BOOKS ARE BOOKS, MOVIES ARE MOVIES
At the end of my second year in the movie business I was finishing my first year in my first fancy job. I was mostly reading manuscripts and generally making up things up as I went along (zhiving), and I had a smart and beautiful assistant that I had recruited from the NY book world, who would soon be doing a whole lot of my work. At the Christmas party, when she had only been hired for a couple of weeks, it was suggested that I might help my new assistant get acquainted with a filmmaker not known as the smoothest ladies man in Hollywood, an original nerd-makes-good of superhero proportions, George Lucas. I didn’t know Lucas myself but we were introduced and the three of us tried to make small talk. He asked us what we did and we said that we were covering New York publishing and reading manuscripts, looking for film properties. “I don’t believe in that,” Lucas immediately told us. “Books are books, and movies are movies. I don’t think that making films from books ever really works.”
Call it more of a guideline than a rule. I was reminded of this encounter after watching Revolutionary Road, I don’t know why. As you might guess, I have a lot of thoughts on this movie, after being astonished and so deeply impressed by reading the novel and spending a good part of the year reading and writing about Richard Yates, much of it leading up to the release of this film and its potential impact. So here goes.
First off, when you work with writers and filmmakers as a producer, editor, publisher, or on any constuctive, rather than purely critical level, it’s standard practice to get started with a healthy dose of good news and support. It’s both complete bullshit and something of a learned behavior, because the natural tendency seems to be to go straight to criticism and parsing and analysis. Maybe the phenomenon is akin to saying grace before carving up a roast or a turkey, or just breaking bread. So let me begin by giving thanks for this film and gratitude to all of the hard-working, talented people who made it. All of them, starting with the screenwriter and filmmaker and principal actors, were deeply respectful of both Yates and his masterwork, as well as their own creative lights. The film has an ego-free air about it, which is rare and almost unnatural in filmmaking, and instead it seems like an honest attempt at soul-scorching, all of which is quite appropriate to the work and life of Yates. So, bottom line, everybody did a good job, and they did their best, and deserve to be commended; it was not an easy or comforting task. The film is good, it works, the performances are strong and honest. Of course it’s no fun, but we knew that. I believe that a number of reviews–and I read all of the early ones, but stopped a few weeks ago and want to catch up now–say that there’s an unfortunate earnestness in the spirit of the film, as if everyone is trying a bit too hard, is perhaps too respectful, and that might be true and seems fair enough. But everyone still deserves credit for the honest effort and attempt. And within this context, I’ll say that I liked and admired the movie. It’s a bit of work to get to this statement, which is too bad, but I still make it. By contrast, however, saying that Slumdog Millionaire (adapted from a book, btw) is a fantastic, wonderful film comes easily and immediately, and there was the same lack of hesitation in my praise and wonder in my initial response to Yates’s novel. The RevRoad film may just be a secondary, complicated experience for any reader of Yates. And Slumdog provides a good example of the complexity of the books-to-movies equation: I haven’t read the book on which it is based and have no desire to do so, and it is generally much easier to make a film out of a lesser-known, undistinguished book rather than a great work of literature. More on that below perhaps. In the case of the RevRoad film I can’t speak, continuing, for the reaction of an ordinary moviegoer who knows nothing of the novel or Yates. It’s probably a matter of taste and mood, and I would think there would be much to move them and to appreciate and admire, and I would hope they like it. If one is prepared for the downbeat ending and any Leo and Kate romantic expectations are set aside, it seems that it should be an impactful and effective moviegoing experience.
And I’ll add another note of potential strength. This film isn’t going anywhere and it will sink in and settle with time and should age quite well. It’s filled with nuance and as I was watching it with my own critical faculties in the background humming along in overdrive, there were many things I wanted to note and go back to and see again. The film is not attractive or compelling in a way that would make one naturally want to watch it again anytime soon; it’s hard work with a fun factor of absolute zero. Slumdog, by contrast, with all of its social documentary sadness and pain, is irrepressible, uplifting, and romantic, and we’re dancing and smiling at the finish. It’s a tough start in a hard world but it has a real movie finish. There’s a good test for the drinkability of films these days, when they first appear on cable and go into heavy rotation. This window is an opportunity not just for heavy first viewings, which RevRoad will need to gain, but for multiple repeat viewings. While people will watch scenes from Slumdog and want to repeat the feeling provided by its progress and ending, no one is going to want to watch RevRoad over and over, except perhaps for special analytical purposes like my own, and over and over would still be a real stretch–three or four or five would be a whole lot, and I’m in no hurry to get to the second. But in time, in five or ten years or even more, it will be a very interesting film. It seems like it will deepen and age quite well, and that’s significant, especially when one considers what the present notoriety and viewing of the film will do to Yates and his reputation, which starts with its appearance on the bestseller list, a first for Yates.
