May 222003

The rumored movie version of Atlas Shrugged is driving the Objectivist cineasts out of the woodwork: first Arthur Silber, then Diana Hsieh, and even Ian Hamet was inspired to awaken from a two-week hibernation. Will it be good? This is a matter of applying Haspel’s Three Laws of Film Adaptation.

1. The better the book, the worse the movie. The novel is the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life. The movies and the theater are the best vehicles ever devised for conveying people’s outer life. That the latter map poorly to the former should be no great surprise. Inner life is conveyed in the theater by the soliloquy, which is horribly clunky, and in the movies by the voiceover, which isn’t much better. Good acting can only help so much, and is scarce. How many times have you read a critic praising an actor for “hinting at the hidden depths” of a character? That the depths are hidden is precisely the problem.

Especially “interior” novels, like those of Henry James, tend to be turned into especially bad movies. The one James novel that become a successful movie is Washington Square, which he first conceived as a play. (But see Law #3.)

Great novels also live by their language, most of which is lost on film. There’s plenty of action in Moby-Dick, but you don’t read it for action, you read it for the whiteness of the whale. Naturally the (1956) film version of Moby-Dick, despite being directed by John Huston and adapted by Ray Bradbury, was a profound disappointment, even if we set aside the problematic casting, to put it kindly, of Gregory Peck as Ahab. It’s a creditable sea yarn, just not Melville. The operation was a success, but the patient died.

2. The longer the book, the worse the movie. The longer the book, the more you have to cut. The more you cut, the more mistakes you make. In many ways Bonfire of the Vanities was an excellent candidate for the screen. It’s a very behaviorist novel, not at all “interior” as good novels go: its theme is that what we are pleased to call personality is in fact a howling void. But it is nearly 700 pages long, at least 500 of which had to disappear. Michael Cristofer, the screenwriter, couldn’t decide what to part with, choosing instead to reduce every major subplot to a quarter of its former size, mystifying anyone who had not read the book and infuriating anyone who had. The resulting hopeless hash cannot be entirely attributed to Brian De Palma’s inability to understand anything but gore. Or take the King Vidor version of War and Peace. Please.

My two favorite movies of great books are Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, largely because I’m in love with Greer Garson, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 Lolita. Both books are short.

3. The more faithful the adaptation, the worse the movie. Piety afflicts modern directors especially. They all grew up on movies and TV, and tend to genuflect toward literature when they stumble on it later in life. Martin Scorsese turned The Age of Innocence, a beautifully subtle novel, into a static bore by trying to convey every last nuance. You got the impression that it was the first book Scorsese had ever managed to read all through. The authors of his other screenplays must envy his overscrupulous attitude toward Mrs. Wharton.

To return to Washington Square, Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 version suffers by comparison with William Wyler’s much looser 1949 adaptation, The Heiress. The novel, and Holland’s film, end with a highly civilized meeting between Catherine and Morris, her penniless former suitor who deserted her for fear that she would be disinherited. Now that Catherine’s father is dead and her fortune is secure, Morris clearly wishes to marry, Catherine equally clearly wishes not to, and that is that, although not a word is said directly on the subject. It works brilliantly in the novel and is DOA on film. In Wyler’s version Morris proposes to Catherine again, she pretends to accept him, and locks the door on him when he comes back around to collect her. The movie ends with Morris pounding on the door as it dawns on him what she has done. Riveting on film, ridiculous on the page.

Atlas Shrugged, then. I view Atlas more as a gussied-up work of philosophy than a novel, exactly. Its characters haven’t much in the way of an interior life, and in any case it is Ayn Rand’s way for everyone to say exactly what’s he’s thinking, over and over again. (No one ever lies in her novels, not even the villains.) On the one hand, works of philosophy haven’t much cinematic future. On the other hand it has an awful lot of action for a work of philosophy, and God knows there’s plenty to cut. If we had only Law #1 to go on, the jury would still be out.

Law #2 we can pass over quickly. The book is 1200 pages of eyestrain print, and the whole in this case will assuredly be less than the sum of its parts. The story of the 20th Century Motor Company would make a better movie than the novel itself.

As for Law #3, James Hart, who is signed to write the screenplay, is a keen Atlas fan, which means he’ll want to get as much of the philosophy into the movie as he can, so we’re bound to have Francisco on the meaning of money and plenty of John Galt speaking. Fidelity will sink Atlas just as it sank the movie version of The Fountainhead. Conventional wisdom blames the failure of the movie on Gary Cooper as Roark, and admittedly he is terrible, so terrible that he said so himself later. (Patricia Neal is almost as bad.) Yet the penultimate scene in The Fountainhead, Roark’s lengthy courtroom speech, is cinematically hopeless, no matter who’s playing him. Imagining Galt’s speech on film I leave as an exercise for the reader.

(Update: As for “No one ever lies in Ayn Rand’s novels,” One of my commenters points out that the characters lie all over the place in Atlas Shrugged. Having just reread the first 100 pages and caught three whoppers, I take it back.)

