David Larsen investigates recent film adaptations of contemporary New Zealand fiction.
I’ve often wondered whether Andrew Adamson chose the title Mr Pip for his film adaptation of Lloyd Jones’s novel as an act of tacit acknowledgement. The novel is called Mister Pip. There are as many ways to adapt a novel for the screen as there are to write a novel in the first place, but whatever else an adaptation does or doesn’t do, it will always, always abbreviate.
‘Even if you have the most passionate and creative studio on your side,’ the novelist Cornelia Funke told me once, ‘what happens is this: you spend two years weaving a magic carpet, you hand it to the movies, they give you back a napkin and they say it’s the same. And you can only blame yourself, because you know they’re in the napkin business.’
In theory it should be so tidy. A novel is too roomy: it holds more narrative information – and usually more psychological information – than a standard feature film can accommodate. But then film is too rich: a few seconds of screen time drench audiences in visual and sonic information pages of words cannot easily convey. So adapting books to film means balancing what prose lacks against what films can’t do. Exteriorise the depths of the mind, and create complexity in the accumulating moment-by-moment rush of images and sounds to compensate for the plot details you’ve had to lose.
In practice this balance is very hard to achieve. I watched twelve New Zealand films for this essay, all of them relatively recent adaptations of New Zealand literary works, novels mostly. The films are all over the map in terms of adaptation approaches and degrees of artistic success. But the common issue facing most of them is the brute quantity of story beats: you will find fewer long takes in them than in twelve randomly chosen comparison films. They don’t, as a rule, have the time for them.
An instructive exception: the childbirth scene in Dana Rotberg’s White Lies (2013). The film is one of the weakest I’ll discuss here, but this scene is extraordinary, both in itself and in how it focuses the film’s larger concerns. It lasts a little over seven minutes. It consists of 15 takes. The first two of these are each around a minute long, and nearly static: exceptionally long, still expanses of screen time for a 90-minute feature film. Three women form a triangular composition in the lower right third of the frame, two kneeling in support of the third, who stands over them, naked except for a white shawl. They are in a dark cellar, earth-floored, in the centre of a pool of light. The room’s one dim window provides a balancing point of light to the upper left of the frame. The two kneeling women wear earth tones. The naked woman’s white skin and white shawl create a strong contrast, which carries charged meaning within the film’s story. (Consider the title.) The tableau is at once severe and arresting, and the scene overall is one of the most powerful representations of childbirth I’ve encountered in any art form: partly for its stark beauty, suggestive of some of the more austere high Renaissance paintings, and partly for all the things it has the courage not to do. It largely excludes motion and dialogue, and it doesn’t cut away from the pain it asks us to watch. It creates a still, quiet space and fills it with a single slowly evolving image.
Long, slow, dialogue-free scenes are notable only by their absence in most novel adaptations, good or bad. White Lies serves to underline this point, because it isn’t a novel adaptation. The source story, Witi Ihimaera’s ‘Medicine Woman’, is only 45 pages long. Its birth scene occupies precisely one of these pages, which by comparison with the film feels almost synoptic: a textbook example of a film departing from its source material in order to make fuller use of the medium’s inherent strengths, in this case by using the techniques of slow cinema.
So would film-makers looking for adaptation material be better advised to look at short stories and novellas, rather than novels? Certainly there’s an argument that the more natural form for novel adaptations is the long-form TV drama, with episodes loosely equating to chapters, and no particular need for the total number of episodes to be either more or less than happens to suit the source material. In absolute terms this strikes me as a convincing case, despite the tendency of television writers to impose a formulaic episode shape on bits of story that might not easily lend themselves to a 45- or 60-minute arc.
In practical terms, contemporary TV adaptations have to work within pre-existing series formats. Even something as powerful and intelligent as the author-adapted BBC version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies feels artificially constrained: the BBC allows this adaptation of two enormous novels the same six episodes they allowed the Andrew Davies version of Pride and Prejudice, with the result that the series feels airless and far darker than the books. Anything not entirely essential to the grim core story had to be jettisoned.
