As a writer, I have great respect and admiration for screenwriters and directors who can bring a book to life on the screen while still honoring the original story. Of course, it's impossible to capture most books in their entirety on film, but it is possible to convey the spirit and truth the author was presenting. Here are some of my observations on adaptations I thought were particularly successful and some I thought fell short.

'Til death do they part

 Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in "Gone Girl"

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in "Gone Girl"

As the entire world must surely know by now, “Gone Girl” is the story of a disillusioned but seemingly idyllic married couple, Amy and Nick, and the turmoil that ensues when Amy goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick eventually becomes the prime suspect due to his stoic nature and a slowly mounting pile of evidence that seems somewhat staged from the start. Just as in the blockbuster book by Gillian Flynn on which it is based, the story unfolds from the viewpoints of both spouses, so the audience gets both sides of the story – and in a winning midway twist, another more revealing side of the story.

So let the spoilers begin. After reading Flynn’s novel last year, I was blown away by its knife-point ending. I can be overly traditional at times – meaning I often want the villain of the piece to get his or her comeuppance, and that doesn’t happen in the book. That’s part of what makes it so unusual and, on some level, refreshing. But my old-fashioned sensibilities of wanting justice to prevail in the end were left wanting, and I was more than a little annoyed about it. I’m embarrassed by my reaction because I consider myself a sophisticated consumer of stories both on the page and on the screen – one cool enough to embrace unhappy endings because they are more akin to real life. But I guess it’s because I am such an avid consumer of stories that I have that reaction. Historically, we’re accustomed to our fiction ending in happily ever after.

So when I heard that Flynn may have altered the ending of her screenplay for the book, I was intrigued, but I began to doubt whether I wanted to see a full-on happy ending after all. Regardless, it was great to think there would be a surprise for all of us who read the book when we saw the movie brought to the big screen by one of my favorite modern directors, David Fincher.

Alas, I was misled. The ending was not so different from the book – not essentially anyway. But it was a satisfying ending and one that resonated with the two strongest ideas or talking points from Flynn’s thoroughly entertaining and insightful story: What have we wrought with our culture’s media circus and courts of public opinion, and are female characters as free to be extreme as male characters on the big screen?

First, the media. Fincher works the escalation of the sensational media coverage beautifully, including all the things that can tip the scale one way or another for a man trying to look innocent when he may or may not be innocent. Random photos with provocative, spotlight-hungry strangers, allowing his natural instincts to smile or be gracious to come through when others expect to see a meltdown – all leading to the 24-hour news channel onslaught of wildly irresponsible accusations as fact and final judgment. It seemed like this aspect of the story was ramped up for the movie. It was tied directly into the ending, which was not the case at the end of the book.

And then there’s “Amazing Amy” – easily one of the most diabolical women portrayed on screen in years. Her parents based the heroine in their popular children's book series "Amazing Amy" on their charming daughter, but they had no idea how amazing she truly was. Played with understated relish by Rosamund Pike, Amy is a first-rate villain, and women don’t often get to play such archetypes and come out on top in the end. Most often, the bad girls – your Lady Macbeths and Alex Forrests (“Fatal Attraction”) – don’t get to win. Even the strong female characters who are not true villains but exercise power and freedom don’t often get to win on the big screen. Take Thelma and Louise. But the truly bad girls and femme fatales nearly always go down – whether it’s Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in “The Maltese Falcon” or Glenn Close’s Marquise in “Dangerous Liaisons,” the laws of cinema rarely allow her to get away with her crimes. Granted, that is often true of the male villain as well in our happy-ending-obsessed culture, and I do have to concede that there have been a few films in recent years bucking the trend for empowered female characters coming out on top. A prime example is the warrior Beatrix Kiddo in the “Kill Bill” films slashing her way to revenge on those who tried to destroy her.

But Amy is a different animal, although as far as she is concerned, her actions are as justified as Beatrix Kiddo: She is getting revenge on the man who tried to destroy her. She is a monster, and that’s fine. There’s room for all types in the storytelling canon. It makes it hard to root for her, but you do have to respect her abilities – her daring, her brilliance, her resourcefulness, her strength.

