Arts Review

Adapting the Classic

It’s been said, with much truth, that good books make bad movies and vice versa. How many really good books have been made into films that stand as excellent pieces of work in their own right? Examples are extremely rare and usually occur when the filmmaker takes major liberties with the source material. Adaptations that involve modernization of the material can be particularly tricky, as over time moral standards can shift as markedly as sartorial ones. The fine moral conundrums that lie at the heart of, say, a Henry James novel would seem unfitted to our looser and more relativistic modern manners.

And yet . . . Twenty-five years ago I spent two surreal seasons writing scripts for the cheesy television drama Divorce Court. Of my four fellow writers, two were PhDs in English literature, and we based many of our silly twenty-two-minute scripts on literary classics: Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence were favorite models. But the best model, we found, was the very Henry James whose moral universe appeared to be so remote from ours. The perfection of his plotting was part of the attraction: elegant, symmetrical constructions like The Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl translated perfectly into short teleplays containing no more than six characters. Even the moral problems, it turned out, still applied to married life.

So I found myself fascinated with the recent modernization of James’s What Maisie Knew, scripted by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The filmmakers have approached the material intelligently, streamlining James’s complicated plot the better to reveal its elegant bones and the brilliant central conceit, as sketched out here by James himself in The Art of the Novel:

The accidental mention had been made to me of the manner in which the situation of some luckless child of a divorced couple was affected, under my informant’s eyes, by the re-marriage of one of its parents—I forget which; so that, thanks to the limited desire for its company expressed by the step-parent, the law of its little life, its being entertained in rotation by its father and its mother, wouldn’t easily prevail. Whereas each of these persons had at first vindictively desired to keep it from the other, so at present the re-married relative sought now rather to be rid of it—that is to leave it as much as possible, and beyond the appointed times and seasons, on the hands of the adversary; which malpractice, resented by the latter as bad faith, would of course be repaid and avenged by an equal treachery. The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis-ball or shuttlecock. This figure could but touch the fancy to the quick and strike one as the beginning of a story—a story commanding a great choice of developments. I recollect, however, promptly thinking that for a proper symmetry the second parent should marry too. . . . The second step-parent would have to be correspondingly incommoded by obligations to the offspring of a hated predecessor for the misfortune of the little victim to become altogether exemplary.

The technical challenge James set himself was to restrict our view of the rather complicated plot machinations to the perceptions of the child herself. This task had necessarily to be approached in a different way by the film’s adapters, since the medium does not allow us inside the child’s head as James’s nuanced prose does. How much does seven-year-old Maisie understand of what is going on around her? How does she interpret her feckless parents’ behavior? These filmmakers don’t make it obvious; their Maisie, unlike James’s, is neither precocious nor particularly articulate. In a remarkable performance from the tiny, monkey-faced Onata Aprile, the movie-Maisie is a quiet, watchful child, gamely attempting to interpret the erratic behavior of the adults in her life, to placate them, to elicit a modicum of affection and reassurance.

As Maisie’s mother, Susanna, Julianne Moore also delivers a remarkable performance. Moore has long been creative, even brave in her choice of roles, and her willingness, at fifty-three, to let herself age relatively naturally is in itself a mark of courage in Hollywood. Here, with considerable gusto, she portrays an aging, narcissistic rock star. Embellished with tattoos, the volatile Susanna teeters around on spike heels, yells at her husband Beale, an art dealer (Steve Coogan), and curses into her ever-present cell phone. One day she forgets to pick up Maisie at school; the next she smothers the child in unexpected affection. Beale, whom Coogan portrays with reptilian smarm, has more self-control but even less heart; indeed, that organ appears in his case to be all but vestigial, scarcely capable of being touched.

Maisie is spared no detail of the ugly divorce. The only stable adult in her life is her pretty Scottish nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who soon, predictably enough, is bedded and wedded by the newly single Beale. Susanna in retaliation acquires a trophy spouse of her own, a big, splendidly handsome bartender named Lincoln, many years her junior (Alexander Skarsgård)—not even bothering to inform Maisie of her new husband’s existence; the first Maisie hears of it is when the unknown man arrives to pick her up at school, bluntly informing the child that he is her stepfather.

