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"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me"
— Shakespeare, Richard II
This month marks my one-year anniversary as a blogger for the New York Public Library. A blogger is something I never thought I would refer to myself as, but I suppose there are worse things that can be said about a person. My first post on May 30, 2008 concerned the release of Sex and the City, a movie which featured the library among its New York locations. This was and remains my most-read post. I don’t kid myself into thinking that the world was so desperately waiting to hear from me; I happened to coincide exactly with the release of a much-anticipated movie, based on a television show which it seemed everyone (except me) had watched, which in turn was based on a popular novel. Mulling over this early post set me to wondering if the movie Sex and the City had driven people back to the Candace Bushnell novel in a sort of self-generating circle. I like to think that almost anything can send us back to books and the experience of reading if we’re so inclined. Or is that simply a case of cock-eyed optimism? Once we become involved with movies and television, is there any time left over for reading; or have the other media splintered our concentration into so many different pieces that there’s no putting them back together again?
After a year’s worth of blogging, I can now confess my belief that one of the worst things about the 21st century is the number of electronic devices created exclusively to waste our time. There are television sets the size of doors with a hundred or so stations that we restlessly flip through, searching for something--anything-- to engage our imaginations. There are hand-held gadgets--the cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerries--that we fiddle with on bus and subway trips as our attention waxes and wanes. And there are the primary culprits, our computers, which leech away time like blood. Sitting before them, we’re like the Time Traveler who, during the trial run of his time machine, nudges the lever ever so slightly, sees nothing in his room has changed, and thinks his experiment a failure. . .until he notices the fresh candle worn down to a stub, indicating several hours gone by in an instant. (Was that a scene from the H. G. Wells novel, the 1960 movie, or the 2002 remake?) Do all these things damage our ability or even desire to focus on a book? With a somewhat judicious approach, however, computers and gadgets can also lead to books.
Despite my initial qualms about the Google book project, it has proved an important resource in my work as a librarian. Although I personally would not want to read a book downloaded onto a little gadget, that doesn’t make the existence of e-book readers any less real. A reader at the main reference desk once raved to me about his Kindle reader because he was visually impaired and could magnify the font size of his text as many times as required, giving me my first positive feeling about something I’d always looked on with a certain scorn. And, ironically, the internet is a great purveyor of real books, too. I admit that I have done my share of killing off the world’s bookstores by ordering lower-priced books online. As I started to think about these matters, I began to ask myself questions about books being adapted into other media and whether that other media will ever lead us back to the real thing.
Now, I know you’re reading this on a computer, and you probably have better things to do with your time, but assuming you’re still with me, I’d like to share these questions with you, give my answers after the break, and invite you to submit your own answers to any or all of them. 1. What was the last movie you saw, adapted from a novel, which disappointed you? 2. What book would you like to see adapted into a movie, even if you know it will ultimately be a disappointment? 3. Are there any theatrical works which have led you to seek out their literary source? 4. Does it work the same way for television? Name a show or shows which drove you to the fictional original. Or the other way around: fiction which drove you to television. 5. Can adaptations be overdone? Should there be a moratorium on adapting any particular author?
1. Revolutionary Road. Since the Richard Yates novel had left such a strong and vivid impression, I was originally determined to avoid this film . . . but eventually my resistance broke down. It is actually not bad, certainly better than most American movies where the women are chiefly interested in shopping and finding husbands and the men speed around in cars, blowing things up. But the novel’s visceral impact is gone. While the book’s 1950s mood and setting are scrupulously recreated, it can’t be disguised that they are coming out of a 21st century sensibility. And, where the pain of the novel’s main characters feels excruciatingly real, the movie’s characters are clearly very capable actors impersonating that same pain, which curiously makes it sound less like pain and more like whining.
2. Time and Again. Over the years, I’ve heard that this superb time-travel fantasy novel by Jack Finney has been optioned for film, but for some reason it never seems to get made. If special effects experts can flood Manhattan with a tidal wave and freeze the New York Public Library into a big block of ice (The Day After Tomorrow), I don’t know why they couldn’t convincingly recreate 1880s New York. If you don’t know it, this tremendously entertaining story sends a man back in time to wander the streets of old New York with a camera and a sketchbook. The book is full of old photographs, such as this one of the Croton Reservoir (original site of the New York Public Library), which the narrator describes this way:
There was a set of rust-flecked iron rungs set into the stone wall at the corner of Fifth and Forty-second, and while I doubted that it was allowed, I climbed to the top; after the bridge it was nothing. Up on top, standing at the corner looking south, I took the shot below; the reservoir on the right, more brownstones on the left, exactly like those I mentioned, further south. I think this view gives an even better idea of how narrow Fifth is. Was. Notice the sidewalks; they’re of cut stone, not concrete.