Nick, the not-so-doting husband, is less affecting at first. He is played by Ben Affleck with the best of his casual and unassumingly callous manner. It is nice when he finally finds his strength and knows how to counter Amy’s offensive. But even then, you know he’s not going to win. And perhaps he shouldn’t. He has done his share of dirt, too, even though the punishment Amy has set up for him does seem to far exceed his crimes.

As for performances, they are all solid: Affleck, Pike, even Tyler Perry as the superlawyer. I especially like the relationship Affleck and Carrie Coon were able to capture as close siblings in the story. Kim Dickens is great as the lead detective, and Neil Patrick Harris is convincing as Amy’s former obsessed lover, although he may be a little too eager in his character’s controlling pool of madness.

Fincher’s direction is steady and polished as usual. But as interesting as the story is, it somehow lacked urgency. That may be because I already knew what was going to happen, or it could be there was something amiss in terms of compelling storytelling – that “je ne sais quoi” to push the film from good to great. But it definitely works.

And as for the lack of a happy ending, I do find some solace in the media mavens having to eat crow upon Amy’s return and the fact that Nick is not convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. But at what price? To live with a woman he knows to be a sociopath and raise a child with her? It’s interesting that his only way out may be to commit the crime he was accused of all along. It would be a big step up from his original crime, growing bored with and resentful of his wife, but Amy might be able to bring him up to her level – which seems to be her goal along with manipulating their public image. Amy is clearly amazing, and the world keeps on spinning.

THE FINCHER FILES
Here’s how I rank the films of David Fincher, one of my favorite modern directors.

1. “Zodiac”
2. “Seven”
3. “The Social Network”
4. “Gone Girl”
5. “Fight Club”
6. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
7. “The Game”
8. “Alien3”
9. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
10. “Panic Room”

 

The tenuous correlation of Poirot and Hitchcock

Mysteries are wonderful because it is fascinating to see how people solve them. To determine what happened at a given place and time when you were not at that place at that time just by using deductive powers and whatever clues remain is amazing. And we are mesmerized by the exercise when it comes to crime solving. Why else are there so many best-selling books, top-rated TV shows and blockbuster movies devoted to whodunits, police procedurals and other thrillers?

In the last 100 years, two purveyors of mystery entertainment have stood out above the rest. They occupy two different mediums – writing and cinema, although there is some overlap for the writer. It’s the prolific writer Agatha Christie and the acclaimed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Apart from using different artistic means to share their genius, they also had a different modus operandi when it came to their stories. Christie, for the most part, trafficked in whodunits. While Hitchcock mostly revealed his killers upfront and took viewers through the paces of wondering how (or if) the killer or killers would be caught.

Public television’s Masterpiece Mystery! recently concluded its Poirot series based on Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Christie wrote 33 novels and numerous short stories about the fastidious super sleuth, and the PBS Poirot series produced adaptations of all 33 novels and some of the short stories over the last 25 years. One actor portrayed Poirot throughout the entire series – David Suchet. As an avid fan of Christies’ books who has read all of the Poirot novels, I think Suchet has done an admirable job of bringing Poirot to life – all his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies (and there are many). There were times when I was disappointed by the screenwriters’ choices, certain significant deviations from the books. But as a film fan, I’m used to literary adaptations being altered for various reasons, and I still enjoy the PBS adaptations very much – especially because of Suchet’s wonderful interpretation of one of my absolute favorite literary characters.

But as much respect as I have for Suchet’s work portraying Poirot, my favorite Suchet performance was when he played a very different detective in a movie remake of a Hitchcock film. It was his performance as a police detective named Mohamed Karaman in the 1998 thriller “A Perfect Murder,” a surprisingly good remake of Hitchcock’s 1954 “Dial M for Murder.”  It was surprising because, as film fans know, good remakes are hard to come by.

“A Perfect Murder” stars Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow as a ridiculously wealthy and seemingly happy married couple. She is having a steamy affair with Viggo Mortensen, so she’s no angel. Yet we favor her over her clearly money-obsessed, ruthless Wall Street tycoon husband – maybe because he’s a conniving killer vs. her being a conniving adulteress. Plus it’s hard not to root for young, attractive lovers to prevail over the older, fuddy-duddy, murderous husband. It was the same in Hitchcock’s original. Even though we learn of the wife’s affair with a mild-mannered novelist in the opening scene – played by Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings, it’s hard to like husband Ray Milland as soon as he reveals his plan to kill his wife, Kelly, in the following half-hour.