This boy toy turns out to be a gentle soul who forms a strong bond with the child. This outrages Susanna rather than gratifying her: as with her Jamesian prototype, Ida, she stuns her daughter with “fierce and demonstrative reveries of possession” and resents her new husband for “taking Maisie away from her.” Nevertheless, Susanna has not got it in her to care for Maisie more than sporadically, so Lincoln, like Margo, becomes more of a parent than the actual ones. Like their Jamesian originals, but without the subsequent complications, Lincoln and Margo begin a romance of their own, and the movie (unlike the book) ends on a mutedly hopeful note as this new and stronger family unit—Margo, Lincoln, Maisie—emerges from the wreckage.

Doyne, Cartwright, McGehee and Siegel are far kinder to their characters than James was. James’s Ida and Beale Farange were outright villains, sinister and utterly selfish in the grand style of his Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. The film’s Susanna and Beale are not that, at least not quite, and by making them recognizably human, people we might very well know (or, horrifying thought, resemble!), the filmmakers have implicated us, the viewers, in their sins. Beale is clearly one of those men who is used to getting by on charm, but suddenly, in middle age and with business doing badly, the charm has become threadbare, no longer sufficient to cover up the crass egoism. Coogan plays the heel with zest, but his real star turn—the most devastating moment of the film—comes at the end of a quietly brutal scene in which he lets Maisie know he is moving permanently to England, suggests she come and live with him there, and then, in mid-conversation, changes his mind. He is in effect bidding her a final farewell, and when he deposits her in front of her mother’s building and drives away in his taxi, we see a look of horror and anguish cross his face, an acknowledgement of the enormity he has just committed.

Moore’s Susanna, too, is all too human. Even in her moments of tenderness and affection, there is desperation on her face: the pressure of reviving fading charms and a foundering career haunts her, and she is pathologically avid for reassurance. Her love for Maisie is real but fitful, swamped by ego and self-pity. At the end of the film, as she leaves the child with Margo and Lincoln and goes off to tour with her band, she plaintively seeks affirmation from the child she is abandoning. “A long time ago, I was just like you,” she tells her daughter—a statement one can easily believe, and that is horrifying in its implications for Maisie’s future.

In terms of making James’s social nuances meaningful in the context of twenty-first-century New York, the filmmakers have done a superb job, finding subtle and often perfect parallels to the novel’s situations. When treating the Faranges and their circle, James dwelled on their “vulgarity,” a concept that still exists, but not, perhaps, in precisely the manner it did then. The Faranges’ vulgarity was that of the rackety rather than of the nouveau riche, and for this purpose the placement of Susanna and Beale in Tribeca, the current epicenter of hip style and conspicuous consumption, is exactly right. (Special mention should be made of Kelly McGehee’s sets, imaginative yet utterly characteristic rich-hipster interiors; likewise of Stacey Battat’s costumes and in particular Maisie’s extravagant wardrobe, just the kind of stuff we can imagine image-conscious Susanna picking out and spending a bundle on.)

But real vulgarity is a matter of behavior, not aesthetics. It’s in the way Susanna talks in front of her child: “You’re dad’s an asshole,” or, in reference to Lincoln, “He’s pretty much just a bartender, but you know, whatever.” It’s in her clueless self-indulgence, as when she invites her rocker friends for an evening of drinking and doping on the very night Maisie has invited a friend for a sleepover. Those who have lived in this sort of world—and there will be quite a few of them among the film’s urban viewers—will recognize the truth in the picture, and the shallowness of the concept of “cool” around which Beale and Susanna have constructed their images and their lives. It’s a word that might have mystified Henry James, though no doubt he would have recognized the aspirations behind it.

