Saturday, May 18, 2013

In Which I'm Caught Identifying With All the Wrong Characters

It's been a truly hectic week at the Fane, or more accurately outside the Fane. There's been much to do well away from the comforts of the writing desk, so much of my work has amounted to little additions to ongoing projections, jotted down on the fly. I thoroughly enjoy practicing the art of toting the necessary work materials around with me, and I think the current contents of my messenger bag might be my favorite combination of traveling scholarly and literary materials: two notebooks, one for fiction and one for reviews; a moleskine journal; two novels, one for research and one for review; a dvd of the review novel's cinematic adaptation; a copy of Stephen King's On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft; and The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Unfortunately, despite my preparedness, I've been more or less scrounging for time to work, as the exceptionally fine spring weather has inspired a host of cleaning projects and outdoor activities. To be sure, this time has been well spent, but exhaustive, particularly when combined with the onset of allergy season and the zombifying effects of allegedly "non-drowsy" antihistamines. And so it is that, after several action-packed days abroad, I find myself home, and feeling not only worse for wear, but quite a bit like a number of characters with whom I'd rather not empathize quite so strongly...

Gregor Samsa - The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka 

For the short story on which I'm working, which is developing what can only be described as Kafkaesque elements, I've been re-reading Kafka's The Trial, thus far the best of my admittedly limited experience with the author's work. Though I can appreciate the legacy of The Metamorphosis, I failed to enjoy it as I'd expected. That having been said, I cannot escape some of the latter title's poignancy, especially while I, much like Gregor Samsa, have persisted in my devotion to my family and friends, neglecting entirely the fact that by burning the candle at both ends I have, metaphorically speaking, found myself having transformed into a rather large insect. I've had much better luck than he, as far working around the effects of the past week's harried lifestyle, but the essential bug-ness of my allergies and exhaustion has remained. It's been amusing, to say the least, to find myself identifying with this somewhat loathsome creature, considering my response to his story. Then again, maybe that was Kafka's point all along...

Charlie Gordon - Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

As the days have mounted, rather than passing in succession, my wits have succumbed to an interminable exhaustion, and all but resigned their post entirely. I do a fair job of scraping along on the precious few brain cells I have left, but I begin to despair that the damage might become permanent. I'm left thinking of poor Charlie, Daniel Keyes' human guinea pig from Flowers for Algernon, and Charly, the 1968 adaptation thereof. The novel, written from the perspective of the aforementioned guinea pig, details the intellectual rise and fall of a mentally challenged man who, through a miracle of neurosurgical science, is transformed into an unparalleled genius. Charlie's progress on the path to actualization reaches a blistering pace, but it's a level of output that can't be maintained for long. After discovering nuances to human existence previously beyond his limited grasp, Charlie is left frustrated and helpless as the effects of the procedure begin to wear off. It's at this point that my empathy comes into play, the powerlessness in the face of mental entropy. Slowly but surely, I've felt my brain flickering, sputtering, grinding to a halt...

Robert Arctor - A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

I know it's not just the busy schedule that's led me to this dilapidated state. I can't say I recall ever suffering from allergies quite so badly as I have this season, and I've been relying on antihistamines far more regularly than ever before. Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse, the sneezing fits and waterlogged vision or the complete numbness of having taken something to alleviate those symptoms. More than any character, I find myself identifying with Bob Arctor, whose drug use slowly chips away at his grip on reality in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. It's one of my favorite novels for many reasons, but this is not one of them. Being able to identify with the increasingly incapable Arctor is far from fun. I'd seen it said once that the fictional drug in the novel, Substance D, was inspired by use of a real OTC medication that happened to be an antihistamine. After a week attacking my allergy symptoms, the connection isn't hard to see. Much like Arctor, I feel as if everything—within and without—has become impenetrably murky...


So where does this leave me, now that this brief run of busy days has finally given way to freer time in which to catch up on sleep and various ongoing projects? I did well to realize that my distaste for these negative associations was part of the problem: none of these characters is particularly happy about being themselves, either. By rejecting the connection, I was still participating in the identification process. So what did it take to break these chains and return to my old self? I embraced each of them in turn. Poor Gregor, never really understanding what had happened, nor how his behavior had effected his family, needed only to worry about himself a bit more and trust that things would work out for everyone else just fine in the end; Charlie needed to accept that his character was revealed not in the alleviation of his handicap but throughout the transition from his natural state to that affected by the procedure and back; Bob Arctor, who not only wished for an escape from his lifestyle but nearly forgot he was Arctor at all...well, he just needed to lay off the pills. 

