curiouser and curiouser

Adaptation (complete)

1) Adaptation is a meta-film in the vein of Tristram Shandy : A Cock and Bull Story without some of the more perplexing layers – Nicholas Cage’ double role as Charlie and Donald Kaufman is definite, and never are we puzzled as to who is doing what or fitting where.  Despite the film’s basis in reality, deviations such as the fictional Donald, scenes from The Orchid Thief movie that does not actually exist, and the peculiar ending give the story its fantastical element as well as serving to emphasize the real Charlie Kaufman’s struggle as he was attempting to write The Orchid Thief’s adaptation.  There is a continuous theme of evolution from the very beginning of the film, with Kafuman/Cage’s voice over the high-speed elapses of time showcasing animal decomposition and the big bang, amongst other images.  Kaufman/Cage does not undergo an evolution so much as a metamorphosis, aided by Donald and their bizarre adventure through the swamp.  The search for passion is a theme that runs throughout the multiple layers of the film, with John Laroche, Susan Orlean, and the brothers Kaufman each propelled by their own personal ventures – whether this creates a cohesive narrative or a fractured yet brilliantly acted film is up for interpretation.

2) The excerpt from The Orchid Thief reads as an article with nothing to suggest that there is a story or anything substantially filmable aside from the brief court scene and Orlean’s ride in Laroche’s rusty van.  Susan Orlean’s thoughts are in the present tense, her retelling of John Laroche’s history in the past – as we go back and forth, it is easy to see why Charlie Kaufman had such a difficult time attempting to adapt The Orchid Thief as a screenplay.  Despite this, Orlean’s descriptive powers neither thrust Laroche upon us or understate him as a real-life character, rather presenting him as an intriguing figure who hasn’t quite found his great success but who exists as a body in constant motion.  The writing is clean and clear, a satisfying balance between dialogue and action in the few scenes where there is any dialogue or action at all. 

3)  Discussion board about the film  Interview with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman Discussion board about Nicolas Cage, several mentions of Adaptation as one of his few good projects

The first link is a good resource for how average people (rather than professional critics and journalists) respond to the movie, especially some of the more negative reviews and the posts that question the film’s significance – not everyone agrees with critics or the Academy, and the majority of us are not film scholars.  Viewers who were unfamiliar with The Orchid Thief seem to respond more negatively, in general, which is understandable – without understanding how difficult the original text is to adapt, it can be difficult to understand why Kaufman/Cage is having such trouble and why the film takes its bizarre turns.

4) In the film Adaptation, are the director Spike Jonze and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman suggesting that a true film adaptation of a literary work is impossible? Or are they saying that some kinds of literary works are impossible to film? Or are they saying that it is precisely the impossible books that film-makers should try to adapt?

The impossibility of a true film adaptation of a literary work is almost a given, as common sense and cinematic precedents have proven that something is inevitably lost or altered in the transition from one medium to another – words and images can certainly have a direct correspondence, but as Kaufman/Cage’s plight reveals, there exists nothing like a perfect narrative wherein every scene is described down to the last detail and no room is left for interpretation.  There is no need for Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman to suggest what is more or less a known fact, and instead they focus on the difficulties involved with the particular story in question, blending reality and fiction to provide layers of narration that are easier to follow than Tristam Shandy but no more seamless or less disjointed than the latter.  The Orchid Thief is a true story and should, theoretically, be easier to adapt – the main problem seems to be Susan Orlean’s first-person narration, which is so full of personal perspective and humorous commentary that it necessitates a focus not only on her story but her voice.  The difficulty of presenting a first-person, non-fiction book without a running voice-over is manifested in Kaufman/Cage’s own voice-over and the idea that it is a lazy method as put forth by Robert McKee.  At one point in the film while Kaufman/Cage is discussing his efforts in writing The Orchid Thief’s screenplay, he blurts out “There’s no story!  There’ s no story!” – here is the crux of the issue, and this declaration is a turning point in which we see that the film is not simply Orlean’s story, nor is it Kaufman’s story or Laroche’s story; rather, it is the story of attempting to create a story where there is none.


