This week, The Film Version is setting up at home at the BFI London Film Festival. I don’t usually focus on reviews here, but I wanted to share some of my first impressions with you. If you’ve been to #LFF, have seen the films elsewhere or are keen to see them soon, drop me a line in the comments.
Two paramedics treat victims of a legal high that has dangerous, supernatural effects in this gloomy, low-key horror from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Spring). From its first medical scene, Synchronic sets itself apart from the fast paced emergency rooms of medical dramas. There’s a lethargy to Dennis (Jamie Dornan) and Steve (Anthony Mackie) as they arrive at the home of an OD patient; a blasé reaction to a stab victim they find bleeding in the kitchen. Benson and Moorhead create a foggy, slowed-down, almost blurry impression of the scene as it unfolds. It’s an interesting style: one that reflects the film’s wider interest in time as a dimension of our existence.
Lifelong friends Dennis and Steve are both dissatisfied with their lives. Dennis has a teenage daughter he struggles to parent and a wife he no longer appreciates. Steve is still single. Late night drinking and one night stands bring him little joy. A plot twist gives Anthony Mackie something to work with here, but the self-obsessed Dennis provides a thankless role for Dornan. His persistent moaning feels unwarranted even before the film’s neat reality check.
Benson and Moorhead work hard to put modern life expectations in perspective by exploring the agonies of the past. They have ambitious and laudable aims here but the result feels thematically light, scratching the surface of something deeper. Nonetheless, the film is crammed with good ideas. The editing, for instance, is characterised by match and jump cuts that connect and divide time, disturbing our experience of reality. With its paramedics turned investigators, Synchronic reminiscent of The X-Files, a show it lovingly references. And, while the film’s science feels a little hokey, there’s enough going on here to make Synchronic solid, stylish entertainment.
MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND
Cinema is an audio-visual medium but the amount of time and effort spent talking and thinking about sound work pails in comparison to the visual. It’s this imbalance that Midge Costin and Bobette Buster seek to redress in their informative and passionate documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.
The film opens inside a womb with the idea that ‘we emerged into consciousness using only sound’. Sight, by comparison, is the last of our senses to develop. That sound is therefore a crucial and instinctive guide to the world around us, is quickly reinforced by Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, and master of cinematic storytelling, Steven Spielberg.
Making Waves is brimming with industry talent and sharp examples of the craft illustrate the role of sound in our interpretation of story. The opening to Saving Private Ryan, for instance, is used to illustrate how audio and visual can be used to tell two different stories. While the narrow frame of the image reveals a personal story, the battlefield sounds tell a larger contextual one.
From here Costin and Buster return to the silent film era, charting the development of sound work through mono and stereo to Dolby. Anchored by interviews with sound work innovators, from Ben Burtt (StarWars) to Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Making Waves makes an excellent case for the power of cinematic sound. Simple graphics ensure this largely hidden field becomes accessible, comparing it to an orchestra with voice, sound effects and music sections.
The film’s dependence on big name talent – from George Lucas to David Lynch and John Lasseter – means film buffs will inevitably have heard some of the film’s anecdotes before. Even so, it’s an enjoyable journey and one that opens up a male dominated industry to female voices too. Interviews with Anna Behlmer (Braveheart) are particularly enlightening about gender stereotyping in the industry.
By the end of Making Waves, Costin and Buster leave audiences in no doubt about the importance of sound work not only to a film’s realism, but to emotion, imagination and plot. Making Waves is a glorious celebration of an under-appreciated art.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is on general release in the UK from 1 November 2019
Death is a journey in Roger Michell’s Blackbird. Susan Sarandon is Lily, a terminally ill mother who reunites her family for one last weekend before her death. Based on Danish film The Silent Heart (both penned by Christian Torpe) the material attracts a star studded cast. Kate Winlset plays uptight daughter, Jennifer; Mia Wasikowska takes on her erratic, butterfly sister; and Sam Neill is the supporting husband who’s already tired of being treated like a widower. As Lily’s lifelong friend, Lindsay Duncan reunites with Michell following their successful collaboration on of Le Week-End. The performances are predictably top notch.
With an eclectic filmography that includes Notting Hill, Hyde Park On Hudson and My Cousin Rachel, Michell balances the heavy subject matter with finely-tuned comedy. Weepy moments are injected with familial awkwardness and, occasionally, angry outbursts. The family dynamic is compelling and the near chamber piece feel is at times reminiscent of John Wells’ August Osage County.
Of all the tantalising roles here, Wasikowska’s is arguably the most interesting: her internal struggle offers a powerful counterpoint to that of the main protagonist, Lily. Beneath the surface, the film explores the strength needed to live and to die: the resilience needed to make the most difficult life choices. This strength comes, says Blackbird, from love. But it’s here where Michell stumbles, throwing his film slightly off kilter by building to a twist we’ve seen coming all along.
Look out for more #LFF first impressions here at The Film Version this weekend.
In H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale, The Color Out Of Space, a meteor crashes into a remote farm. In the days that follow, the land becomes tainted by a strange colour, taste and smell. The family inhabiting it begin to go mad. Richard Stanley’s vivid and freakish adaptation of this eerie story screens at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.
Lovecraft’s story about the peculiar effects of a meteor crash is bursting with visual description, textures and sounds. At first glance, it’s a rich candidate for film adaptation. You can almost hear the ‘most detestably sticky noise’ infecting the land; almost see and feel the ‘brittleness and hollowness’ of the ‘glossy’ meteor. But Lovecraft’s vivid descriptions offer only comparison and similitudes for disturbing effects that exist entirely outside our frame of reference. ‘The colour which resembled some bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all,’ writes Lovecraft. His stylistic choices highlight the limits of human knowledge and experience; the limits of our senses and language. Try imagining a new, undiscovered colour and you will appreciate the underlying challenges facing the filmmaker: how to physically present what can barely be imagined; how to make us see and hear what we are physically unable to perceive. Can visual reality ever live up to the terrifying ambiguity of Lovecraft’s figurative language? Could adapting his story be a doomed task?
The challenge of turning imagination into reality – of manifesting fear which arises, ‘not because of anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of something that is imagined’ – would dissuade many filmmakers. But writer-director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) seizes the opportunity. Stanley’s Color Out Of Space is Lovecraft on acid: everything is amplified, stretched, exploded.
Lovecraft writes that ‘no sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere were those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of the earth’. Stanley’s inspired response is to suffuse the screen with an intense purple hue and a vibrating, kaleidoscopic iridescence. By the chaotic climax, this pigment pervades everything and, as the visuals blur and warp, the beautiful becomes nightmarish.
One glance at the electric pink opening of Stanley’s debut – the now cult cyberpunk film about a genocidal robot and a post apocalyptic New York, Hardware (1990) – reveals he had the creative vision to take on Lovecraft all along. The saturated colours, atmospheric skies and disquieting, electronic score take the artistry in Hardware to the next level. Colin Stetson, the composer behind Hereditary, echoes the elongated, synthetic sound of Hardware while low, vibrating rumbles also embody the spirit of Lovecraft’s descriptions: ‘Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds’. The film’s sound design is relentlessly unnerving. High pitched noises suggest the screaming of the meteor’s victims. Throaty animal sounds evoke something twisted and malformed.
