Great Book, Bad Movie

How Hollywood ruins novels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road

Why does Hollywood take our favorite novels and turn them into crap?

This isn’t an original complaint: Liking the book better than the movie is a middlebrow rite of passage. And novels are a constant, renewable source of stories for Hollywood, with ready-built brand appeal—from the kiddie franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia) to the airport bangers ( Da Vinci Code, the Bourne etceteras). Nor are these always bad movies. It turns out that good plots and an epic dimension translate well from page to screen. But the attempt to scale this model by making midsize movies from literary novels has been an ugly disaster. In our post-The Reader world, I can safely say that I’d rather personally digitize back issues of Talk magazine than see another movie based on Harvey Weinstein’s favorite book. Scott Rudin can fuck off, too.

I once interviewed to be a literary scout for a respected producer. The job, as described, was this: find the best novels before anyone else does so they can be bought and made into great movies. This sounds admirable. But it rests on the idea that what makes a literary novel good can be translated with any reliability into what makes a movie good. Three of the films that will be feted come Oscar night are based on recognizable literature. And while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader are definitely terrible movies, Revolutionary Road is both the worst movie I saw this year and one of the best novels I’ve read.

What makes the book so good and the movie so bad? And why is this divergence so unsurprising? The answer is simple, but it has complex implications: Novels are long, but movies are short. It’s impossible to encapsulate the tonal shifts of a book like Revolutionary Road  in a feature-length film, no matter how long those two hours feel.

Richard Yates was not an emotionally subtle writer, and yet he was able to implicate his readers in whatever judgment he passed on his characters. Revolutionary Road works through the inculcation of false hope, again and again. We’re repeatedly told that things are going to get better for the Wheelers; we’re promised, or we think we’ve been promised, emotional and artistic breakthroughs. And in these hopes—these feverish wee-hour plans and pledges—we see our own hopes, our own insistent belief in personal progress, squelched.

The movie replaces character with plot, and the result lands with a wet flop. It tells the story of Revolutionary Road and makes us see how thin the plot is: Self-identified creative souls must escape suburbia; maybe Paris would be nice; pregnancy is an unwelcome surprise. With the constant emphasis on what happens next, the audience is reduced to being spectators of fights and sex, dreams and dissolution. Interesting stuff, maybe, but it’s their stuff, not ours. We’ll never know these people; they’re not us.

This is what the movies do to literature, typically: There’s so much plot to get in that there’s no time to tell the story. Perhaps it’s the insecurity of Hollywood: Inflated by the borrowed prestige of books, producers and directors won’t stray too far from the guide-ropes of the story. Revolutionary Road, for instance, feels less directed than curated. But in this bargain, Hollywood makes an unnecessary concession, in effect admitting that movies are dumber than books. How could we think otherwise when smart books are continually turned into witless movies? It’s the ultimate head-to-head competition, and movies are the Washington Generals. Are there reverse examples, where a mediocre movie is turned into a good book? I can’t think of one, though I’ve heard that the novelization of The Harder They Come is remarkably successful. No, until recently, I’d just about decided that film deserves its reduced reputation as the flashy, gelled-hair cousin to literature.

Then I saw Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which the Criterion Collection has recently re-released. Director Paul Schrader—who had grown up in a strict Calvinist household, been mentored by Pauline Kael, written Taxi Driver, and directed American Gigolo—used the life and work of Yukio Mishima to make his masterpiece.

Mishima was Japan’s most famous writer in the 1950s and ‘60s. Obsessed with the restoration of Japan’s imperial and martial glory, Mishima believed that young men should glorify their bodies through weightlifting and military exercise and then, perhaps, commit ritual suicide at the height of their beauty. It was a highly eroticized vision, but Mishima was indulged because of his fame and because he offered a way for the Japanese to reclaim their dignity after their postwar privations. In fact, Mishima was allowed to maintain his own private militia, an indulgence that backfired when he and some of his cadets took over the local army garrison, tied up the commanding officer, and gathered all the soldiers in front of the building, where Mishima gave a poorly received speech exhorting the military to return the emperor to his rightful glory. Mishima then went inside and committed seppuku.

That’s a lot of plot for one movie, and yet Schrader complicates it. He tells the story of that day, and of Mishima’s prior life and career, but he also throws in three of Mishima’s novels: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses. And yet, where one would expect muddle, there’s a weird clarity. Schrader’s only option—self-imposed—is not to respect the plot. Mishima believed that there were some things that art couldn’t express and some things that action couldn’t. The pen and the sword have their own capabilities. Similarly, Schrader uses a combination of literary and visual vocabularies to indicate that books and movies play by different rules.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion follows a stuttering Buddhist acolyte who both reveres and detests the beauty of the temple where he studies; eventually, he burns it down. Schrader sets this story in a highly stylized stage set. Every prop shrinks around the actors. The three levels of the temple add up to about 10 feet, and the path that leads to it is an assembly of wooden slats on a painted floor. On the ceiling and walls a thick golden coat of sky is interrupted by flat green vegetation. In almost every frame of the scene we see at least three boundaries. This is a novel, Schrader’s saying: a formal, artificial space in which characters move about for our edification.

The novel is an attempt to express life, typically a mimetic attempt. But there’s no naturalism in the novel. Writing down what actually happens, what’s actually said, would be boring and read as fake. The novel is a hermetic system, with formal rules, that tries to express or comment on something outside itself. Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road believes that what is said in a novel represents some kind of truth that actors can play. But Schrader’s treatment of the novels in Mishima is more open-eyed. They’re set apart, self-contained, and yet miniature worlds are there within. They take place on a stage within a limited room, and yet we enter a life as fully realized as the more documentary parts of the movie, that are supposedly “about” Mishima.

So much for theory. Mishima is an achingly pleasurable movie, a formal work of art that offers visceral pleasures: From the shots of the writer’s ridiculously baroque house at the beginning of the film to the blazing red sun that ends it, Schrader works with a wide palette of colors and settings that string the viewer along from scene to scene. This is the luxury of film, that it can cohere a narrative through color or even through technical devices such as panning and focus.

Yet Revolutionary Road uses the medium of film to very little effect. Perhaps if Mendes had concentrated more on the mood and tone of the book instead of styling it like a two-hour episode of Mad Men, the movie could be viewed as something more than a chance for slow readers to imbibe a classic.

Lest the reader think I’m comparing apples to oranges—an art house auteur’s work to a big time Oscar-baiter—note that Mishima was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. It was released in 1985, and the great run of 1970s American film culture was just coming to an end. Ironically, it was partly Lucas’ Star Wars franchise that proved how lucrative giving the people what they want, repeatedly, could be. The mainstream art movie became a duty, useful mostly for picking up golden statuary. Regretting the lost golden age of movies won’t bring it back. But I hope that the directors and producers who aspire to some more-elevated renown will do the culturally appropriate thing: put down that Penguin Classic and pick up a movie.