Tag Archives: movie adaptations

Raimond Gaita after Romulus

Raimond Gaita, After Romulus (Text 2011)

As the title suggests, this is a follow-up to Raimond Gaita’s Romulus My Father and as the cover suggests this time there’s a focus on his mother.

There’s an essay on the process of turning the book into a film, surely be among the most emotionally charged essays of its kind, made all the more poignant by the author’s repeated, convincing assertions that he works hard at avoiding sentimentality. I can’t imagine a better antidote to the world weariness of Radio National’s Movie Show or the consumerism of Margaret and David. The emotion isn’t anything as trivial as authorial pique.  This is about passion: according to Gaita, Richard Roxburgh didn’t want to become a film director, he just wanted to direct this film, and the description of the moment when Gaita finally meets Kodi Smit-McPhee, the actor who plays young Rai in the film, comes like a thunderclap.

But that’s just one of five essays. There are two pieces more or less in the manner of the earlier book. One (‘A Summer-Coloured Humanism’)deals with Hora, an important character there, his father’s close friend and almost a second father to young Rai, and the other (‘An Unassuageable Longing’, the longest essay and the book’s reason for existing) with Christine, Gaita’s mother, who was seen pretty much from his father’s point of view the first time around. Raimond Gaita probably couldn’t write a shopping list without at least alluding to philosophical profundities, and his writing about these two towering figures from his childhood is richly philosophical. But he saves his main philosophical powder for the other two essays, ‘Character and Its Limits’ and ‘On Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative’, in which he expands on and corrects some of the philosophy raised in Romulus My Father or in responses to it. He reflects on his father’s moral behaviour and sees in it the source of key elements of his own philosophical thought.

‘Philosophy always needs to be read slowly and more than once., Gaita writes.’ I would happily read these pieces several times, which is also true of his A Common Humanity and The Philosopher’s Dog. I can’t say that I follow his thinking all the time, but I do trust him. What appeals to me most strongly is the way he roots his philosophising in experience: there’s a deep sense through all the book of each human being as unique and irreplaceable, and of thinking as embedded in a human life. Some of the philosophy is hard to grasp, but I found it tantalising rather than annoying. He distinguishes between obligation and moral necessity, between affection and desire, between moral inflexibility and moralism, between sentimentality as the cause of error and as the form of the false. He writes of the importance of serious conversation, of the way people who share a life can fail to understand each other, of the difficult feat of responding  to someone who suffers ‘the utmost degradation’  with ‘compassion that is entirely without condescension’.

I read this on a long plane trip. There was something wonderful about reading his careful, deeply felt ruminations on the importance of honouring a child’s need to love and honour (in this case) his parents, even when they have betrayed his trust, and the harm done by disdaining the parents of such a child while the young man next to me had Will Smith waving a gun around on his laptop and the woman on the other side was alternating between a book of sudokus and Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

Where Blade Runner came from

Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968, Gollancz 1999)

Those who know about such things say the best introduction to Philip K Dick’s fiction is his short stories, especially ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’. The advice came too late for me: my introduction was the movie based on this book, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which I saw a shocking 28 years ago. Something – perhaps nothing more than the awkward title –  led me to expect the book to be a poor, pallid thing in comparison to the movie, but I’ve been meaning to read it anyhow since 1982.

Apart from the broad outlines of the plot (Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a bounty hunter who tracks down and kills advanced robots who have rebelled against servitude and are trying to pass as human), what I remember of the film is the dark turbulence of the design, the crazed, ruthless, romantic robot played by Rutger Hauer, the tear that runs down the cheek of a female character when she discovers she’s not human, and not much else. The world of the book is a quietly decaying desolation rather than an overpopulated millrace; Roy Baty (not Batty as in the movie), the leader of the rogue androids, is unambiguously unsympathetic; and Rachael Rosen finds out she’s not human fairly early in the piece, though later plot points suggest she has always known it – and either way there’s no great emotion involved. It’s the same story, but very different.

I enjoyed the book. I would have enjoyed it if Blade Runner had never been made, but as a study (in my case a mighty superficial one) of book-to-film adaptation it’s fascinating. The book has a religious movement, Mercerism, that isn’t in the film, that emphasises and reinforces the human quality of empathy. It’s mainly an Orwellian method of population control, and but it also enables the characters to have genuine mystical experiences. Though there’s plenty of killing, none of it is graphic: the most horrifying moment – and it is truly horrifying – involves a few scissor snips that draw no blood. The movie goes for much bigger effects, though it’s probably tame by today’s bang and splatter standards, and uses noir conventions to establish a moral and metaphysical murk that has (for my money, and in my memory) a much more powerful effect than the book. The book raises the same basic questions – something like: what makes us human? what does it mean to care, and what are its limits? – and has its own ambivalence and ambiguities, but in a much cooler, more cerebral, register.

