By Nathanael Griffis
Why do they have to change everything? moans the viewer as he leaves the theater disappointed that a certain ethos was not captured, that a character’s appearance was different, or that they were cut entirely. Well, sometimes very little is changed. Things will be cut, but these two examples are about as loyal to their source materials as movies get. The problem is that loyalty is not always a good thing. On the one had we have The Road, one of the great post-apocalyptic films and novels from one of the best English writers ever. On the other we have The Da Vinci Code, which was written by Dan Brown and a lot of people bought it. So let’s begin.
The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s work is a mixture of Raymond Carver minimalism, Faulknerian description, and Poe’s sense of horror and realism. In the future this style will probably be simply titled McCarthyesque. Because of his bleak, straightforward method of writing, his books translate well to film. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are great movies. (It should also be noted that No Country for Old Men is not considered one of his better novels). In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy writes the Texas setting like few before him. It was completely unromanticized. So when he published The Road, what would you expect but one of the most horrifying visions of the apocalypse ever.
The world has ended, and a father and son travel down a road trying to survive while still holding onto their humanity. Post-apocalyptic films, for all their scary subject matter, normally manage to make the apocalypse seem cool. They’re afraid to show you what the end of the world would really be like. A hopeless bleak landscape of death, is what it would look like, and that’s what The Road give us. (Also, it might not include massive shootouts, explosions, or skimpily clad attractive women, so Hollywood is suspicious of it.)
As director, John Hillcoat was perfect for this film. The Proposition treats the Western in the same sense The Road treats the apocalypse, with unflinching realism. Hillcoat rounded up an amazing cast too: Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as his former wife, Robert Duvall as the Old Man, Guy Pearce as the Veteran, Micheal Kenneth Williams as the Thief, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy.
This film is full of startling performances, and it’s a shame it was forgotten during Oscar season. Admittedly, 2009 was a tough year to break into the Oscars with so many spectacular films that year. Each actor in The Road, no matter the size of his role, seems to recognize the importance of it. The art direction is perfect in the film. A scraggly Viggo Mortensen in a gray scale wilderness wipes out any sense of grandeur left over from The Lord of the Rings.
What is really impressive about the film though is the script. To take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and dare adapt it is a challenge to live up to, but Joe Penhall (who previously adapted Enduring Love, an Ian McEwan novel, so he likes adapting modern classic writers) was smart. He took the book and eliminated little. He followed the plot’s progression and kept most of the scenes and, more impressively, most of the dialogue. When he cut it was mainly to shorten a section from the book. In this case it works wonderfully. The horror and tension experienced when the Man breaks into a locked basement looking for food becomes fully realized when you see the still living dismembered people groping about the floor. There are a few scenes of violence and cannibalism in the book, mostly involving children and babies, that the director and writer show restraint in depicting, but for the most part it is staggering how frightening a film this is. What’s so amazing about the book is its sense of hope in the face of utter destruction, a classic apocalyptic trope. Penhall, I suspect, recognized that it was McCarthy’s bare dialogue that lends hope to the chaotic vision, so he doesn’t lose it. There is no attempt to add extra action, a stirring race-to-the-goal montage, or a heavy-handed death scene with a blaring score.
The brilliance of the whole project is that the source material is too genius not to use. The writer wisely chooses to keep its brilliance and not change much. No one but Cormac McCarthy can still convey hope in the face of extinction and have it feel unforced, so why not use his words and his descriptions to make a masterpiece. So what happens when the author is not one of McCarthy’s caliber?
The Da Vinci Code: I don’t think Dan Brown would be insulted if I said he wasn’t as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, but who knows, maybe he disagrees. Dan Brown is comparable to Tom Clancy. He’s a proficient thriller-writer who does an impressive amount of research. The man knows his art and art history. If only he’d taken some time to research how to write interesting characters and dialogue. He can write conspiracy mysteries and give you a creepy bad guy pretty well. What he should do is read some Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett to get a sense of how you make a more interesting character than the bland symbologist Robert Langdon. I present to you our introduction to Langdon in the novel The Da Vinci Code: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” Wow. What resonance. What a strong verb. Detect sarcasm? I hope so.
The issue here is that Dan Brown crafted a controversial thriller and perfected the art of the chapter cliffhanger, producing a worldwide bestseller. Then, with dollar signs in their eyes, Columbia Pictures bought the rights and an impressive cast and crew: Ron Howard as director; a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen; a musical score by Hans Zimmer; a script by Akiva Goldsman (and mind you, the last time Goldsman wrote a script for Ron Howard, it was Cinderella Man, and before that A Beautiful Mind). So why didn’t this work out? Because the source material is not that great, if you stay loyal to it. A long scene where an old art collector explains the finer points of conspiracy art theory is kind of interesting on the page. On film, it’s slow and taxing, watching Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks lecture us on art, which is basically what it is–a poorly orchestrated sequence of exposition and Q&A about Renaissance painters. There is very little action in the story, a lot of globetrotting but lackluster locations, and the Louvre is amazing, yes, but it isn’t shot well.
The only character of interest, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is killed off way too easily, and all tension leaves the movie. The mystery is already solved, because everyone’s read the book, so relying on a mystery is boring. Like I said in my first article on adaptations, it’s about how you tell the story. We all know Romeo and Juliet die; you have to make us care. You get great actors to imbibe the characters with something new, not just walk around old historical structures and look at the ceiling.
The Da Vinci Code is basically the strangest and most expensive thing ever made by the Travel Channel. It’s a randomly planned tour of Europe for only nine dollars. Books do not translate perfectly to the screen. Being loyal to an audience can mean ruining your art form. It takes away the ability of the director, the writer, and the actors to create a quality product. (I don’t know what Hans Zimmer’s excuse was). The book should have been rehashed like Tom Clancy’s novels have been, or even better, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. Take the premise–a symbologist solves the mystery of a historical conspiracy while running around Europe. That’s pretty exciting. But it isn’t.
When it comes to a straight adaptation, make sure of two things: that the source material is interesting and well written, and that it translates to film well. Without good writing and good visual descriptions, it won’t work no matter who’s involved in the project.
Next I’ll take a look at the most common of adaptations–the basic adaptation–with the movies Holes and The Golden Compass.