I Didn’t Read It, But I Saw the Movie
Mar 31, 2011
By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Nicholas Maistros
I found myself in line for the opening of the latest Harry Potter movie. The woman in front of me was anxiously reading the book version of the film we were about to see, saying to anyone who’d listen things like, “Oh, they better get it right” or “They better not leave this out, not like they did in that last one.” Feeling uncharacteristically sardonic, I turned to my friends and said, “I hope it’s just some guy sitting on a stool reading the book for nine hours straight. And he’d better not change a single word!”
I used to be a filmmaker, but I’m not anymore. I still find myself wondering about the reasons I left it. At the time, I told myself that I wasn’t really leaving; I was only exploring a different kind of storytelling, that they might even influence each other. But at this moment, writing this blog post, I know that’s not true. Filmmaking couldn’t be further in my past than if it were someone else’s life altogether. So why? Why did I leave it?
I saw the film version of Revolutionary Road before I’d read the book. And I didn’t like it at first—the film. I found the dialogue cliché, along with the storyline. I felt I had seen this movie before, that there was nothing new here. Not until I picked up the book did I realize that my criticisms had to do with the mere fact of the film’s medium.
The story is almost scene by scene the same in the book as it is in the film (perhaps this is why I’d felt the film so limited; it didn’t make enough of an attempt to grow into its own story, to take advantage of its own medium, get a few words wrong). But reading the book, I never once felt the dialogue or the characters or the plot cliché. And even though I knew exactly what was going to happen and when, I was still surprised throughout.
I wasn’t necessarily surprised in the big moments of the novel, not when Frank starts up his affair, not when April goes through with the abortion. It was in all the moments between, seeing the characters when they were alone with their thoughts, seeing where their calculations and internal motivations took them; it was seeing these characters in scene while remaining psychically close to them, hearing their imaginings, navigating their movements and tactics from within. This is exactly what fiction has to offer that film doesn’t: the unpacking of a moment.
In the film, we see only the drama. Only the interactions. And any attempt to see the characters alone does not offer any real access into their thoughts, but only speculations. When April stands outside smoking in the twilight and Frank wanders the house in a panic, all we can do is watch. We cannot invade, as Richard Yates does in the book, Frank’s worries and fears. The moment cannot be blown open, excavated, explored, complicated. It is gone too soon, in favor of the next bit of drama. The confines of filmmaking were too great for me as a storyteller. What I needed was freedom.
And yet I’ve actually come to adore the film version of Revolutionary Road, strangely enough. It took me repeated viewings to actually dig into it as a filmic text, to see what it had to offer that differed from the novel. Where the novel thoughtfully, almost scholarly explores the absurdity of this marriage, and of marriage in general, the film spits out that absurdity as it would appear in life, across the street, as if from Shep and Milly’s place, with no such intellectual reprieve as Yates has to offer.
I’ve also come to respect the actors in the film. You can see how they’ve dug into their roles and found their own interpretations of these people’s dialogue and actions. The evidence is there on their faces. But even still, the dramatic movements of a film, from both the director’s and the actor’s point of view, is a straight line. The actor, if doing her job correctly, is meant to take the scene apart in terms of beats, to locate her objective (to get him to touch her, to deflect, to leave the room) in each moment, and then to perform those beats accordingly. There is almost no other way to inhabit such roles, or to imbue a purpose that befits the needs of the film’s and the character’s dramatic trajectory. It is an art, one worthy of respect and awe; it’s just a different kind.
The novel cannot be told in a straight line. It exists in the peaks and valleys, and that is the rough terrain I’d rather explore.