So even though Eleanor Catton is writing the screenplays for the BBC version of The Luminaries herself, I am by no means confident that the resulting six episodes will constitute a better or more faithful example of adaptation than Alison Maclean’s recent film version of Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal. The weasel word in this question is ‘faithful’. Whether or not you find Maclean’s film version, co-written with Emily Perkins, successful on its own terms (and I do), there is no simple way to argue that it’s a faithful adaptation.
It summarily amputates one of the novel’s two intertwined narrative strands, which involves the loss of Catton’s most interesting character, her unnamed saxophone teacher. It moves the scandal at the story’s heart from a Christchurch high school music department to an Auckland tennis club. It flips the gender of a major character and reassigns the racial and regional backgrounds of others. It creates an entirely new character and then has him commit suicide, setting up an ending which not only departs from the events of the book’s, but also departs from their narrative mode, via an audience-challenging swerve into self-referential meta-narrative. To call this a faithful version of Catton’s novel is to call the whole notion of adaptation fidelity into question. So let’s do that.
In the same way that there can be no strictly faithful translations – traduttore, traditore (translator, betrayer) is the Italian adage – fidelity in adaptations is a useful concept only if it’s defined loosely. A truly faithful adaptation of a novel would consist of the unabridged projected text, scrolling slowly down the screen. Even an audio reading of the text adds interpretive elements to the source material, and as soon as you add images, you’re on a different planet. Consider Dana Rotberg’s ability to capture so much of ‘Medicine Woman’ – the vitality of Maori midwifery traditions and the importance of this particular child’s birth, the emphasis on the colour of its mother’s skin, the heavily coded presence of contrasting darker colours around her – in a scene which contains none of Ihimaera’s dialogue, does not follow his descriptive language closely, and which rebalances the story’s structure. Absolute fidelity to the writing would not serve it nearly as well, even if this were possible – which it isn’t, because words are not pictures.
The best adaptations are ones that treat the book as raw material rather than gospel. A roll call of my favourite adaptations from the last decade and a half would include Andrea Arnold’s spartan Wuthering Heights, which strips away not only Brontë’s framing narrative but most of her dialogue, relying instead on a mix of images and ambient sound. It would include the giddy Joe Wright/Tom Stoppard Anna Karenina, which foregrounds the artificial theatricality of its almost parodic narrative compression by setting much of its story in an actual theatre. It would include Brad McGann’s bleak, glossy version of In My Father’s Den, of which Maurice Gee said, ‘he has lost the book … I can just make out the skeleton of it in his story’. And it would include The Rehearsal.
But it’s also true that a lot of the worst adaptations depart wilfully and wildly from their sources. Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) simplifies Witi Ihimaera’s novel, excluding nearly everything from the chapters about the whales and the origin of the Whale Rider mythos; it jettisons the frank, earthy exchanges between Koro and Nanny Flowers and makes Koro, in particular, speak in a much higher register; and it makes Paikea (Kahu in the book) the main point of view character, rather than her uncle. These changes all have consequences. But the film still hews closely to the book’s core story, which is simple enough that the result feels like an unforced marriage of pre-existing Hollywood tropes (the excluded student who studies in secret and triumphs; the rejected child who wins her grandfather’s acceptance) with Maori history and traditions.
Compare this with Caro’s 2009 version of The Vintner’s Luck. There are so many problems with this film at a basic craft level that it’s hard to winnow out a sense of exactly what went wrong in its production process; clearly many things did, and the causal flow behind any really bad film is generally more complex than critics manage to acknowledge. But if you squint past the inconsistent use of aging make-up, the uneven acting, the risible special effects, and so forth, you can see two adaptation strategies at work. On the one hand, Caro’s screenplay imposes a circular shape on Elizabeth Knox’s linear story: the film opens with its main character, Sobran, about to die, and then offers us his story as a long explanatory flashback. The rough edges and false starts that are so crucial to the book’s telling of this story are smoothed out to a single quasi-spiritual quest for the ability to make the great wine Sobran will drink on his deathbed. Wine-making as the expression of a life’s accumulated wisdom: it’s a long way from the book’s treatment of the art form. Caro appears to be reaching for something comparable to Whale Rider’s easy-to-grasp genre tropes, though in this case that requires distorting her source material, rather than simplifying it.
