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Posts Tagged ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

After writing about Impossible Films a week or so ago, I wondered if it were possible to categorize the possible reasons that good books don’t translate into film.  As I’m still processing the topic, I don’t imagine my list will be anything near complete.  However, there were three basic categories that seemed to define legitimate reasons that a good film cannot be made from a particular novel.

The first category, since I’d reflected on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), is the philosophical novel.  Like ZAMM, there are certain novels that embrace philosophy and in fact, might simply be the metaphorical exposition of a philosophical system (anyone recall Plato’s cave?).  If one considers Hesse’s Journey to the East or Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), it is easy to see his writing as working out a philosophical system (largely based on Eastern writings).  That some of his novels, Narcissus and Goldmund or Siddhartha, are simply stories working under those philosophical principles does not alter the predominant philosophic bent of the writer.  Can one film any of those novels?  Of course.  Siddhartha was made into a film in 1972 and there is a plan to make Narcissus and Goldmund by Senator Films.  Siddhartha is supposed to have had a decent critical reception, but it was yanked from distribution for many years.  As for N&G, if you read the release, you realize there is trouble: “We are planning to work with an international writer and director in order to realize the moving and profound story of Narcissus and Goldmund. A deep appreciation of the novel is required to be able to transport this tale on a level that works internationally.” (My bold text) Yes, but is a deep appreciation of the novel necessary to want to see it?  Milan Kundera is a tricky writer who seems to belong in this category. Yet his novels are thematic, not philosophical, despite the fact that he quotes Nietzsche. He uses philosophic questions to state his theme and builds upon it.  I was not truly aware of this until I saw the filmed version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ULB translates very successfully film as a result.  Almost always, if the novel has a philosophic point of view woven into the fabric of the narrative — i.e. the narrative is a metaphor — the film will suffer.  I hesitate to put Ayn Rand books into this category as she is the Disney-tale of philosophy — good and bad people are easily recognized and there is little complexity of character or situation.  So while she tells her stories — and her stories are illustrations of her philosophy — one can only make films for her minions.  There is not enough complexity or depth in her work to make for a complete philosophy or a compelling film. She is the pop-psychologist of philosophers.

Narrator focused books: Have you ever seen a good film of The Great Gatsby?  Probably not.  Or at least not a film that equals the book.  There have been performances to admire, sets to die for, cars and furs galore, but the crux of the novel is Nick Carraway.  It is Nick who puts things into perspective and most of his musings do not occur when other folks are around.  He is on the fringe of two worlds, therefore the only one who can clearly see either.  Yet in a film, Nick is a minor character — as he is in the book.  So in the film, we — the audience — must assume Nick’s role.  We are the ones who are intended to muse on what we see.  Oh yeah, they use voice over, other tricks to try and assist us with Nick’s point of view, but in the end the difference between the novel and the film is this: imagine only being able to look at a scene from your window — there’s a party below, in the back yard of a neighbor and people are carousing and glamorously dressed; now imagine being in the yard itself — how has the perspective changed? That is what’s at the heart of translating Gatsby to film — it’s an impossible task and in the end I don’t envy the writers who take it.  I mentioned in No Country for Old Men what was lost in the film (narrator’s history and humanity) — it is a similar situation.  There are successful films made of books in the third person limited point of view, but not when the point of view does more than relate the tale.

Real magic (or magical realism).  I’m not talking about Harry Potter-esque magic where wands imitate weapons or do things that cranes and ropes can accomplish (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely and this is not meant as a slight to the film-makers).  I’d read Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate some years before I saw the film. I admit that the crew was able to pull off most of the special effects with aplomb, but I watched in anxiety waiting for the final scene — how will Tita wrap the farm in her bedspread?  How will she eat candles so that her inner fire ignites them and opens the tunnel of light so she can join Pedro?  In the book it’s so beautifully told — but think of the image — a woman eating candles and then her inner fire setting them aflame….there is almost no way to do it that doesn’t look hokey.  So what did the film-maker do?  Fill the room with candles, put gauze on the lens and change the candles for matches (with an earlier explanation of how everyone carries within themselves a box of matches). It is an anti-climax for an otherwise immensely successful film.  So I actually started this category by talking about the most successfully made magical realism film.  I think that’s appropriate — I don’t like to pick on easy targets.  However, it also explains why I have trouble with the idea of making films of The Magus or 100 Years of Solitude.  There are just too many things that happen in those books that would be impossible to film.  Near the opening of 100 YoS, there is a narrative comment that things were so recently created that many of them lacked names (my translation). We are not in biblical times of the Pleistocene era — we are in the town of Macondo, in a time that appears to be somewhere between 1750 and 1890.  But Garcia Marquez conflates many eras into a single timeline:  how do you film that? The Magus has similar issues in that some appearances are magical in the book, but when you film them they become ordinary at best, hokey at worst.

I am a big fan of books.  I am also a fan of film and films made of books.  I cheer for every successfully made book-film, as I know how tricky is the work.  This list is by no means complete or even fully thought out.  As I said, it was a few days reflecting on what makes books hard to translate to film.  In almost every category, there has been a success story — but there have been a plethora more of failures.  I still look at my screenplay of Z&AMM from time to time.  I believe it can be done.  The hope I have for a list like this?  Once we identify the reasons we fail, we might have a better chance to succeed.

