Saturday, February 5, 2011

Unfilmable

Lots of news this week -- most of it shockingly free of actual news -- regarding new movie adaptations of Stephen King novels: renewed efforts at Paramount to get Pet Sematary back on screen; a fresh push at Warner Bros. to get It moving forward again; and, of course, the proposed new film version of The Stand that CBS and Warner Bros. will be co-producing.

Not surprising, and the plethora of news makes me even more optimistic for Ron Howard's Dark Tower.  Why?  Well, it's simple: if Hollywood is abuzz with dreams of Stephen King movies, and the buzz is following on the footsteps of Dark Tower rumblings, then it likely means that every agent in town is trying to get his clients in the mix for Howard's ambitious films.  As a result, King's name is getting mentioned a lot, and the other studios are looking around and asking which King properties they currently hold the rights to film.  That only happens when Hollywood has dollars in its eyes, and whereas that sounds cynical and antithetical to good art, it isn't always the case: look at what happened with The Lord of the Rings.  No, in this particular instance, I see the flurry of King-related activity to be an indication that Universal has big, big plans for The Dark Tower, and that makes me fairly giddy with antici .......... pation.

The main reason I'm writing today, though, is that I wanted to make a few observations about Misery.  The reading-it-aloud project continues, more slowly than I'd anticipated (reading time has been unaccountably slim this week) but satisfyingly.  As I've read, I've had a few thoughts regarding the novel, and the way in which it was constructed, and if you'd be so kind as to follow the break -- heh -- you can read all about them.





"It's a trick," she said.  "You don't want to write my book and so you're making up tricks not to start.  I knew you would.  Oh boy.  But it's not going to work.  It--"
     "That's silly," he said.  "Did I say I wasn't going to start?"
     "No ... no, but--"
     "That's right.  Because I am.  And if you come here and take a look at something, I'll show you what the problem is.  Bring that Webster Pot with you, please."
     "The what?"
     "Little jar of pens and pencils," he said.  "On newspapers, they sometimes call them Webster Pots.  After Daniel Webster."  This was a lie he had made up on the spur of the moment, but it had the desired effect -- she looked more confused than ever, lost in a specailists' world of which she had not the slightest knowledge.  The confusion had diffused (and thus defused) her rage even more; he saw she now didn't even know if she had any right to be angry."  (Misery, p. 65)

One of the elements of King's work that has been justly praised over the years is his ability to write relatable, sympathetic characters, and a big part of that ability lies in his skill at conveying a person's interior life: their thoughts, feelings, dreams, psychoses ... all the things that, generally speaking, are hidden to everyone except for the person experiencing them.  Misery, of course, is one of the books in which King uses that sort of interiority most extensively.  It isn't the only one; Gerald's Game comes to mind immediately, along with its sibling Dolores Claiborne, and having recently reread both It and The Drawing of the Three, I can vouch for the fact that both of those excellent novels are filled to the brim with it.  Cujo is awash in it, so much so that King is even able to write great interior passages from Cujo's point of view!

That interiority is really quite unfilmable, and it's one the major reasons that Hollywood has had so much trouble adequately translating King to screen.  Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those only-the-book! nutters who disdains all book-to-film adaptations, nor am I a purist to the extent that I'm still honestly confused as to why, and angered that, Tom Bombadil was left out of Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring.  No, indeed, I like a lot of the Stephen King-based movies, love several of them, and can even glean mild enjoyment out of many of the bad ones.  All things considered, King has fared quite well: there is at least one genuine classic film (The Shawshank Redemption) that derives from his works, and arguably several more on top of that, with a good-sized sackful of competent ones on top of that.

However, there have only been a few cases in which the films really got to the core of the novel or story they were based on, and if you're looking for a reason why, I think you need look no further for an example than at that little section of Misery above.  In that scene, the actual occurrences are irrelevant: Paul asks Annie for a cup of writing implements, and explains to her why it's called what it's called.  However, Paul's intentions are highly relevant: he is intentionally deceiving Annie, partially just because he has the ability to do so and is bored enough to use it, but also because the creative juices are beginning to flow in Paul again (this subtlety is, arguably, a reflection of Paul's unhealthy addiction to the world of Misery Chastain, as well as a sign of his slow recovery from complete helplessness).  It is something Paul is doing because he intends to gain dominance over Annie, but it also, perversely, shows how Paul is addicted to and dependent upon his own imagination.

Now, how on Earth could a screenwriter or a director hope to ever hope to get any of that on screen while constructing a scene in which Paul asks Annie for a "Webster Pot"?  Never say never, but boy, it wouldn't be an easy task, would it?

This is merely a single such scene out of untold examples one could find strewn throughout King's books and stories, and with that in mind, I think it brings into stark relief how and why so many King adaptations have utterly failed.  Hell, even King himself isn't typically up to the task as a screenwriter: his screenplays for The Stand and The Shining, and to a lesser extent Pet Sematary, simply do not replicate the subtle, rich interior lives of the many characters found in their respective original novels.

It's not exactly a revelation that this is the case, as any decent work of prose is likely to contain a healthy dose of interiority.  King, however, is especially fond of it, and good at writing it, and the writers and directors who have tackled his work have all too often been too untalented, or perhaps merely too oblivious, or maybe even too lazy, to try and counteract the difficulty of putting a character's inner life on screen.  It can be counteracted; not replaced, maybe, but certainly counteracted.  A good cast can work wonders if properly supported, and a good composer can suggest things with music, and editing can do exceptionally interesting things, and if a director is skilled enough to use all these things in tandem, then film is really quite a versatile medium.

The problem, as far as I can tell, lies in the frequent failure of filmmakers to realize that prose is prose and film is film, and in order for prose to be translated to film, it has to actually be translated.  It is not a 1:1 equation; things must be changed, reordered, reconceived, added, and even -- especially -- abandoned.  But you can't do those things imprudently; you have to constantly keep an eye on your intentions, and make sure you aren't straying from them.  In some cases -- Kubrick's The Shining, for instance -- this may lead you to something very different than your source material, and as long as you're doing so knowingly, I don't see that as a problem.  In other instances -- Darabont's trio of fine King-based films -- it will mean that any alterations you make get made in service of remaining true to the spirit of the book, so as to capture as much of it as possible.

But with King, it appears to be a complicated and demanding task.  Here's hoping Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are up to the task with The Dark Tower, and that whoever ends up working on The Stand and It and Pet Sematary are, too.

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