Sunday, February 1, 2009

The questionable necessity of reading

"Okay, Vance. In your last post you questioned the value of music, and now you're taking on literature??"

Eh, not quite. Read on.

On Thursday, I finished a 215-page book I had been reading since November. In fact, I made a special point of finishing it before the end of January, just so it wouldn't carry on into a fourth month. I am a slow reader, but this was slow even for me.

The book was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It's not that I didn't like it -- I'm quite fond of Vonnegut's twisted world view, and this one was pretty twisted. I think part of the problem was that the book jumps around in time almost constantly -- which is the point -- and that makes it hard to get one's bearings, especially with his short, staccato sentence bursts. Plus, between Thanksgiving and New Year's is a famously bad time to accomplish much reading in the first place.

Why am I telling you about reading Slaughterhouse-Five? Because this was actually my second attempt. A year ago or longer, I read the first 15 pages and decided I wasn't in the mood for it right then. And so why am I telling you about that? Because my failure to read Slaughterhouse-Five has meant a failure to review Slaughterhouse-Five, the movie, directed by George Roy Hill and released in 1972.

Let me take you back a bit. In July of 2002, I watched Hill's Slaughterhouse-Five. It had no review on the website I write for, but for some reason, I forgot to put in for it right away. In fact, I didn't officially request it until a couple years later, at which point, the details were seriously fuzzy. Yeah, I can review (and have reviewed) a movie I haven't seen for many years, but it's not ideal, especially when the details did not really stick with me. So Slaughterhouse-Five essentially fell into the other category of movies I review -- the ones I get approved on before watching them, and then can write the review the moment I finish.

But then I got another idea. I had a copy of the book Slaughterhouse-Five. Why not read that first, and then have my review be yet that much better informed? When I finished reading, I'd closely follow that with my second viewing, and then I'd be able to write the definitive Slaughterhouse-Five review. (Never mind that this is a lot of work for a mere $20).

We're finally at that phase, and the movie should be coming to me sometime next week.

So why am I telling you about any of this? Because it brings up one of the great questions I struggle with as a film critic. Namely:

If you are reviewing an adaptation of a popular novel, how important is it to have read that novel?

This question interests me terribly. It's been a long time since I asked another critic this question, mostly because I don't run into many other film critics on the street. I think I asked a couple of the guys at my website, but it was so long ago that I forget what their responses were.

If a fellow critic is being honest, he/she will probably say, "It depends on what book it is." If they're being dishonest, they will probably say that they do read the book in question. But really, how can they? With their busy viewing schedules, and the other unglamarous things that fill out their 40-hour work week that don't involve writing actual reviews, do they really have the time?

When I read other critics' reviews of films adapted from novels, I usually catch at least some reference to how the film differed from the book. It's as though they -- we -- think it's obligatory. But I'm willing to bet that they've borrowed the Cliff's Notes, pow-wowed with someone who actually did read the book, or even just leafed through a couple pages to determine the author's style of presentation. Either that or they are much, much faster readers than I am.

But then there's another question. Does it even matter how a film differs from its source material?

I am a big proponent of the idea that a film is its own entity. When watching a film, you shouldn't need to have seen or read anything else in order to enjoy it, with the exception of sequels, where it is usually useful to see the other films in the series first. When I saw (and hated) Joss Whedon's Serenity a couple years ago, people told me that I would have gotten it if I had watched Whedon's short-lived TV show, Firefly. I call bullshit on that. A movie needs to start when it starts and finish when it finishes, and even a bushman from Africa should be able to sit down and enjoy it, assuming he's seen a movie or two and derives enjoyment from such an experience, and it's been given bushman subtitles.

The same logic sort of holds for adaptations. The movie has to live and die on its own strengths. It shouldn't matter if Character B is left out from the book. All that should matter is whether the characters they do concentrate on make us care about them, and whether it works within the context of the story they choose to present.

Of course, like any argument I offer you, there are shades of gray, and few absolutes. It's very possible that a book was good only or primarily because of certain decisions the author made, and that if a film were adapted from that book, they'd have to keep those decisions intact, or else it's not worthwhile source material. As critics, we have to maintain some periphery awareness of when conditions like this are in place ... don't we? And how do we know when, other than the general cues we get from the zeitgeist?

Even though there are plenty of real-world examples of this, let's take an extreme example from fiction, mostly because I'm living in this fictitious world right now. I am currently watching the first season of Californication on DVD, and in it, Hank Moody (David Duchovny) has just had his book God Hates Us All made into a romantic comedy called A Crazy Little Thing Called Love. If I were a film critic in Hank's californicating world, and were reviewing A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, wouldn't it be my duty to read God Hates Us All? Or could I just use the titles to get the gist of the fact that the producers betrayed the spirit of the book? Or would it even matter? Even in this extreme case, should the film still be taken only on its own terms?

Clearly the source material does matter in this whole thing. They do give out an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Why would they give this out at all, if not to honor the skill -- and presumably, the accuracy -- with which a screenwriter has translated an author's vision?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I will say that I already have reviewed hundreds of films where I did not read the book, and my work has been accepted with a smile. It's not a make-or-break thing, it's more of a philosophical debate. I've only reviewed one film where the guys at my website chose me for it because they knew I'd read the book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. And yes, because I'd read it, and because I knew they probably wanted to see some proof that I'd read it, I mentioned some of the changes from the book to the screen. But they were perfunctory references. Did they really make my review any stronger, any better informed?

Slaughterhouse-Five notwithstanding, it would seem I'll have to stick to my personal status quo, until someone either starts paying me a heckuva lot more for my work, or I'm able to multiply my reading speed. Until then, I'll keep making oblique references to source material, hoping I've gotten the gist of it, and made the correct judgment about the relevance of the potential differences.

Oh, and in case you're still wondering what I think about reading ... I've just embarked on David Foster Wallace's 1,079-page Infinite Jest. Wish me luck, and I'll see you sometime in November.


Lord Vader said...

1) Of course - a film should succeed or fail as a standalone experience. A reviewer does not need to have read the novel to critique a film adaptation. However it's very interesting to compare films and novels sometimes, some interesting questions are raised. Like why is Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' (which strays considerably from the Stephen King novel) more successful at capturing the tone of the book than the slavishly faithful (and dreadful) mini-series?

2) I adore 'Firefly' and couldn't stand 'Serenity' - maybe you just made the call on a shit film?

3) the latest poll - can I split my punch four ways?

Vancetastic said...

Excellent example, Your Highness. We wouldn't have that same indelible experience in our collective memories if Kubrick had just been a slave. We tried to watch the miniseries and turned it off after about an hour. Unwatchable.

I'm glad to hear there's support on Serenity sucking.

I actually have the ability to let poll takers make multiple picks. But I am withholding that as of now. (Mwah ha ha ha ha). (That's supposed to be an evil cackle).