Books to Screen 2020 and Beyond

As things go these days, uncertainties abound as to when movies will come out and in what way, big or small screen. So, for those who like to read before you leap, summer’s the best time to catch up with some of these books before their adaptations are released.


Hillbilly ElegyHillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

The runaway bestseller of 2016 is now an upcoming movie on Netflix, directed by Ron Howard. Born and raised a ‘hillbilly’ in Ohio, Vance’s memoir narrates his struggles to arrive at Yale Law School, a personal victory over poverty and a dysfunctional family and culture. He shares insights as an insider of an impoverished social sector. Screenplay by Oscar-nominated Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, 2017). Early Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards and Amy Adams a possible nom.

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Deep WaterDeep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith is no stranger to fans of suspense and psychological thrillers with Carol (2015), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951). Deep Water (first pub. 1957) is another marital suspense thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d given us Fatal Attraction (1987), Unfaithful (2002) and the like. So, we know it’s in good hands. Gone Girl‘s Ben Affleck should be quite familiar with playing such genre, add in Ana de Armas, who’s superb in Knives Out, this one should be a thrilling escape.

The Last DuelThe Last Duel by Eric Jager

The historical novel is The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, sounds like a sensational movie subject. Author is Eric Jager, medieval literature prof at UCLA. Director is the iconic Ridley Scott, who has brought us numerous big screen epics, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Alien (1979, 2017), just to name a few. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-write and co-star, with Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame also in.


9 Perfect StrangersNine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Another TV series (Hulu) from popular Australian author Liane Moriarty whose Big Little Lies has been turned into two successful, star-studded Seasons on HBO. Nine strangers meet at a wellness resort dealing with their own issues and discovering secrets behind the place. Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy co-star. Moriarty has written 8 novels, so far, 5 of which are in various stages of development for the screen.


NomadlandNomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Nowadays you hear a lot about migrant workers. Back in the time after the Great Recession, there were workers living like nomads in their trailers and vans, travelling across the western states to look for work. Bruder’s book is about one such ‘workampers’, a woman in her sixties who becomes a nomad worker after losing her home. Frances McDormand stars. Written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the soulful The Rider (2017).


ShirleyShirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Based on the second novel by Merrell published in 2014. Shirley here refers to the American horror/suspense writer Shirley Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss. The story’s about a graduate student Fred and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) move in to live with professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic teaching at Bennington College and his wife Shirley Jackson. Drama ensues when the characters interplay in their peculiar relational dynamics. Directed by Josephine Decker.

Normal PeopleNormal People by Sally Rooney

Irish millennial lit turned TV. And you thought the upstairs-downstairs kind of stories happen only in Downton Abbey. Rooney’s acclaimed book is about the clandestine romance between rich gal Marianne and Connell whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The 12 episode TV series adaptation is affective and well performed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal under the helms of Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) and Hetti Macdonald (Howards End, 2017) On Hulu, BBC3, and CBC Gem now.

Mothering SundayMothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Just announced. Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift’s novel will be adapted into film with a stellar British cast. Mothering Sunday was a day given to domestic servants time off so they could go back home to visit their mother and family. Again, a clandestine romance between two young people of different classes. Eva Husson (Hanna, 2020) directs onscreen royalty Olivia Coleman (QEII in The Crown), Colin Firth (KGVI in The King’s Speech), Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown), and Odessa Young. 

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Unfilmed Novels

That’s a Jeopardy! category a few days ago in the Double Jeopardy round. Here are the five questions, or answers, rather. Five novels that have not been adapted to screen. For purists, their stance would be Leave Them Unfilmed. But just for interests sake, let’s see which novels Jeopardy! has included:

Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger

Rumor has it that Salinger didn’t like movies. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” But no, Salinger didn’t say that, it’s Holden Caulfield who said that. In a letter Salinger had written, he denied that stance.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon

Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys was turned into a movie, but his Pulitzer winning The Amazing Adventures has not.

Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco

It’s been reported that the Italian philosopher/writer Umberto Eco wasn’t pleased with the movie adaptation of his earlier novel The Name of the Rose, so he said no more even though Stanley Kubrick had shown interest to work on Foucault’s Pendulum.

Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy

Many have attempted but to no avail, including Tommy Lee Jones, James Franco, Ridley Scott, and even Michael Haneke. It’s been noted that BM is more violent than No Country for Old Men. Do we need another one now, in our state of global chaos?

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole

Although Hollywood had shown interest, even actors had been attached, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains unfilmed. Those of you who have read it, can you suggest some reasons why this is so.

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A Note to Jeopardy Question Writers: Can’t you think of at least one novel from a woman author, just for the balance of your questions, let alone representation?

To my Ripple Readers: Can you suggest some good titles that have yet been turned into film? Old classic or current? Any books that you’d like to see transported to the big screen, in the helm of a worthy director with a talented cast and crew to bring out a deserving production?

Here are a few I can think of, some may have TV versions, but a full length, cinematic feature on the big screen is yet to be done:

Middlemarch by George Eliot (An old attempt years ago, but nothing realized. Now, let’s have Greta Gerwig write and direct. After Little Women, she just might have a fresh take on this classic.)

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Lila / Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

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Your two pebbles?