1)  The Hours is linear, divided into its respective stories but unmistakingly and sometimes unbearably linear.  Even after thirty minutes, the action is still so muted, the characters still conversing so quietly that we may be begging for someone to break a plate or fly off the handle if only to keep our attention through the rest of the film.  Certain scenes are teasingly dramatic, the perfect setup for shouting or tears – Richard puts up a fight about the party in his honor but Clarissa manages to diffuse his opposition, extract a promise that he will show up.  Virginia Woolf moves through her scenes in a manner so detached at first that she could be a ghost already, and Laura is teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown but never quite tips over.  The film is slow, perhaps necessary given that all the action must take place within a single day for each of the three storylines, but the gradual cinematic buildup is representative of the various mental ailments and environmental factors that have been slowly dragging these women (and Richard) down into their self-contained hells.  The climaxes do come, eventually, and if we hang in there through the end we may not ultimately be satisfied but neither are we left untouched by the characters, undisturbed by the pacing and unviolated by the quiet tragedy of this presentation of life.

2) These first excerpts of Michael Cunningham’s novel are indicative of the most significant difference between novel and film, that while the pacing of the action remains similar in both mediums, the film is missing the narrative voice that is so like Virginia Woolf’s own writing as to be almost certainly intentional on Cunningham’s part.  Within brief time spans, such as Clarissa crossing Central Park or meeting Walter on the street – the simple seconds as Clarissa attempts to read Walter’s thoughts of her – within these scenes that might otherwise be insignificant if told in a more straightforward narrative there is a stream-of-consciousness that lends weight and introspection to these subtle interactions.  Woolf’s novels can be infuriating, the rambling tone and assumptions that human beings have each other so intimately figured out, but if Cunningham is channeling Woolf here then he is at least paring down the rambles and leaving some mystery in the private thoughts of characters who are less telepathic than simply experienced enough to read the expressions on each other’s faces.  The film cannot help but lose this voice, but compensation comes in the form of the leading actresses who manage to translate narrative rumination into understated yet deeply emotional characters.

3)  Facebook thread from a Nicole Kidman Facebook fan page discussing her role in The Hours  Interview with Stephen Daldry and Nicole Kidman about the film  Movie review

I thought that the Facebook thread was the most interesting, and even though I’ve sincerely disliked both the novel and the film adaptation of The Hours ever since I had to study it for another class, I got a better sense of the Virginia Woolf role from reading what other people thought about Nicole Kidman’s portrayal.  Even though the story never quite resonated with me, the acting was still emotional and intimate enough to make an impact.

4) How does homosexuality (including lesbianism) function within the film? If you took out the gay characters and their concerns, how would that change the film?

Homosexuality is a device that casts several of the characters as outsiders who have had to find their own niche in life but seem unable to trust in the foundations they have built for themselves, whether they are part of the modern segment in which sexuality must be worn like war paint or the historical segments in which homosexuality is a dangerous otherness that must be tucked away into a dark corner of one’s mind and left to fester into mental illness.  When Louis asks Clarissa if she is still with Sally, Clarissa replies that they have been together for ten years now, and isn’t it strange?  Louis seems confused by this implication that the length of the women’s relationship should be a rarity, or anything to wonder at, but even after giving an embarassed chuckle and changing the subject it is clear that Clarissa at least sees her relationship as such.  Richard’s homosexuality has, in effect, shortened his lifespan, but it is Richard himself rather than his disease that ultimately ends his life – this distinction suggests that sexuality is only one of the factors that create considerable doubt within the characters’ hearts and minds, an idea further supported by Clarissa’s worsening mental state as she prepares for Richard’s party and becomes plagued by her obssession that everything must be perfect.  If the gay characters and their concerns were omitted from the film, the remaining characters would still be haunted by the other concerns and uncertainties that are a constant presence in life.  Homosexuality is a dominant theme in the film but not necessarily the crux of everyone’s misery, which is probably a good thing, considering.

