Why Read When You Can Watch (#1)

Not only do I feel that I pay too little for Netflix, I feel that I sometimes don’t even deserve it. To enumerate its improvements on my standard of living would produce a lengthy list. Let’s just detail one point: In the case of two out of the last three of the novels I finished, I set the book down, turn on my PS3, and began watching the screen adaptation immediately.

Whether these movies were worth watching is, of course, another discussion… one that I’m pretty much going to have right now.

Disgrace

In terms of a novel being visually realized, it’s hard to do better than Steve Jacobs has here. Its faithfulness to Coetzee, both plot-wise and thematic, is devout; you know when this happens because many facets of the book are brought into even greater clarity.

Well, with Disgrace that’s a thing mostly good, sometimes bad. On the plus side, I felt the rift between David and Lucy more intensely by actually seeing them at the post-catastrophe breakfast table together, and David’s character arc, with the tighter plotting, is a lot more striking and immediate. John Malkovich’s performance doesn’t hurt, either.

John Malkovich Fun Fact: The actors of planet Neptune, being so obviously far removed from us as lifeforms, are not known for their ability to convincingly emulate the mannerisms and speech patterns of thinking, feeling human beings. But of these actors, John Malkovich is the best.

But the trouble is the difficult character motivations, which are often partly justified in Coetzee’s prose but don’t get any help here. Why exactly does Melanie Isaacs halfway consent to sleeping with her near-geriatric professor? Likewise, Lucy’s denial of danger and resolve to stay in Africa are all the more glaring and opaque. Overall, the characters come off a lot more strange and foolish in the movie than they did in the book. Which I can see working toward the novel’s message, but someone unfamiliar with the novel would probably watch Disgrace and find parts of its psychology indecipherable and a little ridiculous. Read the book first, if you haven’t. Then, by filling in some needed subtext, you can enjoy Disgrace even better as the quietly devastating movie that it is.

The End of the Affair

I know a movie’s in trouble when Julianne Moore doesn’t make the short list of things I dislike about it.

Graham Greene’s prose had a way of anchoring in The End of the Affair’s almost theo-pedantic love plot with evenhandedness and cynicism. Without these, an adaptation could easily balloon away into melodrama. So Neil Jordan’s treatment of the book could have been much worse; I shudder to imagine if someone other than Ralph Fiennes, who’s as emotive here as a leather ottoman, were Bendrix, or if Moore wasn’t such a similarly stoic Sarah. And their rather frequent scenes of bare-assed bed-writhing together crank the viewer-distancing effect to eleven. So the movie has its own ways of subduing the melodrama that nonetheless aren’t what I’d call strengths.

But it’s as if director Jordan realized one day in the editing room what a frigid, dull, uninvolving movie he’d just shot. In a panic, he sought to amend it with a single generic orchestral swell applied over and over in the film to signal This is Very Emotional Right Now. “Put it here!” he’d yell in delirium at the editing crew. “And here! And in that next shot where she looks back at him from outside the cafe– the music there, too!”

Like Disgrace, there’s hardly a line of dialogue in the film that wasn’t lifted from the novel. When you see that in a good movie, you call it faithfulness. When it’s in a bad movie, you call it laziness.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Strange how movie that least resembled its novel would turn out to be the one I enjoyed most. In my mind, this one’s a great example of an adaptation that takes the story in a completely different direction, yet ends up somewhere just as interesting, if not more.

Granted, I was ready to cry blasphemy on Anthony Minghella (who also directed The English Patient) for portraying Thomas not as a sociopath, but as an awkward, well-intentioned fellow. When he kills, it’s in absolute self-preservation followed by intense remorse. This is blasphemy that I eventually forgave: what the movie lost in intrigue, it gained right back in sympathy. I still wanted Ripley to get away with his crimes, but now I wanted him to be happy.

The movie’s just so much more personal. The characters are more vividly realized than they are in the book, thanks in part to everyone (Damon, Law, Paltrow, and especially Hoffman) being damn good. What disappoints many fans of the novel is that Highsmith’s sterile, calculated crime thriller isn’t here– it’s replaced by an emphasis on Ripley’s identity crisis (his homosexuality is seized upon and developed to good effect). Overall, here’s a movie that stands quite well on its own. Read the book, or don’t. You’ll likely enjoy both in starkly different ways.

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