 

 

 

Greta Gerwig Creates A Third Way to Adaptation with ‘Little Women’

In recent decades, there seems to have emerged two paths to approach movie adaptations of literary works, especially for a classic: faithful to the source, or awash it with contemporary strokes.

Here’s the rub: total loyalty would trigger criticisms of movies being a kind of illustrated book, simply redundant. But gloss it over with postmodern touches could strip an adaptation of the meaning and authenticity of the original text. Debates arise as to which is a better path.

A few days ago, in a Writers Panel with five screenwriters at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Greta Gerwig presented a third way. She didn’t call it that, but that’s how I see it, a happy medium (pun intended). Her approach to Little Women is both loyal to the spirit and letter of Louisa May Alcott’s as well as creating a contemporary, artful production for modern viewers to enjoy.

 

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I’ve to quote her exact words as they are inspiring. Here’s the link to the video. The following quotes can be found from 27 to 36 mins. How does Gerwig handle the loyalty aspect? The writer-director did extensive research in preparation for her screenplay:

I wanted to treat the text of Little Women as almost a sacred text, also other texts that Louisa May Alcott and her family and other contemporaries had generated between letters, and other books that she’d written. I wanted to ground as much as I could in that. I wanted everything to be footnoteable (she well had coined a new word) and I wanted every line you ask me about and I can say it’s here, that I have my references.

How does her version relate with previous adaptations?

But the fact that it’s been adapted for screen seven times, it’s been made into an opera, and made into a musical and made into two anime shows, this is a loved and interpreted work. The way that something that’s been loved and interpreted many times you get this collective memory of what it is.

There’s the text, which is the book, and then there’s urtext, which is every time it’s loved and interpreted again. Urtext does have a relationship with the text, but it’s also separate… I wanted to deliver on the pleasures of Little Women as we’ve collectively come to know them.

And how does the collective interplay with the personal?

Gerwig instilled her own style and framed it in her own light. Quite a few things I’ve observed, the most obvious difference from previous versions is the structure, her juxtaposing the past and present timelines. The story is told as Jo’s memories seamlessly woven with her present as a struggling writer alone in NYC, a fresh take that adds depth and texture.

Gerwig paints the past with a golden hue signifying the warmth of cherished family memories and the present with a cool, blueish tone sending out harsher, lonelier vibes. She has also given an elevated role for Amy to interact with Jo, two seemingly rival siblings but could well be two sides of the same coin. Amy the pragmatic realist who grows up to understand too well her lack of economic status as a woman and who is ready to take financial security over real love ultimately gets both. Jo the dreamer and idealist, who’d vowed she’d never marry, has also carved out a path of her own.

So what does the ending mean?

I don’t want to say: O here’s what the ending means… I wanted to create something that’s open to interpretation along two lines. I think the movie belongs to the audience, so it’s down to the reflection you see…

With the layered ending, Gerwig effectively depicts the struggles of not only the book character Jo as an aspiring author in Little Women, but parallels it with Louisa May Alcott the woman writer in a man’s publishing world, and extending by implication to Gerwig’s own reality as a woman writer-director striving in a male-dominated film industry. The triple-layered final act opens the door to a golden future as we see a progressive school for boys and girls, and a published author giving birth to her work and keeping her own copyright. As for that third, invisible layer, I do wish Gerwig continual success in her writing and filmmaking career despite the obstacles she faces in the real world.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Little Women Movie Review

Top Ripples of 2019 and the Decade

Can a Movie Adaptation ever be as Good as the Book?

 

 

 

 

Book to Movie Adaptations 2020

A list of upcoming book to screen titles for the new year, eclectic choices for different tastes, varied classics and contemporary notables. Looks like classic literary works of all sorts are enjoying a comeback on the big and small screens.

Classic Suspense:

Classic Mystery.jpgDeath on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Kenneth Branagh returns after his first Hercule Poirot take in Murder on the Orient Express (2017) which he directs. Once again, the prolific screenwriter/adaptor Michael Green pitches in. Interesting cast with Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Annette Bening.
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RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Lily James is ubiquitous ever since she comes out of Downton as Lady Rose. Now she’s the young and naive Mrs. De Winter in a psychological warfare with her nemesis, housekeeper Mrs. Danver played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Can the master of Manderley save her? But of course, he must save himself first. That’s Armie Hammer, equally ubiquitous.
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Classic Adventure:

The Call of the Wild.jpgThe Call of the Wild by Jack London

Harrison Ford heeds the call with action star Karen Gillan, Dan Stevens, and the Calgary-born, The Expanse star Cara Gee. Partially filmed in Yukon and some in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Never heard of the Yukon Territories? This should be a good intro. I’m all for old classics, be they books or actors.
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DOCTOR D (1).jpegVoyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

Movie title Dolittle, an adventure spectacle with Robert Downey Jr. as the eponymous Doctor. See if you can identify the voices of these animals: Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Marion Cotillard, Octavia Spencer… just to name a few of the stars in this production. Coming out January 17.

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Classic Sci-Fi’s:

The Invisible ManThe Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

Classic sci-fi gets a resurrected boost. Wells’ novella and cautionary tale was first published in 1897. Now 123 years later in the 21st century, it’s adapted into a movie for the big screen. The Handmaid’s Tale Elizabeth Moss stars.
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Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

Huxley’s dystopian, imagined future written in 1931 is adapted into a TV series almost 90 years later. Again, a mark of what makes a book a classic, especially a sci-fi work. Downton early-exit Lady Sybil Jessica Brown Findlay’s in.
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DuneDune by Frank Herbert

Another sci-fi classic, but closer to our time. A project by the acclaimed French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve who has done some remarkable works like the Oscar nominated Arrival (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Sicario (2015). Adapted into screen by Oscar winning writer Eric Roth (Forest Gump, 1994; A Star is Born, 2018). Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar Isaac star.

