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Whose Hugo?

Frodo, by bwats2, may have looked different to you before the LOTR movies.

I detest being surprised by people, especially those to who a certain degree of my identity depends upon feeling superior. -Hugo Whittier, in “The Epicure’s Lament” by Kate Christensen.

Years ago, a college buddy hands me a book with a smirk on his face. “Read this,” he says, “the main character reminds me of you.” First of all, I’m the reader in the group. I’m supposed to hand out books to him, not the other way around. This subversion of established roles has me unsettled, as does that smirk. Reminds him of me? How can that be? I’m sui generis. Everyone knows that. The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen? Whatever.

Mirrors can be unnerving enough, every blemish and asymmetrical genetic quirk blaring their presence in the harsh bathroom light, but having a talented writer dissecting your very essence is a thousand times worse. That’s what happened when I read Christenson’s book. Her main character, Hugo Whittier, did remind me of me: arrogant, sarcastic, supercilious, inconsiderate bordering on malicious and a cultivated misanthrope aimed to alleviate self-loathing. Ouch.

On the other hand, he is charming and witty. Plus, he lives for pleasure, hence the book’s title. He believes in food, books, music, things that are good. Although Hugo doesn’t mention movies, I would add them as well. True cinephiles take an epicure’s delight in movies. We watch the same one over and over again, talk about them uninterrupted for days, and savor the individual components like a sommelier. In a world awash in cheap, thoughtless, disposable diversions and a culture where the right to an opinion supersedes objective critique, I am (mostly) comfortable being Hugo’s compatriot.

So much so that the amateur screenwriter in me began thinking about how The Epicure’s Lament would look on the big screen, a process that, after decades of gorging on movies, is practically reflexive. I had never tried an adaptation before and was curious about the process. A 300+ page book must be trimmed, shaped and polished down to its core to be an entertaining and coherent two-hour movie. How is this done?

I was motivated enough to write Christensen asking for her blessing to give it a shot. She was kind enough to respond and explained that she was adapting the book herself. Months later, we exchanged a couple emails through an intermediary and I coaxed more detail out her about the adaptation process and her experience with it. The quotes are hers, though I’ve taken the liberty of embedding them within my ambivalence and angst over the whole concept of adaptation.

“I was reluctantly persuaded to adapt the novel by my manager and another of his clients, a TV director and producer who wanted to co-adapt it with me for her feature film directorial debut. We had meetings; there was excitement, or at least hot air and fairy dust, for a while. Production is not at all certain. The script has been attached and unattached, then was almost but not attached again, and is now semi-attached, but nothing, so far, has happened in any concrete way. I have learned over the years never to hold my breath, to put it mildly, where the movies are concerned.”

Me too. My immediate reaction to learning of a potential movie wasn’t joyful anticipation, it was “Crap!’” Even a die-hard movie-lover like myself, whose tastes range from the artiest art house film to the most cut-rate schlock, immediately assumes Hollywood will fuck up a book adaptation. This had nothing to do with Christensen. The world’s greatest screenplay often winds up winning a Razzie once is emerges from the Hollywood pipe(sewer)line. Is this cynicism really fair? Some of the most successful movies have come from books: Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Jaws, Bridge on the River Kwai. On the other hand, there’s Bonfire of the Vanities and a truly bizarre version of The Sound and the Fury.

Clueless is my gold standard for adaptation. It hews absolutely to the spirit of Austen’s novel, is playful, brilliant, funny, moving, inventive, and relevant, and stands alone as a movie without needing any prior knowledge of Emma. Very few adaptations manage anything close to this–one of the worst of these is Atonement, a leaden, flatfooted mistake that has exactly none of McEwan’s subtlety or nuance.”

