Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Taming of the True

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Taming of the True

Article excerpt

Showing a cultured regard for great literary works, Hollywood studios like to undertake a classic now and then. But as directors struggle to make these films seem anything like a lit assignment, culture columnist Patrick McCormick says that trimming original material for short attention spans may cut the heart out of the story.

Mark Twain notes in The Disappearance of Literature that a classic is something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. It's a comment that strikes me as particularly ironic after having seen the most recent film version of Victor Hugo's masterpiece, Les Miserables. Ironic because while Twain was probably dead right in thinking that most of us would just as soon spend an evening in a dentist's chair as pass it reading something by Herman Melville, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, we seem to have no trouble flocking to the local octiplex every time one of their works appears on screen. But it's also ironic because I spent the last 40 minutes of this calm, overly quaint version of one of literature's greatest stories checking my watch. I'd rather have read the book.

It's easy to see why literary classics have often fared so well at the box office. As the theologian William Spohn noted, a classic is a work of such depth and resonance that it can say something important to generations and cultures far beyond its original audience. And over the past century Hollywood has found it eminently profitable to tell and retell countless versions of these stories.

Indeed, not only have we seen a recent glut of films and miniseries based on the works of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Alexandre Dumas (The Man in the Iron Mask), Dickens (Great Expectations), Melville (Moby Dick), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and, of course, the ubiquitous Austen (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility), but in most cases these were the third, fourth, or ninth movies made of these tales. Counting Bille August's most recent production of Les Miserables, Hugo's classic story has been brought to the screen nearly 20 times over the past nine decades (a French miniseries version with Gerard Depardieu is scheduled to begin production this fall).

The cost of accessibility

Great works of literature are wildly successful in drawing huge audiences because they--like The Junior Illustrated Classics comics of the '50s--make the classics so much more accessible. Even the longest of films don't demand the sort of time it would take to read a modestly sized novella, much less the commitment required to work through imposing tomes like War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, or Hugo's 1,200-page Les Miserables. Nor do movies ask us to do the hard work of constructing or keeping track of the imaginary world of the story. Instead, we are encouraged to sit back passively in our seats and let the movie producers and directors bring the predigested, user-friendly story to us.

Modern Hollywood makes this process even easier with so-called high-concept films in which the story line has been reduced to a single idea capable of being communicated to audiences in a 15-second promo. This explains the common sensation at the end of a preview that we've already seen the whole film.

Unfortunately, all this accessibility often comes at a price. Even with filmmakers increasingly obsessed with creating the sort of Titanic blockbusters guaranteed to overflow theater seats, video racks, and corporate coffers, there is over-whelming pressure to retool classic stories in order to improve their marketability, making them more and more palatable to an ever broader demographic. Sometimes the rewrite calls for a little more sex and violence to spice up the plot. Often it calls for some blurring or softening of any possible rough edges, for the elimination of any controversial or political content, and almost always for some significant sweetening of the ending--just enough to make things come out a bit more upbeat. …

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