It’s expected that filmmakers would attend arts school. Peter Greenway’s framing and tableaux furnish proof of his arts training and Julian Schnabel who once called himself as a greater painter than Michelangelo has turned out some good films. Andreï Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, known for his lush and mystical evocations of nature and an exponent of the “scene,” believed that a filmmaker should be grounded in music, art, and literature. His films make references to Andreï Roublev’s icons, Breughel’s winter scenes, Piero della Francesca’s paintings, and to Don Quixote and to his beloved Bach. However, he found fault with Fellini’s attempts to create still lives on screen. He argued that film was too dynamic a medium for frozen or “live pictures,” as he called them. Equally, he reproached Pasolini who gave up writing novels for filmmaking for trying to create a literary syntax in his films through the use of cuts and montage. Ultimately, Tarkovsky believed that film should be neither literary nor painterly but ought to have a form of its own. (We wonder what he would have made of Chris Marker's narratology in La Jetée, with its 27 minutes of black-and-white stills.)
Known for the long take, Tarkovosky dreamed of being able to make a film without editing or music. Although it took four tries, his “disciple” Alexander Sokurov shot Russian Ark in one long take in the sumptuous interiors of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in one day in December 2001. Russian Ark features as expected some of the treasures of the art world but with live musical accompaniment. The film conveys 300 years of Russian history compressed into the real time of the actual Steadycam shoot (96 minutes). For us, the nearest “purely” literary equivalent to that one long take could be Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s pábení which, in one case, is a single sentence that runs the length of a novel.
Surprisingly few writers have been filmmakers although many filmmakers — Idrissa Ouedraogo and Zhang Yimou among them — work on scripts. Of Satyajit Ray, Yukio Mishima, Ousmane Sembene, Derek Jarman, Dai Sijie, and Michael Ondaatje, all of whom have written and made films, Sembene is probably the one who is best known for both. Despite Isherwood’s narrator’s confident assertion: “I’m a camera,” the nexus of literary text to film has a long and troubled history. Many writers find it hard to let go of their work. Stanislav Lem, the author of Solaris, loathed Tarkovsky’s version. He called it “Crime and Punishment In Outer Space.” His many arguments with the director and his cinematographer Vadim Yusov had left him on the verge of withdrawing his permission to film the book. He was equally displeased with Soderbergh’s Hollywood-romance version of Solaris. Czech film director Jiři Menzel, though, collaborated easily with Hrabal for many years to bring some of his novels to the screen, his narrative flow intact. As noted above, not all collaborations are this successful.
Books have been “film-treated” in a variety of ways. At the height of his powers, Bertolucci made his own masterpeices from works by Moravia and Borges. Satyajit Ray’s elegant neorealist approach to stories by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (The Apu trilogy), Tagore (Ghaire-Bhare/Home and the World and Charulata), Tarasankar Banerjee (Jalsaghar), Saradindu Banerjee (Chiriakhana), Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee (Devi), Sunil Ganguly (Aranyer Din Ratri, Days and Nights in the Forest) and Premchand (Shatranj ke khilari or The Chess Players) resulted in superbly understated studies where the silence and pauses between the actions created tensions and meaning, as in Yasujiro Ozu's films. On the other hand, Akiro Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a film of overstatements. It matches the narrative force of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s stories as exercises in hyperbole and interpretation.
Luchino Visconti in mid-career chose a broader scope to bring Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard as a Technicolor epic to the screen. Raoul Ruiz realized film medium’s potential to play with time and reality in his fine adaptation of Proust’s Le Temps Retrouvé. Alain Resnais much earlier weaved the syntagma of Robbe Grillet’s Last Year in Marienbad in what was hailed as exploding many new-wave filmmaking pieties. However, generally, film adaptations have fared better in popular effect with drama or with prose works where the narrative structure is sequential and the actions clear. John Huston’s adaptations of Ben Traven’s Mexican novels, his version of Joyce’s The Dead and Jorge Fons’ adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley match the cumulative power and beauty of the stories, even with some changes and shifts in emphasis or locales.
One may go even further to assert that popular adaptations work best with lesser or genre novels. Mike Moncada’s The Name of The Rose discarded the literary complexity of Eco’s text by focusing on the dramaturgical elements of the story. Similarly, Roberto Sneider’s 1995 version of Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Dos Crímenes works well as a story with serialized action. Dev Benegal’s debut feature actually improves on Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August but keeps its “problematics” alive.
For works where the narrative drive does not rely on dramaturgy but on ellipsis, symbolism and atmosphere, some film directors focus on visual mise-en-scène to recreate a work’s suggestiveness. Visconti’s claustrophobic interiors suggest the onset of the miasmic plague in his version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum which won him the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988 substituted Mo Yan’s fragmented narrative with stunning, often silent, visuals.
In looking at drama on film, some examples of the various Shakespeare films should suffice. Grigor Kozintsev’s 1970 Russian version of King Lear with Jüri Järvet in the title role — he played Snaut in Tarkovksy’s Solaris — and the various adaptations of the history plays starring Derek Jacobi, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh were successful theatrical re-enactments in their own different ways. Like Kozintsev’s treatment of Lear which became distinct from the play, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood fitted Macbeth into the bushido code of Japanese samurai films.
This connectedness of film to text is not true of all cinéastes. Tarantino in his Kill Bill volumes delivered an experience that was purely kinetic and cinematic without the encumbrances of bookish plot, or attempts at depth of characterization or even believability (or, one may add, any interest). This is very much in the martial-arts film traditions but one up or one down — we favour the latter — on his exemplar Sam Peckinpah.
Although books have served as inspiration for filmmakers, the direction of influence in this visual age is reversing. With the focus on immediacy and accessibility, literature has taken to incorporating the language of film and TV, namely the visual properties of story construction in screenplays, into texts rather than the other way round. Most writing workshops stress the use of framing devices, découpage, shifts in perspectives and the primacy of the “scene” in composition. While books are optioned for film rights and the novelization process turns a film into a book (usually not a very good one), this reversed influence no longer valorizes written work. A film is not just an illustration and enactment of a text. It has turned from saprophytic imitation and mimicry to a self-sustaining interpretive medium that may very well engulf the text entirely one day.