Saturday, September 01, 2007



‘90s chic good taste in all things literary

by Nick Zegarac

Cinematic adaptations of literary masterworks are nothing new. Transcribing literature for the movies has become a time honored tradition, almost as ancient as the art of making movies itself. However, the delicacy required in transmutation from book to celluloid has often made for much consternation amongst the Hollywood elite and many an empty coffer and sleepless night in the executive bedroom after the film’s failed debut.

Consider this: how could the movies, with all their infinite wellsprings of talent and production values, make any Shakespearean tragedy appear to be dull, placid and stultified?

Yet, time and again, Shakespeare on screen has proven all too fallible to pitfalls – the bard’s lyrical language becoming as clotted, unclear and overly theatrical as any of the B-westerns produced by Monogram Pictures in the mid-1930s. Even today, some 100 years after the birth of movies, audiences continue to wait for definitive screen versions of The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and As You Like It among others.

Yet, Shakespeare is but one of many sacred authors that the movies have tried – mostly in vane – to resurrect for the ‘new’ medium. Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two others. Occasionally, through perseverance, a gentle director’s touch, and the skilled appreciation from a gifted screenwriter, the trick and magic of delivering a relatively faithful adaptation to the big screen has been achieved, though purists would argue against such nonsense as finite movie visuals substituting for either the written word or imagination of any reader.

During Hollywood’s golden age, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer became the most prolific purveyors of literary adaptations. There are few critics even today who do not regard the studio’s incarnations of David Copperfield (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Madame Bovary (1949) and Julius Caesar (1953) - among others - to be among the definitive screen adaptations of their respective literary masterworks, each introducing the masses to time-honored literature they might otherwise not have had either the time nor the inclination to invest in for themselves. With MGM’s formidable decline in the late 1960s, and its complete demise by 1979, Hollywood seemed content to let the great sacred cows of literature molder with its own celluloid past.

In retrospect, the decision seems obvious – fueled by the Government Consent Decrees (that fragmented the film establishment and effectively brought an end to their ‘monopolies’), the studios (or what was left of them after the ruthless deluge in economizing) focused their efforts on cheaply made independent productions: gritty street dramas (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore 1974, Taxi Driver 1976); escapist horror films (Carrie 1976, Halloween 1978) and occasionally, the gamble on a moderate budgeted sci-fi blockbuster (Close Encounters of a Third Kind 1977, Star Wars 1977). These latter examples, with their potential for enormous box office returns on a limited investment were perceived as safe bets, particularly in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – as much of a guarantee as clever (if shortsighted) market research could predict.

To be certain, there were large scale entertainments in development during this same period, such as Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno 1974, but these were rare exceptions to the norm and most certainly geared to take advantage of the contemporary cynical public fascination with destruction on a grand scale.

By 1983, the movie going landscape was awash in quick and cheaply made disposable entertainments. Some caught the public fascination and became relatively successful. Others were easily relegated to the $1.99 bin at their local video retailer after the proliferation of the home video market mid-decade made even the greatest films of their generation little more than collectable VHS and/or Beta cassettes. Ironically, the resurrection of great literary masterworks on the big screen was owed largely to a blind-faith gamble made by the Ladd Company in 1984 on a costume epic that had little to do with great literature or indeed, cold hard fact.

Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is a gargantuan period recreation of composer Wolfgang Mozart’s Austria – brilliantly woven from, and held together by, the entirely fictional play by Peter Schaffer. The film might have owned more to that briefly reinvigorated popularity for biographical stories (bio-pics), jumpstarted in earnest with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and carried over into Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), except that Amadeus is the tale of two men (Mozart by Tom Hulce and court composer, Salieri – nee F. Murray Abraham) who never actually met in real life – hence, any biographical interest in the film remained a moot point. Amadeus is not Mozart’s life, but rather a sort of gripping bedroom melodrama that incorporates only the most superficial tidbits of truth to thread together its absurdly made-up plot.

Nevertheless, immediately following the film’s triumphant debut and litany of Oscar nominations and wins, the costume drama – long thought of by the Hollywood establishment as archaic and most certainly dead – suddenly came full circle, back into vogue. Any doubts that hardened critics may have had about this rebirth and cannibalization of ‘the classics’ was further laid to rest when Columbia Pictures premiered director David Lean’s opus magnum, A Passage to India (1984) later that same year.

