Sunday, January 16, 2011


Harold Pinter's unproduced Proust Screenplay stands on a shelf near my writing desk and frequently leads me into reveries about great literary adaptations that were never made--or never even conceived. These are my imaginary films. There have been some brilliant cinematic adaptations of great books (Orson Welles' The Trial, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Erich von Stroheim's Greed, James Ivory's Howard's End, Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds, Ken Russell's Women in Love, Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, and many others), but the films I have in mind are not included in the Criterion Collection and cannot be rented from Netflix. Here's the line-up for my First Annual Imaginary Film Festival, the only film festival not handicapped by the requirement that its films actually exist. Screen these literary adaptations in the cinema of your skull:
  • The Stranger, directed by Robert Bresson. After watching Bresson's Pickpocket (in a beautiful print that is available from the Criterion Collection), I concluded that he was the only director who could have faithfully adapted Camus' l'Etranger. Camus' prototypical 'new novel' minimalism would've found its perfect objective correlative in the visual minimalism of Bresson, a director who knew the secret of capturing wordless angst on film. The actor who starred in Pickpocket would also have been a perfect Meursault.
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities, directed by Robert Altman. Widely considered one of Brian de Palma's very worst films, this could have been one of Altman's masterpieces. Altman was at one time scheduled to direct the film of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (Milos Forman was the final choice), and while that might have been a beautiful film, Altman's Bonfire would've been a mind-blowing one. Imagine a 1980s New York Nashville or Short Cuts, a panoramic portrait of class, race, money, politics, media and crime. Altman's film would've been the Balzacian human tragicomedy that Wolfe's novel only pretended to be.
  • A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, directed by Federico Fellini. The great social epicist of twentieth-century European decadence (see La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2) would've been the perfect director for Proust's anatomization of that society a few decades earlier. With a script by Pinter, this could've been the great masterpiece that's missing from Fellini's later years. Given the strength of the amazing "asa nisi masa" sequence in 8 1/2, I'm convinced that Fellini could've pulled a Proustian masterpiece out of his fashionably rumpled hat. As it stands, Raul Ruiz's fine and beautifully photographed Time Regained is probably as close as we will ever come to a 'comprehensive' film version of Proust's unfilmably large novel.
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Who better than Bergman to film the unfilmable? Bergman would've transformed Rilke's plotless poetic novel of urban angst (a great Modernist novel that should be as widely read as those of Joyce and Woolf) into a visual poem in the Scandinavian Gothic mode of Persona and Hour of the Wolf. It would've been a great, grey song of death. Read the book and imagine how Bergman might have filmed the scenes.
  • Ulysses, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Richard Ellmann tells us in his standard biography, James Joyce, that at some point in the 1930s, Joyce and Eisenstein met in Joyce's Paris apartment and discussed the possibility of a Ulysses film. Nothing came of the meeting except a literary footnote, but I've been fascinated for years by the fantasy of an Eisenstein Ulysses. What would it have looked like? The more naturalistic sections might've been filmed in the early style of Strike and Battleship Potemkin, but the "Circe" episode would've demanded the late, theatrical baroque of Ivan the Terrible. Two directors have attempted to film Ulysses and have produced two unavoidably uneven films (Joseph Strick's so-so Ulysses and Sean Walsh's superior Bloom) that leave out too much of the book. Eisenstein might've been more equal to the task.
  • Under the Volcano, directed by Luis Bunuel. In his odd little autobiography, My Last Sigh, a rambling book in which the subject spends pages describing the perfect martini and almost entirely ignores his personal life, Luis Bunuel mentions that he was approached several times by various producers to film Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece, but all the proffered screenplays came to shipwreck on the same problem--in Bunuel's words: " can inner conflicts be translated into effective images on a screen?" John Huston (whom Bunuel liked and respected) ultimately filmed a simplified and unsatisfying version of the novel that is remembered today only for Albert Finney's superlative performance. I pine for the lost Bunuel version, a film that might've been more symbolist and poetic--and would surely have been more political--than Huston's unexceptional adaptation.