Classic YA’s: 

Artemis_Fowl_first_edition_coverArtemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

The first of Colfer’s popular series is a Disney production with Kenneth Branagh directing. A trending genre, the YA fantasy series has great potentials to be successful. A strong cast including Hong Chau, Judi Dench, Josh Gad.

 

The Secret Garden.jpgThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Like Little Women, this classic young reader novel has had several screen adaptations. I have no qualms about this; it only helps to spark renewed interest in the book. This new adaptation will have Colin Firth who was in the 1993 version to play Lord Archibald Craven and Julie Walters as Mrs. Medlock.
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Contemporary Notables:

I Know this much is True.jpgI Know this much is True by Wally Lamb

Lamb’s novel about a twin brother’s advocacy and care for his paranoid schizophrenic sibling is adapted into a 6 episode TV miniseries. Mark Ruffalo will play both brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Director Derek Cianfrance has a few fine works, the Cannes nominee Blue Valentine (2010), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), and The Light Between Oceans (2016).

Little Fires.jpgLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Goodreads Choice of the Year Best Fiction (2017) and Novel of the Year on other sites, Chinese American writer Celeste Ng’s novel on class/race differences and aspirational conflicts in the idyllic community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is adapted into a TV miniseries. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington star.

Nine Perfect StrangersNine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Moriarty’s website states her books had sold over 14 million copies worldwide. On the heels of her successful Big Little Lies turned into the small screen, Nine Perfect Strangers has already secured Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy on board for the miniseries on Hulu. Her other books will follow.
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the woman in the window.jpgThe Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

A shaky narrator seeing a crime happening or being caught in one, Gone Girl was the first to kick off the trend. The Woman in the Window alludes to the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Directed by Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, 2017; Anna Karenina, 2012), screenplay by Pulitzer winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, 2013), and an A-list cast with Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore.

 

 

 

 

‘Little Women’ is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.

LITTLE WOMEN (1)

So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.

The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.

Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.

The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War. A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.

The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.

A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.

Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:

And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.

In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:

Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.

The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Related Posts:

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

The Good Liar Movie Review

From an online dating site, two people meet. They are two seniors, con artist Roy (Ian McKellen) and his seemingly easy prey Betty (Helen Mirren), a wealthy widow. That’s all I knew about the movie before I went into the theatre. When I came out, I was surprised by its intensity and scope. Not something I’d expected. Definitely not a romantic dramedy but a suspense thriller that drops hints along the way and slowly peels off its layers of disguise. 

The Good Liar

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot because any more details I give out would diminish your enjoyment. However, I’m sure there are those who, like me, had never expected the personal history behind these two characters. Some might have been caught so off guard that they’d find the story preposterous. To them I say, it’s no more preposterous than Gone Girl, or The Debt, or Inglorious Basterds, which Roy and Betty watch in the movie. The interplay between Mirren and McKellen more than compensates for the lack of plausibility in the revealing of truth in the latter part. Further, it’s these elements of surprise that make the movie entertaining. Take it as pure escapism.

The Good Liar is based on the debut novel by British author Nicholas Searle, a pseudonym. The author worked as a UK intelligence officer before becoming a full-time writer. After watching the movie now I’m piqued to read the book, not to explore deep subject but just for its structure, to see how Searle tells his story interweaving the present and the past. This is one good case for not reading the book before watching the movie.

Mirren and McKellen, two British acting icons for the stage and screen, deliver a captivating performance playing off each other and enjoying themselves too, by the look. Director Bill Condon deftly leads us on to some revealing that makes one think twice about the meaning of the title. Condon directed Dreamgirls (2006) to two Oscar wins and received a Best Writing Oscar for adapting Gods and Monsters (1998) and a nom for his screenplay for Chicago (2002).

Other cast members include Jim Carter and Russell Tovey, both lending good support. I admit I have to try hard to cast away images of Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey when I watch Carter in The Good Liar, no matter how modern his hairdo.

Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (A Wrinkle in Time 2018; Beauty and the Beast, 2017) offers some interesting vantage points, in particular the aerial shots in several scenes. The beginning of the movie grabs our attention right away with the credits being typed out on screen and a high angle shot of the two main characters connecting online on a dating site, then pulling in closer. The extreme close-ups of their eyes prepare us for intrigues. The story moves right in wasting no time. Overall, just watching the duo play off each other is entertaining enough.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

The Personal History of David Copperfield: From Book to Film

In a previous post I reviewed The Goldfinch, one of two literary adaptations on my list to watch while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The Personal History of David Copperfield is the other one, which also had its world premiere at TIFF; it represents a totally different approach to bringing a literary work to the big screen.

If The Goldfinch is an example of a traditional way of adaptation, striving at loyalty to the literary source while overlooking cinematic elements, David Copperfield is a brave venture out wielding post-modern strokes, not that it is changed into a contemporary setting, but that it is adapted with a modern-day zeitgeist. Here’s director Armando Iannucci’s rationale during a TIFF interview: Just as Dickens wrote David Copperfield reflecting life and society of his time, as a filmmaker today, he directs the adaptation through a frame of our time. 