While Lovecraft avoids labelling the menacing presence as ‘alien’, always maintaining an air of mystery, Stanley accepts that his audio-visual medium will inevitably show too much and opts for shock value instead. His film is weird in the extreme, overpowering in its sheer strangeness. The loss of Lovecraft’s creepy, past tense storytelling will likely be too much for some viewers, but the trade-off is extraordinary as Stanley sucks us into the rapid, cataclysmic present tense. Eerie recollections are replaced with nutty and repulsive body horror. The film’s slimy, squirming imagery is reminiscent of Eraserhead: mind-bending and introspective. While the plot leans rather too heavily into familiar horror beats, the atmosphere is so baffling it’s almost magnetic.
Stanley adds to Lovecraft’s simple story a kooky sensibility. He updates the nineteenth century setting to the present day where it takes on the quality of a satire, poking fun at the middle classes who seek mindfulness in the rural landscape. How better to dramatise our essential fear of the outside (so prevalent in Lovecraft’s original story), than with affluent, low-key America whose idyllic existence is punctured and assaulted? Nicholas Cage is delightful as the unfulfilled patriarch of this picture-perfect family. His obsession with a herd of alpacas – the ‘animal of the future’ that was acquired at an exorbitant cost – provides a searing comic highlight. And, as the laughs add-up, Color Out Of Space begins to feel frenzied, jerking between tonal extremes.
Stanley’s interpretation of the material might be outlandish but a love of Lovecraft runs deeply through his picture. References to Hardware – ‘no flesh shall be spared’ is pasted on the teenage boy’s bedroom wall’ – go hand in hand with references to Lovecraft’s worlds. One character is seen reading Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows – a major influence on the author – while the book of black magic that appears in so many Lovecraft stories, the ‘Necronomicon’, plays a vital role in the film’s plot. Stanley infuses Color Out Of Space with witchcraft and pagan imagery, muddling it somewhat, but offering a deeply affectionate homage.
Color out of Space is that perfect blend of author and auteur. An unmistakable entry in the Stanley catalogue, it demands to be watched on the big screen. Even in its quietest moments, the film operates on a different wavelength to most in its genre. Those who let go and follow Stanley down his rabbit hole will enjoy Color Out Of Space immensely. The rest will be left asking, what on earth was that?
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF) features highly anticipated films from Noah Baumbach, Michael Winterbottom, Céline Sciamma, Robert Eggers and Marielle Heller (to name a few). It’s set to be a great year for original screenplays but there are some innovative and surprising adaptations lined up too: from Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield to Václav Marhoul’s 35mm, black and white war drama, The Painted Bird. To help you find your way through this epic programme here’s my guide to the film adaptations screening at the festival between 2nd and 13th October and the novels that inspired them. If you’re waiting in long festival queues or grabbing a coffee between screenings, these are the books you need to have in your bag!
Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immensely detailed novel is LFF’s opening night gala. Famed for his political satires (The Death of Stalin, In The Loop) and writing once again with long-time collaborator Simon Blackwell (Veep, The Thick Of It), Iannucci’s David Copperfield promises to be no ordinary costume drama. Dev Patel is cast as the titular hero in a refreshing move that flouts the conservative traditions of the genre. Speaking to Indiewire last year, Iannucci said:
“I want it to feel real and present, even though it’s set in 1840 in London. I want it to feel immediate and current. And therefore I want the cast to be much more representative of what London looks like now, and I want a lot of the behaviour in the film to feel current and contemporary.”
Worth a watch before the festival is Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, a one hour documentary made for the BBC in 2012. Here Iannucci explores the relevance of Dickens’ complex world, his humour and his darkness, in modern Britain.
This adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Waiting For The Barbarians has one of the strongest casts at this year’s LFF. Starring Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, the film explores oppression in a fictional regime. Yet its story is increasingly relevant. Producer Andrea Iervolino told The Observer that Rylance, as The Magistrate, “plays someone who realises that the government was trying to scare the population by saying that ‘the barbarians are coming, bad people are coming, the invasion is coming’. Actually, the government was only instilling fear.”
The screenplay is the first written by Coetzee himself and is directed by Ciro Guerra (Embrace Of The Serpent).
HP. Lovecraft’s short story about a strange meteor crash, The Colour Out of Space, has already been brought to the screen three times: in Daniel Haller’s Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Ivan Zuccon’s Colour From the Dark (2008) and Huan Vu’s German language film Die Farbe (2010). Now, Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) revisits the story in what the LFF programmer Michael Blyth describes as “a thrilling combination of absorbing family drama and outré sci-fi madness”. According to Blyth its a “slick, stylish and suitably perverse interpretation of Lovecraft’s notoriously ‘unfilmable’ cosmic philosophies”.
A trailer is not available yet but screenshots from the film are suffused with a swirling purple mist; a hypnotising, otherworldly, psychedelic glow. If you liked Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or the 2018 film adaptation from Alex Garland, you should definitely give Color Out Of Space a look.
Eurídice is an unfulfilled housewife in 1940s Rio de Janeiro. When her sister returns after a failed elopement, the women try to escape their mundane lives. The adaptation of this debut novel from Martha Batalha won the Prix Un Certain Regard award at Cannes earlier this year. And the film’s critical acclaim onscreen seems set to eclipse the novel itself. Variety called it “high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess,” while The Hollywood Reporter describes it as “a haunting drama that quietly celebrates the resilience of women even as they endure beaten-down existences”.
Taika Waititi’s controversial comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit has headline billing at the LFF. It’s based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens and follows a boy recruited into Hitler’s Youth. The novel has been celebrated for its emotional complexity but can Waititi, with his unique brand of zany comedy (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. What we do know, is that Waititi has added the character of Hitler, who he plays as a figure in the boy’s imagination. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Waititi said:
“To me, this movie feels like a cautionary tale… It’s not about something that happened all these years ago. It’s right on our doorstep now and we’re minutes away from this same [garbage] happening all over again.”
Jojo Rabbit promises to be the kind of radical adaptation that asks even more questions of its audience. Earlier this month it was reported that Disney, who acquired the film through the purchase of Fox Searchlight, could be worried that the film is “too edgy” and might “alienate Disney fans”. They just made it a must see.
Another tale about the Nazi occupation, The Painted Bird sees a young boy abandoned and alone wandering through Eastern Europe. The tonal opposite of Jojo Rabbit, director of festivals for the BFI, Tricia Tuttle describes the film adaptation as:
“rarely an easy watch, with scenes some will find distressing. A terrifying and highly relevant exploration of what humanity looks like when there is only vicious survival, with little space for compassion.”
Written by Jerzy Kosinski in 1965, The Painted Bird was well received on its release but became mired in controversy in the 1980s when it was revealed that the literary account was not autobiographical (as had been believed) but fictional. Kosinski’s novel, Being There, had also been cribbed from another writer. Nevertheless, Kosinski’s work has a strong pedigree on screen. Being There took home an Oscar nomination and a win in 1980. “Shot in starkly beautiful 35mm black and white by Kolya cinematographer Vladimír Smutný,” says Tuttle, “The Painted Bird’s textures recall both the crispness of The Bicycle Thief and squalor of Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God.” The innovative trailer radiates horror, set almost entirely to the sound of heavy, rapid breathing.