The old adage is that good books make bad movies and bad books make good movies. Like most glib reductions, there’s an element of truth to this but instead of bad or good it has more to do with the style of the book. Books that revolve around a single character and are narrative-driven, such as crime/detective fiction, tend to adapt easier. The novels of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler are certainly not ‘bad’ books but they have made for some very good movies; whereas larger books, both in length and scope, tend to suffer from the limitations of Hollywood. I don’t necessarily mean the crass commercial choices that shove happy endings where they don’t belong (see Ambersons, Magnificent), but rather the constrictions of the medium. With rare exceptions, movies, at best, will get to be three hours. So right away there is an artificial box that every book needs to be crammed into. How do you start, knowing your first priority is to whack at least a third off the book?

“I tried to empty my mind of novelistic preconceptions and force myself to think differently about narrative, to express it in primarily visual terms, to embed character in dialogue, and to think more in terms of plot than voice.”

But in this case, the author is the screenwriter, a certain recipe for schizophrenia if there ever was one. How can the screenwriter avoid disappointing, aggravating, saddening, maddening, and otherwise making an enemy out of the author? How can the author not do the screenwriter bodily harm, or vice versa?

“It was a process of willful forgetting that I wrote the novel. I had to be ruthlessly objective, but novelists are in general quite practiced at this; it’s our way of turning what we observe in life into written scenes, so it came naturally. I treated my novel as if it were someone else’s, and this distance forced/enabled me to say, this goes, this stays, this is absolutely worthless in a movie, this is important.”

Lately I’m finding myself increasingly embedded in other people’s lives, which nauseates me and fills me with fear. -HW

Adaptation manifests the collaborative nature of movies. Whenever more than one person is involved the end product is never going to be a reflection of a single voice. The auteur theory be damned, there are too many people in the filmmaking process for it to ever truly be the vision of a single person. It’s like the children’s game where you whisper in one person’s ear and so on, and at the end it doesn’t resemble the original utterance at all.

Reading is a process whereby our imagination houses a representation of the book, one that is individual, solitary, private, and very democratic. You have your idea of what Frodo Baggins looks like, I have mine. At least we did. After adaptation the film becomes a material translation of the representation of the book. As a reader, we imagine the events of the book and are, in essence, the writer, director, producer of our own adaptation. When what we see isn’t what was in our head we feel the exasperation of a disappointed boss; somebody didn’t do their job, somebody screwed this up. It was perfectly clear that Tyrone Power should be Rhett Butler. A moustache like that in 1860? I mean, really. It’s as if you approved a blueprint of a building and then the finished building didn’t look anything like the blueprint. And it no longer matters how beautiful, how perfect your version was, it can’t be seen so it can’t be judged, debated, ranked. There can be only one–it’s yours–and yet not yours.

Not only did Christensen have to separate herself from her author alter ego, she had to collaborate with a partner—the person who instigated the project and was set to direct. Presumably this person had strong opinions as well. Something in the book must have clicked with them as it did me.

“My co-writer was my guide. She had a lot of experience with scripts; I had none. I sent her raw scenes as I wrote them, and then she edited and shaped and in some cases cut them. I felt as if I had training wheels, working with her. She was fiercely protective of the novel, but also mindful of the necessity of streamlining, of finding the nuggets of story, of discrete but relevant scenes, in the voice-driven novel.”

This too seems like a scenario for drama, if not outright fisticuffs.

“We had almost no disagreements. The two or three minor quibbles we had, she won. I ceded to her authority, in other words.”

I certainly don’t believe adaptations must be, pardon the pun, literal. In fact, slavish adherence to the original material has diminished recent comic book conversions like Sin City and The Watchmen. Comic book fans, being the most vociferous defenders of source material (psychological reasons for this could be a PhD thesis), have howled like angry peasants whenever a deviation is even rumored about. This misses the point entirely. Books and movies are different mediums. They have different strengths, different characteristics and different opportunities for expression. It baffles me when filmmakers cater to a fundamentalist sentiment and reduce themselves to translators, a process that undoubtedly requires skill but not creativity. Did this new medium of film offer freedom that novels lacked?

“I felt much lighter writing a screenplay, more poetic and painterly, less novelistic and bound to the tyranny of narrative language, of creating the entire picture in words. I was more free to suggest, since I knew that the director and actors and cameras and scenery would fill everything in. I was turning my novel into a suggestion, not a finished thing. It was so much less work, so much easier and less cumbersome, than novel-writing. These were only the bones I was providing: the flesh, blood, clothes, and gestures would be added by others. It made me feel as if I was bounding on the moon’s low-gravity surface after shuffling in ankle weights on earth.”