As conditions have improved, I've been able to rely less on allergy medication, and things are slowly coming back into focus. I've got some great notes for the work in progress, and a few new reviews in the works (including A Scanner Darkly). The forecast calls for isolated thunderstorms, which will hopefully knock the rest of the pollen out of the air. My sinuses are relatively clear, and my schedule and mindset are getting even clearer still. I expect it's going to be a lovely day back at the workdesk, then, and I'm looking forward to spending it not as Gregor, Charlie, or Bob, but my recently revived—and fully functioning—self.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From Page to Screen - Fight Club

As the 20th century entered its denouement, humanity cast a retrospective glance upon the most industrious hundred years any civilization has ever known. When calling the ‘90s to mind with a nostalgic air, one cannot escape the impression that the era was viewed with a sense of supreme accomplishment, as if looking down the slopes of times past from the zenith of a monumental climb. Wars were being waged on a far smaller scale, over the course of weeks rather than years. America had regained its footing following its most recent recession at the decade’s dawning. The Internet and cellular phone industries, though still in their relative infancies, had already begun to impact our lives, forever changing the ways in which we connect with one another. For many, it seemed as if the Future had finally begun to arrive.  

It’s a funny trick of human existence that achievement contains, hidden beneath its pride and self-satisfaction, the seeds of discontent. Complacency is typically untenable, particularly to any culture so infected by impulse and the drive for instant gratification.  As the industries of construction finally began to give way to more powerful industries of distraction, a vague realization slowly crept into our midst. This idea, a growing awareness of the lack of a genuine sense of fulfillment, led some to a rather simple question: “So what’s next?”

Enter author Chuck Palahniuk, literary agent provocateur, and his answer, in the form of his incomparable debut novel, Fight Club

Fight Club is the rare sort of novel that is so perfectly entrenched in the times in which it was written, it seems absurd to suggest that Palahniuk had anything but the most direct of intentions, seeking to address the oft-ignored problems inherent to our society’s corporate, consumerist nature. However, in a twist befitting the author’s own style, the novel actually began as a project of spite. After rejecting his first effort himself, Palahniuk submitted Invisible Monsters for publication, only to be rejected by the publisher due to the book’s disturbing content. The author began crafting a short story, born of his own reticence regarding a weekend brawl, meant to disturb the publisher even more than his rejected novel. Eventually, this story was expanded and, to the author’s surprise, accepted for publication. Fight Club was published in August of 1996. 

Well received by critics and readers alike, the novel nevertheless received minimal attention. For many, the work remained obscure, if not unheard of. That would change when 20th Century Fox producer Laura Ziskin saw in the novel the potential for a gripping cinematic experience. With screenwriter Jim Uhls in charge of adapting the novel and director David Fincher at the helm, Fight Club was crafted into a movie every bit as disturbing—and enthralling—as the novel itself.

Both novel and film begin in media res, just before the climax, as the characters await the destruction of several office buildings at the hands of underground fighters turned militant anarchists. The reader is then led through a semi-linear retelling of the events that lead back to the precipice of that climactic moment. In the novel’s case, the sense of linearity is much less rigid; affecting a much greater impact on the reader’s thought processes, Palahniuk’s minimalist, conversational tone makes for a superior connection between material and reader. To compensate for the depth lost in translation from page to screen, Fincher’s film makes brilliant use cinematography—sweeping, impossible camera shots and brief flashes of images thrust into otherwise normal scenes—to imbue the unstable mentality of the narrative.

The anonymous protagonist and narrator, played by Edward Norton in the film, is a 30-year-old recall campaign coordinator for an unspecified auto manufacturer, leads a life of quiet desperation. Norton’s deadpan delivery emulates the novel’s narration, establishing the character’s malaise with aplomb. It should be a satisfying life, as the narrator’s followed social convention to the letter in virtually every respect; from his job to his clothes, his IKEA-supplied apartment to the Audi he drives, everything he has achieved is as it should be. Noticeably absent from this lifestyle is the expected gratification of living it. Thrown headlong into an existential crisis, the protagonist begins to suffer an extreme case of chronic insomnia. Living with insomnia, he explains, makes it so that “everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy.” Through Fincher’s direction, this addled state is put on display to brilliant effect in the film, offsetting the necessary linear nature that so contrasts that of the novel.

