Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Turn off the Lights as You Leave: Altman and His Short Cuts with Carver

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Turn off the Lights as You Leave: Altman and His Short Cuts with Carver

Article excerpt

Introduction: Rise of the Machines

In the beginning, there was literature. It de- veloped via Aesop and Aristotle on the wrong side of Jesus Christ, through the printing revo- lution of Johannes Gutenberg, via the Sagas and Chivalric novels, and onto Don Quixote and Dickens, before the flowering of modern- ism in the early years of the twentieth century. Around the same time that literary modernism was finding its feet, technology gave birth to a new art form-film, a fusing of the theatrical and written forms that had come before. Film took the images created by literature out of the imagination and projected them onto the big screen. With its freshness, fast-evolving machinery, technique, commercial clout, and distribution methods, film quickly rose to a po- sition of cultural eminence, as James Monaco describes: "[film] developed through an early stage marked by invention and freshness, and soon reached a commanding position in which it dominated other arts" (253).

Indeed, it dominated so much that it began to cannibalize its older sibling-literature- for its own purposes, as Monaco explains: "Popular novels have been a vast reservoir of material for commercial films over the years. In fact, the economics of the popular novel are such now that recycling the material as a film is a prime consideration for most publishers. It almost seems at times, as if the popular novel (as opposed to elite prose art) exists only as a first draft trial for the film" (51). An interesting early experiment in adaptation was Erich Von Stroheim's ten-hour literal adapta- tion of Frank Norris's novel McTeague, in 1924. Entitled Greed, the silent film was eventually released by MGM with a dramatically reduced running time of two and a half hours-against Stroheim's wishes and to the detriment of the film's coherence.

From the perspective of the money-minded Hollywood executive, a novel that is successful creates a situation in which it is almost as if the screenplay for a movie has been preapproved by its future cinema-going audience. With the enormous risk that studios undertake with any commercial popular release (and with a large part of the budget taken up with marketing ac- tivities), anything that provides extra financial security is obviously strongly sought out.

Monaco's distinction between what he describes as the "popular novel" and "elite prose art" is an important one. The popular (or "genre") novel tends to have an amplified concern with plot or setting, elements that are naturally suited for a visual medium or for translation to the highly structured three- act screenplay form. Particularly successful examples of genre fiction adaptations to film include all seven Harry Potter fantasy books (grossing more than six billion dollars); the spy who loved martinis, James Bond (just north of five billion); and the Twilight vampire romance novels (under two billion).

Adaptations of Monaco's "elite prose art" (otherwise known as "literary fiction") often tell a different tale. Although viewed as a particu- larly faithful literary adaptation, the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby (screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, with some scenes rewritten by Vladi- mir Nabokov and Philip Roth) was described by the New York Times as being as "lifeless as a body that's been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool." Roland Joffe's 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, with gratuitous sex scenes and an even more gratuitous Hollywood ending, was universally panned, sweeping the board that year at the Golden Raspberry Awards.

This notion of lifelessness points to the problem: transferring literature-an art chiefly involved with what is happening beneath the surface-to a form given shape by visual cues is an essentially insurmountable problem (assum- ing you are attempting to recreate what is actu- ally written on the page). As Seymour Chatman, in his Coming to Terms, says,

The central problem for film adapters is to transform narrative features that come easily to language but hard to a medium that oper- ates in "real time" and whose natural focus is the surface appearance of things-hence film's traditional difficulties with temporal, spatial summaries, abstract narratorial com- mentary, representations of the thinking and feeling of characters, and so on. …

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