"Never judge a book by its movie," said someone called J. W. Eagan, who appears to be famous only for saying that one thing. But he (she?) is absolutely right. It's a war that has been waged since the beginning of movies. Do movies steal the souls of books? Are books forever doomed to live in the shadows of their movies? Do we "stay true" to the source material or do we invent new, cinematic ideas? Or worse, what happens to all that stuff that gets lost in translation from page to screen? After all, we're talking two entirely different art forms with different approaches; the only thing they have in common is a narrative flow: a start, middle and ending.
Perhaps these questions are the reason I tend to like movies based on short stories. It's impossible to get a 400-page novel into a 120-page screenplay without losing something, but short stories are far more adaptable to the screen; instead of cramming and condensing, a movie can stretch out with a short story. Some terrific movies have come from short stories: In Old Arizona (1929), Freaks (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Stagecoach (1939), The Killers (1946), All About Eve (1950), Rashomon (1950), Rear Window (1954), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Birds (1963), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Christmas Story (1983), Re-Animator (1985), Babette's Feast (1989), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002), not to mention Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993), woven from a selection of Raymond Carver stories.
I could go on talking about the flipside, i.e. great short stories that have been adapted into movies, but I'd rather talk about two of this week's releases, Away from Her (54 screens), which is based on Alice Munro's "The Bear Came over the Mountain" and Jindabyne (16 screens) which is based on Raymond Carver's "So Much Water, So Close to Home." Both stories are outstanding, although the former is more than 70 pages long and the latter is less than 30 pages. One of them is a highly successful adaptation and is one of the best movies I've seen so far this year, and the other is a very poor adaptation and one of the most aggravating movies I've seen so far this year.
Let's start with the good one, Away from Her. Sarah Polley read and was extremely moved by Alice Munro's story and managed a very close, yet very personal adaptation into a screenplay (Polley recently remarked that she does not consider adapting other people's stories "serious writing.") She took some of the visual ideas in Munro's 76 pages and used them in her storytelling. Polley re-arranged some of the linear, chronological elements, but the emotional content -- the essence -- of the story made it intact onto the big screen. Away from Her is all the more remarkable when you consider that it's the story of an elderly, married couple and that Polley is all of 28 years old and only newly married.
Admittedly, 76 pages is a very good length for making a movie; you can use almost everything that's there without padding or leaving anything out. But that's no excuse for how badly director Ray Lawrence (Lantana) bungled the 24 pages of Raymond Carver's story. Carver's story, which was also adapted into the fabric of Altman's Short Cuts, tells the story of a fisherman and his buddies who discover the body of a girl near their secret fishing spot. Deciding that it's too much trouble to hike all the way back to civilization to report it, they go about their weekend; the man's wife is highly disturbed by this behavior, and it tangles with other emotional issues in the couple's relationship.
Carver tells the entire story through the woman's point of view; we don't "see" the fishing trip, nor do we learn much about the girl or the killer. Lawrence, apparently unable to work with the emotions that the story does provide, invents all kinds of new, external factors that he probably thinks will visualize the movie, but actually make it unbearably self-important. Jindabyne starts out with the soon-to-be-dead girl driving and singing along with the radio (there was a similar scene in The Silence of the Lambs). The killer comes up behind her, threateningly, and Lawrence stages the whole thing like a horror film. The killer keeps returning throughout the film, leering at people from the corners of the frame.
Additionally, Jindabyne takes place in Australia, and the dead girl is Aboriginal, so the fishermen's disregard for her becomes a racial issue; the townspeople now scrawl hateful graffiti against them on their homes and places of business. When Lawrence isn't preaching to us about prejudice and equality, he throws in more thriller elements; the family's young son nearly drowns and has a mysterious confrontation with someone who may or may not be the killer. Finally, while in the story the wife goes to the girl's funeral alone, this time everyone comes along, and everyone comes to a kind of peaceful, happily conclusive understanding.
What does any of this have to do with the emotional content of Carver's story? Not a thing. Lawrence has misunderstood and betrayed the story by making something he thinks other people will want to see, rather than trying to understand his own role as translator. Polley midwifed a great story into a great movie, while Lawrence sidestepped a great story into a pandering mess.