To address his insomnia, the narrator attends support groups for the terminally ill. In these groups the narrator finds, rather than a sense of perspective, a catharsis that allows him to purge enough neurotic tension to allow him to sleep at night. Allowing members to believe what they will of his condition by remaining silent, he begins attending numerous such groups throughout the week. Though effective, this unusual method of treatment doesn’t completely resolve the dark thoughts that result from his continuing crisis. After two years of combating his insomnia through meetings, Marla Singer (brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter), another such ‘tourist’, begins appearing at each meeting as well.  As Marla’s lie reflects the narrator’s, his path to nightly catharsis is thwarted, and the insomnia resumes. The two eventually resolve to split their schedules, and a complex love/hate relationship ensues. Despite the removal of Marla from the meetings he attends, this brief lapse in sleep triggers an unraveling that continues throughout the remainder of the story.

The account of how the narrator comes to meet Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) differs between page and screen, though the change is likely a practical one. The core of Tyler’s character is transferred perfectly and intact to the cinematic portrayal. Tyler is described as the complete opposite of the narrator’s character. Where the narrator is constrained by his lifestyle and neuroses, Tyler leads a life of relative freedom—not to mention slight insanity. Unlike the narrator’s responsible office job, Tyler’s professions are several: he works as a movie theater projectionist—and splices frames of pornography into family films; he works as a waiter at an upscale hotel—and befouls the food before its served; he makes homemade bars of soap—out of fat stolen from the medical refuse bins behind liposuction clinics. Representing everything that the narrator is not, Tyler is an utterly fascinating, seductive character to behold.

When the protagonist’s apartment mysteriously explodes and effectively destroys everything he had made of his life, the narrator calls Tyler, asking for help. Tyler welcomes the narrator into his home, but only if he’ll do something in return. “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” Neither man has ever been in a fight before and, to Tyler, this is an unacceptable condition in which to live. As the movie Tyler asks, “How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” In the moment those first few awkward punches are thrown, Fight Club is born. 

Before long, the thinking behind Tyler’s antisocial existence finds fertile soil in the minds of the men who join Fight Club, and blossoms into a fully-fledged philosophy. Completely in awe of Tyler, the narrator is at the forefront of those swept along as club events begin spilling out of the basement and into the rest of the city. In both novel and film, the emerging school of thought is spelled out in such a way that even readers and viewers find themselves similarly swayed by Tyler’s apparent wisdom. But when ritualized self-destruction leads to widespread anarchy, the narrator begins to harbor misgivings. The question becomes, is there anything he can do to stop it?

While the novel, as is usually the case, possesses far more depth and intricacy than that for which film typically allows, the film loses none of the story’s potency in the adaptation process. Much of the dialogue in the film is transferred verbatim from the novel, capturing the essence of Palahniuk’s style, and subsequently his genius. Though the endings of the two formats differ, both are quite apt. Debate continues to this day as to which is superior, though the author himself has, in interviews, expressed some regret that he had not conceived the film’s version of the ending himself. Fight Club performed poorly at the box office, owing in part to its publicity having been stifled by the studio. However, both novel and movie have gone on to achieve legendary status as cult favorites, with fans emulating the story’s ideals in countless amateur fight clubs across the country. With a plot twist so mind-blowing as to warrant only passing reference, lest the surprise be spoiled, and a gripping narrative that is every bit entrancing as it is disturbing, Fight Club is a truly compelling story, and one of the very best examples of adaptation from page to screen. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

From Page to Screen - Big Fish

In John Ford’s classic 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, journalist Maxwell Scott delivered the oft-quoted line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The statement is one of resignation to the power of myth over the minds of men, regarding a fictional account which has irrevocably usurped the truth on which it had been based. In his 1998 novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, Daniel Wallace deftly explores the premise of Scott’s statement, by recounting the mythological story of Edward Bloom, and his son William’s struggle to peer through the veil of his ailing father’s legend and find the truth of the man at its core. 

Prior to the novel’s publication, the manuscript found its way into the hands of screenwriter John August. The novel, which explores the topic of grief as much as it does the relationship between father and son, struck a chord with August, whose father had passed earlier that year. After approaching a number of directors, including Stephen Spielberg, August brought the screenplay to Tim Burton’s attention. Burton, who had recently lost both of his parents, found the story perfectly suited his preferences and style. With Ewan McGregor and veteran actor Albert Finney cast as the younger and older versions of Edward, respectively, and Billy Crudup cast as grown son William, filming began in January of 2003. 