David Copperfield
Dev Patel as David Copperfield. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF19

What stands out in such post-modern filmmaking is the ‘colour-blind casting’ of the production. David Copperfield is played by Dev Patel, a young British actor of Indian descent. Known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Patel has established a popular screen presence with a charisma that whisked him through many subsequent successful features such as the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011, 2015) and Lion (2016). Other non-white actors taking up main roles include Benedict Wong (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) as Mr. Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar (Howards End, 2017) as Agnes and Nikki Amuka-Bird (The Children Act, 2017) as Mrs. Steerforth. It is a bold statement Iannucci is making: skin colour is not an issue. These talents are first and foremost, actors.

Iannucci indicated that he’d always have Patel in mind ever since he watched Lion (2016), a true story about an Indian boy separated from his older brother in a Calcutta train station and later sent away for adoption in Australia. Twenty-five years later, after a long search, he finally located and reunited with his mother in an Indian village. Watching Patel in Lion, Iannucci thought, that’s David Copperfield for him. Indeed, Dickens’s character David Copperfield could well be a metaphor for those who had suffered much in childhood and yet against all odds, have survived and grown up to be resilient and compassionate human beings.

The adaptation exudes energy and humour. Iannucci has chosen his cinematic palette with bright colours and sprinkled with comedic sparks. Surely, Dickens’s Copperfield has a sad upbringing, orphaned after his beloved mother dies young, and mistreated by his stepfather Mr. Murdstone and his sister Jane Murdstone, later having had to fend for himself as a child labourer at the ripe age of 12. Yet Dickens’s humour never fades. His light-hearted depiction of Aunt Betsey Trotwood or Mr. Micawber offer some hilarious characterization. Later, David’s brave and arduous escape to seek the shelter of Aunt Betsey turns his life around. The autobiographical fiction could well represent Dickens’s view that, in the midst of misfortunes and human pathos, there still lies a deeper essence, and that’s the joy of life. Iannucci deftly capitalizes this inherent quality in the the author’s writing and adorns his film with humour and jollity.

Here’s a note on Wikipedia on Armando Iannucci that I find interesting: “Born in Glasgow to Italian parents, Iannucci studied at the University of Glasgow followed by the University of Oxford, leaving graduate work on a D.Phil about John Milton to pursue a career in comedy.” I’m sure the story about his academic pursuit and career change entail more than just this one line can say, but that’s enough to give us the background of who’s bringing David Copperfield to the screen now. Iannucci is the creator and writer of the award-winning TV series Veep (2012-2019), the Oscar nominated political satire In the Loop (2009), and the dark comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), for which he won Best Director and Best Writer at BAFTA.

To those wary about the lack of seriousness, the superb cast is poised to deflect such criticisms. Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner Michael Clayton, 2007) as Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie (Golden Globe Best Actor The Night Manager, House) as Mr. Dick are the anchors that complement Patel’s spirited performance. They are pivotal in transferring Dickens’s moral insights onto screen. Aunt Betsey’s kindness towards Mr. Dick, who in today’s term would be one stricken with mental illness, is a lesson in example, influencing David’s mutual friendship with him. The same with David’s support and acceptance of Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family while they are in dire financial distress. If we need a villain, Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep is there to show vividly the face of hypocrisy and the consequence of jealousy and deceit.

Such a light handling of the classic novel has its weakness naturally. While the moral lesson of good over evil still stands, David’s growing insights about love, life, and faith which Dickens writes about so eloquently have not been transferred onto screen as successfully. It is unfortunate that the movie does not elaborate on the effects of David’s misplaced adulations of Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch, 2019) nor does it focus on his awakening to the fervency Agnes has for him. David’s blindspot and Agnes’s hidden love for him would have made a poignant storyline. Nevertheless, the two eventually do come together, but just as a coda, with Dora (Morfydd Clark, Love & Friendship, 2016) getting the inkling of a mismatch between herself and the emerging writer to gracefully step aside, sparing David the deathbed scene from the book.

Overall, the adaptation is a joy to watch, and one of those films that I’d like to rewatch. It has just been screened at London Film Festival in early October, release dates in North America unknown. The casting might pose an issue for some, but it just may be another object lesson for today.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

The Goldfinch

Lion

Love & Friendship

 

Literary Adaptations at TIFF19: The Goldfinch

Two book-to-film adaptations were on my watch list while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September: Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch and the Dickens classic The Personal History of David Copperfield, both had their world premiere at TIFF. The two make such interesting contrasts that it would be good to discuss them together in one post, but that would be a long one. As I covet your attention, I’ll split them into two reviews. 

I listened to the audiobook of The Goldfinch in 2014, a year after the novel was published. My impression was: this one’s written for the screen. There are Dickensian characters and storylines transposed into present day. 13-year-old Theo is visiting a NYC art museum with his mother when she is killed in a bombing. In the aftermath, stunned and traumatized, he follows a mysterious track to an antique shop where the owner Hobie takes him in. There he meets Pippa, a girl he finds affiliation as she’s looking at the same painting with him in the museum when the bomb goes off. Later Pippa moves away and Theo goes to live with a wealthy Park Avenue family, the Barbours, only to have his stable life interrupted by the sudden reappearance of his long-gone, alcoholic father claiming full guardianship and taking him to live in Nevada, where he becomes friends with Boris, another boy lost in the sandy void.