1) Bride and Prejudice is a film that seems to have no illusions about either the story it is presenting or the means of presentation – Gurinder Chadha is aware that Jane Austen’s story is a well-known classic, aware that Bollywood has come to represent a stereotype of cheesy plots and showy musical scenes, and especially aware that the idea of presenting a well-known classic in Bollywood style must, by its very nature, invite prejudice and derision.  But it is this awareness that makes the movie work.  Yes, groups of colorfully-clad Indian actors are breaking into spontaneous yet carefully choreographed song-and-dance numbers, but somehow and somewhere amidst this cinematic sugar there is an actual story that translates very well from Austen’s England to modern India, England and America – the story is not lost, nor are the themes of love versus marriage, class struggle, familial duty and, of course, pride and prejudice.  Names and places have changed, as well as certain details such as Wickham not marrying Elizabeth/Lalita’s younger sister after all, but the fact that so many nuances of the original story are so deftly inserted into an entirely different landscape is a testament not only to the timelessness and universal relevance of Austen’s novel but to Chadha’s willingness to blend the classic with the cheesy and remain true to the Bollywood style rather than ignoring the roots of Indian cinema in an attempt to produce a more highbrow, critically pleasing adaptation.  The film is a spectacle and the actresses are perfectly made up into visions of singular beauty, but this focus on the visual serves to remind us that we know the story already, that Austen’s plot was never terribly complex to begin with, and that whether it is Mrs. Bennett embarassing herself by speaking too brashly at a party or Mrs. Bakshi embarassing herself by singing in the middle of a musical repartee between young men and women, the story is neither diluted nor degraded, simply done up Bollywood-style for a modern audience.

2) Pride and Prejudice is a classic that continues to satisfy because there is sufficient conflict to keep the story interesting but not so much that the main characters miss their happy ending.  Austen is a careful navigator throughout, steering her characters close to tragedy and through their respective flaws to end up on the other side of miscommunication and misunderstanding, a happy place called Resolution and Learning a Lesson.  On the surface, this is an easy read and a neat ending, a high school English staple that has been adapted multiple times by English production companies whose basic aim seems to be perfect replication – past high school and the BBC, however, there are certain themes and character details that make this novel much more significant in terms of breaking through the expectations and established mores of society.  Elizabeth Bennett is outspoken and intelligent, a champion of love and individuality who nevertheless falls prey to her own stubbornness and a certain narrow perspective framed by first impressions.  Translating her character to film requires an actress expressive and versatile enough to portray a young woman who spends the bulk of the story unaware of the personal flaw that is keeping her from ultimate happiness, and in Bride and Prejudice this task is undertaken not only by Aishwarya Rai but by the supporting chorus that adds an element of theatricality to better emphasize Elizabeth/Lalita’s plight.  Rai’s role is definitely less subtle and less of a faithful adaptation than Jennifer Ehle’s excellent portrayal in the television miniseries, but Austen’s character is such that Elizabeth can be interpreted in multiple ways without losing the forward thinking that makes her so remarkable.

3)  Combined Facebook and wiki page for the film  Facebook newsfeed for the novel  Interview with Gurinder Chadha

The third link was the most informational and introspective to me, as it is not quite a review for the film but rather a primary source for the conception and production.  I would much rather read the actual director’s thoughts than the personal opinions of a self-styled film buff, which is probably a good thing because I found so many negative reviews while searching for relevant pages.  Film reviews can be helpful in clarifying a detail that might have been missed or raising certain questions about the director’s message, but when the review is so firmly negative or positive I think that it leaves less room for your own interpretation – I have actually decided against seeing movies that I was previously excited about just because of one particularly bad review, and I have also had doubts about my opinions after viewing a film and then reading someone else’s take on the story, the acting, or the production values.

4) What do you think is the most important element that the director Gurinder Chadha carries over from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to her film version, Bride and Prejudice? What is the most important element that is not carried over? What is the import of these acts of commission and omission?

I think the most important element that Gurinder Chadha carries over from Jane Austen’s novel is the sense of marriage as a duty to one’s family, the idea that who you marry is a reflection of your family and that you can either bring honor or shame to your entire household depending on whose proposal you accept.  The most important element that is not carried over is the stricter societal limitations that only loosely translate from Austen’s England to modern-day India.  There is a sense in the film that Indian culture is stricter than American or even British culture in terms of a woman’s place, but the novel’s subtlety is lost – a young woman can no longer embarass herself by playing the piano with perhaps too much zeal than befits her more modest talent, and instead she dresses in all green and dances like a very enthusiastic cobra.  The Bakshi daughters must still ask their parent’s permission to go to Goa, but once they are there, Lalita is free to play guitar on the beach and wear a bikini if she wants to.  This omission of strict propriety and major faux pas achieved by minor acts is necessary for a more realistic (if that word can be applied to Bollywood) adaptation from Jane Austen to modern day.  Duty to one’s family and the consequent theme of marriage as duty is more important to keep in tact from the novel to the film, as it is the inspiration for the events that unfold.

