In the current "Fiction Into Film" issue at Bookforum.com (as linked through GreenCine Daily), writer-director Alexander Payne makes this startling admission: "My screenwriting professor at UCLA used to ask us, 'When adapting a piece of literature, what do you owe the original writer?' We were trained to call out in unison, 'Nothing!'"
Except maybe it's not so startling, since it pretty well describes my attitude too. Why worry about literal replication when you can get that by rereading the original material? And why make a movie at all if you're not giving back more than you already have? What you want is something the book doesn't provide . . . since, more than likely, it can't.
Though I guess it all depends on whose ox is gored. My own candidate for worst adaptation ever, in terms of not living up to whatever gave the original its narrative rationale, is Robert Altman's The Player, from Michael Tolkin's meticulously analytical 1988 novel. (Second worst: John Korty's mush-minded "romantic" comedy Alex & the Gypsy, whose source, Stanley Elkin's raucous novella "The Bailbondsman," has neither romance nor Gypsy!)
What you wonder about The Player, crass commercialism aside, is why anyone would want to film it—I mean this novel specifically, and not as just another specimen study in movie-industry corruption (for which you could use—well, almost anything, I guess). Since it's all interiority, about one character's transforming the "subconscious" (which Tolkin evidently considers a kind of existential bad faith: here's what you'd see if you didn't avert your inner eye) into pure intentionality. It's "Where id is, there shall ego be" with a vengeance—or maybe a fictionalization of Erving Goffman's sociological classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where every aspect of human personality becomes a deliberate "peformative" act. None of which has any relevance to what Altman came up with—or, for that matter, Tolkin himself, who wrote the screenplay and even got an Oscar nomination for it. An act of self-evisceration, like creative hara-kiri. Why would anyone gut his own best work this way?
Which seems to be Tolkin's attitude now as well. In the "Reflections" link at Bookforum, he confesses that "what had given me maniacal pleasure while writing [The Player] was lost in the movie. That pleasure is still the reason I write novels—to stay inside the mind of someone living through the catastrophe of his life."
So what's to be done? In his own paradoxical "Reflection" at Bookforum, Tim Krabbé offers this tongue-in-cheek solution:
"If you liked the book, don't see the film. Why let the images that the words stirred up be overruled by some director? No matter how painstakingly a writer describes his heroine, each reader sees her differently. But on the screen, everybody sees Sandra Bullock. As the goat said after it had eaten a few reels of film, 'I like the book better' . . .
"But I must admit: I like some films better than the books. It was a long time before it finally occurred to me why: I had seen those films before I read the books. The order is all that matters—when you hear people tell a story that you already know, they will always tell wrong. But why read the book at all? Why let the fantasies the images stirred up be overruled by some writer?
"If you liked the film, don't read the book."