Later, fleeing from his abusive father, Theo returns to the antique shop in NYC. Under the mentorship of Hobie he learns the skills of the trade. Years later, by chance and fate, Boris shows up again in his life, pulling him into the underworld of art dealings that eventually leads to a violent end, but that’s where the closure begins. “The Goldfinch” is the painting Theo takes with him after the museum bombing and hides it for himself, for it is a physical reminder of his last memory with his mother. They were looking at it when disaster struck; it was his mother’s favorite painting.

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Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

That’s the main book story in a nutshell, and it appears that screenwriter Peter Straughan is keen to remain as faithful to the source material as possible. When the task at hand is loyalty to the original 784 page novel, the 149 minute screen time can feel like a laborious effort to create a replica, thus losing its flavour as an art form of a different medium, breathing, living cinema. The characters and major plot points are there, but what’s missing are the emotional depth and sparks of life.

Tartt’s novel has its Dickensian characters, and I can’t help but see parallels between The Goldfinch and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Theo and Davy, Boris and Steerforth, Theo’s father Larry and Davy’s stepfather Mr. Murdstone, Pippa and Agnes. The two features, however, represent two ends of possible choices for film adaptations.

Director John Crowley, who helmed Brooklyn (2015), a beautiful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, has a good cast to work with for The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley (Wonderstruck, 2017) gives us a mature performance as young Theo. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour decades apart, two roles that don’t give her much to say. Luke Wilson as Theo’s volatile father Larry and Sarah Paulson as his girlfriend Xandra are the livelier contrasts to other characters. Maybe Crowley focuses too much on the theme of grief that the overtone is sombre throughout. Ansel Elgort as adult Theo may not be a miscast but is boxed in by the only emotion he can express, gloominess. I can’t remember he has flashed a hearty smile once. That goes for other characters as well. The Goldfinch is a story of grief and Crowley has painted the mood in stark realism.

Thanks to the venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins (2018 Oscar winner Blade Runner 2049), we get to see some sunlight and energy in the Nevada desert days of  friendship between young Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, TV Stranger Things). For most of the film, however, the color is a greyish cyan of dolefulness. While the museum bombing scene is dramatic, watching it over and over again––as Theo is drawn into guilt-ridden memory––could diminish the effect. But then, this would be an editing issue. And like Theo, don’t we all want to see the face of his mother, whose death is the cause of the grief, but that only comes for a short moment towards the end.

In an early scene, antique shop owner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) shows young Theo how to tell a piece of furniture by touch to feel its authenticity. Too smooth has to be fake. Furniture that has weathered years of usage would be rougher and uneven. The character of adult Theo could have been a wiser man, more seasoned and worldly, but he remains static and stiff. The poignancy of fate with its power over one’s life comes late in the film and exerts little effect on the emotional connection with viewers. Unfortunately, Hobie’s antique lesson for young Theo is a metaphor for the adaptation. Other than a visual representation of the major plot of the novel, the film is a reproduction that lacks authenticity and liveliness.

 

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: From Book to Screen

When I first learned that Maria Semple’s quirky and clever 2012 novel would be turned into a movie, I had that umm… feeling. When I found out Richard Linklater would be directing it, it turned into a whaaat? Sure it’s not a Wes Anderson project?

On the surface a mother-daughter relational story, Semple’s book is deceivingly simple. Underneath the humour is her take on contemporary American society, the tyranny of technology, vulnerability of the non-conforming, sarcasm on the upwardly aspiring middle class, the rat race and its effect on parenting, the outsourcing economy, and even taking a jab on America’s quiet and polite neighbour to the north. As a target, I must give you the following excerpt from the book as evidence of Semple’s spikiness (or is it spunkiness):

You probably think, U.S./Canada, they’re interchangeable because they’re both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula (virtual personal assistant from India), you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass… Canadians are none of that. The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that’s how I fear Canadians. To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD. John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality. The thing Canadians don’t understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such.

But that’s not in the movie. Why, the movie is a total stripped-down version without the incendiary, sarcastic swipes, or the laugh-out-loud funny, and ah… thanks, Maria Semple, for the words, “it’s flattened under an avalanche of” smoothened edges in characterization and plot.

By the way, if one reads deeper into the Canadian jab quoted above, it wouldn’t be hard to see the layered meaning. Aha, the joke is on which side of the 49th?

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Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) has had her glorious days as an acclaimed architect, pioneer of the green building movement, a MacArthur grant recipient at 32, and a young woman succeeding in a male-dominated profession. Due to an unfortunate incident, her award-winning project was demolished without her knowledge, destroyed by a vengeful neighbour who bought it under an agent’s name. Devastated, Bernadette crashed out of her career, moved to Seattle with her Microsoft, TED Talking husband Elgie (Billy Crudup, a miscast). They bought a huge, dilapidated mansion. For twenty years she had ignored the maintenance of her home and self. The traumatic health issue of her daughter Bee’s (Emma Nelson) early years drives her further into the hole living as a reclusive agoraphobic.

