Bookends: What Are We Meant to Get Out of Movies Based on Short Stories and Novels?

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Film, which shows things, and literature, which tells them, speak different languages.

Daniel Mendelsohn
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Daniel Mendelsohn

And Baz Luhrmann thought he had something to kvetch about!

When the Australian director’s steroidal, 3-D, hip-hopped version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wistfully gossamer masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” came out earlier this year, critical reception was mixed, with a number of memorably vitriolic pans. (The Chicago Reader: “a ghastly Roaring Twenties blowout at a sorority house.”) But the worst of those can’t compare with the reception that greeted what is perhaps the most ill-fated Hollywood literary adaptation of all time, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent “Greed,” based on the melodramatic 1899 novel “McTeague,” by Frank Norris — a movie one review dismissed as the “filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business.” Its failure tells you a lot about the tricky — some would say impossible — exercise of adapting literature to the screen, a process that often leaves both literati and cineastes groaning.

Stroheim had long dreamed of making a meticulously complete adaptation of Norris’s tawdry tale of love, lust, winning lottery tickets, friendship, betrayal, love triangles, murder and unlicensed dentistry. (No, I am not making this up.) As a result, no effort was spared: Among other things, he forced his harried cast and crew to spend weeks in Death Valley filming the lurid finale, in which the homicidal dentist antihero finds himself fatally handcuffed to his decaying victim. Stroheim considered the finished product — at over eight hours long, one of the fullest adaptations of a single novel ever made — his greatest work. The studio, hoping for something audiences would actually sit through, cut it to two and a half hours, with predictably incoherent results. “The only pity,” The New York Times’s critic opined, “is that they did not use the scissors more generously.” Critics weren’t the only critics: Box office receipts were dismal.

Stroheim’s aesthetic calvary raises familiar questions: To what extent can literature be translated into an entertaining spectacle? How “faithful” should cinematic translations be — or not be? (A two-paragraph flashback in “McTeague” became an hourlong sequence in “Greed.”) These conundrums are ancient ones. The earliest adaptations of high literature into mass entertainment were Greek tragedies, which took story lines from epics like the “Iliad” and turned them into eye-popping spectacles: The special effects in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” were said — apocryphally, one can only hope — to be so gruesome that women in the audience miscarried. Aristotle, the first drama critic, pondered the way epics and tragedies tell their stories, and with good reason: You could say MGM’s problem with Stroheim’s “Greed” was that the movie failed to translate an epic narrative into effective drama.

Critical angst often arises from the inescapable fact that film, which shows things, and literature, which tells them, speak different languages. This is why works rich with incident and character — things that can be shown — are often the most adaptable. (Dickens comes off particularly well.) But what to do with Henry James, whose novels hew so closely to the hidden, interior life, or Proust, the sinuous textures of whose writing, mirroring his tentacular psychological and social insights, account for his novel’s allure? Volker Schlöndorff’s failed “Swann in Love” (1984) reproduced Proust’s action (such as it is) and the gorgeous clothes and interiors — but that’s about it. Unsurprisingly, the most persuasive adaptations of such works take the greatest liberties: In the film version of John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” a movie is being made of the Victorian-era tale the novel tells — a terrific way of suggesting Fowles’s postmodern self-consciousness.

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