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Two new films navigate the treacherous shoals of literary adaptation

Turning leaves, churning seas 

Two new films navigate the treacherous shoals of literary adaptation

I'm not given to searching the calendar for milestones, but it recently occurred that this month marks 25 years that I've been writing film reviews for Triangle readers. My stint began shortly after Spectator magazine--for which I was both a fledgling critic and neophyte arts editor--began publishing on November 15, 1978. The first movie I reviewed was Alan Parker's Midnight Express, scripted by a then-unknown screenwriter, Oliver Stone.

Speaking of milestones, the current month also marks five years of happy association with the Independent, as well as the 35th anniversary of my very first plunge into film criticism, a decade before my Spectator debut. That inaugural review--who knew where it would lead?--was written in November of 1968, when I was a high-school senior, and published in the school paper, for which I wrote a column on the conveniently broad and fashionably McLuhanesque topic of "media."

For years I gave out the story that my first review was of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's masterpiece seems such a grand place to have started, and hazy memory helped me believe the tale myself. But a cache of recently discovered high-school papers revealed the truth: 2001 was the second movie I reviewed. Prior to that came a consideration of two now almost-forgotten films, Robert Ellis Miller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler. I preferred the latter, which seemed more fluent and dynamic due to being less constrained by its literary source material. Here's how my 17-year-old self began that first film review:

It is a safe bet that a good portion of the books on this week's best seller list will sooner or later be made into movies, because popular literature has long been a prime source of scripts for Hollywood. Directors and producers are constantly scanning the literary horizon, and every year the various film companies pay huge sums of money to acquire the film rights to certain books.

Nothing too profound there, admittedly, but my linking two otherwise very disparate films because they came from well-known books was not just a handy device learned early on. What interested me about these films was the ways their directors had been able, or failed, to transform their written sources into experiences that were persuasively cinematic.

Pondering that first critique, and the fact that that I've now been writing reviews for nearly half the history of sound movies (gulp!), about all I can say is "plus ca change." Because the two movies up for consideration this week, Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Robert Benton's The Human Stain, in some ways remind me of that pair I first scrutinized: I walked out of both musing on their problematic ties to novelistic sources.

Renowned fiction, as opposed to pliable pulp, is a double-edged sword for filmmakers. While it may contain strong story elements, it's often neither as dramatic nor as visual as movies require, yet moviemakers can't reshape it too much for fear of outraging its admirers. This dilemma ends up hamstringing the makers not only of Master and Commander but of The Human Stain as well. The latter film, however, only cost Miramax $24 million to make.

Master and Commander represents a much larger set of worries for 20th Century-Fox, for the same reason that the studio was obliged to mount the movie in partnership with Universal and Miramax: It cost $135 million to produce. Even in an era of ridiculously inflated budgets, that's still a staggering amount for any movie not based on a comic book and aimed at "post-literate" 12-year-olds from Boston to Borneo.

I wish I could say I thought Fox's chances looked better, because Master and Commander has all the earmarks of a great, intelligent high-seas adventure for grownups, and it is beautifully made. Derived from two of the 20 acclaimed Patrick O'Brian novels centered on the friendship of two Napoleonic-era British seamen, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and ship's-doctor/naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the film opens as the duo's vessel, H.M.S. Surprise, is sent to the coast of Brazil to intercept a French warship, the Acheron, which is faster, more modern and carries double the crew.

When the Acheron emerges suddenly from a cloud bank and launches a devastating surprise attack on the Surprise, we're off to the kind of cracking good start that wouldn't be out of place in any Star Wars or Star Trek sequel. This being 1805 rather than the future, though, our equivalents of Kirk and Spock are not able to shift into warp speed or beam aboard, say, an attractive female Klingon for advice. What follows, instead, is a long and circuitous chase-odyssey that takes us around Cape Horn and past the Galapagos Islands (where Maturin attempts to become a proto-Darwin) until the two ships at last have their final face-off. During all this time the only female we see is a woman glimpsed by Aubrey for approximately three seconds (you can bet her image is in all of the film's trailers and TV ads).

I would guess that admirers of O'Brian's books (which I haven't read) will be captivated by the aura of fidelity, the lavish realism and sumptuous production values of Master and Commander. From The Last Wave through The Truman Show, Peter Weir has proved himself a master at integrating human predicaments into unusual physical environments. By any measure, his efforts at bringing to life seaborne warfare of two centuries ago could hardly be more handsomely realized; besides all the zeal for accuracy that characterizes its design, and the subtle splendor of Russell Boyd's photography, the movie sets a new standard for meshing virtually undetectable special effects into its spectacular battles and storms. In addition, Weir gets topnotch performances out of Crowe and the rest of his cast.