Bernadette and Bee are the best of friends though. Mother/daughter relationship is well portrayed in the movie, a particular gripping scene is their singing the song ‘Time after time’ together in the car ending with a Bernadette meltdown. “You don’t know how hard it is for me.” Bee doesn’t know, viewers need to guess, but readers do, for they are supplied with ample back story. The movie, however, has trouble connecting the past with the present, or presenting sufficient motivation for the actions and behaviour of the characters.

As loving parents, Bernadette and Elgie have to fulfill a promise to Bee, that is she can have anything she asks for if she gets straight A’s; now they’re stuck with making a family trip to Antarctica. For two-third of the movie we see mostly interior shots of home and work building up a case to Bernadette’s disappearance. The momentum picks up only in the last third, the Antarctica episode.

The storytelling in the book is a lively collection of emails, notes, letters, hospital billing, and police report plus personal narrative to present the different voices from various characters. On screen, the Rashomon-like shifting of perspectives are converted into mainly two characters sitting and talking to each other. Surely Linklater is an expert in dialogues with his Before trilogy, where the camera follows two characters Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) talking throughout the movie and yet still captivating viewers as we watch them wander the streets and listening to them chat. But here, that magic is missing. Where’d you go, Linklater?

For the casting of Bernadette, Cate Blanchett is a good choice, her Academy Award winning role in Blue Jasmine comes to mind. Unfortunately, here she is not in her Jasmine form. The major issue is a weak script, hence the directing of it. The screenplay follows the book faithfully but in a minimal, abridged version. It begs the question: does a movie adaptation need to follow the source material to the dot? Here in this very different medium, dialogues are picked right out of the novel while the camera has not been fully utilized, nor any imaginative ingredients been added to the visual adaptation of this quirky and zesty book. Well, yes, it might have been faithful to the letter, but not the spirit.

The title question obviously doesn’t just mean the physical whereabouts of Bernadette but where her talent, creativity, and vitality for life have gone. There’s a scene with Bernadette meeting her previous mentor Paul Jellinek (Laurence Fishburne) who says it explicitly: “People like you must create. If you don’t, you become a menace to society.” Such is a thematic element that needs to be calved out more clearly, a talent caged in by her own disillusionment and her ultimate breakthrough. Don’t blame motherhood, and Bernadette doesn’t, for she sees a beautiful offspring flourishing in Bee. But is parenting a zero-sum game? The context and question should be handled with more depth and inner exploration. With not much contextual support, the case of a self-imposed, locked-up genius is left to the actor Blanchett to portray, and at times it seems forced.

Missing story elements cause lapses in the storytelling. Why does Audrey (Kristen Wiig), Bernadette’s neighbour and archenemy, suddenly becomes friend with her at the most critical moment? Or, during the mudslide, the camera hasn’t shown (without obstruction) what’s written on the sign, which has triggered much of the resentment between Audrey and Bernadette. Readers know, but not viewers if they have not read the source material.

At the end of the book there’s an “About the Author” page. Before writing fiction, Semple had written for the television shows Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen. If one hadn’t known this tidbit already, a natural response would have been “no wonder!” It just points plainly to the ideal person who should have written the screenplay.

 

~ ~ Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple:

Blue Jasmine: Homage and Reimagining

Boyhood: The Moment Seizes Us 

Before Midnight: Reality Check

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Upcoming Book-to-Movie Adaptations: Good Summer Reading

Previously on Ripple, I’d posted lists of books-to-movies coming out soon here and here. If you’ve gone to the theatre lately, you’ve probably seen trailers for some of them: The GoldfinchWhere’d you go Bernadette? or Cats (like a horror movie for someone who has ailurophobia.)

Here are some updates. The following is a list of movie adaptations in development for the big screen or TV series. They are in various stages of production, just announced or in pre-production, release dates unknown or tentative. If you’re the well-prepped movie goer, here’s your list of summer reading:

Where the Crawdads sing.jpegWhere the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Now 46 weeks on the NYT Bestsellers List and has sold more than 1.5 million copies, Owens’s debut novel about a young girl who has raised herself and survived alone in a coastal North Carolina marsh is a mix of nature writing, murder mystery, and coming-of-age story. Reese Witherspoon will be producing it with Fox 2000. Owens is a wildlife scientist and nature writer who had spent years in Africa.

 

Little Fires Everywhere (1)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Another project by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company. Ng’s novel about families in a Cleveland suburb dealing with diversity, teenager angsts, and generational conflicts had been named Best Book of the Year (2017) by NPR, Amazon, Goodreads, The Guardian… just to name a few. It will be adapted into a TV series with the Hulu platform. 

 

 

Ask Again, YesAsk Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

The producers of American Beauty (1999) which won 5 Oscars in 2000 have bought the movie and TV rights of the book. Another novel about suburban families is being described in Goodreads as “profoundly moving.” Author Keane was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction; her previous works had been a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and garnered Best Book of the year acclaims.

 

The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Screenwriter Michaelides’s debut novel is described by Entertainment Weekly as “a mix of Hitchcockian suspense, Agatha Christie plotting, and Greek tragedy.” A psychotherapist has to unlock the mystery of his patient who’d killed her husband six years earlier and then remained silent since. (Read an excerpt using the link) Meanwhile, Michaelides will write the screenplay, naturally. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Annapurna Pictures producing.