This murder mystery thriller starring Alicia Vikander is set to hit Netflix in November. LFF offers a rare opportunity to catch it on the big screen.
Vikander plays Lucy Fly, an English woman in Tokyo accused of murder. In their review of the novel, The Telegraph says, with much relish, that Lucy “displays a self-sufficiency, a disregard for whether or not she is being amiable, which is death by a hundred snubs”. It will be interesting to see how the adaptation handles this strong first person narrator. Festival programmer, Kate Taylor, bills it as “a moody and intriguing update on 1980s psycho-sexual thrillers, shifting the emphasis onto the psychology of the female protagonist”. The film comes from Wash Westmoreland, the writer-director behind the female driven films Still Alice and Colette.
Gomorrah, a startling account of the Neoplitan mafia and the first book from investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, was adapted into an award winning film in 2008 and a television series in 2014. Now The Piranhas, Saviano’s novel about child gangs in Naples, comes to LFF. It’s directed by Claudio Giovannesi (Fiore, Alì Blue Eyes) with a screenplay written in collaboration with Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah) and Saviano himself.
Piranhas took home the Silver Bear for best screenplay at Berlinale where it also received a best film nomination for the Golden Bear. At LFF, it’s billed as “a teenage Scarface meets Romeo and Juliet”. And if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will.
American writer Jack London is most famous for his novel The Call of the Wild. But Martin Eden, written just three years later in 1909, is said to be his most autobiographical. Martin struggles to rise out of poverty, through the class system, to be recognised as a member of the literary establishment.
This is the first time Martin Eden has been adapted for the big screen and the action is transplanted to Naples in this Italian production (it’s the second film written by Piranhas’ Maurizio Braucci screening at the festival).
Chief executive of Film London, Adam Wootton describes how the adaptation, “mixes drama with archive footage to create a unique fable that demonstrates the imaginative vision and creative skill of director Pietro Marcello”. Marcello’s 2015 film Lost and Beautiful featured in Indiewire’s critic poll of the top ten best undistributed films.
This animation, based on the Italian children’s book The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, comes from the producers of The Red Turtle (2016). It’s directed by Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti whose bright, clean 2D animation has a trace of nostalgia that befits the 1945 classic book.
Back then, Buzzati told a story of starving bears battling with humans before adopting human traits themselves. No surprise then, that it’s been likened to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Retold in 2019 however, it could be the kind of film that sparks fierce debate. For instance, Jay Weissberg for Variety has already argued that: “The revised storyline… about how bears and humans clash, make amends, and then realize they’re too different to live together, can lead to unfortunate and inadvertent interpretations neither Mattotti nor the original author Dino Buzzati intended”.
Adaptations of the graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer (starring Rob Brydon and Tamsin Grieg) and the play Luce (starring Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Tim Roth) are also screening at this year’s LFF. Foreign language adaptations of Laurence Olivier’s novelGhost Town Anthology, Colin Niel’s Only The Animals and Anna Woltz’s My Extraordinary Summer With Tessshould be on your radar too. Unfortunately, however, these novels aren’t currently available in English translations. And finally, this year’s closing night gala is Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman adapted from Charles Brandt’s true-crime biography I Heard You Paint Houses. The film has already set Twitter on fire with news of its three-and-a-half hour run time.
How does the target audience change the content of film adaptations? In this post I explore how film marketing is used to ‘bait’ novel readers and how the desire for mass-market appeal influences the style and content of film adaptations through censorship and screen tests.
PART TWO: THE RULE OF THE MOB
‘To leverage book equity and have a successful opening for a book-based movie,’ say Amit Joshi and Huifang Mao in Adapting To Succeed, producers should ‘select recent best-selling books and make films of close adaptation”. But, by their own admission, their research had one conspicuous gap: it did’t differentiate between viewers who had read the book and those who hadn’t.
There is evidence to suggest that some viewers prepare for their film experience by seeking out the novel in advance. Film tie-in copies of My Cousin Rachel, for instance, saw the novel’s sales increase immediately before the film opened. This trend was born out in a short poll I ran recently on Twitter. Yet exit polls for film adaptations of Brick Lane, We Need To Talk About Kevin and even the literary phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which hit 2 million UK book sales and 15 million US sales in the year of its film release), revealed that readers make up only a limited portion of the audience (31%, 39% and 43% of viewers respectively). Filmmakers often talk about their desire to remain faithful to the spirit of their source material, but only a small portion of their audience are likely to have a clear idea of this material in the first place.
It is more likely that the financial demands of the industry requires filmmakers to appeal to different markets than that of the novel; in other words, to appeal to mass-markets. And often this means changing the novel’s content. As George Bluestone said in 1973, ‘Movies are simply too expensive to provide the kind of variety that the novel allows’. It seems little has changed.
The Impact of Censorship on Film Adaptations
Most recently, the debate about the impact of ‘catering to the tastes of a mass audience’ has landed on the erosion of sex scenes in cinema. ‘Today, films need only to get bums on seats, not to cater for them once comfy’, says Catherine Shoard, film editor for The Guardian, ‘This means there is studio pressure to sanitise and so secure as low a certification as possible – particularly in the US, where most English-language films sink or swim, and where an NC-17 rating (meaning you have to be 18 or over) is a cold shower for your commercial prospects.’ Last year in the UK, certificate 18 films made up a mere 4.8% of total releases. They took home a disproportionate 2.6% of the total box office.
‘The summer begins with a new crop of sexually explicit, mostly European movies set off from Cannes to the festival circuit and eventually to brief art-house runs, while Hollywood churns out its chief export of gun-happy escapism and wholesome kid stuff,’ says Ann Hornaday for The Washington Post, ‘Between those two channels the classic sex scene – once a staple of high-gloss, adult-oriented, mainstream movies – has been largely forgotten and ignored’.
Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Call Me By Your Name fell into this chasm in 2017. The rich, fevered, sensual novel by André Aciman, on which the film is based, is told in the first person from the perspective of seventeen year old Elio. His frank and vivid descriptions of complicated desire – including his first sexual experience with a man – are the very essence of the novel. Take the complex emotions in this passage:
Two versions of James Ivory’s screenplay (you can read the scenes by downloading the pdf below) reveal a gradual erosion of the love scene’s realism on screen. Even the descriptive language is softened into cliché – ‘make love’ – as Elio’s consent is made clear. In an interview with The Guardian, screenwriter James Ivory was disdainful about the film’s treatment of sex, ‘When people are wandering around before or after making love, and they’re decorously covered with sheets, it’s always seemed phoney to me’.
In the final cut, Guadagnino pans across from the lovers and out of the window. It’s a cheesy device that cheats the viewer of a sincere human connection. ‘The sex scene has been reduced to a shorthand, an instantly recognizable grammar that begins with some jokey or flirtatious foreplay, cuts to some flesh (tasteful enough to honor the actors’ no-nudity clauses), then discreetly cuts away when things get real,’ says Hornaday, ‘You know what happens next, the camera seems to tell us. Do you really want me to spell it out for you?’.
