Everyone has experienced it. You sit down to watch a film adaptation of a favourite book (or play or, heck, boardgame), full of trepidation but willing to forgive certain sins visited upon the original. Sometimes the results are suprisingly pleasant, others leave you a seething wreck, half angry at the filmmakers and half at yourself for even thinking that anyone could ever make a decent fist of adapting that sublime book/play/boardgame/cereal packet/powerpoint presentation/etc.
Vast tracts have, of course, been written about the act of filmic adaptation, and the inherent problems of translating material into the simultaneously self-contained yet infinite world of the screen, but two recent feature adaptations – one drawn from a stage play, the other a bestselling novel – throw up interesting parallels that serve to highlight how cinema’s limitation on the infinte copes with the inherent freedom in restriction of other mediums.
In Yasmine Reza’s play God of Carnage, limitations imposed by the three-walled space of the darkened theatre serve to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of an upper-class couple trapped in middle-class hell, magnifying their desire to leave the apartment but constantly ensuring they are hemmed in. In Roman Polanski’s screen adaptation, however, this central conceit proves a major hurdle, with the limitless potential offered by cinema’s omnipotent rectangle doing Polanski’s Carnage a major disservice, and making the couple’s attempts to leave the apartment seem trite, half-hearted and feeble.
In contrast to Reza’s multitude of shifting perspectives, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close offered an intriguing first-person self-portrait of precocious youngster named Oskar Schell, contrasting personal and public loss in the aftermath of 9/11. Told from Oskar’s perspective, the novel is densely narrated and punctuated by typographic experiments that reflect the young boy’s quest to ‘solve’ the final puzzle left behind by his father, who had died in the World Trade Center attacks. Unsurprisingly, Stephen Daldry’s film version (adapted for the screen by Eric Roth) suffers precisely because cinema – especially mainstream, commercial cinema – simply does not lend itself to those kinds of highly internalised narratives. As a novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close draws its impact from this internalisation, delving deep into Oskar’s world and taking the reader along for the ride. And although the book wasn’t immune from similar criticisms, attempts to translate this world onto the screen saw Daldry’s film shouted down (in the UK at least) as ‘annoying’, ‘irritating’ and ‘cloying’.
Leaving aside the fundamental misunderstandings of most critics – who applied the same terms to the character of Oskar whilst completely disregarding the fact that he almost certainly suffers from Asperger’s or another form of High-Functioning Autism – the film has also been widely discussed as ‘manipulative’ and ‘exploitative’, and even accused of ‘emotional blackmail’. And yet it’s hard to see how critics could have expected anything else from a mainstream feature film – a cultural form that is predicated precisely on its ability to manipulate and exploit. This film wasn’t the work of a struggling indie filmmaker, desperate to tell his special story: it was backed by two of Hollywood’s largest studios, both subsidiaries of top-four media conglomerates. At this level, filmmaking has always been (and will always be) about the money. Money drives the medium and – to paraphrase a great cultural theorist – the medium is manipulation.