Unreal City

Lost in Transmutation: Literature and film

Declan Tan | Tuesday 24 June, 2014 18:12

University classes and glass-eyed professors have long pondered the significance and meaning of the word ‘literature’. The most forthcoming definition is that offered, as always, by the Oxford English Dictionary: “Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” But what can this definition reveal to us about film, and how much the form of literature has changed, especially when looking at the inception of the auteur’s contribution? Could a film be termed literature? Perhaps but perhaps not. A screenplay is a written work, and therefore of literature, so can it be treated in the same respect? Or is it in the filming, the reification of the script, that the literature dissolves to nothing? 

Literature and cinema have for a long time been linked by the filmmakers’ passion for the written word. In the work of all ascendant directors and writers is to be found a profound bond between the novel and the film. Much can be said for the filmmaker’s urge to translate a spirited piece of written work from one medium into another, from page to screen, and through the history of cinema some of the strongest work is to be found in adaptation. 

That the same does not happen in reverse is no comment on the inability of images to reassemble into words on a page, but says more about the inelegant purpose for doing so. Though even when these are done competently and with verve, it seems already too late for the word to supplant any representation, other than that of the one already fixed by a viewing of the movie. For an example, look to Leonard and Paul Schrader’s book and film combination, Blue Collar (Note here the differentiation between a franchise ‘book’ and genuine ‘literature’; with the former being made primarily for money, and the latter without). 

Robert Bresson, who adapted many of his most venerated works, particularly from Dostoevsky, once put it something like this: “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” And just as the uproar can often be heard when a prestigious literary text gets the filmic treatment, smug snobbery usually taking the form of ‘Yeah, but the book is better’ can be heard all around. But it’s when the auteur takes the true essence of its source material and feeds into it fresh insight, new meaning and hefty ideas, without necessarily copying it word-for-word, image-for-image as it were, that these flowers begin to blossom: images that forcefully invoke the feeling of a literary work, and can breathe new life into the piece. 

Take for example Kubrick’s telling of Anthony Burgess’ novella A Clockwork Orange . Censored by Kubrick himself, after a series of ultraviolent copycat crimes, the adaptation of the American version of the tale, which leaves out a crucial final chapter from the original story, carries a separate meaning from Burgess’ original intention. But in his method, Kubrick had revealed something that was previously not completely fulfilled by Burgess. Though very much open to interpretation, his version gave us an unadulterated and hopeless, even nihilistic view of man as the most violent of animals, without the hopeful (if ultimately fleeting) rehabilitation of one of fiction’s most memorable anti-heroes, little Alex. 

But undoubtedly even great literature can make appalling films, especially in the wrong hands (see anything adapted from John Fante or Alan Moore) Quite feasibly there are just as many poor films as there are poor books and in a similar vein, just as many bad novels sometimes make great cinema, a notable example of which must be Stephen King’s The Shining.

Francis Ford Coppola is another case in point of a revered auteur exploring the possibilities of good and bad literature. Taking the peculiarly written The Godfather by Mario Puzo, surgically removing the drawn-out episodes of procedural gynaecology and sword-measuring, then turning it into one of American cinema’s greatest achievements, is certainly proof not only the vision of its director, but a reminder that a strong story stripped down with the appropriate tone can make all the difference. 

Then in 1979, Coppola tackled Joseph Conrad’s affecting novella, Heart Of Darkness. Apocalypse Now was the end result. Delving into the primitive abyss of the human soul, of man against nature, and the nature of man against himself, Coppola produced a work simultaneously faithful and transcendent of its original source, sinking it all within the murky context of the Vietnam War.  

That these themes roll consistently through the greatest of film, as in literature, is no coincidence. There is something in the marriage of the written word and the cinema that transmits the feelings of alienation, despair, fear and paranoia like no other medium; the re-imagined dreams within our subconscious. And though of course literary works remain ‘great’ regardless of how they may later be adapted to screen, the novel is an unforgiving medium that can show up a frail work of fiction, which has no distraction afforded to a writer who is without lasting imagery, without ideas and without an intriguing storyline. There are few tricks to misdirect, unlike in film, where the image can turn to a constant distraction rather than tool for the telling. 

But in these bodies of work is the inseparable connection between word and image, image and memory. The work of Christopher Nolan is a forerunner of this new way. The recurrent themes found in his films, as with other visual writers such as Charlie Kaufmann, reflect the artist’s obsession with identity, absurdity, memory, reality and control. 

With both of his brothers writers, the same literary background can be witnessed in Nolan’s intricate visual narratives. Following his cinematic influences of Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Roeg, Lumet and Ridley Scott, and as a former undergraduate student of English Literature, Nolan has grounded his art in the literary tradition; efficient filmmaking, like the greatest in fiction, where no scene, no word is wasted, and all of its parts pointed toward the development of ideas, not simply cheap twists. Mathematical and labyrinthine, his stories are nevertheless made of the identical basic elements that make literature such a lasting medium. 

Repeated viewings, like repeated readings, reveal the delicate process of Nolan’s dense narratives. And his is an original and standout voice in the culture of disposable everything. That his work hovers lucidly in the viewer’s mind is testament to the ideal that a rejection of mass-produced Hollywood dregs brings with it great possibilities. And just like all the finest literature, regardless of whether it be daunting run-times or mammoth book lengths, the audience wish it never to end.

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