The movie, in other words (and I intend to see it again soon), departed from the book in major ways, leaving out not just the religious element but also a central strand about companion animals (which survives vestigially in images of artificial owls, and ostriches in the streets), and even the major back story of a nuclear war. It was a futurist noir piece (perhaps the first of its kind?), where the book is something much quieter, more measured, more individual. The movie became its own thing, broke free of the constraining obligation to be true to the book (which has such a dampening effect on, say the movie adaptations like the Harry Potter series or the Millennium Trilogy). Interestingly enough, this leaves the book relatively uncontaminated. The book’s hero is definitely not Harrison Ford. I’m free to imagine him freshly for myself as I read.

China Miéville at Kinokuniya

There are wordy conflagrations in Melbourne around about now that are sending occasional sparks up Sydney way. The Melbourne Writers Festival is letting Val McDermid do an evening at Gleebooks, and last night China Miéville, in Australia for AussieCon 4, made an appearance at Kinokuniya. There was a bit of a Neil Gaiman rockstar feel to the event, with a pec hugging white T shirt in place of Neil’s trademark black jacket.

The Miévillians

After a brief introduction, China M stood on the tiny stage by himself for an hour, reading and fielding questions.

He read a chapter from his latest book, Kraken, pretty much a self-contained short story that was very funny, though more to be savoured than guffawed at. I loved the term retro eschatonaut: if you can figure out what it means you’ve got the bulk of the story.

An earlier plan to have a fishbowl Q&A session having been ditched, CM chaired the question time deftly. You could tell we weren’t at a Writers Festival because all the questioners had clearly read at least some of his books, and he didn’t have to do any obvious mental gymnastics to come up with interesting answers to dim questions. I noted down a couple of gems.

On atheism: After stopping the questioner in mid-sentence to prevent spoilers, he said, ‘I don’t think you choose whether you believe or not,’ and talked about CS Lewis’s account of his own conversion to Christianity: he had convinced himself that he had to believe, and knelt and prayed, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ‘I like the idea of an atheistic character who resents his lack of belief.’

On film adaptations: Any book involving a secondary world invites the collaboration of readers. A film destroys all the readers’ mental worlds – and the author’s – and replaces them with the director’s.

Advice to young writers: Start from an assumption that nothing you write will be worth publishing. Then falsify that assumption.

On writing a book set in an already established universe: Every book you write in someone else’s world is one less you can write in a world you make up yourself. He won’t ever be writing a Star Trek or Star Wars tie-in, but if he gets a phone call asking him to do a Doctor Who script, he’ll drop everything. (That last was delivered with a pinch of salt.) He wondered aloud what would happen if a publisher approached a distinguished author, J M Coetzee for example, asked them to write a Star Trek novel, and kept putting more money on the table until they said yes. (‘Star Wars by Coetzee?’ I muttered to the man standing next to me. ‘Better than Lucas,’ he muttered back. Someone should write it.) It would be a win-win: the Nobel laureate expands his readership, the publishing house cashes in on the controversy, the literati get to read some science fiction and/or enjoy their outrage, etc.

The role of politics in his work: He’s a socialist, and if his fiction introduces people to political ideas he’s thrilled, but a 500 page fantasy novel is a hugely inefficient vehicle for propaganda. ‘If you’re a Red, the Paris Commune is a very inspiring story. If you’re not a Red, it’s still a very exciting story.’ The revolutionary politics is there in his books because it gives their worlds texture, makes them more realistic.

I left, a happy camper,  as the audience was transmogrifying into a huge queue for the book signing. My Book Group is currently reading The City and the City (the book of his that he would most like to see made into a movie), so I’ll be posting about China Miéville again in a couple of weeks.

My Book Group Is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated (2002, Penguin Australia 2008)

I read five pages of this when it was freshly published, and decided it was not for me. It’s rare for me to dismiss a book like that, so I dipped ahead reading a page here, a page there, and found absolutely nothing to change my mind. Then at the December meeting of my Book Group, a number of people were keen to put it on our agenda, and they won the day. So, eventually, I bought a cheap copy (all the libraries’ copies were out) and set to work. By the time the group met last night, I’d finished it, though I did skim the last 20 pages so I’d have time to cook the dinner. There are some very strong bits, as it turns out to be a story of a small Ukrainian village whose entire Jewish population was murdered by German soldiers, counterpointed by a ludic tale of the Jonathan Safran Foer’s forebears’ lives in that village.  I can see why the book received such acclaim, but pretty much the first half is taken up with ha-ha-I’m-being-funny humour and an awful lot of the shtetl story that felt contrived, inconsistent and disrespectful, like Isaaac Bashevis Singer off the rails; the thesaurus-driven voice of the Ukrainian Alex, who narrates the modern-day quest for the village, eventually toned down as it got to the point, but by that time I had endured too much that was weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. My moment-by-moment irritation robbed the narrative of almost all momentum. In the hope that mine was a minority response, I came to the group resolved to listen and learn.