 

Tattoist of Auschwitz.jpgThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Hailed as the true story of Slovakian Jew, Lali Sokolov, who fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII, a powerful story of love and survival. British producer Synchronicity Films had secured the rights and a drama series is in development. Here’s the rub: the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre had disputed the authenticity of the book according to The Guardian. A case of negative publicity is still good publicity?
The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner (2017) is adapted by director Barry Jenkins. Jenkins’s name had catapulted to stardom since his Oscar win for Moonlight (2016) and the subsequent If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). The story of the harrowing escape of two Southern slaves Cora and Caesar using the Underground Railroad is adapted into 11 episodes for Amazon Studio.

 

Washington Black (2)

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The book is Edugyan’s second consecutive win of Canada’s Scotiabank Giller’s Prize, also shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize. The journey of 11-year-old slave boy “Wash” born on a Barbados plantation is a fantastical story of adventure when he became the personal servant of Englishman Christopher Wilde, inventor, naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. 20th Century Fox TV, after “an intense bidding war” , had secured the rights to the small screen.

 

 

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‘Gemma Bovery’ to cool your summer day

This film by the French director Anne Fontaine could offer you a couple hours of  cool entertainment in a lazy, hazy summer afternoon.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was published in 1856. There have been no less than half a dozen movie adaptations of this famous piece of literature, dating back as early as 1934 (dir. Jean Renoir). Only in 2014 did a female rendition emerge with Sophie Barthes in the helm and featured Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary. It’s a relatively conventional take on Flaubert’s literary classic.

Interestingly, in that same year, another movie version of Madame Bovary also came out. This one is by French director Anne Fontaine (born 1959). Under the helm of the versatile Fontaine, and in the spirit of Emma Bovary, this one looks like it’s a vignette from a parallel universe, defying traditional norms, laced with a deadpan, comical streak, and transported to modern day France.

Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), a long-time academic publisher in Paris, moves back to Normandy to take over his father’s bakery, seeking for a peaceful and balanced life in the quiet region. A literature enthusiast, Martin’s antenna for the literary is sharp and sensitive. When a couple with the names of Charles and Gemma Bovery move into his adjacent house in the country, he quickly stands guard on the affairs of the young woman, as he knows the ending of the novel Madame Bovary by Flaubert. He uses all his male sense and sensibility to avoid a tragedy that could befall his new neighbours.

Director Fontaine’s title gives it away as a parody not to be taken too seriously. Gemma Arterton is a good choice as she appears to be a more convincing Gemma Bovery than Mia Wasikowska’s Emma Bovary. For those watchful for literary adaptations, Arterton was Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008, TV miniseries) playing alongside Eddie Redmayne as Angel Claire. In a more recent year, Their Finest (2016) also saw her mastering her role poignantly.

Gemma is an interior decorator and Charles a furniture refurbisher. Parallel characters as in Flaubert’s novel appear in Gemma’s life after she moves into the Norman countryside, tempting her to fall into a similar track as Madame B.  Except, we don’t see her buying luxurious goods and remodelling her humble abode. Fontaine is bold to let her viewers see what Flaubert was describing with his words, albeit these scenes are short.

So, is Martin successful in avoiding a tragic end to his imagined literary heroine? No spoilers here. In a lazy, hazy summer afternoon, an ending short of crazy would not be worthwhile for a parody.

 

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Do you have a favourite French literature to movie adaptation?

 

Thanks to Tamara for hosting a 6th annual Paris in July event at Thyme for Tea.

PIJ2019 Tamara

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a last outcry of a young talent

ElephantSittingStill

I watched An Elephant Sitting Still while covering the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April. It remains one of the most unforgettable films in my recent memory, the directorial debut of Hu Bo, a Chinese writer-turned-filmmaker. Hu’s incisive narratives of the human condition won Best First Feature and the FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin International Film Festival in 2018. Sadly, this is the young director’s first and last film, for his career trajectory ended abruptly in October, 2017. Hu took his own life during post-production. He was 29. The feature has since played in numerous international film festivals garnering accolades which Hu himself would never have known.

Hu Bo graduated from Beijing Film Academy majoring in directing. Later went to Taiwan to further his training and came under the mentorship of the venerable auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin, 2015) and subsequently the Hungarian art film director Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, 2011). Other than making short films and writing screenplays, Hu had authored short stories and an award-winning novella. His debut feature An Elephant Sitting Still was adapted from his short story of the same name.

Hu BoAt the 55th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan last November, An Elephant Sitting Still won Best Feature Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award. The Best Film prize was presented to Hu’s mother by the Taiwanese American director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, 2012; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000) who reached out to her with a poignant embrace.

 

An Elephant Sitting Still is a 230-minute cinematic allegory wrapped in haunting realism. In an unnamed town in Northern China, four characters struggle with their own personal predicament too messy to untangle, all in a day’s time. The four narratives intersect in Hu’s incisive screenplay.

A high school student, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), while defending a friend, accidentally pushes a school bully down the stairs leading to his death. Even more tragic, Wei later finds out he has been deceived by the very friend he tries to protect. Wei has to run away as the bully’s older brother Yu Cheng (Yu Zhang), a local gangster, is out looking for him. Yu himself is a man riddled with guilt as he has just witnessed his best friend dash out of the window to his death upon finding out Yu has been sleeping with his wife.

