaking insertion of himself (and his fictional twin brother) into the film's action. Feast goes in the opposite direction, though, by removing the presence of its writer Charles Baxter as a character in his fictional world, a la Philip Roth. To avoid confusion, the screenplay melds his perspective with that of Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman), and why not when a casting coup allows for an Academy Award winner of such emotional depth and wisdom like Freeman to grace the screen.

Yet there's a reason why I mentioned Roth. Academy Award-winning writer/director Robert Benton (Kramer vs.

Kramer) knows a thing or two about Roth adaptations, having helmed The Human Stain, which played with the question of identity and cultural baggage in the guise of its central figure, a Jewish professor (Anthony Hopkins) fired for making a "racially insensitive" comment about African-American students when he's also an African-American man who has spent years passing as a Jew. In Feast, the switch occurred in the project's development, which Benton came to later in the process, but is carried off without drawing undue attention to Freeman's race or that of his wife, Ester, played by Jane Alexander.

Some might assume that writer/director Ben Affleck chose a most curious way to build a franchise with his directing debut Gone Baby Gone based on a crime-mystery from best-selling author Dennis Lehane. Gone is actually the fourth in Lehane's series devoted to Boston private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, which is considered the best of the five thus far for its ability to delve beneath its whodunit premise and ask challenging moral questions that ultimately have a huge impact on the characters and framework of its milieu.

But why start toward the end of the series? And why would you cast actors (brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) who appear far too young to carry the world-weary vibe of Kenzie and Gennaro? Well, I've already answered the first question (you can't go wrong with a strong story) and on the second front, Casey delivers a performance so textured and riveting, he makes fans of the books completely forget how young he looks. Plus, as Boston boys, the Afflecks do their hometown proud exploring the rough and tumble streets without a hint of vanity. Many Boston writers claim the film goes too far, rendering Beantown's warts and ugliness too well.

The translation falters, however, in the decreased attention given to Gennaro who becomes a spectator on film when, on paper, she's a player to be reckoned with, which is surprising because Hollywood studios take much flack over their weak portrayals of women -- here was a prime opportunity to reset the balance.

Yet when Ben's big finish actually trumps Lehane's conclusion and announces once again that the elder Affleck has what it takes to be a serious contender in film. After all the fireworks have cut the dark sky and the debris has settled, Kenzie remains as the guardian over his own questionable choice in a skillfully drawn point of resignation. The book has him leaving the scene at the end, thoughtfully wondering if he's made the right decision. But by having him remain as the guardian of the consequences he has wrought, the film and Affleck make a stronger moral point. The choice requires a man willing to stand by it, and Casey and Ben's version of Kenzie proves to be the man and then some.

Casey Affleck seems to be the envy at the late-season awards dance because he follows up Gone Baby Gone with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, playing second fiddle to Brad Pitt as the iconic outlaw. Writer/director Andrew Dominik pares down Ron Hansen's pre-celebrity western myth to the only two men that matter. At times the book plays like a poetically neutered version of Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) with less of the apocalyptic fervor of Cormac McCarthy. But the film arrives infused with cinematography that creates yellowed, near fish-eyed frames of those fading glories. It becomes the last recollection of a man who was there on his deathbed, knowing that when he goes so does this version of the truth.

Who would have guessed that the sensibilities of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers would have been so simpatico? Well, likely any of the cultish fans of either camp. McCarthy's bleak men of the Old Testament frontier wander the land like pawns in some cruel divine joke. The Coens get that joke and somehow always make audiences feel in on it, too. But they are at their absolute best when it never becomes just the set-up for a smart bit of black humor.

No chance of that with No Country For Old Men. The novel ends with a long monologue from Sheriff Bell (played in the film by Tommy Lee Jones) about a conversation he's had with his wife.

"At supper this evenin she told me she'd been reading St. John. The Revelations. Any time I get to talkin about how things are she'll find somethin in the bible so I asked her if Revelations had anything to say about the shape things was takin and she said she'd let me know."

The Coens don't end their film with this resigned ramble, but their coda, also taken directly from another Bell soliloquy, leaves us with the same sense of open unease, as if the world we've been watching and reading about has left us far behind.

Richard Matheson's novella I Am Legend has been adapted for the screen two previous times. The first version arrived in 1964 under the title The Last Man on Earth and starred Vincent Price with Matheson contributing to the screenplay before requesting that his name be removed from the final edit. The second version, 1971's The Omega Man, featured Charlton Heston and strayed somewhat from the original premise. This latest attempt from Francis Lawrence (Constantine) certainly bears the longest gestation period (Ridley Scott developed the project during the 1990s with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the lead), and the basic premise hints at the inherent dilemma so many filmmakers have faced.

Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last living man on Earth -- the last living man. Other creatures have slowly begun to build a society of their own without his knowledge as he has struggled to maintain some semblance of life and the world he belonged to before they rose up. Technology and our current fixation on frenzied frames and fractured narratives would seem to call for a Legend with explosive action and Mad Max brawn complete with legions of lethally titillating CGI monstrous humanoids. The Lawrence/Smith collaboration promises a plethora of effects, but Matheson's novella was a triumph of the spirit and, more importantly, humanity at its passing.

In the end, though, Legend will succeed if the movie sends audiences rushing out to stuff stockings with Matheson's text. This year, the bounty of literary riches projected onto movie screens guarantees that the naughty and nice will find something to suit their tastes and maybe enrich us all with art that entertains and empowers. Now that's a gift that keeps on giving.



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