But back to Suchet. He’s wonderful as the detective in “A Perfect Murder” because he gives a quiet, insightful performance. It’s very different from his turn as Poirot because it is understated. Poirot is lovably boastful with many ticks and quirks to his personality that can be ostentatious. Detective Kamaran is clearly thoughtful, but you see the wheels turning in his mind without him having to say much. And the understanding between him and Paltrow as the wife/potential victim/suspect is lovely. They bond over language of all things. She is a U.N. translator and linguist who speaks many languages, including the detective’s native language of Arabic (I believe the character is Algerian), and she is able to convey her genuine interest in the detective’s private life concerns when she asks him about his sick child in his own language. These seemingly small nuances establish a connection that is important for the story.

In “Dial M for Murder,” the detective is played by the great character actor John Williams, who won a Tony award for his performance in the original Broadway stage production. It was quite a different part than the one in “A Perfect Murder,” of course, but both he and Suchet did the role of the detective proud in their respective efforts. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Williams gives what seems to be a nod to the great fictional detective Poirot at the end of "Dial M for Murder" when he combs his rather large mustache, which happens to be styled rather similarly to Poirot's famous mustache. 

So perhaps that's a direct connection between Poirot and Hitchcock. In any case, I salute Suchet at the end of his career as Poirot on television, and I hope that he continues to work portraying other detectives and more on the big and small screen. 

 

Embracing truth

I read Yann Martel's wondrous book "Life of Pi" last year for my book club. I remember reading the synopsis and not being very eager to dive into it. It sounded a bit like fantasy - being stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger - and apart from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, I'm not a big fan of that genre. But I also noticed the terrific reviews it received along with winning the Man Booker Prize. And while I generally take reviews with a grain of salt regarding music and movies, I rely on them pretty regularly when it comes to literature. So encouraged by the good reviews and accolades along with the pressure of my book club meeting, I gave it a try. 

I was pleasantly surprised to be engrossed in it right from the start. And by the time I completed it, I felt genuine relief that the main character, Pi, had reached an end to his ordeal. That's not a spoiler exactly. If you watch the film, you know from the start that he will survive because the film beings with him telling his story to a writer. In the book, there's no writer; the reader just goes along with Pi on his journey. So I guess that's a spoiler. Sorry.

The story introduces Pi growing up in India with his father, mother and brother. His father owns a zoo, and Pi has a great affinity for the animals. He also develops a fervent interest in religion and begins to embrace multiple theologies, much to his father's chagrin. As Pi becomes a young man, he manages to remain respectful of his father's advice and tough lessons while still honoring his own truths.

But just as Pi begins to discover that most mysterious of belief systems - romantic love - with a local girl, he learns that his family must move to Canada and start a new life. They are taking the animals with them - not to start another zoo, but to sell. During a stormy night on rough seas, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself the lone human survivor on a life boat. His companions are a lame zebra, a hyena, a matriarchal orangutan and a ferocious Bengal tiger. 

Apart from the addition of the writer, the movie stays pretty true to the book, and I enjoyed watching what I  read come to life. My only quibble in that regard is how the orangutan comes to join Pi and his other stowaways on his little boat. In the book, her arrival is described as majestic and heartwarming as she rides a wave atop a big bunch of bananas. Ang Lee is a masterful director, but I didn't feel the emotional heft of that moment in the film. I consider it a minor point, though, and I commend Lee for doing a fantastic job of conveying all the other magical elements of the book on the screen.  

Getting to know Pi throughout his childhood exploration and adoption of several different religions was heartening. It reinforced the notion of how everything does not have to be all or nothing, black or white, when it comes to our beliefs. And his struggle to survive on the boat is informed by his open acceptance of God. When he finally comes through the experience, landing on the Mexican shore, he eventually has to tell how he came to be stranded on a boat with a motley crew of jungle creatures and how he survived. But the tale of his ordeal is found too fantastic for the practically minded pencil pushers to whom he has to recount it. So Pi tells another more realistic story to explain what he had been through, and he asks his audience - the insurance men in the book and the writer in the movie - which story they prefer. And that is the question the movie goers and the readers must ask themselves. Do you embrace the fantastic or the pragmatic? What is more appealing? What is more life-affirming? What is the truth?     