In retrospect, Lean’s final epic (based on, and remaining faithful to E.M Forster’s brilliantly structured novel) is a much more worthy contender for demarcating the resurrection of literary/film adaptations. Yet, upon its debut, A Passage to India was generally maligned by several prominent film critics as a thinly veiled attempt by Lean to recapture the glorious successes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Judged inferior to both, and, in the shadow of Forman’s overwhelming success with Amadeus, A Passage to India remained a quiet, slightly discarded masterpiece for several years to follow, though its reputation has since steadily grown.

In point of fact and in retrospect, A Passage to India does tend to run on a bit ‘long in the tooth’, as it were – much more the grand celebrated relic and holdover from Lean’s best period in films (1955-65) than a much needed update to the sub-genre of literary melodrama in contemporary films. Its performances are solid and textured, the best probably being Alec Guinness’ Godbole. Lean was heavily criticized at the time for not using a real East Indian actor in the role, though Guinness’ assimilation into the part of Arab Prince Feisel in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) failed to generate similar critical outrage.
Interest - both in E. M. Forster’s literary works and period costume melodramas in general – had not been lost on a pair of filmmakers working in Britain. With the release of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant’s A Room With A View (1985), made in partnership with the BBC and released theatrically in the U.S. for Warner Bros., Hollywood once more began to realize the box office potential of literary adaptations.

In terms of box office gross, A Room With A View was hardly a blockbuster, but it garnered respectable returns and critical accolades – both hallmarks as prelude for the saturation of book to film adaptations that was to follow. Moreover, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with their own long standing appreciation for this type of movie making, and the public – who had virtually abandoned costume drama in the mid-60s and 70s - were beginning to warm to the exercise once again.
Ironically, looking back at the 1980s in film history – a cinematic landscape overly populated by R-rated slasher films (Friday the 13th 1980, Sleep Away Camp 1983, Nightmare on Elm Street 1984), campy and crude sex-comedies (Bachelor Party 1984, Splash 1984, Weird Science 1985, My Chauffeur 1986, Mannequin 1987) and teen driven angst-ridden diversions; (Sixteen Candles 1984, The Breakfast Club 1985, St. Elmo’s Fire 1985, Pretty in Pink 1986) – not to mention the proliferation of mindless sci-fi adventures that followed the debut of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) – arguably still the most intelligently produced and stimulating of this latest cycle in intergalactic nonsense – serious projects like A Passage to India and A Room With A View must have seemed fool-hardy folly at best; expensive and dangerous to the overall fiscal prosperity of the ‘new’ Hollywood that had been built on astute market research and ever increasingly clever press promotions.

All the more impressive then to reconsider that with a change from one decade to the next, the ‘new’ Hollywood steadily increased its stakes in producing some of the finest yet literary-to-film adaptations. Not surprisingly, the most recent investment in this sub-genre required one more nudge from abroad; another film made by Merchant Ivory: Howards End (1992).

RESSURECTION with Howards End

Based on E.M. Forster novelized critique of Edwardian England’s rigid class distinction, the filmic adaptation of Howards End made several key changes to Forster’s text, including a softening in the character of philistine businessman Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) to create a minor, yet pleasing romantic love interest for Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) – the emotional and grounding center of the story.

Shooting in and around London, the production utilized the rustic Peppard Cottage (itself an almost exact replica of Forster’s own Rooksnest in Henley) as the fabled house from whence all subsequent narrative and class struggles between the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and a third couple – the Basts - derive.
Actress Emma Thompson, who had auditioned for the part of Margaret with her husband/actor Kenneth Branagh (then, enjoying a minor renaissance of his own with the visceral filmic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V 1989) was pitted against one of England’s most celebrated – yet internationally underrated – actors of his generation, Anthony Hopkins. The teaming of Hopkins and Thompson proved enough of an interest to break the ceiling in Thompson’s own career. She had already appeared opposite Branagh in Henry V and Dead Again (1991), but it was Howards End that effectively introduced her to American audiences as England’s “most brilliant, talented actress…since Vanessa Redgrave.”
As they say in the business, timing is everything. Howards End’s premiere was ably abetted by Anthony Hopkins formidable mark on American movies via The Silence of the Lambs (1991), coupled with his justly deserved Oscar win for the role of Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins win generated a virtual overnight groundswell of American celebrity for the actor. His instant fame became the catalyst for launching Howards End – a debut nearly sabotaged when Orion Pictures filed for bankruptcy and threatened to delay the film’s premiere. Instead, Sony Picture Classics assumed the responsibility of marketing and releasing the film.

