Turkeys and Angels

Travelling to London on Saturday to see Doctor Atomic, I read an interesting piece in the Guardian review by Salman Rushdie. The general theme was inspired by the fact that a film director once told him that all movies made from novels were “rubbish”.

I was reminded of that piece today when I had a quick look at cosmic variance and found a post about the forthcoming film Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code.  The post is mainly about the fact that Angels and Demons is based in the world of particle physics so some educational materials have been generated to cash in on it, so to speak. Nothing wrong with that as an idea. Every little helps.

The problem for me is that the film is  directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks. This is the same combination that took Brown’s enjoyably preposterous page-turner and made it into one of the worst pieces of cobbled-together garbage that I’ve ever seen in a cinema. The novel isn’t so bad for what it is, a formulaic but fairly well crafted thriller. The film is excruciating. The book of Angels and Demons is not as good as the book of the Da Vinci Code, so I shan’t be rushing to see the film when it is released in the UK, particle physics content notwithstanding.

This is only one example of a book being turned into a terrible film, but I can think of many counter-examples to the assertion that they’re all rubbish. Of course it helps if the book you start with isn’t rubbish itself.  As a recent example I  think of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a great book  turned into a pretty good film.

But the example that for me really refutes the argument is Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann:  a brilliant and disturbing novella about  physical and spiritual decay turned into a stunning visual masterpiece of a film by Luchino Visconti. The story is about the growing obsession of ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach with a young Polish boy, Tadzio, in a city beset by a cholera epidemic. It’s not a story about paedophilia (nor even, in fact, particularly about homosexuality) although it doesn’t shrink from either of those themes. As the critic Lawrence J.  Quirk put it

Some shots of Björn Andrésen, the Tadzio of the film, could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican in Rome. For this is not a pretty youngster who is supposed to represent an object of perverted lust; that was neither novelist Mann’s nor director-screen writer Visconti’s intention. Rather, this is a symbol of a beauty allied to those which inspired Michelangelo‘s David and Da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa, and which moved Dante to seek ultimate aesthetic catharsis in the distant figure of Beatrice.

In other words Tadzio symbolises beauty in a primarily aesthetic sense rather than a sexual one. Or maybe I protest too much.

The film is beautiful to look at and is held together by a riveting central performance by the late Dirk Bogarde in probably his greatest acting role. Here is the closing scene of the film, La Morte del Professore sulla Spiaggia, languidly paced but emotionally and erotically charged. Aschenbach, wearing make-up and with the  hair dye used to disguise his age melting in the heat, suffers a heart attack and dies while Tadzio stands in the sea, like an angel beckoning him  to a better world.

The music is the 4th movement (Adagietto) from Mahler‘s 5th Symphony. If ever there was music to die for, this is it.

And if this is a bit morbid for your taste, maybe you can suggest other great novels made into great movies?

9 Responses to “Turkeys and Angels”

  1. One related pearl of wisdom from Douglas Adams (himself quoting someone else, whom he couldn’t remember) is that short stories make the ideal source material for a film. I think he was focusing on the fact that there’s just no way to translate 10^5 words into a two-hour sequence of images and sounds, something backed up by the brevity of even the wordiest film script (e.g., ‘Pulp Fiction’).

    At any rate, there are sufficiently many examples of [good|bad] novels adapted into [good|bad] films to support just about any of the four possible inductive arguments; for me it’s the actual process that’s interesting on a case-by-case basis. Hence it’s only natural that I love ‘Adaptation’ which ends up being about the writer’s struggle; another favourite adaptation of sorts is ‘Apocalypse Now’, although maybe that’s stretching it a bit. However I’ve seldom enjoyed films depicting the next stage of the process (i.e., going from script to screen).

    My final thought on this is that I’ve almost always preferred whichever of the film and source I’ve experienced first. What that says about me I don’t want to know.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I certainly agree about novels generally being too long to be made into completely convincing movies. Death in Venice is a novella of only about 90 pages and it works quite well.

    I think The Lord of the Rings trilogy counts as being a great adaptation of a very long book, but even over 3 films there is quite a bit missing from Tolkien’s original.

  3. I think the key thing about ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ (which can span up to 12 hours, I think, if you play the extended DVD versions) is not so much whether everything’s there, but the sense that the films don’t feel rushed, and play with the same sort of rhythms that the novels do. Whereas I remember being very (if predictably) disappointed that ‘Contact’ condensed the thrill of solving the message’s puzzle into a few perfunctory scenes.

    In fact ‘Contact’ fits a pattern I’ve observed often in the adaptation of novels: the first few scenes are almost verbatim, and really capture the spirit and pace of the original, after which everything accelerates with entire chapters omitted in the race to beat the viewer’s bladder.
    Understandable, I suppose, but I’d be prepared to go without fluids (if not alcohol) for 24 hours if need be . . .

  4. Anton Garrett Says:


    You almost seem to be inviting people to ramble on this theme… I thought Death in Venice was a great short story but an over-rated film. Saved by Mahler though.

    Some examples from popular fiction: Day of the Triffids was a great book but an appallingly bad film. Where Eagles Dare was a superb film from one of Alistair MacLean’s weaker books, whereas Fear Is the Key, written when he was at the height of his powers before alcohol got on top of him, was weakly filmed. The man who best understood how to adapt books to cinema was Kubrick, and he did not hesitate to make considerable changes.

    Lord of the Rings is a long tale with a dark plot, which is lightened by the interplay between its characters. The same is not true of Peter Jackson’s films. Although the story is strong (thanks to Tolkien), and the landscapes, battles and special effects are spectacular (thanks to the budget), the characterisation is weak – and I mean weak compared to other films, not just to the book. (For instance, the twin wooings of Eowyn by Faramir, and of Arwen by Aragorn, are banal and brief in the cinema version, though they are important and could have been lovely.) Jackson had previously made only hack horror films. Likewise, the inn where the ring-bearers first meet Aragorn, in his disguise as Strider, is portrayed by Jackson as a sinister place, whereas Tolkien had it as a merrie English tavern with one or two dark characters. I regret the changes.


  5. I feel I must defend my Antipodean brother here: Peter Jackson had not just made “hack horror films” prior to making ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. And whilst I personally have a very soft spot for ‘Bad Taste’, I think the almost unbelievably different ‘Heavenly Creatures’ was a stunning film (containing, as it does, one of the first important performances by Dame-elect Kate Winslet).

    I agree about Kubrick being a good adapterizator, though – almost all my favourite films of his i) come from external written source material (even if not necessarily a novel) and ii) ended up almost completely rewritten to allow them to work in a different medium. I think the best example of this is ‘Dr Strangelove …’, which was based on the fairly serious thriller novel ‘Red Alert’ but became an almost screwball comedy (which almost ended with a food fight!) as Kubrick and his screenwriter Terry Southern kept finding the MAD scenarios more and more absurd.

  6. Grapes of Wrath, 1940.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    How about Shakespeare adaptations for cinema? Most are made by theatre directors who understand Shakespeare but don’t understand cinema, or by cinema directors who understand their medium but don’t understand Shakespeare. I’d vote for Branagh’s Hamlet as the best, because (1) it is uncut – you get Shakespeare’s full script (all four hours of it) and (2) Branagh understands both Shakespeare and cinema. He has a few Hollywood actors in minor parts, and it is fascinating seeing which of them can act and which can’t when faced with a more demanding script.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Call me old-fashioned but I like the Olivier version of Henry V, at least partly because of William Walton’s music.

  9. “Catch-22” is my favourite film adaptation of a great novel and shows that the key is to capture the essence of the book, rather than trying to translate every incident in it too literally.

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