Guadagnino’s treatment of the scene was controversial. Hornaday notes how movies like Milk and Brokeback Mountain, that ‘broke ground in representing gay protagonists’, have often ‘shied away from depicting the most intimate mechanics of men having sex, to the consternation of viewers who wanted to see their sexuality represented and normalized’. Others, like Vox contributor Alex Abad-Santos, were baffled ‘that anyone could adapt a novel whose greatest strength is that it shows the thrill, madness, eroticism, and regret of sex, and decide to minimize those feelings and emotions’. His words reveal how the use of the novel as bait in the film’s marketing can actually lead to disappointment: we have come to expect that the film will be a close approximation of the novel. Both Shoard and Abad-Santos go on to speculate about the role of awards season posturing in the tone of the scene.
The Impact of Screen Tests on Film Adaptations
In 2009, the desire for a PG-13 rating moulded the content of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones (2009). The novel explores the consequences of the rape and murder of a teenage girl but ‘we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch,’ said Jackson in conversation with SYFI Wire, adding ‘there are a lot of positive aspects of this film… So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all’. But at the film’s screen test, audiences demanded more violence, not during the girl’s murder but at the film’s resolution: they wanted to see the killer suffer.
The authority of the screen-test has shaped the content of numerous film adaptations. The story behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is, by now, renowned: production was defined by discord between screenwriter and director, loss of financial backing and micro-management by its new funders. In this environment the screen testers had considerable power. A loose adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film’s voiceover narration and uncharacteristic, happy ending resulted from screen-test feedback. On its release in 1982 it was commercial flop. Even the 1992 Director’s Cut paid ‘lip service to the director’s design’ while actually resulting from ‘commercial imperatives,’ says Sean Redmond in Studying Blade Runner. But what this second release revealed was just how wrong the screen-test audience had got it. This version reinstated Scott’s bleak ending and added further ambiguity: it became a ‘mainstream commercial success’.
Spielberg’s Jaws offers a more positive spin on the screen-test. At its early screenings, Jaws created such a huge response (including one man running to the bathroom to vomit) that the filmmakers ‘set about calibrating the mysterious alchemy that seemed to have sprung up between Jaws and its audience,’ says Tom Shone in his book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Spielberg was overjoyed that his film had one big scream and set out to create another, much earlier in the movie. But this new surprise altered the film’s dynamic: from this moment on, his audience became ‘defensive’, always ‘looking for something something to pop out’. The second, original, scream arrived once again but, this time, it was ‘only half as intense’. ‘Spielberg had gone for two screams, and got them,’ says Shone, ‘but somehow they didn’t top the one scream he started out with’. In all three of these examples – The Lovely Bones, Blade Runner, Jaws – crucial decisions about content had very little to do with the novel at all.
The Value of Crowd-Pleasing Adaptations
The content of adaptations is shaped, in part, by the particular demands of the film industry and by the desires of audiences who are different from readers – both demographically and in their relationship with the source material. Yet evidence shows that baiting audiences with references to the novel in a film’s marketing does work, particularly in the case of well known classics. More than half of people surveyed after watching Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights said their awareness of Emily Brontë’s novel contributed to their decision to see the film.
It is easy to get frustrated with industry business models that favour 12A certificates and crowd pleasing subject matter, shying away from literary content that is potentially challenging. Yet it is important not to undervalue financially successful, mass-market adaptations. In the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes research just 5% of audiences stated that they watched independent films with smaller budgets ‘most often’, identifying a ‘distinct sub-current of thought that art film was by its very nature serious, avant-garde and hard to understand’. This reputation buys independent filmmakers and their films a certain degree of freedom, their small but loyal fanbases often empowering them to make bold decisions about the treatment of their source material. Arnold, for instance, embraced the cruelest and most violent elements of Brontë’s novel, even depicting Heathcliff’s grief-induced necrophilia.
That there remains a strong desire to make films like this is evident in the sheer number of dramas made from novels and short stories in 2018 (a whopping 46%). Many of these low budget features made a bigger profit, in percentage terms, than their big budget counterparts. Yet they also remain a significant risk, with limited earning potential in real terms. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, with rising star Saoirse Ronan, made just $3.4 million at the worldwide box office; the lauded You Were Never Really here just $7.4 million. Clio Barnard’s excellent Dark River made just $200,000. It is the profits made from mass-market, high-grossing films that enable distributors to take these risks. We would not have a film industry without them.
Ever wondered if readers and film audiences are really so different? Does the film industry’s profit motive mean pandering to mass audiences? And does the need to make big bucks affect the type of film adaptations that are made? Or even influence their content? In the first instalment of a two part feature I look at the demographics of readers and film audiences and explore how the mass-market influences the type of adaptations in production.
PART ONE: THE PROFIT MOTIVE
In the early 1970s George Bluestone’s seminal book Novels Into Film effectively kicked off film adaptation theory. ‘Big business has always treated the film as a commodity,’ he declared, ‘While a novel can sell 20,000 volumes and make substantial profit, the film must reach millions’.
Novel sales are not guaranteed, but authors’ advances are the result of carefully calculated projections and manufacturing costs are relatively predictable. By comparison, movie making continues to be an expensive business. In 2017 the average (median) budget for co-production films in the UK was £3.5 million. For inward investment features (ie. those features funded by international sources such as the US), this figure rises to £11 million. Even adaptations that appear relatively low-key – like Can You Ever Forgive Me and If Beale Street Could Talk – come with sizeable production budgets.
Exacerbating the film industry’s profit motive is the relatively short window in which movies can make back their costs. In 2017, research by the BFI revealed that while ‘television remained the most popular platform in the UK for watching film’, it is cinema-going that remains ‘the largest single revenue source for the film industry’. Novels can gain traction over a number of weeks and months, but a film’s financial success is largely determined by its opening weekend. Films that perform badly are quickly removed from multiplex timetables.
‘It is hard to conceive a more risky business than trying to produce a profitable film,’ says Dean Keith Simonton in his book Great Flicks. ‘It is telling,’ he says, ‘that Donald Trump… had originally planned to become a movie producer but eventually switched to the real estate business when he realised that it would be much more reliably profitable’.
Now a 2018 report for the Publishers Association claims that basing films on novels can help to reduce this risk in three main ways: by demonstrating the story has potential mass-market appeal; by helping to attract quality talent; and by providing a positive contribution to the marketing campaign. ‘Adapted material is concentrated among high-grossing films,’ claims the report, receiving ‘on average, higher critical acclaim’. But how is the profit motive driving the industry’s choice of projects?
Who’s Watching? Film Adaptation Audiences
Let’s get technical for a moment. Statistics relating specifically to audiences of film adaptations are sparse, largely because these films cross-cut so many different genres and target groups. What we do know is that cinema-going audiences as a whole are skewed towards the younger, male population. In 2017, 28% of UK cinema audiences were aged 15-24 and 54% of these were male. Although this group continues to ‘outweigh those aged 55 or over by a factor of almost 3 to 1,’ says the British Film Institute in its 2018 Yearbook, cinema attendance amongst older audiences is growing. The over 45s now make up more than 20% of cinema audiences. And, in this group, women are much more evenly represented.
