Friday, 10 March 2006

Pretty Girls in Killer Shoes

To plagiarise Lawrence: Do you read novelisations? If not why not, if you read other kinds of novel and other kinds of film paratext, e.g. screenplays? If you do read them, why? What does a novelisation supply that a movie lacks?

Are novelisations even readable?

Some time back I had a novelisation-fuelled lost weekend. I was trying to find out whether there might be some useful generic lesson therein about how writers deal, in practice, with translating a largely presentational narrative mode (showing) to a largely assertive narrative mode (telling). Reversing the standard novel-to-film flow of material might throw some light on the boring theoretical chestnut about plastic mental imagery versus rigid poured-concrete imagery, I hoped.

What I actually discovered was this: most novelisations really, really suck. More about that anon. First, here is a scene-setting slab of Seymour Chatman's classic law-laying-down statement on cross media compatibilities. Chatman is discussing a segment of Maupassant's "Une Partie de campagne" and its adaptation by Jean Renoir (the bit in question is about a teenager on a swing.)
The first narrative unit, "Mademoiselle Dufour was trying to swing herself" and so on, refers to an event. The second, "She was a pretty girl of about eighteen," seems on the face of it a straightforward description; but look at it from the point of view of a filmmaker. For one thing, "pretty" is not only descriptive but evaluative: one person's "pretty" may be another person's "beautiful" and still a third person's "plain." There will be interesting variations in the faces selected by directors across cultures and even across time periods: Mary Pickford might be just the face for the teens and twenties, while Tuesday Weld may best represent the sixties. Renoir chose the face of Sylvie Bataille. The interesting theoretical point to be made about evaluative descriptions in verbal narrative is that they can invoke visual elaboration in the reader's mind. If he or she requires one, each reader will provide just the mental image to suit his or her own notions of prettiness. But the best a film (or theater) director can hope for is some degree of consensus with the spectator's ideal of prettiness. Even with the luckiest choice, some patrons will mutter, "I didn't think she was pretty at all." A similar point could be made about age; Sylvie Bataille's Henriette seems closer to thirty than eighteen, but that may be because of the costume she's wearing. The more serious point is that visual appearance is only a rough sign of age. Again the author's task is easier: correct attribution can be insured simply by naming the attribute. The filmmaker, on the other hand, has to depend on the audience's agreement to the justice of the visual clues. (ftn1)

So when novelisers extrapolate prose narratives from film and tv texts, how do they insure the attributes they name are the "correct" ones - or at least the ones that the movie's audience might be expected to agree about?

In most of the examples I read, the short answer is that they don't. I looked at fourteen production line tie-ins, mainly attached to SF movies, action movies, and thrillers, and at seven other oddities, many written by a key creator of the relevant film (e.g., Jane Campion's own clunky novelisation of The Piano.) The overwhelming majority of writers seemed to have enough difficulty comprehending basic storylines without attending to those degrees of finessery. The novelisers had two aggravating habits: they filled in narrative blanks that worked better left blank, and the filler they used was inconsistent with the tone and texture of surrounding material. At least one contained interpolations that were obviously logically incompatible with plot material inherited from the movie. Not a good look for a thriller.

It is possible to novelise well, however. Arthur C. Clarke's postnatal expansion of 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to me to fit the bill - not overly explanatory, but not slavish or parasitic either. I expect many of you know this book and I'd like to have your opinions about it - along with your views on any other subject you care to expand upon. Besides the Clarke, though, there's one other novelisation I'm kind of besotted with.

The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is Whit Stillman's own novelisation of the movie he wrote and directed. The conceit of the book is excellently complicated. It's supposed to be written by the "real" Jimmy Steinway, the original of the dimwitted, lecherous, cowardly Dancing Adman depicted in the film; Jimmy is working from the finished movie but filling in the "gaps" - characters' private thoughts, mostly - from his own patchy & prejudiced memory of events, twenty years previous, which the movie is supposed to be based upon. Castle Rock Entertainment hired Jimmy to write the tie-in when they couldn't get anyone else, we gather.

So, inasmuch as it's "written" by a dope who has a poor grasp of (a) what's really going on with the finer implications of the plot and (b) the concept of artistic economy, Stillman's book reproduces the key markers of the novelisation genre. Conclusion: rubbish novelisations exist to give form and meaning to parodies?? That and wedging the bottom of the bookcase. Anyhow, Stillman's book also contains the funniest smackdown of Chatman-style theorising I've ever come across.

Once, at a dinner during a return trip to New York I heard the novelist Tom Wolfe talk fascinatingly about what film could and could not do well in terms of narrative storytelling. I forget what he said film could do well, but as to what it could not do well, he cited as an example "shoes." In a novel, he said, if you wanted to discuss a character's shoes, you could describe not just the shoes' external appearance -- the film or TV ad spot equivalent might be a tight close-up -- but everything about them. Perhaps the shoes had been handmade at enormous expense at Lobb in London; maybe the character under study would not have known (or cared) about Lobb when he first came to New York from the South in the late 1950s, but over time and with increasing prosperity in a certain social milieu, perhaps he'd come to care about just that kind of thing. Was it to show off and keep up with his peers, or simply an enthusiasm for beautiful objects of craftsmanship, along with the resources to buy them?
I remembered this "shoes" story at the screening of the first rough cut of The Last Days of Disco when, after the opening title cards set the scene as "Manhattan -- The very early 1980s," the first striking pictorial image flashed onto the screen and was, again footwear: in this case, a tight shot of a woman's shoe-clad feet (Alice's) striding along the sidewalk, keeping pace with another woman wearing a pair of modish low black boots (of course, Charlotte's). Then the camera tilts up and we see the cool actresses attached to these shoes and boots. In the movie it's the music (Carol Douglas's early disco hit "Doctor's Orders"), the sound of the actresses' voices, and their stylish body language that strike one so strongly -- the shoes hardly register at all. It was another example of the enormous difference between a story told on film and one told in writing. (ftn2)

(ftn1): "What Novels Can Do That Films Can't (and Vice Versa.)" On Narrative ed. WJT Mitchell, Chicago 1981, p.127. Chatman was immediately (as in, before publication) challenged on the failure of his critique to engage with the passage's thorough-going scopophilia, as he acknowledges in a footnote to the essay. He seems not to have reconsidered his argument any further than to say we can't have these types of discussions unless we're capable of considering "pure aesthetics" separately from "ethics." I leave it to you to determine which he is considering here.

(ftn2): The Last Days of Disco (With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards) Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000, p.7-8.

x-posted to The Valve - comments are open there.

go to main page