Monday, November 18, 2019

Inconceivable

It isn't possible to turn a book into a film. At best, a film-maker is a translator reading a page of words and turning them into a few minutes of pictures as faithfully as possible. But there is more than one kind of translation: literal, idiomatic, word-for-word, thought-for-thought. I have been studying a single book of the Bible very closely for the last twelve months; and I have learned how many different ways there are of turning the same Greek paragraph into English. 

Most book-to-movie adaptations are not even trying to be translations. They are more like artistic copies. It sometimes happens that one artist makes a copy of another artist's painting. The new painting isn't a forgery. It may not even be a very good copy. But it is sometimes a very pretty picture in its own right. 

The same book can be adapted more than once; in the same way that the same text can be translated more than once and the same picture can be copied more than once. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein is a more literal adaptation of Mary Shelly than Boris Karloff's: it is not necessarily a better movie. 

If The Princess Bride were simply a thirty-year-old adaptation of a fifty-year-old novel, there would be nothing particularly silly about the idea of making the film all over again. You would simply end up with two different directors giving you two different ways of looking at William Goldman's original novel -- like two artists painting the same bowl of fruit in two different styles. Little Women is turned into a movie about once a decade. Les Miserables has been filmed at least seven times, sometimes with songs. No-one was especially shocked by the notion that someone might turn The Princess Bride into a musical: it might have been good; it might have been bad. In the end it never happened. 

If The Princess Bride were merely a very, very famous adaptation of a not-particularly well known novel, then there would be some justification in producing a new version. It might be very interesting to revisit Noel Coward's original stage version of Brief Encounter, a one-act two-hander set in a tea-room with an ambiguous ending. But Celia Johnson's vowels and Rachmaninov's incidental music would haunt any production. The BBC did a passably good Les Miserables last year: but when the students in the ABC cafe joined in Le Marseillaise everyone had "Do You Hear The People Sing?" playing in their head. The Importance of Being Ernest had been around for half a century before anyone thought to film it: but since 1935 every actress has had to work out a way of delivering two innocuous words about handbags without sounding like Dame Edith Evans. (Does history record how the line was uttered in Oscar's presence on the first night?) 

I am devoutly hoping that the BBC version of Pullman's Dark Material's is an abject failure: if it succeeds then a fifty six hour adaptation of Harry Potter is historically inevitable. It isn't clear whether Jaykay Rowling thinks that the movies are simply the Potterverse translated to the cinema; or whether she would allow a different director to visualize Hogwarts in a different way. Richard Harris said that his role as Dumbledore was completely unrelated to what he normally means by "acting". In an acting role you look at the words and use your skill and insight to build a character and work out how he would say them. In Harry Potter, you said the lines how Jaykay told you to. A new TV version could justify its existence by including all the scenes which the films had to omit.(Dark Materials justifies its existence by not being quite so dreadful as the movie.

The Princess Bride is not merely an adaptation, or a translation, or a very, very famous movie based on a very, very, very good book. The book and the film are irrevocably entwined. I can't think of another case where film and book are so clearly two aspects of a single work. Some of us regret the fact that our mental image of Tolkien's Gandalf has been over-written by our memories of Sir Ian's film version. If we ever re-read Frankenstein we would have to make a positive effort not to see the Hollywood version in our head. When we go back and read The Princess Bride, we see Cary Elwes and Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin in our heads. William Goldman tells us, in the text of the book, that this is the way he reads it. The movie characters embody the literary ones and can't ever be done better. And the making of the film is part of the text of the book: Goldman -- the fictionalized Goldman who narrates the story -- talks about visiting the real-life Cliffs of Destruction during the making of the movie, and claims that a "then little-known Austrian body-builder" was very nearly cast as Fezzik. 

But this is not to say that the film is simply a dry-run for the novel or that the novel is simply a plodding transcription of the film. It is sometimes said, a little cruelly, that Terrance Dicks' created Doctor Who novels by going through BBC screenplays and adding the words "said the Doctor" and "said Leela" in blue pencil. It is sometimes said that John Grisham's courtroom dramas are only ever movie-pitches. The Princess Bride is full of bookish detail which doesn't show up in the movie. Cinema audiences observe the clifftop duel from the outside: the book places the reader firmly inside Inigo's head. The film assumes that the audience will notice that the Man in Black is left handed; in the book, we notice when Inigo notices; and follow Inigo's thoughts as he realizes he will have to switch hands. But the book can't show us the cut and thrust of the fight in the way that the movie can. The actors practiced for weeks; using real fencing moves, but light fibreglass swords. It often happens that one says of a movie "oh, you must read the book first; the film will only spoil it." The Princess Bride is a rare exception: I tell people that reading the book will spoil the film; but that once they have seen the film, the book will enhance their enjoyment of it. The book is one of the most bookish books I have ever read; the film is consistently filmish. 