  • Lolita, directed by Charles Chaplin. Nabokov approved of Kubrick's film, while Adrian Lyne's stayed closer to the book and boasted Jeremy Irons (whose voice will forever be 'the voice of Humbert' in my reading mind), but I have always fantasized about a version of the film directed by that noted lolitaphile Charlie Chaplin. More seriously, I think of the end of City Lights and imagine the complex mixture of irony and poignancy Chaplin might have achieved with the sad denouement of Nabokov's novel. But I doubt that even Chaplin would have been courageous enough to alienate his audience by casting an actress who looked Lolita's prepubescent age. (Sue Lyon and Dominique Swain, Kubrick's and Lyne's Lolitas, both looked importantly older than the character Nabokov created, thus lessening the visual impact of Humbert's crimes.)
  • The Metamorphosis, directed by David Lynch. A decade or more ago, I read somewhere that David Lynch wanted to film Kafka's novella, and I remember thinking that it seemed a perfect match of director and material. This irruption of unimaginable monstrosity at the center of an ordinary family, this bizarre mixture of the mundane and the surreal, would be perfect for the director of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. I imagine it as an early 20th-century period piece set in an unspecified but vaguely threatening Eastern Europe of the mind. It would be filmed in black-and-white, of course, switching to color only for the final scene, when the parents, having destroyed their son, turn their attentions to their daughter.
  • Crime and Punishment, directed by Orson Welles. If Welles had filmed Dostoyevsky's novel in the 1960s, as a pendant to his visually stunning adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, he would've given us the last great German Expressionist film, a dark, fast-paced psychological thriller composed and edited in a deliberately artificial style that produces a Brechtian alienation effect in the viewer. (This is exactly what Welles achieved in Touch of Evil, a great film that, like The Trial, Mr. Arkadin and the brilliant postmodern 'documentary' F for Fake, remains underrated.) Welles might even have had the chutzpah to alter Dostoyevsky's weak ending to something more unnerving and credible, something along the lines of the chilling end of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.
  • Naked Lunch, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. David Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch was weird enough and good enough ("It's time for our William Tell game."), but compared to Burroughs's book it was also rather tame. ('Tame' may be an unusual adjective for Cronenberg's film, but transgression is always relative, and Cronenberg doesn't touch the level of outrageousness in the book.) The director of the fearlessly disturbing and disgusting satire Salo would've been a perfect match for Burroughs's text. Pasolini would also have emphasized the political bottom line that tends to be lost amidst the druggy Burroughsian phantasmagoria.
  • Ficciones, directed by Peter Greenaway. This is an adaptation of five short stories by Jorge Luis Borges: "The Library of Babel" (in which all five stories--and all others--are found), "The Garden of Forking Paths," "Death and the Compass," "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" and "The Book of Sand." The film begins in the library, where Jorge, the blind librarian of Babel, narrates the first tale and leads us into books containing the central three tales, which are set outside the library in a clearly imaginary, artificial world. Jorge returns to narrate the final tale. Greenaway's Prospero's Books showed him to be our most Borgesian director; it's time for him to direct Borges.
  • Blood Meridian, directed by Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah didn't live long enough to film Blood Meridian, a novel that seems partly influenced by the violently poetic Southwest (and Northern Mexico) depicted in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There has been talk of an adaptation for several years now, but the only living director of Westerns capable of doing justice to both the violence and the lyricism of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Clint Eastwood, hung up his spurs about 20 years ago upon completion of his one undeniable masterpiece of the genre, Unforgiven. (It's always good to quit while you're ahead, or as Clint might say, "A man has to know his limitations.") Besides, who could possibly play Judge Holden? The obvious choice would be a talented actor who died tragically before his time and would've been a revelation in the role: John Candy. (If you doubt Candy's dramatic chops, check out his all too brief cameo in Oliver Stone's JFK. Yes, he could've played the Judge, and he would've been terrifying.)

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