So let's talk about Gatsby

 Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby"

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Great Gatsby"

For many of us, The Great Gatsby was required reading in high school. Since I was partial to stories of unrequited or unfulfilled love, F. Scott Fitzgerald's story was right up my alley. I also found the period of "The Roaring '20s" fascinating. But most of all, I loved Fitzgerald's sparse, sensible writing style that conveyed all you needed to know about his characters frankly and simply. It made a film adaptation seem like a forgone conclusion because of how well-crafted the characterizations were. So I made sure I saw the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow the next time it aired on TV (I know I'm dating myself, but VCRs had just come out). 

I am one of the rare few who is very fond of the 1974 film. I thought it captured the spirit of the novel well. Sure it had its sore spots, but I enjoyed how the loneliness and desperation of everyone played out on the screen. Redford was suitably enigmatic, Farrow teasingly tormented and flighty. Sam Waterston was nobly conscientious, and Lois Chiles effortlessly careless - which is a pervading theme of the book, the carelessness of the wealthy. In this pre-review of Baz Lurhmann's take on Fitzgerald's masterpiece, I elaborate on two things that concern me about Lurhmann's remake -- two things that are the concern with nearly any film adaptation of a beloved book: Will it live up to the book, and is the cast right for the parts? I look forward to seeing the film when it premieres to learn whether my concerns are warranted.

1. Will it live up to the book? 

It all seems like it should work on a Baz Lurhmann level. The decadence of the 1920s, particularly Gatsby's grand parties, is ripe for Lurhmann's visual decadence. I loved the modern take he brought to Shakespeare's "Romeo + Juliet" - creating a kind of extravaganza of costume and charisma for his vision. But is it all too much in the case of Gatsby? I feel like these characters need to be a bit more grounded in reality and not be depicted as caricatures of the elitist snobs they are. Lurhmann is clearly planning to take them over the top, and I'm willing to go there with him, but I'm trepidatious. 

I was pleased to hear that Leonardo DiCaprio appreciates the difficulty of bringing a book like The Great Gatsby to the screen. In an interview with "E! News," he spoke about his reluctance to take the part because he knew there would be a lot of expectations placed on the film that would be hard to live up to. I'm glad he chose to tackle it, but was he the right choice?  

2. Is the casting right?

  • Leo as Gatsby: Like so many actors before him (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, etc.), Leonardo DiCaprio has become bigger than any part he could play. He is a fine actor, but he's a larger-than-life star. The closest he's come in recent years to getting out of the shadow of himself in his roles is in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed." He could be wonderful as Gatsby, but what I'm not picking up from the trailers is Gatsby's loneliness. It is palpable in the book and very present in the 1974 film. Redford keeps it understated and genuine -- even when his character is being evasive and underhanded. DiCaprio, as talented as he is, does not seem to have a talent for subtlety, and subtlety is what's called for with Gatsby. I'm anxious to see how DiCaprio works the angles on this one. 
  • Carey as Daisy: I loved Carey Mulligan in "Shame," where she had a fragility akin to a woman like Daisy Buchanan. But there's a lot more than fragility at work in Daisy. In fact, Daisy's fragility is more a facade than anything else. Mulligan's appearance is spot on, but can she capture Daisy's sense of entitlement along with her regret? Keep in mind that Daisy's regret is not so much for her lost love as it is for her weak will. She regrets not being strong enough, big enough, good enough to love freely without the crutch of her wealthy lifestyle.
  • Tobey as Nick: At first glance, Tobey Maguire seems like the perfect choice to play the outside-looking-in Nick Carraway. Maguire did something vaguely similar in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm." And you could certainly argue that even his most famous portrayal -- Spiderman/Peter Parker -- was the personification of an outsider trying to maneuver in a world that didn't seem quite cut out for him. Still, something seems amiss in the clips I've seen, and I won't know the answer until I've seen it. This is the role/actor matchup I'm most curious about.