by Abdallah Hussein
Books have never been more likely to be adapted into films than they are at present. With the rapid growth and advancement of the film industry, this practice doesn’t seem likely to wind down anytime soon either with recent fan-favorites such as Bridgerton, Little Women, and The Queen’s Gambit dominating our social awareness. The financial success and ever-growing popularity of book-to-film adaptations is only a reflection of the love both readers and viewers have of seeing their favorite stories come to life through the unique projection of a screen. Suddenly, half the labor of consumption is gone and the reader becomes a viewer who no longer has to enjoy stories through their own imaginative power. And while many may gripe and nit-pick over how their favorite novel gets adapted on the big screen, the overall consensus is that book-to-movie adaptations are popular enough to be a sustained industry. However, the financial success of book-to-film adaptations doesn’t place the practice out of reach of all criticism. After all, we can all recall on command at least one notorious example of a failed book-to-film adaptation. Despite how well the idea of adaptation sounds, there’s always two ends to the spectrum of any practice. Just a few weeks ago, I saw movie adaptations for two of my favorite novels, Inherent Vice and American Pastoral. For reasons I couldn’t exactly qualify in that moment, I loved Inherent Vice’s adaptation, and hated American Pastoral’s.
I know that this experience is not uniquely mine. I am sure many of you have left the movie theater after seeing your favorite novel adapted with either elated or disappointed faces, and no good language to explain why. It’s just not fair to overtly declare an adaptation good or bad without any specific reason, so let’s put Inherent Vice and American Pastoral through a question by question test (you do it too with your adaptations!) on what each respective film did or did not do in relation to its source material.
Does the Work Embody the Spirit of the Original?
Inherent Vice is a 2014 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; it is an adaptation from the 2009 novel of the same name by American author, Thomas Pynchon. The novel is set in 1970s California and follows Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a hippie Private Investigator, whose estranged ex-girlfriend turns up and asks him to investigate a possible plot to kidnap her wealthy real-estate developer boyfriend, Mickey Wolfman. With dozens of characters and several deep storylines, the plot is highly convoluted. P.T. Anderson’s adaptation follows the same main storyline with Doc and his investigation of Mickey Wolfman’s potential kidnapping. The fact that it follows the main plot rather well does not, however, automatically mean it successfully embodies the spirit of the work. Through the process of adaptation, both works – movie and film – can be labeled as a “transmedia text”. They relate a similar story but do well at shining lights on distinctive themes and subject matter within the narrative. For example, all the parts of Inherent Vice (both novel and movie) are highlighted by their association with nostalgia. The difference lies in how nostalgia is used, and the glaringly different result from novel to movie. Pynchon’s Inherent Vice uses nostalgia to highlight political and social changes around the main character, such as the building of new infrastructure and the adoption of cultural and societal trends and changes, while Anderson’s Inherent Vice uses nostalgia to highlight the changes that are personal and meaningful to the main character, such as his longing to rekindle his relationship to his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. In my eyes, the spirit of any work is made up of the themes it encompasses, so if a theme of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is nostalgia then P.T. Anderson succeeded well at embodying the spirit of the novel in his adaptation.
American Pastoral :
American Pastoral is a 2016 film directed by Ewan McGregor,an adaptation from the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by American author, Philip Roth. The novel uses the framing device of a 45-year high school reunion, attended by Nathan Zuckerman, a former classmate of the main protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov. At this reunion, Zuckerman runs into Seymour’s younger brother, Jerry, who tells him of the tragic downfall of his older brother, who is then revealed to have passed away a few days earlier. Through Jerry, Zuckerman finds out that in 1968 (how many years ago?), the Swede’s daughter, Merry, blew up a post office and killed a bystander in protest of the Vietnam War. Not only did she blow up the post office, but she ‘blew up’ the life of her father, who lived the remainder of his life haunted by trauma and confusion. The remainder of the novel follows Zuckerman’s reconstruction and reimagination of the Swede’s life from before and after the bomb went off, all of it in an attempt to answer the question of why something so bad happened to the one man who did everything right in life.
The novel is a huge exploration of the nature of man (the Swede) in society, and with Roth’s ability to dive into the complexities of such a compounded world as that of post-WWII America; it makes for an at-times confusing novel, though no less brilliant for its complexity. In the movie, many details are changed and sacrificed for the sake of coherence. The ending is the major altered event from book to novel. Spoiler alert to any potential readers of the novel, but I will now delve into its ending. In the novel, the Levovs are having dinner with several guests and in the midst of all their discussion, several strange things begin to happen. A mysterious call comes from Rita Cohen (who may or may not be not a liaison of Merry); the Swede imagines Merry showing up, his father dying from shock, and he himself again being stabbed in the eye with a fork; and finally the last page consists of the guests engaging in hysterical laughter and ends with the line “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” Essentially, nothing is answered and nothing is resolved.
The movie is a different story. In it, this same little dinner party occurs several scenes before the ending, and is remarkably different from the book’s dinner party. Instead, the movie ends with the Swede’s funeral where, after everyone leaves, a disguised Merry comes to see her father’s grave. In a good adaptation, this dissimilar ending should tie back to the intended message of the story – that everything is senseless. In Roth’s ending, we get just that: the manifestations of fantasy and the ultimate unanswered question of whether the Levovs are at fault for their own misery due to the lives they’ve lived. The film’s ending does not highlight the story’s senselessness and personally I can’t make heads or tails of what purpose the ending does serve. Packaging a creator’s message can be done in several ways, and I feel the film lacks that message that is most important in the novel. The film doesn’t capture the spirit of senselessness that permeates the life and society reverberating through the hundreds of pages of Roth’s American Pastoral.