‘It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for this’ growth, says the report. But ‘we might have expected the audience profile in 2017 to have shown an increase in the proportion of 55+ cinema-goers… given the growth in both accessible and ‘silver’ screenings and the number of films released during the year with appeal to this demographic’. Indeed, the ‘silver screen’ or ‘grey pound’ genre began to gain serious traction at the turn of 2011/2012 with the release of Jane Eyre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel claims the BFI. All are adaptions of novels. Could film adaptations actually be fuelling growth in this market? If so, demand for adaptations that reflect their particular preferences (for historical novels and dramatic features) is likely to increase as the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement.
The Relationship Between Reading & Watching
Indeed, when we look at the 2018 films where the audience contained a higher than average proportion of people aged over 55, almost half were based on novels (see the results by clicking on the image below). A further three were based on non-fiction books. This shouldn’t surprise us. Statistics from Kantar Media found that those describing themselves as heavy readers (reading more than ten books a year) were 26% more likely to be over 65. By comparison, those aged 15-24 were 32% less likely to identify themselves in this way.
It follows that just one of the top ten 2017 films with a higher than average proportion of 15-24’s in their audience was based on a novel: Stephen King’s It. King is amongst a number of ‘go-to’ authors whose work comes with a near guarantee of box-office success.
As readers, 15-24s are almost twice as likely to choose fantasy and adventure novels and 59% more likely to choose sci-fi. The film industry recognises the preferences of its primary market and this is reflected in its spending. In 2018, while 46% of film adaptations (of novels or short stories) were dramas, only two – Fifty Shades Freed and 12 Strong – ranked in the top twenty for production budgets. They cost significantly less (at $55 million and $35 million respectively) than action adaptations of The Meg ($178 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($170 million) and adventure Ready Player One ($150 million). It comes as no surprise then, that these genres brought home a bigger share of the worldwide box office (34% and 31% respectively) than the 11% share of drama.
The action, adventure and thriller genres play to cinema’s strengths; to the unique selling point of cinema as an experience. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that it was blockbuster films with big budget special effects and a star cast that 49% of participants in the BFI’s Opening Our Eyes survey stated that they watched ‘most often’. ‘The spectacular visual and audio experience’ was an important factor in deciding whether to watch a film at the cinema for 39% of people, a preference that was strongest among younger audiences.
This no doubt contributes to the reimagining of classic literary characters in genres favoured by the youth market. In the last ten years, Sherlock Holmes, for instance, has respawned in an action franchise starring Robert Downey Jr and a comedy starring Will Ferrell. Adaptations that can be sold as 3D, 4DX or IMAX present studios with another opportunity to entice young audiences into the multiplex. Why wait for a film to become available online if this means missing out on one of its key draws?
The Importance of Story
Readers and cinema-goers are a diverse bunch, but there is much correlation between what individuals read and what they watch. Perhaps most importantly, readers and film-goers share a common interest in the arts. ‘A strong interest in film correlates with a stronger than average interest in many other forms of leisure and cultural pursuit,’ says the Opening Our Eyes report, ‘This seems to place film enthusiasts amongst the group in society most culturally and socially engaged’.
Story, of course, is the lifeblood of both film and literature. Indeed, it is cinema’s biggest attraction. 56% of the survey’s participants said ‘story’ played an important part in their decision to visit. This makes film adaptations of the novel an extremely attractive proposition for producers. The Publishing Association uses academic research to claim that ‘films adapted from books tend to have a richer more fully-developed story to draw on, thus increasing the probability that the plot of the film is captivating for audiences’.
Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, the ability to capitalise on an existing fan-base can only be a boon for the film industry. In Part Two we explore both how the novel is used in film marketing to ‘bait’ audiences and how the desire for mass-market appeal can impact upon the content of adaptations themselves.
What does Amores Perros mean? And how does writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu use this debut to establish his filmmaking style and themes?
There are few filmmakers whose work I revere more that of Alejandro González Iñárritu. It was his second film, 21 Grams that first opened my eyes to cinema as an art. Prior to Oscars sensations Birdman and The Revenant, Iñárritu dealt unflinchingly with some of the most distressing aspects of humanity. From Mexican dog fighters to victims of human trafficking, his characters come from some of the most deprived communities. Sometimes battling terminal illnesses (which Iñárritu viscerally depicts) they experience the cruelty and violence of life and death. Each of his first four films – Amores Perros (2001), 21 Grams (2004), Babel (2007) and Biutiful (2011) – elicits a very personal response from the viewer.
Now Amores Perros has returned to MUBI as part of their Cannes Takeover and, if you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend you tune in and watch before reading what’s next.
Death Versus Survival
Amores Perros opens with a frenetic car chase. A dog is dying on the back seat while the driver desperately tries to evade those pursuing him through the busy streets of Mexico. The chase ends in a cataclysmic crash that ties together three separate stories in the past, present and the future. As we flashback to the past, the driver seduces his brothers wife. The crash is the crisis point of his story. From here, the film propels us into the present where one of the crash victims, a model, copes with her disfigurement. In the future, a former hit-man rescues the dog from the wreckage and is set on a redemptive path.
Amores Perros is the first film in what has become known as Iñárritu’s ‘death trilogy’ but the term is a loose one. The characters of these films are exposed, not only to the physical deaths of family, friends and animals, but the metaphorical deaths of hopes, dreams and ideals. Iñárritu has himself questioned the accuracy of the label ‘death trilogy’, the films dealing as much with dying as surviving; with the desperate struggle to live. He would go on to explore survival very literally in The Revenant – which treks through the snowy wilderness with a frontiersman left for dead after a bear attack – and metaphorically, through the attempts of a washed up actor trying to cement his artistic legacy, in Birdman.
It is interesting that Biutiful, Iñárritu’s fourth offering and, arguably, his most distressing film, sits outside of the so-called ‘death trilogy’. Like 21 Grams, it follows a dying man but tells the story in a straight line (Iñárritu was so committed to this that he actually filmed it chronologically). Biutiful also establishes a more concentrated perspective – telling not three stories but one – resulting in a more intimate atmosphere. “Biutiful is a tough film,” says Iñárritu in conversation with The Telegraph, “It doesn’t make concessions to the vulgarity of light entertainment. It’s not the kind of film that you see, every day, in the Cineplex”. And yet the film is “about life,” he says, “It’s a hymn to life,”. Speaking to Collider in 2010, he argued that by “observing life through death, from the last point of it,” we are able to perceive that “the life has more meaning”. Death enables us to perceive life differently.
Indeed, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are also films about love and living, exploring family ties and passionate affairs. Iñárritu describes Amores Perros (in the film’s behind the scenes documentary) as being about “love”: the suffering that comes with love’s loss; with dependency; with the need to be desired; and with loneliness in a city of 20 million people. Even 21 Grams – which explores the interconnected stories of a dying heart patient, a grieving wife and an ex-convict tied together by (another) tragic car accident – reminds us that life goes on, not always as we might expect and often in spite of our anguish. By focussing too heavily on the films as a ‘death trilogy’, it easy to overlook their finer, humanistic elements.
