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Favorite Literary Films
April 15, 2010 - 11:33pm


There’s an academic family around these parts, it’s said, who watch all the Jane Austen films together every Thanksgiving break. That there might be such a family gives me something else to be thankful for. But I wonder what their focus is? All the recent BBC films? All the Pride & Prejudices, going back to 1940? According to Sue Parrill, author of Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations, there have been 33 films made of the novels.

Everything pleasurable begins to hurt when it goes on too long. No one could watch all those films in a few days without feeling like Mark Twain, who says of Austen, “It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

There are too many literary adaptations of all kinds to count, and everyone has a favorite, from The Princess Bride to There Will Be Blood (based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!). I’ll never forget being marched as a child down to the nuclear shelter under my grade school to be shown the French adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was so weird they broadcast it later on The Twilight Zone. And when the guy thinks he’s gotten free and is about to hug his wife but his neck snaps with that wet crunching noise? Jesus, is there any wonder I became a blogger?

Some films lie farther down the slope of interpretation, obscuring their sources: Apocalypse Now (from Heart of Darkness), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Odyssey), or Clueless (Austen’s Emma). Others dote on their borrowings. Young Frankenstein quotes the 1931 film’s “it’s alive” scene, and transforms Fred Astaire’s astonishing tap number from Blue Skies into something grotesquely super-duper.

One of my favorite parodies is Cold Comfort Farm, which takes aim at “loam and lovechild” novels of the early decades of the 20th century, as well as at Lawrence, Hardy and the Brontës. Malcolm Bradbury wrote the screenplay from the Stella Gibbons’ novel, which has an epigraph from Austen’s Mansfield Park: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.” Our hero, Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale), orphaned at 19 and left with only a hundred pounds a year, goes to live with relatives at their horrid slophole of a farm. This modern young woman brings light, order, imagination, hope, and Vogue magazine with her, and revitalizes everyone including the grim father (Ian McKellen), who preaches:

You're all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don't. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it's like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I'll tell ye, there'll be no butter in hell!

The matriarch of the family, reclusive great-aunt Ada Doom (Eileen Atkins) controls everyone around her by hinting at some undefined terror she witnessed way back when. “I saw something nasty in the woodshed,” she snarls whenever she’s not getting her way. It’s worth the price of the DVD to see Earl P. Neck (Harry Ditson), a passing American movie director, spit back without hesitation, “Sure you did, but did it see you, baby?”

Writers can’t resist writing about other writers’ problems writing. Films that dramatize authors’ lives are legion and some good:

Stealing Heaven (Abelard and Heloise), Pandaemonium, (Wordsworth and Coleridge), Quills (the Marquis de Sade), The Libertine, (John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, played here by Johnny Depp since age, I take it, demoted John Malkovich to Charles II from his stage turn as Rochester at the Steppenwolf Theater), Henry & June (Henry and June Miller and Anais Nin, with the great Fred Ward as Miller), The Last Station (Tolstoy), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, et al.), My Favorite Year (Sid Caesar and Errol Flynn, sort of), Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Neil Simon, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, sort of), Barton Fink (vaguely, Clifford Odets and William Faulkner, whose first screenplay job in real life was to write for movie wrestler Wallace Beery; in the movie his character says:

Mister Fink, they have not invented a genre of picture that Bill Mayhew has not, at one time or other, been invited to essay. Yes, I have taken my stab at the wrasslin' form, as I have stabbed at so many others, and with as little success. I gather that you are a freshman here, eager for an upperclassman's counsel. However, just at the moment, I have drinking to do. Why don't you stop by my bungalow, which is number fifteen, later on this afternoon, and we will discuss wrasslin' scenarios and other things lit'rary).

Some of the ones I’ve missed are here or on this list. I’m considering asking for a paid subscription to Internet Movie Database Pro for my birthday in order to read more about new ones in pre-production, such as the Untitled Ernest Hemingway Project. (James Gandolfini? Really?)

What I enjoy most with my popcorn and Diet Coke, though, after a hard day in Kurosawa’s Dreams, are witty, literary romantic comedies, inheritors of the repartee, characters, and screwball situations of films of the forties. One of my favorites is The Moderns, a love triangle set in expatriate Paris. What a cast: Keith Carradine, Linda Fiorentino, Wallace Shawn, Geraldine Chaplin, Genevieve Bujold, John Lone; Elsa Raven plays an imperious Gertrude Stein holding forth at her salon (“Hemingway! The sun also sets!”) and Kevin J. O’Connor is a hilariously morose, unhistorical Hemingway (“Yeah, right on your big…” he replies).

You’ve all met Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love. Lord Wessex: “I cannot shed blood in her house, but I will cut your throat anon. Do you have a name?” William Shakespeare: “Christopher Marlowe, at your service.”

Finally, have you seen Impromptu? Another excellent ensemble: Judy Davis as George Sand; Hugh Grant as the sexless object of her desire, Frederic Chopin; Mandy Patinkin as Sand’s former lover, poet Alfred de Musset; Julian Sands as Franz Liszt; Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, and many more.

In one stretch of the film, philistine Duchess D’Antan (Emma Thompson) wants badly to host artists and intellectuals in her country manor so she’ll be known for her salon. Her invited guests prove to be trouble at every turn, yet she can’t get rid of them due to days of pouring rain. Near the end of their troubled stay the artists show their gratitude by writing and staging a play for her and her sleepy husband’s enjoyment:

Franz Liszt: [as God] Hurry, Noah, to the Ark, and fill it with two each of the creatures of land, sea, and air.
George Sand: [as Noëtte] Lord, we have no need for animals—art alone will save the world. Let's see, we'll need two of everything: two poets, two painters, two musicians...
Franz Liszt: [as God] Impossible, they will not come. Your conversation is not witty and you have no ideals.
George Sand: [as Noëtte] Ha ha, true, but we shall also give them free food and lodging for forty days and forty nights. Now, we shall also need two playwrights, two composers, two makers of velvet flowers...

I can think of a couple more literary comedies just waiting to be written, they'd be perfect, but I’m not telling. For all I know, Philip Kaufman’s sister is an academic who reads this blog and will want to put me in touch with him so I’ll be on my way to drinking Manhattans poolside at the Four Seasons come Thanksgiving.


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