The idea of “vulgarity” travels relatively easily between centuries. The same is not true of “virtue,” a word that can be interpreted many different ways according to the mores of one’s society. Its prominent role in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing has made parts of the play problematic for modern audiences and perhaps even did so for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, for its characters—Sicilians from the city of Messina—interpret “virtue” strictly in sexual terms, rather in the style of today’s Taliban. Claudio’s brutal rejection of his bride, Hero, during their wedding ceremony, when he is under the impression that she has betrayed him sexually, is as traumatic as any scene in Shakespeare’s darker plays. So is the genial Leonato’s swift transition from doting daddy to merciless judge over his innocent daughter, and the formerly lighthearted Beatrice’s decision that Claudio must die for having humiliated Hero—and that his executioner must be none other than his best friend (and her own beloved), Benedick. All this is perhaps natural enough in a vendetta culture like Sicily’s, but is unsettling, to say the least, for audiences from societies in which mercy trumps revenge and sexual transgression is no justification for murder. Much Ado about Nothing’s transition from lightweight comedy to apparent tragedy and back to comedy again is unnatural and supremely difficult to pull off; Shakespeare alone, perhaps, could have managed it, and the measure of his gifts becomes apparent in the play’s final act, when the various misunderstandings are resolved and we find ourselves delighted by the turn of events and ready to believe what is in reality implausible enough: that all will be forgotten and Claudio and Hero can look forward to a happy marriage. Shakespeare’s balance of farce and feeling is expertly calibrated, and his insertion of the buffoonish Dogberry into the action does much to release the tension that has built up between the major players. Nevertheless, for someone who seeks to set the play in the post-sexual-revolution era, in which the idea of “virtue” has to a large extent lost its sexual connotations, the problems Shakespeare faced are magnified. The internal tension is manifest in the most recent film version of Much Ado, Joss Whedon’s imaginative new adaptation.

Whedon’s concept is elegant in its simplicity. He shot the movie in black and white, over the course of twelve days at his own home in Santa Monica, not even bothering to clear the family clutter from the rooms: several scenes take place in what is very clearly a twenty-first-century children’s bedroom. The photography was done with multiple hand-held cameras that follow the actors down hallways, through doors, and up flights of stairs, creating a perfect setting for a play in which the characters are continually conspiring, whispering, telling secrets, maligning one another. The décor creates an ambience that is disarmingly American, an impression that is reinforced by having the actors speak in their own accents rather than (thank God!) assuming English ones. The result is—perhaps purposely—reminiscent, at least in the lighter scenes, of 1930s screwball comedy: the artful black-and-white photography, the undignified pratfalls, the good-looking, fast-talking leading couple. Amy Acker (Beatrice) is pretty and goofy in the style of Carole Lombard or Irene Dunne, while the charming Alexis Denisof (Benedick), with his mobile features and easy manner, recalls the Cary Grant of Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth. Here Whedon has cleverly brought the material full circle, for it seems clear that Shakespeare’s comedies were a major source of inspiration for the 1930s screwball classics—Much Ado, with its sparring central couple, more than any. The Beatrice-and-Benedick paradigm has been the model for countless film couples, not only in Hollywood’s golden age but also in the more recent rom-com formula exploited, above all, by Nora Ephron.

That the idea of “virtue” is less specific today than in Renaissance Messina is indicated by the very first (silent) scene, in which we see Beatrice recovering from an unfortunate one-night stand. Empty bottles, discarded clothes and shoes, rumpled, mismatched sheets: we can see how this coupling came about. The man dresses, leaves the room, heads out into the bright morning; Beatrice, back turned to him, is nevertheless awake. So—she may be virtuous, she may be good, but she is not chaste. One could surely say the same thing of Hero; how, then, can we give the central drama real meaning? The attitude of Claudio (Fran Kranz), the wounded lover, still makes a certain amount of sense, but any actor who takes on the role of Leonato will have a hard time making us empathize with his deadly rage against his daughter. The still fresh-faced Clark Gregg, who has specialized in playing open, decent guys since his appearance on Broadway in A Few Good Men back in the 1980s, is so likeable that he pulls it off with grace if not without difficulty.

Whedon, notable for having created the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, Marvel’s The Avengers, and other pop-culture phenoms, has put together a fine collection of actors; standouts here, aside from Acker, Denisof, Kranz, and Gregg, are Jillian Morgese as Hero, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, and the wonderful Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Dogberry here is head of Leonato’s security force, clad, as are his acolytes, in FBI-style suits and dark glasses. Fillion plays him as a gentle bumbler rather than an oafish clown, giving the character pathos as well as comedy. As with so many aspects of this film, the modernizing touches are charming and do not jar.