The Spanish title of Amores Perros, for instance, has many meanings. The English title is offered up as ‘Love’s A Bitch’ but the title has also been described as an oxymoron that suggests both ‘that which is good and desirable in life’ and ‘that which is miserable’. While ‘perros’ directly translates to ‘dogs’ it has also been translated pejoratively as ‘an unworthy person’, ‘a hired killer’, ‘a prostitute’ and ‘an unfaithful person’, all labels that appear in the film. This ambiguity, this openness to interpretation is characteristic of Iñárritu’s work. Amores Perros, in particular, is opaque and multi-layered, raising questions about fate and love with a lightness of touch, with metaphor and gentle, visual suggestion. The closer you watch Amores Perros, the more it reveals. Let’s take a look at some of the motifs Iñárritu uses in Amores Perros and what they might mean.
1. Dogs: Instincts & Emotions
In the first segment, a young woman, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), struggles to raise her young child in a violent relationship with her husband Ramiro (Marco Pérez). Ramiro’s brother, Octavio (Gael García Bernal), treats Susana with warmth and kindness but bad feelings towards his abusive brother twist into a desire to run away with his wife. Taken over by lust, Octavio becomes sexually aggressive towards the woman he covets and increasingly violent towards his own brother. Octavio’s battle against his own animal instincts are encapsulated in the shot below. He holds back a fighting dog – the symbol of his own aggression – reigning it in and restraining it, its teeth bared and rearing up, until he no longer can, until the count is up. It is in these fighting pits, through these savage animals, that violent male rivalries play out.
The journey of Octavio’s dog, Cofi, mirrors his own. Cofi begins life as a pet but becomes a fierce, bloodthirsty animal when Octavio enters him into the fighting ring for cash. The fights are bloody and brutal, emphasised by rapid cuts and a shaky camera. The blood becomes a motif that connects the violence of aggression to that of Ramiro (against his wife), Octavio (against his brother) and the assassin. In the film’s behind the scenes documentary, actor Gael García Bernal describes Octavio’s desire as “an uncontrollable animal force that makes him do terrible things”. Both Octavio and Cofi are left seriously wounded as their third act begins.
Cofi is rescued from the wreckage by El Chivo (Emilio Echevarría), a former assassin, grieving for the happy family life has given up. El Chivo now spends his life with dogs; walking the streets with strays. In what is arguably the film’s most devastating scene, El Chivo returns home to discover Cofi has attacked and killed all the other animals he’s rescued. El Chivo points a gun at him, but he cannot shoot. Cofi represents El Chivo himself: a killer. The complex relationships we have with our dogs come to represent those we have with ourselves. “Masters take after their dogs you know,” says El Chivo who, awakened to his crimes, embarks on a path of redemption. In the closing lines of the film, Cofi is renamed ‘Blackie’, becoming a pet once again as El Chivo steps out into a wide open expanse (the first such shot in a claustrophobic film) in search of absolution.
While the present day story – of model Valeria (Goya Toledo) and her lover Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) – is the least integrated in terms of its plot, dogs remain a vital device in the storytelling. Like Valeria, lap-dog Richie is beautiful and pampered. When Valeria becomes housebound, returning from the hospital in a wheelchair, Richie falls into a hole in the floor and becomes trapped. Valeria believes the rats are eating him. Over the next two weeks her mental health spirals and, just like Richie, she becomes lost in the darkness. Richie will not return to his owner’s calls; Valeria has lost control of him and her own life.
There are echoes of the ferocious dog fights in the couple’s viscous arguments as Valeria copes with the loss of her former life. But it is the sound of Richie whimpering beneath the floor that puts an end this hostility: he becomes Valeria’s hope.
2. Photographs: Parents & Brothers
El Chivo is similarly grappling with the loss of the life he could have had. He carries around an old photograph album and returns time and again to a picture of his daughter’s graduation, pasting a photo of his own face over that of her step father. At the moment of his awakening, El Chivo puts on his glasses and looks up at the photograph of his daughter perched above his bed.
Iñárritu uses photographs throughout Amores Perros to communicate the importance of family which is disintegrating around the characters. El Chivo takes Octavio’s wallet from the crash and, perusing it, finds photographs of Octavio with his brother Ramiro. They are smiling. Revealed here, in the final act, the image is particularly tragic. Any return to these happy times seems impossible.
By pulling Octavio and Ramiro into El Chivo’s story in this way, Iñárritu is able to further deepen his exploration of brotherly rivalries. Indeed, El Chivo’s first redemptive act is to bring two more feuding brothers face to face: one has paid him to kill the other. These two brothers appear in one of the film’s final images, each in their corners reaching to the centre of the room for a gun. Has El Chivo set up a reconciliation? Or will it be a fight to the death? The composition of the shot echoes the very dog fights with which Amores Perros began.
Iñárritu revisited this theme in his next film Babel. The final instalment in the ‘death trilogy’ opens in Morocco. Two boys, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), are left in charge of a rifle. Their father instructs them to ward off jackals while the family’s goats graze on the mountains. But the boys become distracted and start shooting at targets. The youngest aims at a coach on the road below and accidentally shoots an American tourist. These actions have repercussions for a Mexican nanny in San Diego and the daughter of a Japanese hunter in Tokyo. The brothers’ rivalry sets the tragic accident in motion. Yussef is jealous of his brother’s masculinity: his success with women and ability to shoot. The accident happens as he tries to prove himself.
The horrified father of Yussef and Ahmed in Babel is forced to contemplate his own role in the fate of his children. Fatherhood, too, is a recurring theme in Iñárritu’s work. A daughter becomes a valuable part of her father’s legacy in Birdman; a dying father passes on his family history to his children in Buitiful. Both of these fathers are able to remain in their children’s lives in ways that El Chivo cannot.
Absent parents are a tragic reality in Amores Perros. Susana remains dependent on an abusive husband because her mother is an alcoholic and her father an absentee. Valeria, meanwhile, is estranged from her parents who disapprove of her modelling career. Iñárritu flirts with this conflict as Valeria leafs through photo albums and glossy magazines.
3. Advertising: Desire & Disposability
Valeria is the face of ‘Enchant’ perfume and her image appears plastered onto buildings across Mexico City. She is standing in a suggestive pose, teasing up her short dress to reveal long elegant legs. The image is a provocative one and it elicits lustful reactions from the film’s male characters. In its hyper-masculine environment, lust and sexual aggression work to disintegrate family: as the film’s title tells us, ‘love’s a bitch’. Desire is a corrupting force that can lead to violence. Octavio sleeps with his brother’s wife; Daniel leaves his wife and children to be with Valeria.
The selfishness of men permeates the film’s plot: Susana labels Ramiro ‘selfish’ when he wakes the baby she has taken so long to settle; and Valeria accuses Daniel of selfishness when he refuses to take up the floor to find Richie. Yet the relationship between Valeria and Daniel – arising from an affair – outlasts our expectations of it.