Does it get away with changing or leaving out key details of the original story?
In regards to penning the film’s screenplay, director P.T. Anderson said, “The hardest thing is just trying to find how to take 400 great pages and turn it into ideally 110, maybe 120 script pages.” Consequently, many details are changed and even more are left out of the film. A major portion of the novel that is left out is Doc’s trip to Las Vegas, a trip that embroils Doc in an unrelated investigation of a missing person. Moreover, many characters from the novel are left out of the film and the ones that are included usually only had a scene or two compared to their much larger and integral roles in the novel. Perhaps the biggest change is the difference in the endings (again, spoiler alert for novel-goers). The novel at its near-end sees Doc, with his investigation concluded, drive south on the Santa Monica Freeway where he hits a bank of fog, in which he and the other drivers on the road formed a sort of community in that the row of cars barricaded by the fog were connected in a way that seemed comforting to Doc. The novel ends as Doc drives on, ‘waiting for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead’.
The film takes a similar approach in that Doc drives off somewhere, but he isn’t alone, or forming a community with drivers – he’s with Shasta. These different endings highlight the focus of each work. The community of drivers in the novel is a respite from Doc’s feelings of loneliness, a result of the self-invested isolationism that became a characteristic of California in the 1970s. The movie’s ending in which Doc and Shasta rekindle their romance is a similar balm to loneliness, and it fulfills Doc’s permeating longing that makes repeat appearances throughout the movie As for the other things left out from the novel, you’d never be able to fit the novel’s entirety into a film and considering the focus of the film, some aspects such as the Vegas trip were better left out, since they simply don’t integrate with the intended message of the film.
American Pastoral :
We already discussed the biggest change (the ending) from novel to film so let’s now look at the biggest aspect of the novel left out of the film. In the beginning of the novel, the Swede’s character is developed intensely. From childhood to adulthood, every one of his triumph’s is documented and he is quite literally deified among his classmates and neighbors. Encompassing 90 pages, this buildup of the Swede is essential to the moment where his sense of identity is ‘blown up’. The idea of it all was to create a character who is the last person you’d expect to go through such an experience. In the film,there is no reference to these 90 pages of character development. By the time this man’s life is blown to smithers, it doesn’t seem all that unlikely, since the viewer has not been convinced that he is the last person to whom such a thing could happen. The film capably captures the main plot points of the novel – such as the bombing of the post office and the Swede’s key encounter with Merry after the bombing- but much of what makes the book so coherent and powerful is left out of the film. Especially missed are the key inner dialogues and deep explorations into concepts of morality, fatherhood, and society. Those moments are among the highlights of the book, thanks to Roth’s brilliant prose and unbelievable worldview. The adaptation results in a choppy film that doesn’t aid the viewer well in understanding the situation surrounding Swede Levov and his life.
Can the work live independently of its source material?
P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice can stand alone from its source material because there’s so much ground and material to work with, you can get away with being creative and going in another direction with it. In talking about adapting Pynchon’s novel, Anderson had to say, “You don’t want to fuck with [Pynchon’s] shit if you don’t have to, but I found myself numerous times in that bad place of being reverential, thinking ‘I’ve gotta protect it’. To best respect it is to sometimes dismantle it and tear it apart to make it a movie. We’ve seen books turned into movies that try so hard to be literary. And they’ve failed because [the mediums] are different.” As I mentioned, Pynchon’s novel is highly convoluted so Anderson can get away with ‘tearing it all up’ and leaving parts of it out of the film. Even after deconstructing parts of it, he can maintain the aspects that make it a great adaptation of Pynchon’s novel. Shifting his focus away from the plot, Anderson decided to compliment the essence of the novel, and he labored over displaying amazing cinematography and showcasing incredible performances by actors such as Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin – these qualities coupled with the movie being its own entity are the aspects that make it such a great movie.
American Pastoral :
Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, was a respectable film but will always live in the shadow of the source material it desires to emulate. In trying to capture the essence of Roth’s story, McGregor only goes so far as to capture the surface of the plot. Moreover, McGregor seems to sacrifice integral scenes and dialogue for the sake of just an ounce more of coherence. Despite my conclusions, I feel that McGregor isn’t wholly at fault here. I believe he is a victim of an unadaptable source material. The story and the message that Roth wants to present to readers simply cannot be told through the screen through a traditional film because so much of what makes American Pastoral great is a result of Roth’s incredible prose and unbelievable story-telling ability.
Literary adaptation has been a valuable practice in integrating different art mediums. In your own quests to determine whether adaptations should be celebrated or condemned, just use my three question test! Some books slide easily into the adaptations, like Inherent Vice, while others fail miserably, like McGregor’s American Pastoral. Some novels are better left to their original forms, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on adapting our favorite stories.While for now I stand by my claim that American Pastoral is an unadaptable source material, I welcome and encourage any creative minds to try and adapt it until it is done right!