Both the book and the film have a framing sequence. The book's frame is very involved indeed. It tells the story of how, as a young child William Goldman got hooked on adventure novels; about how his father used to read him the Princess Bride; about how years later he tracked down a copy of the book and gave it to his son; and only then discovered that his father had been reading him edited highlights and skipping the boring bits. Over the years, Goldman has extended this backstory: there are now introductions and epilogues and a print-out you have to write to the publisher and request. We learn about how the book was turned into a movie; how Goldman traveled to Florin and saw many of the places where events in the book took place; and about his ongoing struggle with the literary executors of S Morgenstern who wrote the original book. 

It's all a conjuring trick, of course: Morgenstern doesn't exist and "Bill Goldman" who appears in the book has nothing to do with the "William Goldman" who wrote it. Geoffrey Chaucer pulled off a not entirely dissimilar stunt four hundred years earlier. 

The frame is absolutely essential to the story: The Princess Bride is only believable if it is presented as a story-within-a-story. Put another way, The Princess Bride is not a story about a farm boy rescuing his lady from a wicked prince: it is the story of a young American kid discovering that he really likes books. Goldman, a screen-writer to his boots, saw that the book-frame was far too complicated for a movie; and replaced it with a much simpler narrative in which a Grandfather reads the book to a Boy who doesn't really like books. Goldman initially thought of setting the frame in the 1930s, the golden age of swashbuckling movies; but sensibly decided that it needed to be anchored in the present day. Present day is a slippery term, and that 1980s baseball sim is now almost as far removed from us as the depression would have been in the 80s. 

And that, of course, is the answer. If you told me that I was to create a new work of art based on the Princess Bride -- "Rilstone after Goldman", as it were -- that is what I would do. Film the framing sequence: the full framing sequence with Goldman's father and his lawyer and Kermit Slog; his fictional wife and kids; his elementary school teacher. I would make the audience very aware that there was a real Goldman and a fictional Goldman; but I would make the frame look as much like a documentary as I could manage. I'd be aiming for something like American Splendor, which slid between a cartoon Harvey Pekar; an actor playing Harvey Pekar; the present-day-real-life Harvey Pekar; and contemporary footage of a younger Harvey Pekar. I'd show you Goldman visiting the cliffs of destruction and looking at Inigo's sword in a museum. I'd incorporate material about the struggle to make the original movie. I bet there are out-takes and backstage material on a cutting room floor somewhere, and if not, that kind of thing can be faked. I'd show the audience Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed audition. I might even flash back to Andre the Giant on the school run with the famous poet.

Most importantly, I would reinstate the brilliant triple ending: how the novel ends; how Goldman’s father told him it ends; and how Goldman thinks it ought to have ended…. 

And here is the stunningly clever bit. I wouldn't refilm the story-within-the-story: I would incorporate the existing film into my remake. When Bill Goldman's dad starts to read to him from the Princess Bride we would cut to Robin Wright bullying Cary Elwes on the farm. When Goldman starts editing the duel section we would cut to Elwes and Patinkin sword fighting on the cliff. Obviously I would remove Peter Falk's voice and replace it with the voice of "Goldman". I would probably retain the Mark Knopfler sound track, but that's negotiable. And I would doctor the original footage. I would put it in black and white and I would juggle with the speed and resolution so it looked as if it came from an old, silent movie. (But with the dialogue intact.) 

The question of manipulating images from old movies is a bit of a fiddly one. I think that George Lucas is free to do what he likes with Star Wars, but it is a shame that the original version is unavailable. It think that Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be improved if the happy ending ere deleted. One day I may watch the definitive definitive definitive Blade Runner. Ripping a classic to pieces to create an inferior work seems to me to be an entirely legitimate part of the artistic process; certainly as legitimate as Lichtenstein turning panels of comics into wall-sized canvasses. The film-school project of taking the silent, black-and-white Metropolis and adding colour and sound seems off-the-wall enough to be worth watching. It doesn't replace the original movie; but stands as an interesting commentary on it. Some day I may even watch it. 

So: there is my idea. And now I have had it, it is no longer a thought experiment, but a genuine suggestion. I hope that they do remake The Princess Bride and I hope that they remake it in that way. It would be kind and fair of them to give me a credit and a small financial consideration, but of course, life isn’t always fair.


I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

21 comments:

  1. How about Opening the film with a father arguing with his son about remakes, having just seen the remake of The Princess Bride, and then recounting the movie he saw to the kid, who slowly comes to accept remakes as being a good thing. And wants to hear how it all comes out...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Obviously you'd want to have scenes of the original, behind the scenes bits, and remake bits all mixed together, as you describe above.