Adaptation in the true sense requires retaining the spirit of the original if not the exact plot. This is a feat the Walt Disney Studios has rarely managed or even attempted. To complain about its desecration of beloved children’s classics is almost too banal, but the fact still has to be pointed out. The worst offenders of recent years have been The Jungle Book, which contained absolutely nothing Kiplingesque and rendered the story a mere series of adventures dissociated from the books’ powerful underlying themes, and The Little Mermaid, which took Hans Christian Andersen’s devastating tale with its metaphors for sacrifice, unspoken love, and the urge for immortality and turned it into a trashy chick-flick for the under-twelves. Vulgar? Beyond. So I was horrified when I heard that Disney was doing its own version of Andersen’s classic story “The Snow Queen.”

Of all Andersen’s works, this was the one that had the greatest power over me when I was a child. The most evil troll in the world (the devil) has a magic mirror that makes everything good and beautiful reflected in it appear horrid, and all that is evil seem attractive. The mirror is broken into a thousand pieces. Whenever a sliver of the mirror enters someone’s eye, the person, forever after, will see the world in a distorted way, only perceiving nothing but its faults. If a sliver goes into someone’s heart, that heart will turn to ice. Enter happy little Kai and Gerda, who have grown up together and love each other; they have never exchanged an angry word. One day Kai sees the terrible and beautiful Snow Queen outside of his window, and she puts the slivers of glass into both his eyes and his heart. From this moment he is cruel and dismissive to Gerda, eventually going off to follow the Snow Queen on her magic sled and live with her in her palace. The good little Gerda’s quest to find him and cure him of the spell is ultimately successful, thanks to her steadfastness, kindness, and, not least, her Christian faith.

Again, the great symbolist Andersen has come up with the perfect metaphor, one instantly comprehensible to children. What child has not suffered when a dear playmate suddenly, inexplicably turns cold? A few years on, who has not felt pain when the object of one’s love is scornful? All the agony of these moments is inscribed in “The Snow Queen,” and its healing ending is one of the most peculiarly satisfying in children’s literature.

As long ago as 1943, Walt Disney decided to turn “The Snow Queen” into an animated film but was—unsurprisingly—not quite sure how to approach it. Cinematically, the possibilities were always obvious, and indeed the present animation team has done very well with them. But what about the story itself? Disney eventually gave up on the project. In the intervening decades the idea was broached several times again, but without success until 2012, when Disney announced that the film, now renamed Frozen, would be made as a computer animated feature in stereoscopic 3D, directed by Chris Buck and produced by John Lasseter and Peter Del Vecho. Production was scheduled, but the difficulties that had plagued Disney seventy years previously had not been ironed out to the studio’s satisfaction. To quote producer Del Vecho:

Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. For us the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen. When we decided to make The Snow Queen, Elsa and our protagonist Anna sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today’s audiences. This film has a lot of complicated characters and complicated relationships in it. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her. “Inspired by” means exactly that. There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit. We do try to bring scope and the scale that you would expect but do it in a way that we can understand the characters and relate to them.

The word “relate” appears four times in this relatively short passage, and that says it all. As a college professor, one of my pet peeves has been the students’ use of the word (or perhaps I should say non-word) “relatable” as a quality that is always to be desired in a piece of literature—to them, it’s the ultimate accolade for a book or a character. Though I often point out to them that Faulkner, for instance, or Rabelais, or Sterne, or indeed Andersen himself might not be seeking to make their characters relatable, it hardly makes a dent in their conviction that “relatability” is a necessary ingredient of every story. Could this be because this generation has been brought up on a heavy diet of Disney, in which every tale has some “relatable” (and usually banal) central character designed to fit the prototype of a middle-class, middle-American teenager? The whole point of fairy tales is their presentation of archetypes; in these films, instead of archetypes of love, of evil, of fear, we get archetypes of American adolescence.

But maybe this is the point of the exercise, for what is really important in these movies is the animation, not the stories or the characters. In this area Frozen does rather well; Walt Disney was correct to see the possibilities for special effects and magnificent snowscapes in “The Snow Queen,” as the terrifying title character is able to turn all she touches to ice, and the animators have done a fine job with the scenic possibilities. They have done less well with the human figures, especially the two sisters (Elsa, the troubled Snow Queen, and her perky, plucky little sister Anna), who look even more kewpie-like than most Disney females. In this way, as in so many others, Frozen conforms to the Disney standard. Perhaps the only way to fight against the waste Disney has laid to the literature of childhood is for someone to attempt real adaptations of the classics they have eviscerated. It can be done—and no doubt more cheaply than Disney does it. But it would require artists, not company men and technicians—and these are harder to come by.