WHAT TO LEAVE IN, WHAT TO LEAVE OUT
My Part One critique, for readers of the book and Yates fans, will consist of going through some of the elements of the novel that were missing from the film, ones that seem to be significant in their absence. The first is kind of massive (tho perhaps they all are, at least to me): the staging of the play. In my original post on the novel I made a note on the presence of Chekhov’s influence, my personal Yates expert KCJ has pursued this connection, and I’ve obviously been thinking about Chekhov quite recently, in my last post in fact. So maybe it’s just me. In the novel we get the strongest of impressions from Yates’s deft handling of the performance of the play, most acutely Frank’s reaction to April’s struggle. If I recall correctly, we don’t get inside April in this sequence, as we’re seeing her onstage–and we never really do get inside her until the end, in another of the missing pieces I’ll consider in a moment. Perhaps the focus on Frank’s reaction is what was driving the choice not to show the play. In the opening of the novel Frank watches April’s dream die, and his own delusions are punctured. The film does a good job of showing the reaction and getting right into the conflict caused by the truth of the failed performance. It falls back on an in medias res argument I suppose, and it bears the stamp of a crucial predecessor cited by Mendes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (aka How to Make a Depressing Marriage Movie 101). We go straight to the relationship and the conflict and a couple that turns on each other in a moment of crisis. Something is lost, however, or the novel has something important that the film doesn’t have. We know that April had an idea of being an actress, but it is diminished because we never see her belief in it and the cruel process of disillusionment that Yates describes.
Also lost in this is something that is very clear in Yates and closely tracked by KCJ, the theatricality of April and Frank and other Yates characters. Readers of the novel will clearly remember Frank trying out different responses and roles in his head, hesitant as he figures out how to play a “scene” in his own real life, sometimes going over the top simply for dramatic purposes. This was a type of self-consciousness of which Yates himself was quite capable, and it is absent from the movie. Intense and even morbid self-consciousness is hard to capture and project in a film, of course, but Yates shows a way to do it and convey theatricality, through the failed play. April’s failure, the bad play and her own bad acting, force the end of self-deception and generate a conflicted, extreme self-consciousness in both her and Frank. It makes everything clear and painful and starts the journey of the story. The film does a wonderful job of working up the scene where they pull off the “road” (stop the journey, a freezeframe on the RevRoad), but we don’t sense the theatricality of Frank’s effort to work himself up and play a scene, because we never saw April play her scenes. Instead we’re in Albee/Nichols and Who’s Afraid, seeing a couple battling it out in the close quarters of marriage. To finish the thought and glance back at Chekhov, I don’t think you would make a film out of The Seagull and leave out the failed play. I’m just saying.
The second thing that’s not in the film is the backstory of Shep Campbell and his war experience. The background of the war is mentioned in passing in the film, but it doesn’t loom over the story the way that it did in the novel, in Yates’s life, and the American experience of the 1950’s. In the film Frank says that he felt alive going to the front lines in the war, and April counters by saying that’s how she felt the first time he made love to her, followed by kitchen counter sex and the best this story can do for “Titanic” and romantic Kate and Leo. And that’s it for the war, and the set up of Shep Campbell is reduced to a standard moment of suburban longing for the hot next door neighbor wife. Shep’s obsession with April is greatly reduced. What’s missing and lost and more important, however, is the way the light reflects off Shep onto Frank in the novel. Readers of the book know that Shep has a real war record and he’s even a hero. But Shep’s backstory and his path to war heroism is fascinating and a brilliant, crucial projection by Yates. Shep was born into a Fitzgeraldean world of affluence and privilege and elite private education, and he rejected all of it to go to war as a later-1930s meathead and tough guy, playing a role out of Warner Bros. movies of the era (another nod at the theatrical). When he got back from the war and by the time he met Frank he had decided that he had made a terrible mistake in rejecting education and culture, and Frank is his hero, to a certain degree, with some question of whether Frank is enough of a man to deserve the flawless, idealized April. Frank’s real, undergraduate, dilettantish intellectual accomplishments are left out of the film, and none of us would say that he seems to be a graduate of Columbia, paid for by the GI Bill. It occurs to me that what Yates gives Frank, who is well-known as Yates without talent, is actually something like Fitzgerald’s Ivy League education, making Frank also a 1950’s Fitzgerald without talent. More importantly, Shep goes down something akin to Yates’s own path, although Shep has a much firmer financial foundation, and Shep’s rejection of privilege and later regret makes him extremely interesting. Yates gives Shep his own longing for a college degree, his insecurity about literary and cultural sophistication, and makes him something of an autodidact. It’s a device that heightens our disdain for Frank and the sense that he’s full of shit, with Yates’s anger towards faux-intellectuals bleeding not-so-subtly into his depiction of Frank. But Yates is careful to make it clear that Shep doesn’t know any of this while he is looking up at Frank on the pedestal beside April, and Shep is jealous and envious, feeling stuck while Frank is going to get out of the rat race and make it to Europe, where he will enjoy the fruits of Shep’s heroism. All of this informs and greatly strengthens Shep’s infatuation with April and Frank’s insecurity. Frank is a faux-intellectual and a faux-warrior, but we don’t know that in the film; we’re just supposed to think that he’s a 50’s working stiff who hates both his job and living in the suburbs. We don’t get the sense that he has read books or gone to college. His poignant, half-baked Psych 101 Freudian analysis of April is reduced to a line about her seeing a shrink, and we don’t get the sense that he’s the member of the Wheeler-Campbell foursome who has read Camus and Kafka and Sartre, and that Frank knows that Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Europe and wrote stories and novels. The dream of Europe in the film is thus unnecessarily thin and non-specific, losing the crucial tiny cues that make it make sense.