As Valeria comes to terms with the loss of her physical beauty (as it is defined by the modelling industry), the Enchant billboards remind us of love’s tests and the fragility of lust. They are also Valeria’s torment. A billboard hangs across the street from her apartment providing a cruel reminder of her former life. Eventually the billboard is taken down and replaced with a sign, ‘space available’. It’s a crushing moment. Valeria has been discarded; she is as disposable as the dead dogs in Octavio’s fighting ring. Just as the dogs were not loved by their owners, neither has Valeria’s beauty and fame brought her love from her employers or fans. It’s amongst the worst of human traits, to dispose so carelessly of what we no longer believe we need. Valeria now faces an identity crisis; one that is shared by El Chivo who describes himself as “a living ghost”.
The hollow, vacuous nature of advertising and glossy magazines is revealed in the juxtaposition of the advert and the struggles of the film’s working class characters. The remoteness of this ideal for Octavio and Susana is particularly cutting. Octavio’s bedroom is adorned with images of cars cut from magazines and adverts. When he finally obtains the car of his dreams, the montage compares his aggressive sexuality with the now relatively subdued behaviour of his brother. He has been corrupted, bewitched by desire and greed.
Iñárritu would go on to explore the hollow state of Hollywood ambition in the Oscar winning Birdman and it’s hard to think of a director who could do this kind of self-analysing, industry-scrutinising film better. Iñárritu’s early films were short lived at the multiplexes despite reaping widespread critical acclaim. In Birdman he peels back the layers of conflict between the artistic, the worthwhile and the popular. “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit,” says Birdman in one of the many metaphorical conversations that happen inside the washed-up actor’s head. The scenes play out in an absurd, surrealist style, feeding a piercing, relevant debate about cinema’s current obsession with comic book films. It could be Iñárritu himself talking, as Edward Norton has intimated about his own lines in the film.
The success of Iñárritu’s trilogy lies in the creativity of its storytelling. All three films saw Iñárritu collaborate with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga whose screenplays share complex non-linear narrative structures, intricately connecting the disparate lives of three sets of characters. The result is a single thematic story about family, love, fate, hope and survival. “To make God laugh,” says Susana in Amores Perros, “tell him your plans”. Sadly, Babel marked the end of this relationship. In 2006, Iñárritu reportedly banned Arriaga from the film’s Cannes screening. Arriaga, a fierce advocate for the role of screenwriters had, apparently, been too vociferous about his role in 21 Grams.
Terrence Rafferty for (The New Yorker) recognised the irony in this quarrel:
In the behind the scenes documentary for the Blu-Ray release of Amores Perros, Iñárritu said “it was as if all the departments stepped back, allowing the characters’ stories to run their course, and I hope my direction won’t be noticeable”. Arriaga’s claim, that films should be perceived, not as the work of a single auteur, but auteurs, seems to be born out in Iñárritu’s filmography. The director’s first three films feel markedly different from the next. While Iñárritu has gone on to prove his dexterity with comedy Birdman and IMAX epic The Revenant, the feud is a devastating one for cinema. Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are in a class of their own.
Companion Pieces is a new series of 10-15 minute reads exploring cinematic and literary parallels. In this first instalment, I explore the links between Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s recent film adaptation of the same name and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Taken together, these three journeys through the American west reveal how greed, grief and a guilty conscience can be soothed by the simple comforts of family, friendship and home. But the question of what lies beyond their collection of ironic deaths can only be answered by the Coens.
Patrick deWitt’s 2011 Booker shortlisted novel The Sisters Brothers is both a western adventure and a crime caper. Two accomplished killers, the Sisters brothers, travel from Oregon to California with instructions to murder a red-bearded prospector and supposed thief named Hermann Kermit Warm.
Their journey involves many chance encounters with strange and tragic figures, setting up mysteries that are never resolved. In a landscape soaked in killing and death, the first of these characters, the ‘weeping man’, seems to embody the grief of the entire American west. The precise source of his suffering is never revealed but the book’s narrator, Eli Sisters, believes it has ‘made him insane’.
Reading the novel’s peculiar chance encounters, my mind turned to the cruel and strange western landscapes of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. The minds behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski have often incorporated western tropes in their work but True Grit marked an overt and uncharacteristically straight foray into the genre. The film’s plot is remarkably faithful to the simple revenge story of Charles Portis’ source novel, but the addition of a scavenging medicine man – donned in a bear skin and emerging like an absurd predatory animal from the snowy vista with the decomposing body of an unknown man – underlines the distorted values of the west. “I will entertain an offer for the rest of him” says the wanderer. The human body is a commodity and one man’s loss is another’s gain.
Like the films of the Coens, The Sisters Brothers is soaked in a bleak, tragicomic sensibility. The novel’s brief encounters are injected with irony and wry observations; its supporting characters are often the victims of simple bad luck. When the Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, spend the night in a witch’s cabin Eli dreams that the old woman is pouring a ‘heavy black liquid’ into the mouth of his brother, Charlie. The next morning, the witch is gone but a strange string of beads is left hanging above the door. Fearing a curse, the brothers refuse to pass beneath it. This choice results in the slaughter of five men when Charlie Sisters climbs out of the cabin’s small window and attempts to steal their axe to make a larger opening for his brother. For these dead men it is a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Coens would make their own ruthless journey across the American west in the 2018 film, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. This, a collection of six unrelated stories tied together by the turning pages of a western adventure book, feels like an accidental, spiritual relative of The Sisters Brothers sharing not only its tone and atmosphere but many of its themes.
Both share a similar cast of ne’er-do-wells. There are robbers and swindlers and bounty hunters; trappers and chancers and prospectors. Each of the film’s six stories gives us just enough to satisfy our curiosity and build a potent impression of grief, anguish and (sometimes) hope. Like deWitt, the Coens encourage us to sympathise with their eclectic characters before fate often deals them a cruel blow. The absence of obvious connections and ‘back stories’ conjures the spirit of a journey filled with such fleeting encounters and, added together, the stories are much bigger than the sum of their parts.
“People are like ferrets or a beaver, all pretty much alike” says the loquacious trapper in the Ballad’s final segment The Mortal Remains. But the trapper’s listeners do not agree and instead set about a process of binary categorisation: “lucky and unlucky,” “hale and frail,” “townsman and trapper,” “upright and sinning”.
The chance encounters in Patrick deWitt’s novel add up to a bleak and tragic picture of the American west but this is drawn out and embodied in the characterisation of the contrasting brothers. While Eli can be hot tempered, he is also kind and generous, desiring little more than intimacy and home comforts. Charlie, by comparison, is trigger happy, impressed by power and money and ‘too lazy to be good’. ‘Our blood is the same,’ says Eli, ‘we just use it differently’.
While Charlie is out finding the axe to help Eli escape the witches cabin, Eli actually passes beneath the witches beads to save his horse from a bear attack. ‘It occurred to me,’ admits Eli later, ‘that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want to save but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood’. The mysterious encounter is echoed in two otherworldly ‘Intermissions’ later in the novel, that suggest Eli’s good deed has left him ‘protected’ and Charlie cursed.
