E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Wakefield’ should have stayed on the page

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Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston in Wakefield
  • Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston in Wakefield
Wakefield, a Bryan Cranston-starring indie feature currently playing at the Landmark Century Centre, is a real dud. Uneventful and dull to look at, the film adapts a short story by E.L. Doctorow that probably should have stayed on the page. It's one of those movies where the problems seem rooted in its conception—the narrative is bound to one man's interior life, something that's difficult to realize in images. Writer-director Robin Swicord falls back on Doctorow's words to explicate the content, providing few inventive visual ideas, which wouldn't be a problem if the language Swicord was working with were musical or otherwise pleasurable to hear. (Denzel Washington's Fences and James Schamus's Indignation—two adaptations that came out last year—are stellar examples of films that put language front and center and create auditory environments as rich as any visual one.) Unfortunately it comes out as clunky, even when recited by a fine actor like Cranston, suggesting that Doctorow's prose just wasn't meant to be read aloud. Moreover, Swicord fails to generate any sort of atmosphere that builds on the story's provocative themes, leaving the film to survive on its language alone.

Cranston plays the title character, a New York lawyer who lives with his wife and twin daughters in the suburbs. On his way home from work one night, his train breaks down, causing him to get home late. Rather than go into his home, he decides to stop in the storage room above his garage instead. He watches his family eat dinner without him, finds that he likes playing the voyeur, and decides to keep the game going. He sleeps in the storage room overnight, then resumes spying on his wife and daughters in the morning. His wife, worried about Wakefield not coming home, calls the police to investigate his disappearance. The husband watches this unfold with growing bemusement; the pleasure he derives from the game inspires him to stay "missing" indefinitely. Time goes by, and the family learns to live without Wakefield. Meanwhile he continues spying on them from the storage room, eating food he finds in dumpsters at night, and generally enjoying the life of a ghost.

Doctorow's story is an update on a tale written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835. The original also follows a married man named Wakefield who pretends to disappear for a long period, except in Hawthorne's version Wakefield moves into an apartment across town rather than haunt his own home. Hawthorne's story transpires from the point of view of an outsider who learns about Wakefield from reading his obituary. At the beginning of the tale, the narrator reveals that Wakefield left his home for decades, then returned without a fuss, and lived out the rest of his life as if he'd never left. The subsequent pages find the narrator imagining how this stranger carried out his scheme and trying to understand why he did it. The narrator ends up unable to provide an explanation, filing the story away as one of the unexplained mysteries of human behavior.

This theme of human experience being ultimately unknowable recurs throughout Hawthorne's short fiction, and it contributes to what makes his work so haunting. Doctorow's update, on the other hand, makes Wakefield all too knowable. The story transpires from the character's point of view, and he explains precisely why he was unhappy enough with his life to want to disappear from it. Doctorow's Wakefield talks about his unsatisfying marriage and his frustration with daily drudgery, usually in whiny terms. In brief, he's motivated by the sort of middle-aged, suburban malaise that many other movies and novels have explored. I don't find this subject particularly interesting, especially when compared with the eerie metaphysical inquiry that Hawthorne created. I will acknowledge that some fiction and films manage to explore that subject and evoke a Hawthorne sense of mystery at the same time. (A pair of examples that come to mind are John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" and Frank and Eleanor Perry's film adaptation of it.) Doctorow's story and Swicord's film just don’t belong in that category.

In explaining the character's unhappiness from the start, Doctorow and Swicord make Wakefield's disappearance seem less like a mystery and more like an extended prank. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if Wakefield were funny, but none of the humor (at least in the film version) merits anything more than a chuckle. Cranston tries to get some comic mileage out of the material when he looks in on his wife and her friends and makes wisecracks about what they're doing. Yet his line readings come off as overplayed, clashing with the film's interior portrait. The rest of the cast, which includes Jennifer Garner as the wife and Beverly D'Angelo as one of her friends, has little of interest to do. I might recommend Wakefield to film students as a model of how not to make a literary adaptation—everyone else can skip it.


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