The simplification causes the film to go down a different, somewhat troubling path. In the film Frank’s successful little pamphlet and possible promotion are given an emphasis that turns it into a story of corporate seduction. We get the sense that Frank could be a winner, that he can fit comfortably into the rising tide, that his new dream is perhaps diminished but it’s practical Despite all of the disdain and grey-flannel anonymity in the first part of the story, it makes sense that Frank is buying in, it’s real and not shown to be just bigger and better bullshit and conformity. This actually works well enough as a streamlined story for the film, but it’s rather different from the story and attitude of the novel.
And just to finish on the repercussions of the absence of Shep’s war record and the war in general, what’s missing is the sense of those grey-flannel suits as a lost legion. There are some great images of the teeming mass of numb conformity riding in from the suburbs and going through Grand Central Station, but we don’t have a sense that these same enervated, angst-ridden anonymous faces were lined and set on landing craft and trudging through France, that the same extras in this film worked on Saving Private Ryan. This is Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” and they are Steven Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers” in the aftermath of war, with PTSDs raging everywhere you look. We know that very clearly now, and Yates was trying to figure it out in his own way. Shep Campbell badly needed something beautiful to believe in, and the drunken sex in the car in the Log Cabin parking lot is as sad as it gets. Wouldn’t it be even more poignant if we knew him a bit better, through just a couple of lines of exposition, and if those grey-flannel warriors somehow reminded us of how they had earlier steeled themselves to hit Omaha Beach?
The third missing item is relatively minor, and it’s a sub-heading of the discussion of Frank’s job and corporate seduction. If Shep and the war mark the past, the world of computers stands as the future. The prescience of Yates’s view of computers and marketing is truly extraordinary and completely astonishing, and I pointed to it in my original post along with a general comment about the dialogue in the novel, how it was amazing that the people in the book talk exactly the same way that we do today. The vision of the future of “business machines,” and especially the way that a pamphleteer like Frank might play a role in their marketing, is so keen that rendering it whole might well have been jarring and messed up the film and its authenticity. Thus it was probably a necessary absence, but it should be acknowledged somewhere (here again, I guess) and Yates deserves a stronger nod from the film. The scene is played as corporate seduction as I mentioned, and there is much to do, as it also covers Frank’s relationship with his father. The combination of issues here shows the difficult task of the screenwriter and filmmakers, trying to create above all a convincing scene; they can only accomplish so much. The irony of Frank working for the same company where his father spent years as an undistinguished salesman comes across well enough, and it’s put to good service alongside a truncated run at the future of computers, in promoting the corporate seduction storyline. I suppose that this is just a case, perhaps rare or perhaps not, where we would have liked to see the mid-60’s film version of the novel, which could have done the computer marketing spiel as a time capsule set piece that would be amazing today. Yates understood computers, where they were going and how they were going to get there. It was his job, he made it Frank’s job, and there might be some clearer mention of the fact that he thought it was all bullshit. The engineering side was fine, an extension of the war effort, but marketing, and specifically the marketing of computers as a critical element of the American dream and way of life, is deeply problematic and prescient in Yates and the novel.
Finally, the fourth major missing piece for me, also presumably disruptive of the tight, driving storytelling that we see in the film, is April’s memory at the end of the novel of her father’s visit. At that point in the book we’ve hear Frank’s amateur Freudian analysis, and we know that April is empty and doesn’t feel anything, that she believes she doesn’t even exist, but at the moment of truth in the novel Yates uses flawless fictional technique to take us into April’s consciousness and show us who she is and why. Along with a number of other technical effects, including all of the other missing elements I’ve just discussed, and the general way in which the novel has the sheen of painstaking, perfect design and engineering, fitted, buffed and polished like a 1960 Porsche or Ferrari or an Eames-chair, this short bit of consciousness, not even a memory, shows the makings of a masterwork of fiction. It’s the culmination of everything Yates learned from Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Chekhov and Tolstoy and others. If I’m going to pump it up like this I should probably read it again–it has been 10 months now–, but the little horse from the scotch bottle carries the complete weight of April’s existence and an entire generation of American women in one tiny example of Yates’s beloved objective correlative. And it’s not in the film.
When I get this far and think about April’s pain and her “self-abortion” and ambivalent semi-suicide, and Yates’s statements that the novel was born from the idea of the abortion and worked backwards, and the entire 50’s American experience was an abortion of life somehow, I take it personally. I was there, I was that fetus, and now my mother is old and drunk and alone and twisted up and lost in the gathering mists of the last 50 years. Yates saw this life, the one that he wrote out in The Easter Parade, the one he lived himself, and he had more than a hunch that we would both be better off dead, my mother and me.