This online installment of Film Genres will examine film adaptations of the contemporary novel. Literary fiction provides a rich, original source for story, character and setting in feature films. And yet the director, screenwriter, and actors are inevitably faced with challenges in successfully transferring a predominantly textual art into a visual and auditory medium. Especially with well-known classic works such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), recently adapted by director Baz Luhrmann, the problem of fidelity to the original novel arises. The editing of long prose fictions to fit within the typical two-hour duration of feature films gives the most gifted screenwriter migraines. Sometimes, however, a script may be augmented with scenes or characters not present in the original for a coherent representation of the story on screen. Literature that heavily relies on interior monologue and narration rather than external dramatic action or dialogue poses a nearly insurmountable hurdle for adaptation. We should also consider that novels are most often sole-authored works of the imagination that, in the words of Irish writer and humorist Flann O’Brien, are “self-administered in private,” while films are very much collective enterprises demanding the skills of hundreds of people and, ideally, screened in public theaters to large appreciative audiences.
First, we’ll read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), with its six overlapping storylines and recurrent characters; and then compare its ambitious adaptation by directors Tom Tykwer, Lana and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) in 2012. We’ll then read Ian McEwan’s historical novel of class and moral responsibility, Atonement (2001), set in England in 1935, during World War II, and in present day England. Its adaptation by director Joe Wright in 2007 confronts the multiple historical settings and the complex subjectivity of the novel’s characters.
Next on the program will be a novel by a postmodern writer whose challenging work has been resistant to adaptation. We’ll read Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic detective novel, Inherent Vice (2009), and then ponder Paul Thomas Anderson’s truly “gonzo” adaptation (2014), featuring Joaquin Phoenix as the pot-smoking private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello, which must be one of the weirdest literary-filmic adventures you can have—without the influence of cannabis or other psycho-pharmaceuticals. Mohsin Hamid, who appeared in Just Buffalo’s Babel series in October, is renowned for his novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a monologue by a Princeton-educated Pakistani émigré who returns to Lahore after 9/11 to lecture in the classroom against American imperialism. The suspenseful confrontation at a Lahore café between Changez and a nameless American, most likely a CIA operative, is brilliantly captured on film by Indian director Mira Nair (2012).
This course will be conducted online through UB Learns, with streaming of films through the Multimedia Library’s Digital Campus online service. Students will be required to participate in weekly graded blogs and complete two writing assignments and peer reviews on the novels and films.