Cronenberg Adapts the Unadaptable ; in 'Cosmopolis,' Director Gives Cinematic Life to a Novel by Don DeLillo

By Lim, Dennis | International Herald Tribune, August 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Cronenberg Adapts the Unadaptable ; in 'Cosmopolis,' Director Gives Cinematic Life to a Novel by Don DeLillo


Lim, Dennis, International Herald Tribune


In 'Cosmopolis,' the director David Cronenberg gives cinematic life to a novel by Don DeLillo.

The social theorist Marshall McLuhan famously described media as "extensions of man." The filmmaker David Cronenberg, a fellow Canadian, has made several movies that count as mind-bending elaborations of that insight.

In "Videodrome" (1983), a video signal embedded in a pornographic cable broadcast causes hallucinations and bodily transformations in its viewers. The game players of "eXistenZ" (1999) download alternate realities by plugging squishy protoplasmic pods directly into their spines. Mr. Cronenberg's latest film, "Cosmopolis," takes place in a spectral world of global capital, digital information and virtual everything. Its currency-trading billionaire hero, cocooned in a white stretch limousine that serves as a second skin, deals and speaks in abstractions and is himself something of a hologram, an inscrutable young master of a conceptual universe.

"Cosmopolis," which is already showing in parts of Europe but is opening Aug. 17 in the United States, follows the suave Eric Packer (played by the "Twilight" star Robert Pattinson) on what proves to be a day of reckoning.

Inching through Manhattan traffic for a haircut on the other side of town, he receives a succession of experts and analysts in his leather-upholstered sanctum, which doubles as a boardroom, a bedroom and even a doctor's office.

External distractions -- a presidential motorcade, anti- capitalist demonstrations -- appear through tinted windows and on touch screens. Everything happens and is experienced at a dreamlike remove. Eric's bet against the Chinese yuan has turned disastrous, but he responds with eerie detachment, numbly contemplating the prospect of his economic and actual extinction.

Based on a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, "Cosmopolis" merges the distinctive sensibilities of a filmmaker and a novelist who have both been called prophetic, a shorthand way of saying that both have their antennas up for the larger forces -- language, technology, the collections of images and systems of knowledge -- that shape our world and our sense of reality. Films and footage, like the Zapruder home movie in "Libra," often play crucial roles in Mr. DeLillo's books, but while several of his novels have been optioned for adaptation -- "White Noise" and "Libra" were in the works for years - - until now all had stalled in development.

"Cosmopolis" is hardly obvious screen material on the page. But Mr. Cronenberg has located cinematic life in other novels that many would deem unfilmable, whether for being too bizarre (William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch"), too graphic (J. G. Ballard's "Crash") or too interior (Patrick McGrath's "Spider").

In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Cosmopolis" had its premiere in May, Mr. Cronenberg spoke about his approach to adaptation. "You have to betray the book in order to be faithful to the book," he said. "You have to recognize that literature is not cinema."

But "Cosmopolis," which some critics in Cannes faulted for being too static, is an almost perversely faithful rendition of the book.

On the telephone from Toronto recently, Mr. Cronenberg said that claustrophobia was very much the point. "I love the ascetic idea of so much happening within a limo," he said. "I don't find that it forces you into monotony. Quite the opposite, it forces you to be innovative."

He looked at films that were restricted to cramped locations -- the submarine-set "Das Boot," and "Lebanon," which unfolds inside an Israeli tank -- and he even moved one scene, an encounter between Eric and his art dealer, from an apartment into the car.

Mr. DeLillo, for one, might argue that there is something inherently cinematic about this contained structure. His one produced screenplay to date, for the 2005 indie "Game 6," is also about a character stuck in traffic, trying to get from point A to B. …

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