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.