Translating ‘unfilmable’ literature: How films like ‘As I Lay Dying’ are making it onto the big screen

Amy Lewin

As I lay dying 204x300 Translating unfilmable literature: How films like As I Lay Dying are making it onto the big screenAs I Lay Dying, James Franco’s film adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1930 modernist novel, which screened at the BFI London Film Festival recently, has got the critics all in a muddle. A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, defends what might seem like ‘a fool’s errand’ on the director’s part, arguing that ‘Mr. Franco has accomplished something serious and worthwhile’. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian also calls it a ‘worthwhile movie’; is this a code word for ‘clever, but no fun’, ‘brave, but bloody boring’? Guy Lodge at The Evening Standard even describes both its subject matter and cinematographic technique as ‘queasy stuff’.

Translating great works of literature from page to screen is clearly no easy task; indeed, is it something that should be dared at all? Would an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, with its plethora of interwoven and often indistinguishable narrative voices, have us screaming for paracetamol and psychiatric help?

Any audience member watching Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude would need to be issued with a family tree to distinguish one generation of men named José Arcadio and Aureliano from the next, which still wouldn’t avoid confusion as the narrative skips backwards and forwards in time.

Nonetheless, call them heroic, call them stupid, there are a whole host of filmmakers who’ve dared to put ‘unfilmable’ works on screen. Even Ulysses, yes James Joyce’s Ulysses, that hefty tome of experimental prose which most literature graduates haven’t finished, was made into a two hour film in 1967. And you know what, it’s not truly terrible. Stephen and Bloom’s exploits and hallucinations in the red light district – written as a play script in the novel – understandably occupy a significant chunk of the film, being inherently cinematic – visual and amusing. It isn’t all 265,000 words of the original though, and its credits rolling across the screen don’t herald the same feeling of utter relief and magnificent triumph as reaching the final word and slamming the book shut.

How ‘true’ to a book should a film be then? A shared title surely requires some shared DNA; a code which in Franco’s film becomes scrambled, multiple narrative perspectives communicated simultaneously by his frequent use of split screen, which in the novel are slowly layered upon one another, chapter by chapter.

The medium of film inherently belongs to body, to action, whilst that of literature belongs to the mind, to thought. The problem with Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique is that it conveys to the reader a mind, a person, a real person, who on screen is immediately tangible, physical, present. Each medium requires its own styles to tell the same story; transferring these techniques across often loses something in translation.

Michael Winterbottom wittily questions this endeavour with his A Cock and Bull Story, a film about an attempt to make a screen adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, itself a novel about its narrator struggling to write his life and times. This film captures the spirit of the novel, yet remains firmly aware of its own existence as film. A film about filming, it suggests, is the only way to cinematise a novel about writing. The essence of a great novel is often in its style; a style which may be particular to literature, and not the moving picture.

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  • BigJackRabbit

    Another example is the book “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs. Now there was an unfilmable book! But it was put into a movie by the same name by director David Cronenberg. He did it by showing the process of writing the book, while all the strange creatures and dialogue that inhabit the book infiltrating the movie. It was a great film. Like most of Mr. Cronenberg’s. (except lately)

    Oh, an aside. In the first page of the book Naked Lunch were four lines that present the book which I think are beautiful.

    “Society is a vast banquet in the dark. I call for the lights to be turned on, I call for people seeing what is at the end of their fork, I call for a naked lunch.”

    I wish I could write like that.

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