A pleasant surprise in film adaptation

As mentioned in a previous post, I often feel a slight twinge of disgust when I learn that literature I treasure is going to be morphed into a film adaptation. It’s not that I dislike the act of doing so as a concept; it’s just that the current body of film adaptations does not instill any hope that new ones will be any good. So imagine the horror and despair I felt when I learned that a former fashion designer (a field for which I do not have much respect) had adapted the most accomplished novel from my most revered writer into a new film?

To my pleasant surprise however, Tom Ford’s rendition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was highly enjoyable to watch. And while I reserve some criticism around his choices in bringing this devastating story to the screen, I would recommend it overall, particularly for those of you who enjoy Isherwood’s work. It was refreshing to finally see Colin Firth as George break out of those interminable tethers to his famous presentation of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, which he seemingly represents in nearly all of his roles. Julianne Moore, as George’s boozy British best friend, is also a delight, but that is nothing new.

Ford manages to convey the power of Isherwood’s story: the ordinariness of George’s pain in losing his long time lover, suffocated underneath the cultural conservatism and fear rampant in mid-century America. In doing this, Ford seems to have done just fine with his film. What more can we ask? As originally determined from the film’s trailer, the visuals are stunning. Sometimes it almost reaches the point where I was not sure if I was watching a commercial for high end luxury products or a film. We can forgive Ford his indulgences, for he does give us imagery that is astounding overall and coaxes his actors into fine performances. I thought the New York Times review of the film did very well in comparing Ford’s work to that of Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai.

This adaptation was tastefully done: any changes made to the story seemed natural in the transition from written word to moving screen image. Adding the gun and George’s desire to commit suicide gave the movie some dramatic impetus, which is needed in a film but can be left out of a piece of literature. My one main criticism has to do with the hyper-stylization of the film, even though I did find it gorgeous. Art directed to the maximum effect, Ford seems to pander to the materialistic and consumptive side of our culture in needing to make everything beautiful. The characters seem to be wealthier than represented in the novel, and everyone is so fashionable! But perhaps this is what audiences want to see, why would we want to be reminded of our drab lives? It just rings a little false in comparison to Isherwood’s original story, which was not glamorous. It seems like Ford did a great job of adapting the novel, but in bringing it to the screen put the entire thing before his personal fashion panel: anything that could be made pretty was done up, the whole tableau of visuals fit together too perfectly.

Overall though, the film was a very pleasant surprise from an untested filmmaker, who managed not to crap all over a seminal work in modern queer literature. For this alone, Ford deserves praise. It will certainly be interesting to see what he does next with his new found path. Hopefully this wonderful novel will get a bit more attention now that the publishers have slapped Colin Firth’s mug on the cover for a re-print.

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The book to movie cringe

To be truthful, I usually frown upon most literary narratives transitioned into film, as I feel that in their essence the two media are not capable of telling stories satisfactorily in a mutual way. Of course, each is enjoyed thoroughly by many people and independently of one another in their own contexts. Apparently having demonstrated our appetite for these adaptation films, numerous examples have been produced and actually make up a sizable portion of the overall mainstream film output. But gawd, aren’t most of them absolutely terrible?

Do you remember when they tried to make Philip Pullman’s interesting and severe His Dark Materials into a film franchise with lots of lights, money and beautiful hollywood faces? (And rightly failed to do so) Zzz. Not all productions from literature to film are so hideous. Peter Jackson allegedly scraped by with his rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. But in the wise words of the character Val Goldman from the film The Birdcage — “Don’t add, just subtract.” — Jackson’s film seems replete with images that could have been spent on more accurately transitioning Tolkien’s detailed and simple narrative. But even the sage advice above does not always hold, demonstrated by the adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, made by Clint Eastwood, of all people. He embellished the role of The Lady Chablis, enriching and poking the story into interesting places, a rare example of a filmmaker adding some queerness to one’s work. Overall, it seems to be varied on how well the transition is made, depending on who does the work.

So I will admit that a cringe was elicited upon realization that the previously seen but unidentified film poster at the Kabuki theater* in San Francisco was in fact an advertisement for an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. My evidence was found in this article from the NY Times. My love for Isherwood’s written works led me to masochistically devour the article and rush to the web for the trailer. The former designer turned film auteur Tom Ford gives us a version featuring credible performers, if clearly altered (clear from the article and online trailer) and looking to lean towards high drama. Isherwood’s novel is subtle as it is emotional and devastating; it will be interesting to see if Mr. Ford can stew these down into a visual and moving cinematic experience without serving us something overcooked, drowned in a flavor of Ford’s own publicity and ego. I hope to be proven utterly wrong**, and see the delightful balance that can exist between two executions in form of a single original story. Here’s to optimism.

What will certainly be interesting to see is how much attention Isherwood the writer and his collective works receive in the release and attention around Ford’s film. Sometimes this can actually be the undoing of a piece of literature, at least in its mass-produced and marketed life. We have all seen the paperback transposed with movie poster at our local box bookstore. They have the ability to drain a lot of goodness from what would otherwise be a pleasant book experience, but should one complain if more people are reading said book? More people reading Isherwood’s writings is a great step in itself as they tend to be underread.

*I was there seeing another book to movie transition, the Wes Anderson directed spin on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I found to be wonderful. But I have the benefit of not having read Dahl’s original (to be rectified soon thanks to the San Francisco Public Library), so did not have to suffer the burden of comparing.

**I feel my interest in Isherwood will compel me to see Ford’s film. At least it will be worth comparing to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which is based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.