And then there are the choices Caro makes around the sexual relationships in the film, and specifically her treatment of the interspecies, same-gender relationship between Sobran and Xas the angel. In the book this is either the great love of Sobran’s life, or one of them; the fact that the answer could be given either way tells you something about the nuanced complexity of the writing. In the film Xas and Sobran make love once, in a scene whose indelibly awful flying effects are so jerky and unevenly edited that visually it’s very hard to parse.
After Sobran’s mentally unbalanced wife walks in on them, Sobran furiously shoves Xas out a window, screaming, ‘Leave us in peace!’ The next time they meet, the two are rueful, calm, fond: they want to stay in each other’s lives, but Xas tells Sobran that for this to happen, Xas will need his help. Cut to a wordless scene of Sobran severing Xas’s wings. In the book this is an act of extreme violation, inflicted by a much stronger angel – by Lucifer, the Lord of Hell, in fact – for reasons no one in the story grasps at the time. The amputation is not explained in the film either. Making it Xas’s free choice and having his (renounced) lover commit the act at his request does not have to be read as the symbolic self-castration of the film’s one gay character, but that reading would be coherent. I find it persuasive myself. On the other hand, the film is in many ways not a coherent work. Perhaps the homophobic subtext is just the unfortunate cumulative side effect of an unhappy production process.
The Vintner’s Luck is a difficult film to assess definitively, because it’s badly botched. But it looks a lot like a film that would have dismayed admirers of the book more, rather than less, if Caro had managed to realise her vision for it more fully. Whale Rider, meanwhile, remains a sweet-souled, powerful film, and its power feels rooted in the book’s: Caro’s changes seem both relatively minor, and interpretively astute. Compare these two films with In My Father’s Den and Fracture, the two Maurice Gee adaptations of 2004 – one of them widely considered a high watermark of New Zealand film, the other more or less forgotten, I think in large part because of the burden it imposes on itself by being too faithful to Gee’s text.
Of the various films I mentioned to friends while piecing ideas together for this essay, Fracture drew the largest number of comments. The comments were versions of, ‘…there was another Maurice Gee film the year of In My Father’s Den?’ Fracture, Larry Parr’s adaptation of Gee’s novel Crime Story is beautifully shot, crisply edited, and makes cunning use of well-chosen locations. In some ways it’s clear why Gee himself liked it. (He described it approvingly as ‘sharp, hard’, and its script as ‘skillful, balanced and intelligent’.)
But for all that, the film’s a chore. The mood and the power of the book come from the interplay of external events with internal reflections: Gee dances from mind to mind across a large dramatis personae, letting us see the distorting weight of character and personal history on perception and comprehension. The film attempts to match this easy access to a large range of differing minds via a mix of expository dialogue, expressive music, and impressionistic cinematography and editing – one sequence, in particular, tries to convey a character’s collapse into insanity though images and editing tempo. The failure of these efforts is easy to understand when you consider the simultaneous effort to accommodate the entirety of the book’s intricate plot. If you stand close up and count off story beats, it’s a notably faithful adaptation (possibly the thing Gee appreciated?) but when you step back and compare the book with the film, one is moody and rich, and the other is cluttered and opaque.
In My Father’s Den makes none of these mistakes. It can happen that when you go back to a film or book everyone loved on its first appearance, you find it smaller without that boost of consensus approval – clumsier, slighter, all very well but nothing special. I was ready for that experience, but a decade and more after its release, Brad McGann’s film remains a dazzling achievement. It feels like the successful adaptation of a major novel – so long as you haven’t read the novel.
Because although the film shares Gee’s characteristic concern with the depths of difficult memory that can hide behind someone’s eyes – its beautifully interfolded mysteries impel us to get to know several characters in a way that feels hard-earned and distinctly novelistic – the particular difficult memories we encounter here are not at all Gee’s creations. So does the film betray the book, and if so, does it betray it because a good film was unachievable any other way?
The film’s least important change: it relocates the story from a small Auckland fringe suburb to a small Otago town. Or is this actually a major change? As a practical matter it makes obvious sense; there is nowhere around Auckland now that could stand in for the mid-20th century West Auckland Gee wrote about, and McGann’s southern locations are well chosen and gloriously well shot. But aside from being a signature Gee location, his ‘small Auckland suburb’ is actually a small independent township in the earlier of his novel’s two time periods, and in the later 1960s chapters, the locals think of their ongoing envelopment by Auckland as an encroachment and a threat. This sense of threatened identity, and the associated sense of time as the bringer of corrupting change, flavours the book’s story. In the film, the unnamed town to which war photographer Paul returns after years overseas is a sleepy backwater hiding some of his worst memories: his initial (misleading) impression is that time has scarcely passed here at all.
