Friday, August 26, 2011

Adapt This!

Werth: How-do Wise?

Wise: Mighty fine, Werth. How about y'all?

Werth: I'm still thinking about our conversation over chardonnay, pizza and currywurst about the pros and cons of literary adaptations in films like The Help.

Wise:  It's a sticky wicket, trying both to be faithful to the original material and original enough to attract a new audience. 

Werth: What I hate is when people complain that a movie isn't exactly the same as a book. Of course it's not! They are two totally different media with different intellectual and sensual purposes. A good illustration of this is one of my favorite literary adaptations, Steven Spielberg's cinematic re-working of Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1985).

Wise: Which, as a novel, is about as far from Hollywood's traditional three act structure as you can get. 

Werth: The Color Purple, as written by Walker, is a collection of letters to God written by a Southern black woman named Celie in the early 20th Century. Celie's life story is told through her halting, uneducated—yet insightful—voice. She is emotionally raw, pure and real,  giving the reader a lovely sense of intimacy, as if Celie were sitting with us, telling us of the heartache, the abuse and the hope she endured. But to make it into a movie, Spielberg would have to create the setting and the people around Celie without losing the personal spirit or her story.

Wise: A setting that didn't involve sharks, impetuous archaeologists, or aliens.  

Werth: Part of why his movies do so well is that behind the giant booby traps, Reeses Pieces and UFO's, Spielberg's characters are eminently relatable. On The Color Purple,  he used his keen casting skills to discover two soon-to-be uber-relatable personalities—Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

Wise: The deep emotional connection audiences felt for both actresses certainly boosted their subsequent successes in the daytime talk genre. 

Werth: Whoopi was known as a stand-up comic, but as Celie, she does so much more than crack jokes. Her wry, goofy grin, accompanied by an agonizingly sad and finally angry performance, fully realizes the quality of Walker's Celie. Goldberg is beautifully homely as the outsider who has "the ugliest smile this side of Creation."

Wise: And I thought that was Steve Buscemi.

Werth: Spielberg's other stand-out discovery, Oprah, huffs and puffs through the cornfield as the blustery Sofia—a strong black woman whose strength condemns her to prison and servitude. Spielberg coaxed a performance from her that I feel she's never given again.

Wise: Unless you count her interview with Tom Cruise.

Werth: Danny Glover, Margaret Avery and Dana Ivey also give passionate life to the people Celie talks about, but whom we never meet in the book. And to create the world these characters inhabit, Spielberg shot parts of the movie in the fields and dusty backroads of Anson County, North Carolina, giving authenticity to the places Celie references. 
His opening shot of Celie and her sister running through a seemingly endless field of purple flowers elevates Celie's description and creates a view that few readers' fertile imaginations could create. Spielberg took the emotional soul of the book and added vivid colors, vistas and characters while Quincy Jones added a jazz and orchestral soundtrack, to craft a visual and aural experience. Although different in some plot points (Spielberg himself regrets only hinting at the lesbian elements), The Color Purple expands the world of the book to tug at the heart in a way that is unique to film... even if it didn't win a single Oscar out of its 11 nominations.

Wise: Another book that transforms carefully wrought prose into the language of cinema is Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, a memoir of the time she spent in a mental hospital during the 1960's.  Told in a series of discursive essays rather than chronologically, the book is more of collage than a straight narrative: characters come and go, important details reveal themselves at unexpected moments, all while the author meditates on the confusion of living in post-Camelot America.  

Werth: I like when you use the word "collage."  

Wise: The book was a best-seller, and when early fan Winona Ryder was unable to secure the film rights herself, she teamed with producer Douglas Wick to bring the book to the screen.  The two approached James Mangold to write and direct, and after some initial reluctance, he agreed. Mangold has since directed Walk the Line, the 3:10 to Yuma re-make and is currently working on the X-men spin-off The Wolverine.  

Werth: Spin-off, re-boot or prequel? I've lost track.

Wise: Because of the book's non-traditional shape and because of middle America's presumed need for a clear beginning, middle and end, the film beefs up the dramatic elements of Kaysen's story while nodding to her elliptical style by using fades between scenes, jump cuts among various locations and times, and swirling camera moves.  

Werth: I love a good swirling camera.  

Wise: The blurriness definitely could have gone off the rails, but Mangold makes interesting use of a Hollywood classic to add ballast to the more ethereal moments of the film.  

Werth: Let me guess, The Wizard of Oz?  

Wise: Much like Quentin Tarantino uses a host of gangster, kung fu, war and revenge flicks to guide audiences through his pop fantasias, Mangold takes advantage of Oz's Golden Age construction and near-universal familiarity to transform Kaysen's ruminations into a journey from a bleak homeland to a confusing yet compelling fantasyland and back again.  

Werth: Are you sure you aren't having Return to Oz flashbacks?  

Wise: Just look at Jeffrey Tambor's bald and blustering Dr. Melvin Potts who is supposed to have the power to send Susanna home; Vanessa Redgrave's wise and all-knowing Dr. Wick who provides Susanna with vital knowledge about herself and her strengths; 
and, most of all, Angelina Jolie's snarling, irresistible, Oscar-winning Lisa who materializes in a fire-y ball of wrath to exploit the characters' vulnerabilities and whom Susanna must defeat before making her escape.  

Werth:  Well done, Wise, but who is Whoopi Goldberg's Nurse Val supposed to represent?  Toto?  

Wise: Hilarious, Werth.  Better watch out for stray buckets of water between now and next week's Film Gab.  

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