Sherlock Holmes

1) Guy Ritchie’s film is big and booming and blockbuster-y, but it is also a well-written, well-acted and overall well-executed production that satisfies the senses even as it asks us to use our brains just a bit – not too much, since a big budget often leaves little room for deep thought – but just enough to perhaps inspire a real interest in the film’s literary origin.  Without having read a single Sherlock Holmes story, there is enough mystery in the plot and enough incredulity evoked by film-Holmes’ powers of deduction to make for a spectacular detective movie in which the titular character’s abilities are never overshadowed by the special effects or the dark, dramatically grey setting of Victorian London.  Layers of conspiracy are peeled back and the truth is gradually exposed as the audience comes to realize that we can not possibly expect to keep pace with Holmes’ legendary mind – instead, we must ally ourselves with Dr. Watson and go along for the ride, unable to predict how slippery Irene will prove herself to be or how many people are actually involved in Lord Blackpool’s feigned mastery of the occult.  The film’s end is a brief lead-in to the character of Dr. Moriarty, a literary villain infamous even to those who have never actually read any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work prior to viewing Guy Ritchie’s cinematic adaption.  (i.e., me.)

2) The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone is brief and neatly solved, thanks to the use of Dr. Watson as a narrative focal-point at the beginning of the story – Watson has not been present for this particular case and is visiting his old friend and partner at the near-resolution of the crime, requiring Sherlock Holmes to reveal his methods and reasoning without the reader actually experiencing any of the events that preceded the detective’s hunch.  Despite the brevity of the story, this remains an enjoyable read due to Holmes’ sharp wit and the sense of humor that seems to be a trait inherent not only in his speech but in the means he uses to foil the perpetrators.  The image of Holmes springing out of a chair that the villains (and the readers) expected to be inhabited by a realistic dummy is comical, and this comedy translates very well to Guy Ritchie’s film, largely through the quick-muttering mouth and light-stepping figure of Robert Downey Jr. 

3)  Film review and general synopsis from a Christian film-review site, a thorough breakdown of the movie supplemented by an unintentionally humorous Biblical reading of the plot  Comparison of the original Sherlock Holmes to Ritchie’s film adaptation, interesting because the reviewer hasn’t actually seen the movie yet  Positive review of the film, reviewer seems unwilling to offer much criticism

The first link was the most interesting to me because of its characterization of Ritchie’s Holmes as a champion of justice and the analysis of the occult themes in the film – taking the reviewer’s beliefs and the endeavors of the website into consideration, it was surprising how positive this review turned out.  I think that this particular review is crucial in understanding the film because it constructs a position (Holmes as a protector of Christian virtues and a fictional device in the service of good) that can be argued by a less spiritual analysis and inspires such an argument of film-Holmes’ character in the first place.  I am not sure whether Sherlock Holmes is indeed a detective because he believes in bringing evil-doers to justice or because he is simply a brilliant, slightly eccentric man who happened to see detective work as a fitting career choice, but this review certainly makes me question my own interpretation of the character. 

4) Which is more interesting and convincing in the film: the “bromance” of Holmes and Watson, or the romance of Holmes and Irene Adler?