In the book Paul is not a war photographer, he’s an English teacher. (The way in which the film’s Paul becomes an English teacher too, after returning home, is McGann’s least convincing plot contrivance, though he slides us past the extreme implausibility of it smoothly enough.) The film’s Paul is also fond of autoerotic asphyxiation and morphine, and he has scars on his wrists suggestive of attempted suicide. Celia, the teenage girl whose intense friendship with Paul comes under public scrutiny after she goes missing, has interests far more to the teen goth side of the street than in the book. And in the film we eventually discover that her background is tangled with Paul’s in complex and difficult ways, closely linked to the things that drove him to leave home, and perhaps to slit his wrists. None of this is in the book. The secret den of the title, which in both the film and the book is disguised as a storage shed for poison, is also closely tied to these revelations. You can easily imagine McGann thinking, yes, poison: Gee filled this room with books and ideas and called it a poison shed, and the ways in which he plays with the irony and the bitter partial truths of that for Paul’s later life are too tame. Let’s have Paul’s secret refuge become more powerfully poisoned for him. And then his discovery that Celia exists, and badly needs a mentor, and deserves love, will begin to free him from that. And then she’ll die, and he’ll be blamed.
The film’s handling of all this is assured: beautifully balanced in purely formal terms and emotionally devastating. The various ways in which the story is at once darker than the book’s, and less coloured by Paul’s self-dislike and his characteristic Gee-protagonist religious shame, could nonetheless be taken as an adaptation failure. The book lacks the easy attention-grabbing power of war stories and sexual kinks and drug habits; its revelations don’t flirt with incest. Does a film, with less time to build audience investment and less ability to access complex interior experiences, need the intensifier effect of this sort of material for the level of emotional power McGann wanted?
Of course not. A quiet film can punch just as hard as a loud one; McGann’s self-evident craft mastery argues against any idea that this was the only strong version of Gee’s story he could have found a way to make. In My Father’s Den is a magnificent film and we’re lucky to have it. But when Gee – according to Rachel Barrowman’s 2015 biography – told his agent that it was questionable ‘whether the film should be presented as an adaptation of his novel at all when it had moved so far away from it’, he was raising a reasonable point.
I described In My Father’s Den earlier as one of my favourite recent adaptations. I think of it that way; its nature as a work shaped by the process of engaging with Gee’s novel is obvious, and inextricable from its strengths. It’s also true that completely faithful adaptation is a contradiction in terms. But if I want to say that Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck is an offensive distortion of the novel even when you discount the film’s technical weaknesses – and I do – then I’m forced to agree that an adaptation should not be free to reconceive its source material without any limits at all. Fidelity to the book has to mean something, or, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of your film, you are not making an adaptation.
This is easy enough to arbitrate when we’re talking about a film like Whale Rider. Another nice example of a film that departs from its source only where it seems necessary or helpful would be Mr Pip (2012): it simplifies Lloyd Jones’s story to fit its two-hour running time, and it finds visually inventive ways to show us the growing importance of a Charles Dickens novel in a Bougainville teenager’s life. (The fantasy sequences, in which we see Matilda’s conception of Victorian London, are particularly good – so startling, so obvious in retrospect, that everyone in this London would be black, and that so many aspects of the cityscape would mirror Bougainville.) In these ways and others, it tells the story Lloyd told.
But what is the useful meaning of fidelity when the book you’re adapting is The Rehearsal?
There are things text can do that visual art cannot easily match. My assumption, sitting down to watch The Rehearsal for the first time, was that I was about to see some species or other of train wreck: or, at best, a good film that resembled its source far less than In My Father’s Den resembles Gee’s novel. This is because when you read Catton’s book you are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the ontological status of the events that make up the story. Even to say that a lot of what seems to occur in the book may not occur at all is a crude betrayal of the writing, because of course every one of Catton’s artful scenes occurs as written. It occurs on the page, and in our heads. But the book’s ‘real’ is not always the real of realism. Things can be true and false at once; scenes can occur in multiple mutually exclusive versions each of which ‘really’ happens. Possibly characters may be imagining some of these things: possibly some scenes are merely written in slipperier and more self-aware language than others. How do you translate a book like this to a screen?