Heralded by Newsweek as “a crowning achievement…a film of dazzling splendor… powered by a dream cast” Howards End’s miniscule budget of $8 million was virtually eclipsed by its world wide $70 million profit and a litany of international accolades and awards.

At roughly the same interval as Howards End was wrapping its principle photography, Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was preparing to go before the cameras. Branagh’s knack for avoiding the misperceived pitfalls when translating that most celebrated of English playwright’s masterworks into engaging films had already been established on Henry V. Moreover, Branagh’s acclaim on both continents was then in modest competition with his wife’s – a minor conflict that would prove the couple’s undoing later in the decade.

For Much Ado About Nothing, Branagh infused a bawdy – yet slightly whimsical - liberation into the comedic underpinnings of the play; reinvigorating without contemporizing the conflict between Hero and Claudio. “I want this to be a fairytale…” said Branagh, “Beautifully dressed and lovingly photographed…that can be very frightening at times. Like all good fairytales, there’s a strong undercurrent to the story. It’s also very very fiery.”
The chief problem for Branagh, however, proved to be in his central casting choices which, apart from Emma Thompson as Beatrice, left much to be desired. Though undeniably good looking, the film remains populated with rather frozen performances, the worst among them Michael Keaton’s Dogberry and Keanu Reeves’ Don John. Nevertheless, the film proved popular with audiences, though it was overlooked for even a single nomination at Oscar time.
This slight on both the film and Branagh’s reputation as the premiere purveyor of filmed Shakespearean entertainments did little to sway the momentum in his wife’s career. Riding the crest of her Oscar win (Best Actress for Howards End), Thompson was reunited with Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory for The Remains of the Day (1993), based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize-winning novel and transcribed for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had also written the screenplay for Howards End. Once again, Thompson’s costar was Anthony Hopkins, causing some critics to glibly nickname the project the ‘Em and Tony show.’
Initially, The Remains of the Day had been brought to the attention of director James Ivory by actor Remak Ramsay. However, the novel had already been optioned by director Mike Nichols and Columbia Pictures by the time Ivory decided he would like to become involved. For reasons unclear and undisclosed, Nichols eventually opted not to direct the film, assuming a co-producers credit instead.
In transcribing the book into screenplay, author Ishiguro openly admitted to Jhabvala that he had ‘made up’ the duties of an English butler entirely from imagination for his novel. To refine these duties and reflect an air of authenticity for the film, Jhabvala suggested the crew hire a real life butler as consultant – a move seconded by Anthony Hopkins who felt particularly ill at ease in the part of Stevens. Enter retired Buckingham Palace steward, Cyril Dykman – a man whose fifty year career ‘in service’ to the Royal family was beyond reproach.

Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures was also embarking on a home grown literary film adaptation a continent away, with director Martin Scorsese and The Age of Innocence (1993). Based on Edith Wharton’s scathing indictment of social hypocrisy, and published to acclaim in 1920, the novel had been made into a movie no less than three times before, the most celebrated version in 1934, starring Irene Dunne as the Countess Olenska.

In resurrecting Wharton’s particular brand of affectation and keen glibness for social critique and commentary (a contemporary slant on Jane Austen), director Scorsese imbued his film with a rigid discipline that was quite uncharacteristic of his own directorial style.
Shooting in and around Troy New York, and even going so far as to redecorate a Pi Kapp Phi fraternity house to replicate the opulence of the Mingott home, no expense was spared on this opulent recreation of New York’s turn of the last century aristocracy. The top heavy cast was capped off by star turns from Michelle Pfeiffer as Olenska, Daniel Day Lewis - her tortured would-be lover, Newland Archer and Winona Ryder as his seemingly innocent wife, May. Though Oscar nominated (and winning for Best Costume Design), in retrospect the film is a rather costly and dull excursion for which box office response remained tepid.

Undaunted Columbia Pictures pushed onward with director Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women (1994) – an all together more poignant and satisfying adaptation that became a modest, though well deserved box office triumph.

Filmed twice before, first as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in 1933 and later, as a glossy MGM Technicolor remake in 1949, Armstrong’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated tale tread a more balanced repartee between the March sisters; Jo (Winona Ryder in this version), Amy (Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis) Beth (Claire Danes) and Meg (Trini Alvarado). It also made the most of its male counterparts, most notably, Christian Bale as Laurie. “It was the theme of family, support and love – sisterly love in particular – that drew me to this project,” said Armstrong. Released for the Christmas season, Little Women was embraced by both the critics and the public. By all accounts, the decade was gearing up for another round of literary costume melodramas.