In both incarnations, Big Fish is a story told on two levels. In the present, Edward Bloom is dying. William has returned home for what is expected to be his father’s last days. Though the strained relationship between the two is made plain through William’s narration in the novel, his estrangement from his father is explained much more overtly in the opening scenes of the movie: tired of Edward’s ceaseless performance as raconteur, William feels little connection to his father. William’s efforts to reconcile the relationship require a tremendous amount of progress, as he has only ever known the myth, never the man. 

In the novel, despite his distaste for his father’s stories, it is left to William to piece together the sweeping mythology of Edward’s life. Narration is left to a number of characters in the film, primarily Edward himself. Both novel and movie describe Edward Bloom as a man with a destiny, meant for bigger and better things than those for which is small hometown will allow. In the film version, a young Edward discovers the fact that goldfish only grow if given enough space. As soon as he reaches adulthood, Edward sets out to make a fishbowl of the world. 

As the storyteller’s son tells the story, Edward’s path to greatness is shown to have always been fraught with difficulties matched only by the man’s limitless ambition and courage. Confronting giants, fending off vicious wild animals, and even surviving the horrors of war, Edward’s story is more entertaining than thrilling, as the outcome is never really in question. This is as true for the reader/viewer, for the fact that Edward clearly lives to old age, and for Edward himself, who lives his life so bravely, in part, because he does so with the knowledge of precisely where, when, and how he will die. 

Wallace, a student of Joseph Campbell’s teachings on mythology, expertly weaves a combination of borrowed themes and new ideals to create an enthralling character in Edward Bloom. Burton’s treatment brings out even more endearing qualities, with much credit to the performances by McGregor and Finney. However, despite the wide wonders of Bloom’s life, and the love so many seem to have for him, the frustration that William feels at having never known his father is overwhelmingly palpable. What’s more, his complaint is so valid that it very nearly upends the story entirely.

As with all tall tales, only a small grain of truth is likely to be found at the heart of Edward’s story. Stripping away the incredible and impossible, one is left with a genuinely plain, sad tale of a simple traveling salesman, too busy for his family, and a boy who was raised on little more than fish tales to explain his father’s absences. Though the movie version maintains a virtuous image of Edward, devoted to his wife forever and always, the novel’s version includes a chapter describing a second home elsewhere, a second love, and neither household containing much happiness for all of Bloom’s grandeur. 

For all of this, Big Fish is an undeniably touching story. That Edward is human, complete with flaws and failings, comes almost as a surprise, and yet makes the man all the more real. The bittersweet elements of his life and story, though powerful, do not, in the end, overwhelm the fanciful. Friendship and family take a place of prominence throughout, as William and his mother grieve slowly over Edward’s impending demise.  As the movie nears its conclusion, the question of choosing between fact and legend is brought to the forefront, as much for the viewer to consider as it is for William. Given the option between a boring truth and a wondrous myth, which would you truly prefer? 

Whether or not William reconciles with his father is up to readers and viewers to discover. Each format presents the story in its own way, highlighting different aspects of the same heartrending tale. Even beyond the fictional world in which he lived, Edward Bloom is a character too large for life. Neither book nor movie contains him entirely—one must catch the Big Fish in one’s heart to truly capture the man in full. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

From Page to Screen - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Literature and cinema have been closely entwined for almost the entirety of the latter’s history. The first public screening of a motion picture took place in 1894; just two years later both Trilby and Little Billee, by Gerald Du Maurier, and Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, bridged the gap between page and screen. By now, of course, it’s impossible to miss signs of the love Hollywood has for transferring the printed word to the silver screen. Whereas in years past one had similar difficulty avoiding novelizations of films based upon original screenplays, the balance has, in recent years, tipped heavily in favor of the page-to-screen adaptation. Whether one looks to fantasies like the long running Harry Potter series, or more reality-based stories such as Water for Elephants; from loose adaptations like Blade Runner, to more faithful representations like Watchmen, there’s no doubting that fans of literature and cinema both enjoy the adaptation process. With the fanfare and hype surrounding this year’s examples of literature-turned-movie, like Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the second Hunger Games movie Catching Fire, post-apocalyptic bestseller World War Z, and the much-awaited cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, a particular interest in more fanciful works is readily apparent. In an age where special effects artists are making, in mere months, technological strides that compare to decades of progress in years past, it’s become increasingly easier to manage believable depictions of otherworldly fictional settings come to life. As such, novels that had previously been considered unfilmable are now apt choices for filmmakers looking to work with proven material, appealing to an extant fanbase. 