The romance of Holmes and Irene Adler loses its significance as Watson and Irene eventually come to occupy a position of equal importance to Holmes, as is evidenced when Watson is injured in an explosion and Holmes is visibly more distressed by this than any of Irene’s disappearing acts or her potentially dangerous employer.  Holmes remarks that Irene appears frightened of the figure who turns out to be Dr. Moriarty, but he never makes a sincere attempt at persuading her to end her contract with this man or seek safer shelter – Holmes seems to trust Irene’s own instincts and abilities to the extent that he does not worry about her wellbeing until she is obviously in danger, as is the case during the climactic fight scene towards the end of the film.  “Bromance” is one of my least favorite terms in the whole of modern language, but Holmes is apparently less willing to let Watson leave his side than he is to let Irene dance her way in and out of his life.  There is more history and more of an emotional struggle between Holmes and Watson than exists between Holmes and Irene, and it is much more intriguing to see how far Holmes goes in his attempts to keep Watson from marrying and moving out of their shared apartments – indeed, they seem to share much more than a living space if the arguments over who their dog and various articles of clothing actually belong to are any indication.  The film is never explicitly homoerotic, likely due in part to the marketability factors involved in such a large production, but Holmes’ fixation on keeping Watson in his immediate company is almost a subplot to the film – Irene is a likably mischievous and clever character, certainly a very important person in Holmes’ life and necessary to the plot, but her relationship with Holmes can only pale in comparison to the intimate partnership of Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Tristram Shandy

1)  By virtue of the fact that this is a film, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s novel is slightly easier to get into since the viewer isn’t burdened by written language – having said this, the film would make much less sense without having read at least the first few chapters of the novel beforehand.  Steve Coogan playing Tristram Shandy who is, in turn, playing Tristram Shandy, walks us through his visual autobiography in much the same way that Sterne wrote it, when the film actually focuses on the character of Tristram Shandy at all.  Beginning with the conversation between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is particularly effective in framing the movie as a film-within-a-film rather than beginning with Coogan in full period dress and then pulling back so that he can address the issue of various child actors who have been chosen to portray his various stages of youth.  The dialogue between Coogan and Brydon is seamless and natural, setting us up for the singularly English humor characterized by quick-witted muttering, politely monotone insults, and an expansive vocabulary juxtaposed with stubborn ignorance.  The technical shooting of the film never dissolves into a Cloverfield-like intimacy, maintaining smooth shots when Coogan is Shandy-as-Shandy and moving along in documentary style when Coogan is himself-as-alternate version of himself and further emphasizing that this film exists in multiple dimensions.  Did that make a bit of sense? 

2) The book is very complicated to begin reading because it demands a lot of focus to understand what is actually being said or described by the frustratingly detailed and easily distracted Shandy.  Following the novel is perhaps purposefully difficult to illustrate the idea that writing a novel is difficult, but the expectation of a novel framed as an autobiography is that a recollection of one’s life should be straightforward enough – instead, Shandy is in no way direct or particularly succint in describing the events not only of his life but of those leading up to the very beginning of his life.  Even the dedication page is unnecessarily convoluted in language and message, but once the modern brain has adjusted to Sterne’s style the actual events of Tristram Shandy’s life are comically unfortunate, especially his accidental circumcision.

3)  Synopsis of the film intended to interest IFC viewers A Facebook page for the film Review of the film

The third source is the lengthiest and the most explorative of the actual film in addition to the reviewer’s personal opinion of the acting and production values.  The film is compared to other movies such as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation that share the theme of a story-within-a-story, one of the most confusing elements about A Cock and Bull Story.  Steve Coogan is also given more attention in this source, which is helpful for American viewers who might not be familiar with his earlier English work.

4) Both Tristram Shandy the book and Tristram Shandy the film have disjointed narratives (they are non-sequential, and prone to diversions). How is the narrative disjuncture similar, and how different, in the film compared to the book?

The film and the book are equally confusing for those who must experience them from the outside, but within the novel Tristram Shandy is free to meander as he pleases throughout his own autobiography while the actors-playing actors-playing characters must submit to being woven around each other in the cinematic adaptation, emphasizing not only the difficulty of filming Sterne’s novel but the limitations involved in presenting a story in an entirely different medium from its original.  There exists nothing like a perfect adaptation from one medium to another, but the film reflects Shandy’s disjointed narrative by adding as many layers to its own small universe as possible until the story seems likely to implode.  Steve Coogan does not simply play Tristram Shandy but Shandy’s father, Shandy as himself, Coogan as alternate-Coogan, and perhaps shades of the real Steve Coogan who must deal with issues of family and responsibility just as any other human being.  In similar layers, Tristram Shandy cannot seem to help pausing and analyzing what he has just written as well as what he intends to write, never quite focusing on what he is writing at the moment.