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Some years back, I read that Robert Redford owned the film rights to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Zen & MM).  I recently found out that was a screenwriting myth — Pirsig never sold his rights, at least according to The Guardian.  At the time, however, I became obsessed with writing the script.  There was an online version of Zen & MM which I downloaded and broke into four parts.  I carried it with me and highlighted and made notes while taking the NY subway to jobs that had so little to do with “quality,” that I could smell the irony wafting up from the subway platform.  I wanted to create a structure that would serve the philosophy in some manner — without its musings on “Quality,” Zen & MM is more or less just another road trip.  While I spent more time on other projects — projects that I’d been hired to write or had a greater chance of being produced — I always came back to Zen & MM.  Each time, it was as if I had to master the novel again before I could even consider adding a line to the script.  I’d been at it for many years before discovering that Pirsig was not likely to allow a movie to be made.

And there are films that should not be made, just as there are musicals that cannot be made.  I was told by a composer and lyricist team that during their first workshop at BMI, they were forced to make a musical version of “Hamlet,” — only as an exercise in demonstrating this principle: that it shouldn’t be attempted.  A few years before that “Anna Karenina” the musical opened at Circle on the Square.  I have no knowledge of the show — I didn’t see it, have never heard the music.  It closed after 46 performances and was roundly bashed by every critic (although it was nominated for some Tony awards).  But each time I thought of it, all I could imagine was — how do you stage the grand finale?  I had this imagine of Anna, standing on a platform, while hundreds of onlookers (train passengers) sang “Here comes the train/Here comes the train/ Whooo.”  What does Anna do?  Throw herself into the orchestra pit?  There’s just no good way out of it.  And the novel is too vast to try and turn the musical into a quintet of some sort.

Francis Ford Coppola did not make the film of On the Road.  He’d owned the rights for so many years and never made the film.  I went to a casting session in a church near Lincoln Center.  We simply lined up and walked by FFC.  We were asked not to shake his hand as he had a cold.  Ten years passed and the film never made it past pre-production.  Some time later, he did end up producing a version which I’m not sure even hit the theatres.  It wasn’t so great.  What makes the book is the narrator, not necessarily the action.  Not so long ago, I read an article on Atlas Shrugged being the screenwriter’s long time obsession (the movie was not good).  I imagine it is possible for every screenwriter to have a list of impossible films he or she’d like to make.  On my list, along with Zen & MM is also John Fowles’ The Magus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude.

I finished reading Murakami’s After Dark again last night.  While it is not on my list, it did inspire me to ask why Murakami’s novels have not been made in more movies (Japanese versions of Norwegian Wood and the short story “Tony Takatani,” have been filmed as far as I know).  He’s hugely popular as a novelist with a world-wide appeal.  What gives?

So I did a plot outline of After Dark in my head.  Boy meets girl at amusement district Denny’s (Ikebukoro? Shinjuku?).  He goes to band practice.  A former female wrestler comes to get girl in Denny’s because she speaks Chinese. Girl beaten up in Love Hotel where wrestler is manager is Chinese.  Chinese Girl’s pimp comes to get her on a motorcycle.  Girl and female wrestler go for a beer.  Girls’ sister is sleeping for two months, she doesn’t want to go home. Man who beat Chinese girl works in local office.  Band member takes breaks twice to hang out with girl from Denny’s.  They talk and feed cats.  In the end, night office man can’t sleep when he gets home, Denny’s girl’s sister doesn’t wake, and the band member and the Denny’s girl agree to write letters when she’s in Beijing. In other words, everything that happens in the novel is not primarily plot.

There are brilliant parallels made about the kinds of walls we put up and these are reflected in so many layers of character development.  The wording often borders on lyrical: “The final darkness of the night envelops the city like a thin skin….Even the young couple who stop at a drink vending machine, tightly pressed against each other, have no more words for each other.  Instead, what they soundlessly share is the lingering warmth of their bodies.” p.173 (Knopf hardcover edition).  But there is very little you can film.

If I go through Murakami’s novels as an oeuvre, there are few that stand up to a plot breakdown. People tend to hole up in hotel rooms and order room service a lot.  Not very compelling stuff. Kafka on the Shore comes closest.  Unlike Zen & MM or The Magus, however, I do not feel compelled to put Wind Up Bird or 1Q84 on my screenwriting “to do” list.  Why?  I imagine it has a great deal to do with when I encountered each.

I found Zen & MM as a college student.  I was a philosophy minor, English major, and the book spoke directly to so many concerns and questions I had about the world.  The Magus I discovered a few years later — after I’d graduated from college, had been through a few very intimate relationships and was looking to adventure in a much wider world than the one I’d been raised in.  I remember reading Arthur Miller’s After the Fall within a year of having been in a relationship with someone whose self-esteem and addictions mirrored those of Maggie in the play.  I remember sobbing and crying “truth” as I read.  I still think it’s Miller’s most under-rated play because the press can’t treat it as theatre without screaming that Maggie is Marilyn Monroe and hating Miller for humanizing their icon (Pet peeve).

I imagine the next work that will move me that way, will be On Death and Dying (when I’m slightly closer to the end)I don’t have a whole lot of reverence left for politics, history or romance. And I do believe it is passion that makes us want to share the work that’s rocked our world with the larger world around us. In most of my script engagements now, I’m considered the “structure” guy — the guy who can stand back and see patterns, nudge motivations, individualize characters, cut away dross — but there are times I’d trade it all for a few more days of passion.

(1) I imagine someone’s already grabbed that title and used it for a production company

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