Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Jane Austen died 200 years ago this com­ing Tues­day. She was 41 and the au­thor of four nov­els that are in most peo­ple’s li­braries: Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity, Pride and Prej­u­dice, Mans­field Park and Emma. Northanger Abbey and Per­sua­sion came out posthu­mously. For me, Pride and Prej­u­dice is one of the great­est English nov­els. As Susannah Fullerton, pres­i­dent of the Jane Austen So­ci­ety of Aus­tralia, writes on Page 9, the day will be com­mem­o­rated world­wide. The best ar­ti­cle I’ve read on the busi­ness of turn­ing a book into a film is English poet and nov­el­ist DM Thomas writ­ing about his 1981 novel The White Ho­tel, short­listed for the Booker. The story, pub­lished in The Guardian in 2004, is so good: so funny, so sad and so di­ag­nos­tic of the psy­chol­ogy of Hol­ly­wood.

The novel touches on Sig­mund Freud and his pa­tients, and the Holo­caust. It is erotic, dream­like, dark, and fa­mous names have been promis­ing to make it into a movie since it was pub­lished. Thomas men­tions lots of them: Bar­bra Streisand, Meryl Streep, David Lynch, Is­abella Ros­sellini, Ter­rence Mal­ick, David Cro­nen­berg, Pe­dro Almod­ovar, An­thony Hop­kins, Ni­cole Kid­man and even Woody Allen. Thomas was starstruck for a long while. I love his story of writ­ing to the great screen­writer Den­nis Pot­ter to sug­gest a meet­ing to dis­cuss a pro­posed adap­ta­tion. Pot­ter replied that he be­lieved all meet­ings should take place only by chance. “Maybe he was so com­mit­ted to his task,” Thomas writes, “that he was loath to let a con­ver­sa­tion with the book’s au­thor get in the way of his vi­sion for the screen­play.” That vi­sion did pro­duce a script, one the au­thor found bam­boo­zling, but no film was made.

Thomas wrote the ar­ti­cle 13 years ago. There’s still no film. What’s more, he was sued due to a dis­pute over the rights. All of which makes the 1982 Pen­guin pa­per­back of The White Ho­tel some­thing of a col­lec­tor’s item for its cover blurb: “Soon to be a ma­jor movie.”

Thomas’s novel is not an iso­lated case. The movie I have most wanted to see in the past 20 years is one of Cor­mac McCarthy’s 1985 mas­ter­piece, Blood Merid­ian. A lot of fa­mous names have ex­pressed in­ter­est — Ri­d­ley Scott, Martin Scors­ese, Tommy Lee Jones, Aus­tralian di­rec­tor John Hill­coat, who made a fine film of McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, James Franco and Rus­sell Crowe — but there is no movie. Some have said this western epic is un­filmable be­cause of its ni­hilis­tic vi­o­lence, though the au­thor dis­agrees. It could be made, he said in a 2009 in­ter­view, by some­one “with a boun­ti­ful imag­i­na­tion and a lot of balls”.

Such thoughts came to mind this week be­cause of two cur­rent book adap­ta­tions: the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany’s 1984 and the SBS TV se­ries of Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale. I like the play a lot, not least be­cause it re­minds me what a chal­lenge it must be to put such a com­plex novel on the stage. Ter­rance Craw­ford is su­perb as O’Brien, al­most as good as Richard Bur­ton in Michael Rad­ford’s 1984 film ver­sion. This play is an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ge­orge Or­well’s novel, so there are bits left out. The scene from the book I will never for­get is there, and it’s not the rats. It’s Win­ston re­call­ing the day he stole his sis­ter’s piece of choco­late.

I am riv­eted by the TV ver­sion of The Hand­maid’s Tale, a novel that as it hap­pens At­wood was fin­ish­ing in 1984. One of At­wood’s strengths is to present a world that could ex­ist to­day. In­deed, some­times the worlds do ex­ist. Most of what hap­pens to women in the novel has hap­pened, does hap­pen.

All of this leads me to an over­whelm­ing ques­tion: is there any film adap­ta­tion that is bet­ter than the book? I sus­pect The God­fa­ther would be a pop­u­lar pick. Mine is Mi­los For­man’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But then I was prob­a­bly too young to ap­pre­ci­ate Ken Ke­sey’s novel at the time I read it.

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