Yet all those virtues together are so far from adding up to a great movie that one must wonder of this film's studio sponsors: What were they thinking? In recent years Hollywood has determined that most audiences don't like historical movies, and thus "costumers" are seldom made unless they contain such tried-and-true elements as a strong love interest or a great villain. Scoff if you like, but those staples tend to assure that a film will have, above and beyond the kind of period accuracy that only geeks care about, an undercurrent of passion that gives the story a compelling "through-line. "

Master and Commander has no such passion, no such through-line, no real wit nor particular dramatic cleverness or historical resonance. Though it meanders from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it leaves an audience's emotions becalmed. Why, then, does it exist, beyond the fact that certain producers loved O'Brian's fiction and were able to sign up the star of Gladiator? Good question.

This quietly damning anecdote comes from Newsweek: "When Weir first met with screenwriter John Collee, Collee suggested that he and Weir spell out what the movie was really about, "a kind of mission statement,' Weir says. "I said, "It's about these two men and they're on this journey." And he said, "Yes, but beyond that. What's it saying?' And I said, "Well, I'd hate to think of that. I haven't the faintest idea.'"

After 35 years writing about Hollywood's missteps, I've evolved a few simple rules for the moguls, which I offer them free of charge. Here's one: No studio should spend $135 million on a movie whose director hasn't "the faintest idea" what it's about. Brilliant, no?

One thing that's changed since I began reviewing is that everyone now knows too much about the commercial side of moviemaking. As a consequence, the new Miramax release The Human Stain arrives with a tainted reputation due to its tepid reception at September's Toronto Film Festival, which was widely noted. As a result of the bad buzz, The New York Times reported last week, the studio is hustling the movie into theaters double-time while shifting its Oscar hopes to another Kidman vehicle, Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Raleigh author Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.

Robert Benton's adaptation of the Phillip Roth novel hinges on a secret that is revealed almost an hour into the film. Most reviews tell you this secret up front, but I think that's a shame and I'll avoid the tip-off while urging interested filmgoers to see the movie before reading or hearing too much about it.

Suffice it to say that The Human Stain opens as a Jewish liberal-arts professor at a Northeastern college, played by Anthony Hopkins, is drummed out of his position by craven faculty enforcers of political correctness. Because two of his students never showed up for class, the prof referred to them as "spooks," which is interpreted as a racial slur although he sensibly claims that, having never seen them, he had no way of knowing the students were black. Hearing of his shame, the prof's wife collapses and shortly dies.

Sometime later, he begins an improbable but invigorating affair with a local woman, played by Nicole Kidman, who is well-born but white-trash bred and burdened with the psychotic attentions of her ex (Ed Harris). Due to this volatile situation, which the prof relates to a writer friend (Gary Sinise), our protagonist is propelled into pondering his long-guarded secret by thinking back on his younger days as an aspiring scholar and boxer (here he is played by Wentworth Miller, a young actor who gives an excellent, career-launching performance).

With a recurring emphasis on the issue of race, this is provocative, richly human material of the sort that American movies now give us too infrequently. So why did critics sniff at the film in Toronto? Many reviews complained that Hopkins and Kidman were miscast and unbelievable in their roles. I disagree. I thought both stars were fine, understanding that the roles needed to be cast with stars for financial reasons. In fact, my hunch is that people who complained about the movie's leads simply chose an obvious target when the real problem was so subtle as to be almost subliminal, and came from the film's adherence to its literary source.

Put simply (and without revealing details) The Human Stain resolves itself not through its two main characters but through the secondary characters played by Sinise and Harris. You can do that and have it "play" in a book, but, movie-wise, it is still a non-starter--or non-finisher, to be more accurate. Granted, there are other aspects of the film that make it seem creakily "novelistic" in the negative sense, but the filmmakers' most crucial problem, in my view, lay in not imagining the story's climax and conclusion in a way that satisfies the demands of both cinema and drama. That's a tricky task, and it may require more liberty-taking than most authors will countenance. But it's better than having moviegoers walk out of the theater suspecting that the book must have been better. EndBlock

  • Two new films navigate the treacherous shoals of literary adaptation

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