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?