Hundreds of truly dreadful movies are made each year and generally ignored but somehow adaptations seem to generate undue consternation. Even as adaptations are now being made from almost anything; old TV shows, cartoons, video games, and even board games (I’m breathlessly awaiting The Bayeux Tapestry – The Movie!), it seems only books evoke strong feelings. Does this make adaptation difficult? Does a screenwriter have any obligation to the fans of the book?

“None whatsoever. The movie is a completely different animal. As the screenwriter, I didn’t even feel any particular obligation to be true to the novelist who wrote the thing. I felt an obligation to make a screenplay that could be turned into a movie that was fun to watch; anything in the novel that didn’t meet that requirement was jettisoned.”

Hmmm, I can’t say I blame her. Why should she? When a talent fails to pursue their individual ambition in order to placate their audience, they’ve ceased to be an artist and are just a court jester. And what of the public? It isn’t as though we all feel the same or want to see the same adaptation so why even try to appease us? On the other hand, these things mean something to us. This connection I have to Hugo makes the book important to me, in a way that would most likely baffle Christensen. It’s likely any regular reader has their own Epicure’s Lament, a book that moves way past enjoyment or appreciation and becomes personally transcendent. Who hasn’t felt the empty dismay when a song—a song that evokes a time and place, an intimate personal memory of love, joy, grief, melancholy, friendship, romance, or nostalgia—is used to hawk allergy medication, tires, life insurance, cars, etc. It angers us because it just doesn’t cheapen and devalue the song, it cheapens and devalues the associations we have to the song. I feel as though Christensen and I both relinquished control of something valuable to others. Doesn’t that frighten her?

“Not in the least. The novel remains the novel, and nothing can corrupt that. The movie, once again, is a new animal and has to rise or fall on its own merits. If people hate it, then it makes the novel look good by association, and if they love it, that also makes the novel look good by association.”

I suppose that’s true. People still read Bonfire of the Vanities and The Sound and the Fury, don’t they? Time heals all wounds, including those inflicted by Hollywood executives. And yet the dread remains.

I’m surrounded by strangers, misshapen, fat, stupid, boring hordes with their outfits, quirks, hairdos and hang-ups, all certain they’re original, essential to everything, the center of the universe, all equally grasping gluttonous, wasteful misguided pointless and disgusting. -HW

So there I’ll be. Opening night, packed house, and after the interminable commercials and excessive trailers I’ll be there, I mean Hugo, bigger than life on the sparkling celluloid. Except it’s not really him. He’s different. He’s kinder, gentler, more accessible to women aged 25-49. He refrains from anything that might be considered inappropriate for those under 17 who aren’t accompanied by an adult. He stops a bank robbery and has a furry cat that talks to him. And unlike those other adaptations, the dreadful bombs that sink quickly into oblivion, Hugo becomes huge. It’s the roller coaster ride of the summer! Hugo becomes a cultural icon. Except it’s not really Hugo.

“Now that I’m so much older than he is, I see him as young and confused. At the time, I accepted his self-view of himself as a bitter old washed-up failure; now I understand how mistaken he is in his self-conception. He’s only 40. He has no idea how young he really is and how much possibility there is left in a life for change.”

Funny, as I approach 40 it seems a perfectly appropriate time to be bitter. Christensen gets older, I get older, Hugo stays the same and our evolving perceptions swirl around him. Whereas at the time I sensed Christensen speaking vicariously through Hugo, allowing him to say what can’t be said, do what can’t be done, now I feel as though she pities and is slightly ashamed of him. This can’t help but be manifested in the screenplay and consequently, the film. Will the film Hugo be a parody of the book Hugo and the real me?

“Whatever happens, the novel won’t be hurt by it.”

All right, Kate. I’ll trust you, for now. But I detest being surprised by people.