But there’s far more—or so one at least hopes—than blockbuster success in mind; a great many filmmakers who endeavor to adapt literature to cinema do so because they are, first and foremost, fans of the works in question. Director Peter Jackson springs to mind, his passion for The Lord of the Rings evident in every scene in each of the novel’s three cinematic installments (not to mention his well-known status as an honorary Hobbit). There’s something truly magical about witnessing what was once relegated to the theatre of the mind’s eye suddenly presented in brilliant anamorphic glory upon the ever-larger screens of the modern movie theater. Of course, there’s also something truly tragic in the case of transitions that miss their mark. There have likely been far more failed adaptations than there have been genuine successes. This is sometimes due to less-than-stellar screenplays or sub-par casting, but most often results from little more than a simple disagreement between the consensus among readers and the vision of the directors at each movie’s helm. One famous example of such disappointment is the big budget 1984 adaptation of Dune, which, while leaving droves of fans crestfallen due to its derivations from the source material, was nevertheless well received by the work’s own creator, Frank Herbert. Treading much more carefully along the narrow pathway to success, one of the single greatest examples of page-to-screen adaptation is Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and the 1998 film adaptation that launched Johnny Depp into the cinematic stratosphere. 

Misunderstood by many at the time of its initial publication, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has long since been heralded as a masterpiece of Thompson’s own unique style of writing, dubbed “Gonzo Journalism” by The Boston Globe editor Bill Cordoso. Purely and intentionally devoid of the objective purview—and sometimes deviating from the factual truth—required by the ethics of journalism, Thompson’s work helped to introduce a postmodern perspective, in which the reporter himself became the story. A twisted, debauched tale of self-destruction and depravity in pursuit of the warped post-‘60s rendition of the American Dream, Thompson’s novel was once considered impossible to film. Famed animator Ralph Bakshi insisted that “a live-action [adaptation] would look like a bad cartoon”, and given the incidents of drug-induced hallucination as a lens through which the garishness of Las Vegas itself was perceived, one might have been hard pressed to disagree. For many years, producer Laila Nabulsi struggled to put together the right combination of director and lead actors. 

Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone, arguably two of the biggest directorial names in Hollywood, each tried, and failed, to bring Fear and Loathing to the big screen. Tinseltown heavyweights like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were considered for the roles of Raoul Duke (a pseudonym of Thompson’s) and Dr. Gonzo (a caricature of the already larger-than-life Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and close friend of Thompson’s). Later, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considered to play the pair, though Belushi’s untimely death brought an end to such hopes. For a time, John Malkovich and John Cusack were each considered for the role of Raoul Duke, but neither proved satisfactory. It wasn't until Thompson met with Johnny Depp that the role was cast with an air of finality. 

Much can be said for the unparalleled talents of surrealist Terry Gilliam’s Kafkaesque directorial style. One of the truly marvelous virtues of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is its eerily accurate depiction of the various drug-induced states that run thematically through the story. Odd, disorienting “quirks” and visual elements conspire to duplicate the dreamlike—and sometimes nightmarish—quality imbued by Thompson’s delirious prose. A soundtrack comprised of legendary hits from the era complete the backdrop for this unusual tale. However, so much more can be said for what, for all intents and purposes, was a possession of Johnny Depp by the very spirit of the character he was set to portray. In truly method fashion, Depp absorbed as many of Thompson’s characteristics as possible. He spent four months living in Thompson’s basement, learning to accurately mimic the author’s idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns. On set, Depp wore no replicas of Thompson’s clothing but actual items from the author’s own wardrobe. Even Thompson’s male pattern balding, which so stunned audiences accustomed to Depp’s unavoidably good looks, was as authentic as possible: Thompson himself worked the razor across Depp’s scalp. Paired with the incomparable method performance put forth by Benicio del Toro, Depp embodied the very essence of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical caricature, and projected it into the hearts and minds of countless fans of both novel and film.
"Buy the ticket, take the ride..."

This film is as much a labor of love as it is a truly spectacular work of art, and as close as imaginable to representing the “Gonzo” spirit in which the book was written. For a man of such passion and literary power as Hunter S. Thompson, no lesser film would have sufficed. The dedication of filmmakers and actors alike factored heavily into the production of this cinematic tour de force, as did, undoubtedly, the involvement of the author himself. It cannot be said that such a combination of forces is anything but mythically rare. There have been more than a few novels and stories which have safely made the journey from page to screen, but few quite so accurately, or for that matter satisfyingly, as 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.