The New York of 1880 is expertly and feelingly imagined, the narrator becomes romantically involved with a woman he meets in the past, and it all culminates in the horror of the Triangle Factory fire. I would certainly go see this movie, should it ever get made, even though I know it could never live up to the charm and drama of the novel itself.
3. West Side Story. When I heard there was a new production of West Side Story on Broadway, I went not to the box office but back to the DVD of the 1961 movie. If your age happens to be the wrong side of fifty, there’s a good chance that West Side Story is forever engraved on your brain. I was a little dubious at first, since nothing ages as quickly as teenage slang, Daddy-o, and I have not given much thought recently to juvenile gangs or turf wars. Within moments of the finger-snapping overture, however, with the Jets and Shark challenging each other on the streets and playgrounds of the old West Side, I was swept up again as if by a forceful tide, as if none of the intervening years since I’d first seen this film had happened. Part of that enduring magic is the Bernstein music. Part is the expert movie-making, which creates images and scenes I’ve never been able to shake off. And part is the powerful story-telling, which as everyone knows is built upon the foundation of Romeo and Juliet. Whatever impulse sends me back to Shakespeare is a good one, as each reading or viewing of a Shakespeare play brings that play into sharper and ever more meaningful focus. Beyond Shakespeare, however, my recent thoughts about West Side Story have provoked a memory of a paperback book I used to own, a novelization of the movie by Irving Schulman. It was sort of a trashy book, making explicit the more suggestive elements of the story, but back then I read it again and again, trying to recapture that initial experience of the film. Although I haven’t thought about this book in decades, it surprised me to find that a few branch libraries still actually have copies available, and I wonder if I could possibly stand to read it again. Would that satisfy the nostalgic impulse--or just be sentimental overkill?
4. British television. Although I have not owned a television since 2001 and have never in my life subscribed to cable, I still have countless answers to this question. Television (particularly British television, which has a flair for literary adaptation that American television does not) has led me to any number of books that I might not have discovered otherwise. An early and profound example was Jewel in the Crown, based on the novels by Paul Scott, which I might never have found if television hadn’t pushed me in the right direction. While the original novels have their own life and energy, depth and complexity, the television series about the British Raj in India is as good as television is likely to get, and I doubt if there would enough money in the world today to create something on a similar grand scale. If you share my history of Masterpiece Theatre, you can make your own list of books and elegant television adaptations; I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; and The Forsyte Saga come immediately to mind. There is also a world of British mysteries which operate hand in glove with their literary equivalents. Inspector Morse led me to the original Colin Dexter novels. Someone once recorded several episodes of the excellent Dalziel and Pascoe series from cable for me (they are still not available on DVD), and they brought me to the even better novels by Reginald Hill about this pair of Yorkshire detectives. Rumpole of the Bailey led me to the book versions by John Mortimer, which, curiously enough, were adapted in the opposite direction, being based on his own original screenplays. (These, in turn, led to other wonderful novels by Mortimer such as Paradise Postponed and Summer’s Lease, which were in their turn adapted for television.) My latest mystery addiction is the Inspector Lynley novels by Elizabeth George, which I discovered only after exposure to a few episodes of the interesting but vastly inferior television series.
5. Jane Austen. I’ve read Jane Austen for most of a lifetime, and I’m sure I have a few more re-readings in me, but when it comes to adaptations I believe it’s time to give the poor woman a rest. I’ve seen many, if not most of these films, and they rarely seem to capture the quality which makes the novels so remarkable. Most are just colorful fantasias on themes from Jane Austen, focusing more on gowns, country houses, and balls than the moral tone and subtle interrelationships of the original works. The two best adaptations I can remember were BBC productions, both from 1995. The six-part Pride and Prejudice not only had a cast who seemed fully to inhabit their roles, but it allowed plenty of time for them to grow as organically as they should. Persuasion is a fascinatingly adult production which emphasizes the grittiness rather than the glamour of life in Regency England. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that it culminates in a passionate kiss in a public place, which would certainly be inappropriate in Jane Austen’s world, but in movie terms it provides a very successful and joyous moment. Among low-end productions, I’ve recently seen a DVD of the 2007 British Mansfield Park and was appalled by its inconsequentiality. This was a version of the story concerned almost exclusively with pouting lips and cleavage. Jane Austen’s lengthiest and most densely-textured novel cannot be packed into just 90 minutes of television without turning it into fast-moving but meaningless nonsense. Anyone who thinks they have a clue what Mansfield Park is all about after watching this misbegotten production is sadly mistaken and should return at once to the original novel.