On Adaptations

Sometimes I just take it up again and flip through it, until I end up lingering on a quotation, a paragraph, a page. I’m talking about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I could apply the same rule to most of my favorite books. Here’s what’s special about them: though you know them already, they can still surprise you when you randomly open them. I read The Road for the first time three years ago, when I was about to go to the 2008 Venice Film Festival for the premiere of its adaptation, John Hillcoat’s The Road. I remember starting to read at around 10 am, and not dropping the book until the same night. That was love and pain, two of the feelings that can get you hooked in a heartbeat. Yes, The Road is short. But those 100 pages are dense, deep and highly painful. It’s about a dark and dry world, as dark and dry as its inhabitants. You can find no reason for them to keep on living and no reason for yourself to keep on reading since you know that there can be no hope. But you go on nevertheless, like them. Because, like them, you’re human.
Then came the film. By the time I saw it, the book was one of my favorite already, so you know how hard it is to be objective. I tried not to think about those 100 pages, but it was impossible. Parts were missing, parts that I had so vividly pictured in my head and that never got out. Then the movie ended and I felt like I had just finished reading the book once more. The feeling was the same, though some things were missing or different (Viggo Mortensen was also sit three rows behind me so yes, the broader frame was definitely different). The movie could have never been like the book. But it was good, it created the same atmosphere and conveyed the same feelings. The soul of the book was somehow there. The same thing happened to me with Barney’s Version. Let’s be honest, that book is almost freaking impossible to adapt. I like to picture Charlie Kaufman trying to do it and getting crazy as he did in Adaptation. But the movie is actually good, though different.
So that’s the secret of good adaptations, I guess: being a compromise. There’s no way a book can become a movie and stay as it is. It will always disappoint you. But the best a film director of a film writer can do is to take up the spirit, the soul of the book and turn it into images. Only then, even if you haven’t seen the part that you had pictured in your head while you were reading, you can end up saying: “Yes, that’s how I felt when I read the book”.

“Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone”