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Movies As Inspiration

Poster - Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939)_02I recently watched the 1939 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. I was deeply impressed by the film, and Laughton and O’Hara’s performances, and I was moved to read the novel. I ordered it from the library and sat down to read the introduction, only to be met with an attack on the movie I had just watched that had led me to this introduction in the first place.

It wasn’t exactly an attack, but definitely a complaint. The writer contended that movie depictions of Quasimodo had so taken over the popular imagination that it put people off from reading the novel. This struck me as a trifle unfair, since I was only reading her complaint because I had seen the movie and never met a person who decided not to read a book because of a movie (though I do know a few people who didn’t watch a movie because of the book), though I suppose such people do exist. However, I cannot help but wonder if such people would not be reading the novel if there was a movie or not.

She further writes that “we often know just enough about great novels to dissuade us from reading them.” This is definitely true. For years I did not want to read Anna Karenina. I had some vague idea that it was about a woman wronged by society, unfairly condemned for her love and driven to suicide. This is not what the book is about, but I did not get that impression from a movie. Impressions about books come from a variety of sources. My impression came from general comments left in articles, books and critical essays and it was only when I heard there was a movie adaptation being made with Keira Knightly that my curiosity was piqued. When I read it, I was amazed at how interesting and rich the book was. Literary critics are partly to blame for this misconception. When I later read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretation), all the articles are exclusively about Anna (though Levin is just as important a character, not to mention the myriad other, fascinating people in the story) and how magnificent she is and how everyone else are just little people who fail her. This is definitely a skewed and biased view of the book.

marypoppinsSimilarly, I never had the slightest interest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame until I saw the movie. But this is an attack against movies I have encountered numerous times. I have read many complaints regarding the Mary Poppins movie; one man wrote of how people have told him they will not read the original Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers because they are not like the movie (though I read the book because I had seen the movie and know other people who did so for the same reason). And one grows weary of the phrase, “the book is always better than the movie.” The assumption seems to me to be that a movie is inevitably nothing more than a bowdlerization, simplification, distortion and dumbing down of a full and rich work.

This complaint also goes for history, as well. After watching the 1956 Anastasia, I went to the internet to read about the real Princess Anastasia and once again encountered complaints about how the movies distort history and give a fairy tale conception of life. I once read a scathing article about how Downton Abbey is not historically accurate. No review of a movie is complete without some sort of condescending remark about how movies ignore history or do not properly enforce reality.

Admittedly, because of movies, the popular conception of a novel or character or historical event can be skewed. As the writer of the introduction pointed out, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not really about Quasimodo at all, but about the city of Paris. But I believe that popular misconceptions do not exist only because of movies and it is incumbent on individuals to learn not to let their vague notions of novels (and history) have the last word. It’s a valuable lesson, but applies to all vague notions besides those attained from movies (Shakespeare is responsible for all sorts of inaccurate views of English history and kings). People write throwaway comments in history that reinforce inaccurate notions. Articles, blog posts, conversations, poetry, even novels, all reinforce notions that may or may not be correct.

But such complaints miss the point, I think. Movies are flavoring. As John Le Carre said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” What he means is that all that is left is flavoring. And people know it when they see a film. A historical film gives you a flavor of what that historical time was like. If people want facts, they read history (not a historical novel). But the inspirational power of that flavor cannot be underestimated. It can make a time period or a subject or a novel come alive in your imagination or make a novel seem more accessible and less daunting.

MV5BMTU0NDgxNDg0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE4MzkwOA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_One of the greatest powers that a movie possesses is the power of inspiration. The combination of the visual and aural is an irresistible one that creates unforgettable images and feelings and I have always found movies to be the source of many of my interests. They inspire me to read a novel or to read history or to remember an emotion or event or to become interested in early American popular music or to consider an idea. They become part of my mental map, sources that I draw on in discussion and life.

My library understands this concept and always capitalizes on the release of new movies in theaters. After the release of Twelve Years a Slave, the library bought the autobiography on which the movie was based. After the release of Imitation Game, the biography that inspired it showed up in the library catalog. After Anna Karenina, copies of the novel with pictures from the film filled the shelf. Movies and novels and history should have a symbiotic relationship, not an antagonistic one. Movies are not necessarily taking people away from books. They are an interpretation of books, like any work of literary criticism. And even if people didn’t have movies, I am not sure it’s fair to assume that people would therefore read more.

And I would argue that a movie no more skews perceptions of a novel or history than a novel or poem does of history and legend. This is what art does. It creates popular conceptions, something people have in common. And sometimes, when history is forgotten, we still have art. We know little historically of any siege of Troy, but Homer’s Iliad remains with us. I see no reason to assume that movies will be any less powerful an art form throughout time than poetry, paintings, symphonies or novels.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Movies

 

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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

 
 

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Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson – and Mary Poppins’ Age

I was recently trying to read Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, by Valerie Lawson, and quite frankly I got bored. My reading progress was slowing down to almost nil and that is always a sign to me that I should give up. There are too many books I want to read to get bogged down by dull books. I picked up several other books about Jane Austen and Mary Astor and it’s amazing how much reading I’ve gotten done since.

I used to feel intensely guilty about not finishing a book, but I’ve developed a scheme to help me. If I am one-third of the way through a book and I still don’t like it or am struggling, then I can put it down. If I’m halfway through or more, then I just need to push through, boring or not. But I was two-thirds of the way through Mary Poppins, She Wrote, however, I was making such desultory progress and there were so many books I had from the library, sitting in a basket, begging me to read them, that I finally gave up. I felt instant release.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. TraversMary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps I just wasn’t interested enough in the life of P.L. Travers. She seems to have been a very unhappy woman, always seeking peace or solace in the spiritual. She was very interested in the mystical and seems to have had fraught relationships with a variety of people, but the books very rarely explains in what way. It’s all surface detail or assertion. I’ve read books that contain a lot of surface detail – usually because there really is no personal information available – but do a better job of connecting that person’s life with the times they live in. In this, we never get a sense of any of her relationships with others, even with her adopted son, Camillus. We learn she was born in Australia, did some acting, wrote some poetry, went to England, wrote Mary Poppins, adopted a son without taking his twin, went to America during WWII, and so on, but it’s just cold facts.

I did glean a few interesting facts about the character and origins of Mary Poppins, however. One of the first mentions of Mary Poppins was in a short story Travers wrote while she was still in Australia. Mary Poppins was the seventeen years old nanny who goes out with her boyfriend, the match man, and they jump into a chalk picture and have tea. Apparently, Travers took the whole short story and put it into her book, presumably minus the romance. She was reportedly annoyed that Disney chose that particular episode to go in the movie.

Another interesting tidbit is about Mary Poppins’ age. I always thought she was in her late thirties or early forties (though my sister tells me she always imagined her younger) and Walt Disney apparently was concerned that she was, too. He asked Travers and she replied that Mary Poppins is between twenty-four and twenty-seven…so Julie Andrews, at almost thirty, was actually about the correct age.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Biographies

 

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