On Translating Book to Film: Bright Star & The Razor’s Edge

There is a moment in the new Jane Campion film Bright Star, about the love affair of Fanny Brawne and John Keats, that is one of the finest, most moving cinematic moments I’ve seen in film in years.   In the scene, Fanny is told of the death of Keats, who had gone to Italy because of his failing health.   Still composed, Fanny leaves the room, evidently to go upstairs to be alone with her thoughts.  She stops in the hallway at the foot of the stairs and is overwhelmed with emotion.   Campion keeps the camera in the room she has just departed, creating a distance, a removal in our observation of the scene.   Fanny breaks down, begins to sob and cry out, loudly, and falls, shaking with the sheer weight of pain and grief.   Her mother follows her into the hall.

Fanny’s mother does not say a single word.  She sinks down to the floor with her daughter, who is shaking, nearly thrashing amidst the throes of unspeakable pain.  She doesn’t say a word.  She takes her in her arms and begins to breathe: slowly, deliberately, deeply, the mother breathes with her daughter in her arms.   As the spasms begin to pass, the viewer can see the daughter catching the very rhythm of her mother’s breath and begin to synchronize to it, as a mother does when taking up an infant lost in a paroxysm of tears. 

With not a single word, the viewer, too, is overcome as witness to a scene so primal, so private, that to bear it we must see it from afar.  It is simply brilliant, heartrending cinema.

This moment for me recalled another similar moment in film from the much maligned 1984 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, directed by John Byrun and starring Bill Murray, who co-wrote and helped spearhead the making of the film.   Toward the end of the movie, Larry Darrell (Murray) confronts Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) about her complicity in the death of her perceived rival, Sophie McDonald, and her general disconnection from all things because of her rampant solipsism.    Darrell grasps Isabel about the neck, miming strangulation, saying, “Isabel, Isabel, you just don’t get it.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter.”  Darrell never tells her why it doesn’t matter, which is the core of Isabel’s problem, but his hands at her throat say it all.

Both of these single scenes capture the tonal quality of the original stories without rubbing the viewer’s nose in the point.  The filmmaker in each case lets the denouement take place in the viewer’s head; they are both simple, powerful cases of “show, don’t tell.” 

These films, plus a recent review of The Road, the new movie based on Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, got me to thinking about what it takes to make a successful translation from book to movie.  I don’t think I can really sketch out the elements; if I could, I suppose I’d be writing in Hollywood and not library-ing in Pittsburgh.  I do know that catching the ambiance of a book, while staying real or true to its nature, is what meant a lot to me in Bright Star and The Razor’s Edge.  The review of The Road I read said that it was too faithful to the book, and that really got my attention.   It states that the adaptation’s “literal fidelity prevents the film from approximating the novel’s power.”  The review by Eric Hynes, from Slate.com, continues:

It’s a matter of proportion. Action and dialogue constitute but a fraction of what comprises McCarthy’s grim epic. Yet it seems like all of the book’s dialogue and main action has been shoehorned into the film’s svelte two hour running time. Scenes and exchanges are steadily beaded throughout, relegating McCarthy’s repetitions, silences, and blanketed dread to moments of scenic transition. Instead of quiet, anticipatory terror, the film plays as chatty, pulse-pounding thriller. Scenes that transpire over several paragraphs in the 250-page book loom larger when dramatized to five minutes out of 113. The film doesn’t belabor its flashbacks — scenes in which Charlize Theron stars as an intractably hopeless wife and mother — but these are blink-and-they’re-gone fever-dreams in the book, not moments ripe for star-powered drama.

Certain incidents in McCarthy’s book are vivid and unshakable — the fired bullet, the horrific basement discovery, the food cellar — but the film doesn’t provide enough room for these to stand out from numerous others. I want less action, less dialogue — a Terrance Malick version of “The Road” shorn to the essentials.

(Director) Hillcoat’s one stroke of genius has nothing to do with McCarthy’s book, and happens when the narrative and expectations of adaptation have ended. It’s easy to miss, but during the final credits Hillcoat slips in a soundtrack of ambient noise. You hear a sprinkler, a creaking screen door, a dog barking, children playing. Banal things that no longer exist in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic universe. Forget literal fidelity — this is the closest the film gets to McCarthy’s mournful tone. And it’s the first time a blank credit-scroll put a lump in my throat.

If I had a nickel for everytime I heard someone say “Of course, it wasn’t as good as the book,” or for as many times as I’ve said it myself, I could probably pick up a monthly bus pass gratis.    The Campion film and The Razor’s Edge before it both underline the fact that literal is not necessarily the right way to go and that there is a right way nonetheless. 

What all three of these films seem to be dramatically underscoring, and what Hynes describes so precisely in his story of the credits in The Road,  is that adapting a book into film is really a true act of translation; in moving from one medium to another, there are no straight equivalents. You can literally do everything right and literally get the whole thing wrong.

Like a word for word translation of Hermann Hesse’s poetry from German to English, or Bashô’s haiku from Japanese to French, disaster awaits round every syntactic bend. As Hesse himself famously said: Poetry is what is lost in translation.

And when he made that statement it wasn’t specific to poetry itself; he meant any act of translation, albeit fiction, essays, drama, and more.

What is captured in the films by Campion and Byrum, in their translations, is the poetry. According to Slate, that is exactly what is missing in The Road. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen it myself.

The novel, though, is simply devastating.  And whether you go to see the film or not, or like it or not if you do, you can always pick up the book and “translate” it for yourself.

Which is as good a definition of reading as I can come up with.

- Don

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