November Highlights on TCM
GREAT ADAPTATIONS (Mondays and Wednesdays)-- This month, TCM is running a series of programs devoted to literary adaptations, over 90 of them by my count, in categories that include American, British, Russian and French literature, adventure novels, mysteries, westerns and science fiction. The history of adapting novels for the cinema is interesting. In the '60s, as American film culture was developing, there was a truism that great novels made for bad movies and vice versa. I suppose that this was true to the extent that the style of storytelling and filmmaking prevalent in Hollywood during what we now think of as its Golden Age didn't really lend itself to the kind of complexity you found in Dostoyevsky or Faulkner. I'm extremely fond of John Huston's version of Moby Dick, for example (not showing in the series), but it can't even come close to the immensity of the novel--though to Huston's and Ray Bradbury's credit, they don't even try.
On the other hand, some genuinely great pictures have been made out of great novels, all of which work from the original to find a cinematic life of their own. For instance, David Lean's marvelous adaptation of Great Expectations, adapted by Lean and a team of writers which includes Ronald Neame, is a stunning film, and its visual beauty and vigor (like woodcuts or charcoal drawings come to life) seems absolutely Dickensian. Pride and Prejudice, made at MGM in the '40s and adapted by Aldous Huxley, is a glorious piece of work, as fresh today as it must have seemed in 1940. Huston's adaptation of B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre became a Hollywood classic almost instantly, and it is a harrowing picture and an unusual one as well--the visual flavor of the settings and the people is unlike anything else coming out of the studio system at the time (Huston shot a lot in Tampico, Durango and other locations in Mexico, and in the Mojave desert).
François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, a picture I've always loved, is also a wonderful adaptation of a great novel, one of two written by Henri-Pierre Roché (Truffaut also adapted his other novel, Two English Girls--less known, also great). The speed of the storytelling in the opening minutes of the picture had a lasting effect on my ideas about how to tell a story on film. There are other cases, like Strangers on a Train. Patricia Highsmith didn't care for the film, which Raymond Chandler was hired to adapt for Alfred Hitchcock (who used very little of what he wrote; the script was re-written by Czenzi Ormonde)--in this case, a great film was built from, but not true to, the original. King Vidor's The Fountainhead, on the other hand, is extremely true to the crazy spirit of Ayn Rand's original, which is not so great. Rand also wrote the screenplay, and Vidor films her dialogue as if it were the libretto of a grand opera (the monumental, modernist visual design is unlike that of any other film before or since). It's an absolutely insane film, and a mesmerizing one as well. Moonfleet, on the other hand, brings us around to the truism I mentioned above: Fritz Lang takes a late 19th century adventure story and turns it into a work of extraordinary poetry.
Finally, I want to mention another picture that is not part of the series, Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (November 11, 2:30am). It's related, because a certain aspect of the story is inspired by Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. There is so much to say about this picture, about Bresson, about how deeply it has inspired so many people, from Jean-Luc Godard to Paul Schrader, for whom it was a model when he wrote the script for Taxi Driver. I urge you to discover this film for yourself--one of the greatest ever made.
by Martin Scorsese