The book found no stout defenders among us. Roughly half hadn’t managed more than 20 pages or so. The man who’d liked it most – we think he was the one who proposed it – had seen and enjoyed the film, and admitted that when he read the book he skimmed the bits that weren’t in the film, which meant all the shtetl stories, all the clever literary bits (some would say these were darlings that should have been murdered), and the worst excesses of the mangled-English narration.

The reason we’d chosen this book is that we wanted to see how it went if we watched a movie of the book under discussion. So after dinner we watched Liev Schreiber’s Everything Is Illuminated. All O knew of the movie beforehand was from glimpses seen in Operation Filmmaker, the achingly funny documentary about an Iraqi intern on the shoot, in which Liev Shreiber and others came across as humane, generous and admirable people who clearly believed in their project. I don’t know that I liked the film all that much: the Elijah Wood character (‘Jonathan Safran Foer’) was too weird, and there were some awful saggy bits. It was fascinating to watch it so soon after reading the book. The ancestral story – roughly half the book – was sheared off. The second of the two revelations at the end was replaced with something much less interesting, less morally complex. A climactic action that almost made sense in the book made no sense at all in the film. And the upbeat ending was despair-inducing. Paradoxically, the film made me appreciate the book much more.

A pleasant evening was had by all, even the two dogs, who managed to bully someone into throwing a ball for them more than once. Next month, not Franny and Zooey or Arctic Dreams or The History of Knowledge or Wildlife, but Peter Temple’s Truth. We wanted a page-turner.

Fantastic and not so fantastic Mr Fox

Roald Dahl, illustrated by Jill Bennett, Fantastic Mr Fox (1970, Puffin 1974)

I came out of  Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox wondering if I oughtn’t reconsider my devotion to the cinema. The film is brilliant, witty, beautifully performed all round, and – for me – a totally pointless experience. Was this like the moment when a 12 month old child decides that the breast is history? (That moment in the life of one of our sons, incidentally, happened in the cinema: he wouldn’t accept his mother’s breast and insisted on crying loudly. The movie was The Turning Point. True.) Then I remembered my last five outings to the pictures, and I’m looking forward to the next sip of mother’s milk. I did, however, feel the need to read Roald Dahl’s book on which the film was based.

Though in my days as a young parent I was a Dahl fan, I hadn’t read Fantastic Mr Fox, but we have a copy stashed away. I dug it out. Sure enough, it seems to me that Wes Anderson kept the story outline, elaborated it with myriad Hollywood tropes, and missed the point. Specifically, the movie completely missed that Dahl’s story is deeply and deliciously ironic. It takes place in rural England, and depends on the reader knowing that farmers are generally decent people who work hard to provide food for our tables: farms are benign places, and foxes are pests who savagely murder poultry that’s meant for us to eat. With that basic assumption in mind, underlined in this Puffin edition by Jill Bennett’s drawings of a classic idyllic countryside, Dahl opens his narrative with pen portraits of three physically grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile farmers, and a fox whose nightly depredations are portrayed as the behaviour of a responsible, loving husband and father. He draws on the folk tradition of the fox as clever, and uses the sneaking sympathy for foxes that is all through children’s literature as a lever to turn the moral order on its head. The book is subversive, shocking in a delicious way and, as the farmers become more murderous and the fox cleverer in outwitting them, it’s also jolly good fun. It’s like a vulpine Peter Rabbit.

Maybe in these days of vast chicken factories it just doesn’t make sense to demonise small farmers, even as ironically. or maybe that irritating commonplace that Americans don’t do irony (that link is to a particularly irritating example) has some truth to it after all, given that I would have thought Wes Anderson was one of the best counter-examples. Whatever the explanation, the farmers in the movie are not only grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile, they are immediately recognisable as representing rapacious industrial capitalism: their ‘farms’ look like combination gasworks and concentration camps. These are awfully familiar villains. Dahl’s fox talks and wears clothes, but his behaviour is fox-like – he lives in a hole, has four barely differentiated cubs – so that there’s an appeal to the (young and other) reader’s knowledge about actual foxes and their actual status as pests. Anderson’s fox lives in a tree with all mod cons, writes a newspaper column, has to deal with a ‘different’ adolescent son. He’s as much as fox as Mickey is a mouse.

All this doesn’t necessarily matter in itself. If Fox and his underground friends are trapped in a sewer with archways and electric light rather than a deep hole they’ve dug themselves, and find their salvation in a vast supermarket filled with frozen and canned food rather than among the living or freshly killed poultry on the farms themselves, it’s just a different story, isn’t it? Well, yes. Different, and duller. Much of the original text survives, but in my opinion it loses everything, its ironic lifeblood drained out and replaced by clever-dick formaldehyde.

If you’re planning to go to this movie, and especially if you’re planning to take a young person to see it, I urge you to read the book, or read the book to the young person, first.