In his 2019 adaptation of deWitt’s novel, Jaques Audiard omits these peculiar supernatural events but homes in on the tangible differences between the brothers. Each scene works to compare and contrast them, exploring the fraternal bond that ties them together. Audiard’s is an affectionate take on the men, a warm tale of brotherly love overcoming all obstacles.
Audiard opens by establishing the brothers’ confused morality, setting up a redemptive journey. After shooting their way through a house full of men Eli (John C. Reilly) runs into a burning stable to rescue his horse but returns empty handed. When he asks Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), rather remorsefully, “How many do you think we killed?”, it is unclear whether he’s referring to the men or the horses.
We first meet the novel’s Eli similarly tormented by the death of his horse in a barn fire at the end of their previous job:
“I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs.”
Eli is given a replacement horse, a slow and overweight animal already named Tub, in partial payment for this work. This ‘trouble with the horses’ cleverly sets up Eli’s emotional journey – his reluctant but burgeoning relationship with Tub echoes his moral growth – and establishes a power imbalance between the brothers. Charlie takes the better horse and, along with his recent promotion to ‘lead man’, this threatens to fracture the brothers’ relationship.
That this ‘adventure’ arrives at the end of the brothers’ career amplifies its melancholy and allows deWitt to consider the role of choice, genetics and upbringing in the brothers’ current lifestyle. In drawing this out, Audiard makes much of the brothers’ relationship with their father. Charlie asks Eli if he is worried about “passing it on”, by which he means their father’s violence. This thread is echoed in newly invented conversations between Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and the brothers’ scout, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), about their own fathers.
Both the novel and its film adaptation are a journey home. It is their violence that prevents the brothers from returning to their mother, who will not have them until they have given up their grisly careers. Instead Eli searches for home comforts in the arms of women, refusing to pay for their company and instead winning their affection with kindness. He tries to change his appearance by brushing his teeth and losing weight. In Audiard’s film this sophistication ties him to the reformed and altruistic Morris.
The comfort provided by human intimacy is also a recurring theme in the Coen’s The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. In the segment Near Algodones a bank robber who has already cheated death once before looks upon a pretty girl before he is hanged. Later, in The Gal Who Got Rattled, marriage and companionship offer an escape from a life of hardship, loneliness and fear. That these comforts are snatched away from the characters in ironic twists of fate and luck, makes Ballad a near agonising experience. ‘Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalogue and make room for,’ says the novel’s Eli on abandoning a malnourished urchin in a dead prospectors tent. Viewers of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs may be inclined to agree with him. Many of the images it presents are truly wretched, the very worst of humanity and cruel fate.
But the Coens’ twists are more than mere stylistic inflections, revealing truths about the human experience. The Gal Who Got Rattled explores the old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, while the inscrutable traveller in Meal Ticket exposes our reluctance to accept and face human suffering. In this, the film’s most troubling segment, a quadriplegic orator (Harry Melling) is thrown over a ravine by his coachman and carer (Liam Neeson) when the audiences for his gloomy performances start to wane. He is replaced by the popular but intellectually bankrupt animal act, the ‘chicken pythagorean’. Both of these segments explore the struggles of dependents, one that similarly emerges through the women and children of deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.
Much can be gleaned by the Coens’ choice of songs and poems. The material of the quadriplegic orator, which includes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and Shelley’s Ozymandias, drags us deep into his despair:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope”
His nightly performances are repeated in montage but their delivery becomes more impassioned when the orator is denied the intimacy of a female companion. In the cruel American west, such a connection is a rare and exquisite comfort.
If Eli Sisters has accepted the nourishing value of human intimacy, Charlie is still on a quest for gold and glory. The plot of The Sisters Brothers is caught up in the avarice of the gold rush, something the Coens’ similarly explore in the Ballads’ prospector segment All Gold Canyon. Here man plunders nature for financial gain, bringing violence and brutality into the calm and tranquil natural world; the ‘mighty sweep of earth’ where there was no trace of man. The ageing prospector is one of the film’s few characters to escape a cruel twist of fate, but it spells disaster for the natural landscape. The Sisters brothers own experiment with prospecting has devastating consequences for wildlife and the slaughter of a red-backed bear for the price placed on its pelt establishes a poignant connection with their red-bearded bounty, Hermann Kermit Warm.
From the outset of his film adaptation, Audiard intercuts the action of the Sisters brothers with the action of Warm and their scout Morris. This solves a potential problem with the novel’s structure and point of view, which holds back the action relating to Warm and Morris until the final third (where the discovery of a journal illuminates it in flashback). This restructuring allows Audiard (who writes with long-time collaborator Thomas Bidegain) to expand the story of Morris and Warm and they use it to develop the novel’s subplot in which they embark on a prospecting gambit of their own. Audiard even invents a new motivation for this scheme: part of a much greater plan to start an ‘ideal society’. It is a romantic, near communist response to the west’s cruel and violent capitalism.
In Audiard’s adaptation, the randomness of the novel’s chance encounters are rather weakly fashioned into a cause and effect plot that is, at times, hard to follow. Yet the film’s additions also work to highlight the novel’s essential themes, pushing the brothers homeward. This final act, in which the brothers join forces with Morris and Warm, is infused with the friendship, kindness and intimacy they have been searching for. Audiard conjures a final image so pure in its emotional truth that any fears we might have about their future dissolves into their embrace.
The Coens leave their six stories, and their thematic connections, open to audience interpretation. The film becomes our journey through the American west and, like Eli Sisters, we must reluctantly accept the cruelty of circumstance. There are many kinds of death says Eli:
‘Quick death, slow death. Early death, late death. Brave death, cowardly death.’
We find all of them in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. Likewise, ‘True Grit,’ says Adam Nayman in his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties The Film Together, ‘is filled with corpses in various states of decay’. The religious (and litigious) motivations of 14 year old Mattie Ross pervade that earlier western. But, perhaps too afraid to consider the prospect of heaven and hell – or too guilty to consider their victims’ fates – the Sisters brothers attempt to stave off their own mortality with superstition. In their final segment of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the Coens take us beyond death’s final curtain revealing what happens after the lethal pressing of the trigger.
Ballad is bookended by transitions into the afterlife. Singing cowboy Buster Scruggs gains his wings, ascending to the heavens in the film’s first segment. Its last, titled The Mortal Remains, works both literally as a philosophical conversation between stagecoach passengers and metaphorically, as purgatory. This latter interpretation is underlined by the advancing sunset; the darkness bringing with it a sense of claustrophobia and dread borrowed from the horror genre. The coach driver, who will not “slow”, is eerily reminiscent of the grim reaper; death of course waits for no man.
In this light, the passengers’ conversation is particularly poignant. A bounty hunter describes his fondness for witnessing the moment of death, watching as the dying man tries to ‘make sense of it’. ‘Do they ever?’ asks one of the passengers, ironically unaware they are already dead. As the coach stops and the passengers disembark in the darkness, their reluctance to cross the threshold suggests they may finally understand their fate. The visual and tonal contrast with Scrugg’s slapstick comedy, clichéd ascent and upbeat song, When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings, is formidable. The film has taken us on a journey through the cruel American west and heaven is a distant memory.