Alice in Wonderland

1 ) Visually, Burton’s film is an aesthetic treat although I saw it first in 3D and wasted $14 on special effects that would have worked just fine in boring ol’ 2D.  Thematically, there seemed to be some sort of message attempting to burst through the orgy of CG animation and peculiar plot points, but if the “reboot” or re-imagining was purposefully feminist I didn’t find much in Mia Wasikowska’s acting or Tim Burton’s interpretation of the classic character to be very inspiring, from the point of a female viewer.  Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter was off-kilter but not delightfully so, and giving the dormouse (and many other characters) strange names and new personalities made for a very jarring story if the audience was at all familiar with the original story.  Anne Hathaway was endearing because she is Anne Hathaway, and the screenwriter afforded her some of the film’s very few humorous moments – in contrast, Helena Bonham Carter was her usual lisping, bizarre self and completely lacked any of the original Red Queen’s harmless and often humorous ire. 

2) Alice and her adventures in Wonderland are divided into two stories often published in the same volume, so various other adaptations of the novel usually combine elements and characters from both – for me, I can find no fault with either of the Alice stories because as a child I never tried to see them as anything but the fantastical, satisfyingly absurd accounts that they were.  I personally don’t believe that Lewis Carroll meant to impart any deeper meaning than Jim Davis did in creating Garfield – sometimes stories can simply be stories, and I never found any moral or warning in Alice’s adventures as are meant to be gleaned from Grimm’s fairy tales or Aesop’s fables.  The Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” is one of the many interpretations of the Alice stories as thinly-veiled allusions to hallucinogenic drugs, and “down the rabbit hole” has become a euphemism for willingly jumping head-first into the unknown, but I would rather embrace Wonderland as the silly, nonsensical place that I hope it was meant to be.  This was probably a very poor literary analysis, I apologize.

3)   (Largely negative review of the film)  (Mixed review of the film, in my opinion entirely too laudatory) (Humorously but also justifiably negative review of the film)

I found the third link to be the most helpful in better understanding why I didn’t enjoy Burton’s adaptation because it compares Alice to his earlier works and points out the elements from Burton’s (in the reviewer’s opinion) better films that are missing in this ridiculously successful blockbuster.  The reviewer is not openly slandering Burton’s filmmaking or bemoaning the fact that Alice fails to meet his expectations, but instead he is raising thoughtful issues about why, in his view, the film doesn’t work.  The wonder is gone, replaced by commercial hype and the money-making staples of contemporary cinema : special effects, enormous CG landscapes, and the unnecessary element of the third dimension.

4) In Burton’s Alice, the character Alice is an adult, compared to the original book, in which Alice is a child. How does this change the story? What themes are present in the film that are not present in the book?

Alice as a young adult sets a more serious tone for the film that moves away from the curiosity and the childhood paradigm of the original book’s Alice – child-Alice reacts to the absurdity of Wonderland with the parameters that have been set for her as a young girl with a nurse and an older sister who are attempting to teach her her lessons and the ways of the world, which child-Alice often misinterprets or simply misunderstands, as is the case when she is falling down the rabbit hole and wonders if she will come out on the other side of the world where the people “walk with their heads downwards”, about 4000 miles through the center of the Earth.  Child-Alice is endearing in her naivete and her belief that she must behave properly even when the creatures around her are acting quite oddly.  In contrast, Burton’s adult-Alice is neither charming nor particularly likeable in that she refuses to believe that her experiences are anything but a dream – if she really believed she was dreaming, one might expect her to have a bit more fun with this colorful dreamscape, but instead she is bullied by a dormouse and argues with just about every character she meets until Alan Rickman’s severely un-funny and un-interesting Caterpillar somehow convinces her to don her armor and just slay the damn Jabberwocky already since apparently her entire fate has already been decided courtesy of the Oraculum, a prophetic scroll that is never satisfyingly explained to the poor audience.  Adult-Alice must deal with a heroic element that is lacking in the book, fulfilling her destiny and colorlessly acting her way through this theme of the quest and the triumph of good over evil with which Lewis Carroll never bothered burdening his curious and self-lecturing child-Alice.

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