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Musings on Films from Books, part 1

February 9, 2013

If my memory serves me well on the argument of adapting novels Alfred Hitchcock said something like: a two hours film cannot compete with a book’s five hundred pages, you take from it what has cinematic value and forget the rest. I ignore what Sir Alfred thought of films from books that were made in his time, but I guess he would be hugely disappointed looking at today’s adaptations since everybody seems to pay no attention to his advise. In the last few days I have seen three films from books I have read – and in the meantime I have seen many more films from books I have not read, the original screenplay is an endangered species and there is no WWF protecting it – and I assume they provide good examples of things filmmakers do when they adapt books into films.

These books provoked three distinct reactions when I read them: I loved Cloud Atlas, Barney’s Version I found amusing but little more than that, My Brother is an Only Child seemed to me a good – though flawed – attempt to depict Italy in the 1960s. Usually when I read book I often find myself thinking of the ways it could be adapted into film, I try to assess and evaluate its cinematic potential: I have no memory of such thoughts coming to my mind while I was reading the works by Richler and Pennacchi, but I remember that the constant thought during my reading of Cloud Atlas was: how are you going to film this? The book was filled with cinematic material but its sixfold structure seemed to make a determined resistance to filming, but the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer had a Columbus’s egg in store.

“Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoanuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker…”

Tykwer and the Wachowskis have given us no cocoanuts nor footprints but they surely have got the Cloud Atlas essentials: Mitchell’s novel is one and only story, the tale repeats and echoes itself for six times in six different times, in the book the links (meanings? ideas?) connecting the stories are revealed slowly – the more you advance into the book the more you see how the stories are intertwined – the three directors have realized that making these links explicit from the beginning would have allowed to tell the stories – thanks to an amazing work by editor Alexander Berner – as a continuum. The problem with Cloud Atlas – the book – was that the philosophic content it slowly revealed was rather light – its homo homini lupus view of modernity – the sum had less value than the single parts, nonetheless Mitchell offers such a wild ride with his chameleon like writing style and inventiveness that you can only be grateful and forgive him for the thin ideological content. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have matched – or maybe even outmatched – Mitchell on the stylistic level, Cloud Atlas is an audacious film, it’s full of original cinematic solutions, but by making the “point of the story” clear from the beginning the directors have emphasized the weak point of the book: its light thinking value.

Antonio Pennacchi‘s My Brother is an Only Child follows its selfish and egocentric protagonist – Accio Benassi – all along his teenage years, it’s a highly charged political book set during the years – circa 1963 to 1972 – that led to the Years of Lead (otherwise called Italian civil war), director Daniele Luchetti – also screenwriter alongside Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli – has decided either simplify or marginalize the political content of the book, but mainly he has judged Accio (Elio Germano) was an unappealing character and has centered the story on a dualism with his brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio) which was latent in the book. Being unfaithful to the book, extrapolating what they considered worth on a cinematic level Luchetti, Petraglia and Rulli seem to have fulfilled Hitchcock’s ideal, alas their story of competing brothers where the junior one is eager for the things the older one already has – Mom’s love or Francesca’s (Diane Fleri) – sounds silly when you compare it with the social and political background surrounding it.


Pennacchi’s Accio and Richler‘s Barney Panofsky have one thing in common: they are unredeemable assholes – defined and made interesting by their sins and shortcomings – but the filmic effort to redeem them has tamed them beyond belief so reducing the young Fascist and the lifelong alcoholic to irrelevant/pathetic characters we don’t care about; I guess movie producers dislike extreme characters: while a book can be a success selling copies by the thousands, films need to appeal to millions of spectators, diluting the strength of the characters seems to be the main recipe en vogue in the movie industry. Of the three films from books considered here Barney’s Version is by far the most respectful of the novel – except for the just mentioned diluting aspect of course – director Richard J. Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves have completely ignored Hitchcock’s advise so while their film probably pleases Richler’s admirers it confuses the spectator who has not read the novel with too many threads and characters, such abundance is fit for a novel, on film the result is sketchy and inconspicuous.


My final assessment is that the films by Luchetti and Lewis – though they have approached the problem of book adaptation from very different angles – have both failed their task of creating cinematic value from the novels, the Italian for lack of courage, the Canadian for excessive respect toward the book, it’s curious to note that they both have decided to skip the social/political content of the novels so I wonder: do films really need to be easy? On the other side Cloud Atlas was already lightweight stuff, the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer have managed to find a way to exploit and develop its cinematic potential so creating a powerful companion to the novel, Cloud Atlas the film is a one of a kind marvel, so I guess I am still searching for a film from book fulfilling Hitchcock’s ideal.

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