Meanwhile, Wei tries to persuade his unrequited crush, schoolmate Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to leave with him. Huang herself has to deal with her alcoholic single mother and is further troubled by the reverberation of her scandalous relationship with her school’s vice dean. The fourth character is a grandfather, Wang Jin (Li Congxi), who is pushed out of his son’s home as the young family needs to move to a smaller apartment in another place so to register their daughter for a better school. A dismal future awaits him away from his granddaughter.

Hu parallels the dilapidated urban environs with the inner world of his characters. Long takes and tracking shots place viewers right in the midst of relational conflicts. A Steadicam follows their uncertain footsteps; blueish-grey overtone transmits the bleakness of their situation. Hu takes time to let the camera linger on his characters’ faces, capturing their troubled psyche. Their seemingly emotionless appearance is reminiscence of Bresson’s ‘non-actors’. Often, their reticence conveys depths that words deem unnecessary.

There’s still another character which is mentioned but remains invisible, and that’s the Elephant. We’re told at the start of the film that it sits very still in a circus in the city of Manzhouli, a distance away. It’s indifferent to people’s taunting and objects thrown at it. The Elephant’s quiet composure exudes a mythical element these characters seem to yearn for. Here, realism is mixed with a touch of magic. As the four-hour film draws to an end, the sequence transcends rationale. Two young people, Wei and Ling, together with the grandfather Wang and his granddaughter depart on a journey to Manzhouli in search for the Elephant.

The ending shot is mesmerizing as the bus to Manzhouli stops temporarily in the night, the passengers get down for a stretch. From a distance, we see our protagonists stand in front of the beam from the bus and start playing hacky sack. The long stay of the camera on them is surreal but needed. The quest for the mythical being is motivational zeal for life, even just for a momentary pleasure. Then we hear off screen the sound of an elephant braying.

The Book Big Crack

Big Crack.jpgIn April I took a trip to Hong Kong and there in a bookstore I found the source material for the film, Big Crack*, written by Hu under his pen name Hu Qian. The book is a compilation of short stories, one of them being ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’, as well as Hu’s award-winning novella Big Crack’. I was eager to explore Hu’s worldview and compare his writing with his cinematic work.

‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ is a 15-page short story. Its protagonist is Yu in the movie, having slept with his best friend’s wife and struggling with guilt as he’s the reason for his friend’s suicide. Yu is drawn to search for the Elephant in Manzhouli, maybe for a redemptive reason. Towards the end, he finds the mythical beast, jumps into its cage and submits himself to let it deal a deadly blow to him, a fate he’s all too willing to accept, a soul that has been hinged on a meaningless existence. The other film materials are mostly philosophical concepts from the novella ‘Big Crack’

Hu’s writing is more direct and visceral than his cinematic creation. In the novella ‘Big Crack’, his characters are students in a bottom-tiered art college somewhere near a remote northern town. The term ‘waste land’ is used to refer to the campus and its adjacent town. The term is also used in the movie. In the book, the words ‘waste land’ are ubiquitous, together with Existential, nihilistic concepts like having no exit and nauseating stenches – as in the beginning of the film with Wei’s father’s furious complaint. In the novella, rampant violence is frequent among different dormitories of the school, often exploding in bloodshed. Violence is more restrained in the film, but often leading to tragic end.

I presume Hu’s use of the phrase ‘waste land’ is an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s epic poem. Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ after WWI as the poet lamented the cultural and spiritual breakdown of Europe. Physical ruins could be rebuilt, but the collapse of moral and spiritual values was hard to replaced.

In what I think is a defying act in a country that monitors and censors Christianity in the public arena, Hu quoted the following verses from the Bible, words printed in bold:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time…. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”

The Invisible Elephant

Hu is piercing in his observation of the moral void and dry, cracked condition of the human soul; the meaninglessness of life as he saw it could have become too overwhelming for him. But what about the Elephant? Is there a sliver of light coming through that crack?

Some had interpreted the Elephant as a symbol of the government, but considering the way that the beast appeals and draws the protagonists to seek for it, almost like a pilgrimage, that parallel just isn’t probable. Some critics had attributed it to the endurance needed to forsake the world and confront troubles with passive resistance.

When I first came across the mention of the Elephant sitting still, the Beatles song “The Fool on the Hill” came to mind. The lyrics point to a similar quietude and peaceful being, some see the lyrics as a reference to God, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth…” I incline to interpret as this, for evidence is overwhelming in Hu’s writing that he was troubled by the depravity of the world as he saw it and wanted to seek for what or who could have been the redemptive way.

As the closing credits roll to the end, we hear the mood has changed from the past three plus hours. We hear jubilant singing voices mixed with the theme music ‘Elephant’, sound of joy for the first time. And in the credits the following acknowledgement appears, ending the whole film:

“Original Acappella, Laomudeng Church Sunday Service Hymn”**

Before his death, a second feature was on the drawing board. Hu named it The Gate of Heaven. The spiritual yearning of this young talent is achingly apparent.

 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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*It’s my understanding that the book comes in only its original Chinese edition. There has yet been an English translation.

** Upon online research, I found that the Laomudeng Christian Church is serenely situated on the top of a mountain in Yunan, famous for its secluded and peaceful environs. The high-pitched A Cappella singing of its congregants is well-known.

Photo Sources:

Film still from Ripple file originally from MSPIFF
Hu Bo photo from Festival Scope Pro
Big Crack book photo from Amazon.com