  15 Responses to “Atlas? Shrug.”

  1. More like a two week fit of depression, but that’s neither here nor there. :)

    It’s been a few years since I read it, but I recall that Hugh Akston lied to Dagny about the middle of the book, in the diner he was running. Am I misremembering?

    Your rules are good ones (excellent ones, actually) but there are always exceptions.

    Of course the Galt speech will need to be cut down immensely — but a climactic speech can be carried off successfully: see Oliver Stone’s JFK. That final speech worked, or, at least 3/4 of it did.

    Lord of the Rings is longer than Atlas, I believe, and the 2/3rds of the adaptation have been astonishingly successful, and faithful to the spirit, though not the letter, of the book.

    The proof, naturally, will be in the pudding.

    (And I’m glad someone else can’t stand Neal’s performance, too!)

  2. Has anybody ever finished the chapter "This is John Galt speaking"? I’ve read Atlas Shrugged numerous times, and though I made one or two game attempts, that was one chapter I always ended up skipping.

  3. Yes, actually. But I was prepared for it ahead of time — the person who gave it to me said that there was a chapter that was more technical, more difficult, and more philosophical than the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, so I was steeled and ready for it.

    Sure does bring the book to a halt, though, doesn’t it? "Grand Inquisitor" did the same, but both are necessary to no small extent to the books that contain them.

  4. I love your rules, Aaron. I think they’re quite astute, and well-reasoned. I’m sure I’ll be using them in many movie conversations.

    And they got me to thinking: my sense–largely unexamined– is that short stories are easier to turn into good movies than novels. I remember a PBS series from the late 70s of classic American short stories–"Barn Burning." "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," etc.–and as I recall they were all quite enjoyable and in ways that were closer to the pleasures of the ortiginal story than is usually the case with good literary adaptations. And while Moby-Dick was gutted of what makes it Moby-Dick, the early 60s adaptation of Billy Budd–with Peter Ustinov as Captain Vere–is quite good, and very true to the spirit of the story.
    If it is true that short stories make better material for movies, why would this be? Looking at your rules suggests some possiible answers to that question. First, they are shorter, and thus closer to a first draft of their own screenplay. (And isn’t Washington Square, the basis for the Heiress, a novella, and one that’s more of a lengthened short story than a foreshortened novel?) And this brevity would seem to make the director’s fidelity to the text less a dangerous option than a near necessity. If you’re not going to stick pretty closely to the text–the sequence of scenes, the dialogue–then why bother with it at all? (With a novel, especially a densely populated one of the classic sort, a director is really choosing–or failing competently to choose–one of the many potential movies it contains). And finally, isnt there usually a more balanced relation between inner and outer in short stories than in novels? Even Faulkner seems to have to rely more on action and imagery–the filmable elements of prose narrative–in his stories than in his novels. I’m not sure why this would be, but it seems to be true, as a rule of thumb at least.
    What do you think: could it be that the short story is the literary form with the most kinship to the screenplay?

  5. You don’t like the movie of "The Fountainhead"? I’m shocked. I’ve always considered it an overheated camp masterpiece. Coop with the jackhammer? Neal with her horse? That beyond-fab visual design? King Vidor at his panting, excitable best? OK, it’s camp. But I still love it, and my own moviegoing history would be the poorer without it.

    How do true-blue Objectivists view the movie?

  6. So much nonsense, so little time, Aaron…

    Sometimes, great fidelity to the book "works" –e.g. Gone with the Wind, The Exorcist, We the Living. Usually it gets in the way, but by no means always. Really long books have to be bitten-off into chunks (to do right), and, again, the examples are endless, starting with, say, The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, etc.

    Of course, good novels are not necessarily "interior," though, certainly, the most boring ones are. The approach is a bit too precious and self-absorbed for my taste, anyway. Even the best too often focus on total neurotics, like Faulkner. Give me a CINEMATIC novel! Despite being trapped in my head, a good book can transport me to big vistas. Despite being limited to pictures, a good movie can convey interior reality.

    Rand villains do lie–even some of her heroes do. Some of her heroes even lie to themselves. Toohey’s honesty to Dominique and Wynand is a literary device Rand used specially for him. In Atlas, the villains are only honest about their philosophy–they lie about just about everything else. Rearden is fooling himself, etc, etc. Rand’s novels are great cinematic stories, i.e., fun novels, not just "gussied-up" philosophy. You can keep your duller than death "interior" crap!

    Finally, I loved the screenplay–and even the pacing–of the film version of The Fountainhead, and I think speeches can make great climaxes. Neal was terrific as Dominique. The opening is too jarring–and Cooper SUCKED! Count me with the "conventional wisdom." My doubts about the movie are probably even graver than yours, Aaron, but the project is, at least, conceivably a good idea.

  7. Ah, Ian, you drive me to the source to check Dagny’s conversation with Hugh Akston. You turn out to be wrong. Akston doesn’t lie to her, although he is not perfectly frank.