It has occurred to me since that first viewing of The Rehearsal that there are films which do play ceaselessly and successfully with uncertainty over whether what we’re seeing is real, and over what ‘real’ means. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room are two recent examples. Carax’s film makes hay with the concepts of acting and performance in ways that are loosely comparable to Catton’s novel — not just to its drama school storyline, but also to the saxophone teacher chapters, excised by Maclean and Perkins. So my initial sense that certain aspects of the novel are simply not filmable now strikes me as a failure of imagination; though it does seem worth pointing out that Holy Motors and The Forbidden Room are aggressively unstable works of lunatic genius, with a heavy emphasis on the lunatic.
Maclean and Perkins’ response to Catton’s book in some ways appears far more conventional. They cut the more overtly anti-realist half of the novel entirely, thus bringing the story down to a filmable length. They shift a dilemma which crops up only very late in the book to a central position – in the book, drama student Stanley has no idea that the ripped-from-the-headlines story his drama class is using as the basis for a show is actually a story about his girlfriend Isolde’s sister. He finds out at the eleventh hour. In the film, Isolde tells him about her sister’s involvement in a sex scandal well before his classmates come up with the idea of making it the basis for their end of year performance, meaning that for a lot of the film’s length, this becomes its main moral and emotional point of suspense: what will Stanley do? If you ignored the way the film constantly shifts register and uses visual grammar to destabilise our response to it, it would seem like just another story about a young man wrong-footed in love by peer pressure: will our innocent hero betray the even more innocent Isolde to keep his cynical though secretly wounded classmates happy? Find out in the third of our three standard acts!
What actually happens in the film’s third act is an overt shift into meta-narrative. Stanley persuades his classmates to abandon the sex scandal play in favour of an experimental show based on a YouTube meme, in which they attempt to spark a mass audience exodus from the theatre by way of the stage. As the idea catches on with the audience and the stream of participants swells, the camera flips position so that we see them from just behind the stage curtains, looking out towards the auditorium. They approach us, they pass us, and they vanish: they have stepped off the stage and out of the film, moving in our direction, the direction of non-story-space. The film is over.
The brilliance of this is that by abandoning the book’s ending to do something possible only for a film, Maclean and Perkins create an acknowledging counterweight to all the things the book does that are possible only for a book. The ending would come as a rude shock if you had been perceiving the film strictly as a coming-of-age story – it comes as a shock in any case – but in fact the film prepares the ground, and in the process mirrors the book’s formal challenges in many other ways. Successive scenes use different modes and appeal to different conventions, in ways that constantly foreground the film as an artefact. There are scenes where we spend long moments unable to tell whether music is coming from a source inside the film, or is audible only to us. Characters are acting parts for an audience in some scenes, and we can’t always tell this immediately. (This allows the film to make powerful use of a passage from the book where Catton describes the precise appearance of a girl at the moment of orgasm, a beautiful piece of prose of precisely the type adaptations should usually avoid at all costs. Here, a character’s abrupt shift to a more poetic and arresting linguistic register is just one bit of stylistic playfulness among many, and turns out, of course, to be part of a rehearsal.)
One of the central arguments in literary translation is over the question of equivalence. If translating a passage literally would produce a very different effect in the new language than in the original, should you attempt to find some different way of translating it, less literally accurate but more equivalent in effect? All film adaptations of books answer this question with a firm ‘yes’ simply by existing; but some seem not to know it, or to understand what it means.
Others do not look for cinematic equivalents for their source books so much as use them as booster rockets, to be discarded on reaching escape velocity. This is why I consider The Rehearsal a faithful adaptation, as perverse as the usage may seem. The experience of seeing the film is not really very close to the experience of reading the book. It hardly could be. But the film responds to the book, reflects the book, plays with the book, and knows better than to try to be the book. It reflects a sophisticated sense of what adaptation can and can’t do. There are worse kinds of fidelity.
David Larsen is a freelance writer based in Auckland.