    And suddenly it occurs to me that I should rewatch Adaptation, which I seem to recall was very good on this subject.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Surely the movie opens with someone writing a blog post about remakes...

    ReplyDelete
  4. I played Hardball! before they ever even made the film The Princess Bride. You have made me feel depressingly old.

    I have a theory, by the by, that Goldman wrote the book thinking of the abridged (the only kind available when he was a child) and unabridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Probably "hypothesis" would have been a better word. A Google search shows me that I'm not the only person to have noticed the connection between the two works. However, I do appear to be the only person who has noticed that the main inspiration for the excellent American TV show The Good Place is the British sci-fi comedy classic Red Dwarf.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Aren't all situation comedies about people who don't like each other in a place they can't leave? (Prisons, flat shares, space-ships, hotels, marriages...)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Also, some of my favourite horror.

    (King's "The Mist", and "Day of The Dead" both spring to mind.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. You'd have to watch The Good Place to see exactly what I mean (worth your time). It's more the madcap anarchic nature of how Red Dwarf messes with its characters in a sort of constant series of reboots. Though it does share that in common as well, but as you say, that's not unusual.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Similar characters as well - e.g. Kristen Bell's Eleanor Shellstrop is basically a female Lister.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The reboots and mucking around with characters I see: it wouldn't have occurred to me that Eleanor is a female Lister.

    By the way: anyone reading this who hasn't done so GO AWAY AND WATCH THE GOOD PLACE RIGHT NOW. (You need to start at Episode 1 and not read a synopsis, because the premise unrolls gradually through the first season.) Definitely the best TV comedy, and possibly also the best TV drama, in years.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My girlfriend said once that a lot of comedy either involves - (a) real people in a surreal situation - e.g. the Good Place, Father Ted (with Father Ted being the only 'ordinary' person or (b) a surreal character in the real world - e.g. Mr Bean, Alan Partridge.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Best American sitcom since Sports Night, in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It leads into my own opinion on remakes, which is why not write your own? Joss Whedon wanted to make a version of Dark Shadows; he made Buffy. Michael Schur wanted to do Red Dwarf; he did The Good Place. (I assume I'm right about this. Michael Schur and I grew up in about the same place and time, about 20 miles away. Like me, I imagine he was a child of Connecticut Public Television.) Etc. I suspect it stems from A) owning the intellectual property already and B) there is usually a built-in audience for any remake/reboot of that property. I never understood B until I was watching the new Nancy Drew movie with my daughter. To my surprise, I had an affection for the title character simply because she was named Nancy Drew although she had very little in common with the character I read about as a child.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I’m not so sure about that. Eleanor is louche like Lister, but quite a large part of the series is how savvy she can be. She has exceptional qualities whereas Lister’s much more of an everyman figure. Much of the Eleanor/Childi dynamic is the distinction between savvy and smart. Jason is quite possibly the cat, though.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Schur is too good a writer to just do a one-to-one correspondence. E.g. Chidi serves the same function as Rimmer comedically, but is a vastly different character. Similarly with Michael=Holly and Janet=Kryten. I would never have noticed any of that if the show hadn't done so many similar-ish plot devices.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Also, Lister has a moral center from the beginning (certainly more than Rimmer) while Eleanor doesn't have much of one until it is instilled in her.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The Good Place is definitely comedy drama. My question about tomorrow night's final part is "How will everything be resolved? Is there really a Final Answer?" We care about the characters in a way we don't care about Rimmer and Lister.

    KIND OF SPOILER









    My prediction is that the big reveal is that Michael has been the one on trial all along.

    ReplyDelete
  18. (i thought that was the last part, but that's only the mid season break. there are five more to come including a double length finale...)

    ReplyDelete
  19. I liked the episode, but then Chidi is pretty much the first time in television history when a show actually tried to create an identification figure for the middle-aged me. (I don't have Chidi's lack of confidence in his own judgment or anxiety about being wrong, thank goodness, but otherwise.)

    ReplyDelete
  20. By the way, the so-called Final Cut of Blade Runner is the best version of the film. The only mistake he made was re-including a few scenes of gratuitous ultra-violence (a couple of seconds extra each) from the international theatrical version which were best left cut out of the film (as they were in America). We really don't need to see Rutger Hauer crush somebody's eyeballs. But removing all that voice-over stuff that went into the theatrical release does much improve the film. Naturally, however, most film aficionados of our current Quentin Tarantino age disagree with me even on that point and would declare the Final Cut superior in all respects.

    ReplyDelete