    Will: I too am one of the few, the proud, the people who have read Galt’s speech all the way through. Now you know two, and I can vouch for the existence of several others.

    John: Outside of the drama, I suppose the short story is best suited to the movies, for some of the reasons I discussed. Short stories by their very nature slight character development for plot, which makes them a great deal more cinematic.

    Michael: I suppose one can have fun watching The Fountainhead by viewing it in a certain light. And the sets are indeed fab — who wouldn’t kill for Wynand’s office? The acolytes, however, uniformly consider it a disaster.

    James: Law #3 is of course a mere heuristic, although your examples of Gone With the Wind and The Exorcist, both sub-literature, point up the relevance of Law #1. You find Henry James boring? De gustibus. You think Henry James is crap? Sorry, you’re simply wrong. On which novels do you base that judgment?

    Lies are spoken (or written). Rearden’s repression doesn’t count. There may be actual lies in Atlas Shrugged — it’s been a while since I’ve read it — but I would appreciate an actual citation.

  8. Aaron wrote: "The better the book, the worse the movie."

    Um…[ahem]…that’s Simon’s (as in John) Law, stated more than a few decades ago (the ’60s, or early ’70s I think).

    Just sayin’, is all.


  9. In general, I think Aaron’s rules are correct, but there must be some exceptions. I’m trying to think of some. How about "The Hours"? Haven’t read Michael Cunningham’s novel, but by reputation, it was very interior, and the movie is pretty good.

  10. Simon’s Law, eh? It was too good for someone else not to hit on first.

  11. Whups, Ian’s wrong about a detail. That never happens.

    (Innocent look. Whistles.)

    Fearless, directed by Peter Weir, script by Rafael Yglesias from his own novel, is a very interior film, and one of my favorites. I’ve never been able to find the source novel, so I cannot compare.

    The Fisher King, d: Terry Gilliam, w: Richard LaGravanese, is also quite interior in its own way, though not based on any other material (other than the Fisher King legend, of course).

    Out of Africa is a splendid movie, and Dinesen is a very good writer. Or is she sub-literature?

    Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro was an incredible novel, and the Merchant-Ivory film does it no violence (it was accused of being great on release, haven’t heard much since). Both are very much interior.

    It can be done.

  12. RE, "The better the book, the worse the movie."

    On a more substantive point (and because it’s a holiday weekend, and slow in the blogosphere):

    While I agree with this law generally, I think its validity springs entirely from your last point above: i.e., that great works of fiction (not only novels) live by — depend upon — their (use of) language. It’s that and that alone which distinguishes literature as a unique art form. Your, "The novel is the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life. The movies and the theater are the best vehicles ever devised for conveying people’s outer life," is palpably untrue as a restricting factor. In fact, film is the easily "the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life," and with breathtaking aesthetic economy, too. Your statement may be true of the Hollywood studio movie, which is typically nothing more than elaborately illustrated exterior narrative, but is manifestly untrue of the best of, say, classic Welles, Bergman, or Fellini. The trick in adapting successfully a great piece of literature for the screen is to find the cinematic equivalents for the book’s language; a trick that requires a filmmaker of the same level of genius as the original writer to bring off successfully.

    As a measure of just how difficult a trick it is, I can’t think of a single example where it’s been accomplished successfully.


  13. I’ll let you recall all the lies in Atlas on your own, but I will give you some hints: Lillian/Hank, Hank/Lillian, Ferris/Stadler, Dagny and Galt about their feelings for each other, etc., etc. etc. "Sub-literature," from detective stories to sci-fi, is ALL I can stand, frankly! Oh, I appreciate the copy of Portrait of a Lady that you gave me–great edition and well written, but what an effort for so little fun. "The Turn of the Screw" is really clever, too, but talk about a shrug…

  14. This post is quite interesting in that it proposes three proportions comparing two art forms that are largely subjective. But the form of those proportions obscure the larger truth — it is really, really, really hard to make a good movie.

    How many shorter works of literature also made bad movies? Countless. How many bad books were also bad movies? Are there that many stars in the heavens? How many faithless adaptations were incontrovertably awful, alienating novelist from screenwriter? Exponents are needed.

    Yet great movies are possible. What makes them possible?

    Two genres have made for the greatest quantity of good movies –gangster and westerns — and are therefore instructive.

    Aaron is on to something when when he distinguishes "interior" novels from "behaviorist" ones. Except for Being John Malkovich, being inside someone’s elses’s head is never any fun, except when he is figuring out what to do. Westerns, where a lone hero can clean up a situation with a six gun, and gangster movies where a bad guy needs constantly to calculate his chances for survival, are great templates for movies because the motivations of the character are a given and the only question is how.

    Atlas will be an awful movie no matter who does it because there is just too much explaining to be done.

  15. Thought of two movies adapted from "great" literature: David Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist in particular is excellent.

    (The scare quotes are there because I don’t particularly enjoy reading Dickens.)

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>