Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies: November 2004 Archives
It is natural for college professors to knock movie adaptations of great books, and no wonder: Hollywood's record of dumbing down classic literature, not to mention popular culture's overweening claims on student attention, can make showing a film seem more hindrance than help.
Yet film adaptations have their place. I would argue that right movie, shown at the right time and in the right way, can be richly educational. But let me propose a caveat: Never lead off with the movie.
To the hapless educator trying to interest students in material that is less user-friendly than, say, "Spider Man," it's tempting to use the film version of a book as a sort of canapé to whet student appetite for the main course.
But this doesn't work. To lead off with the film is to invite students to treat it as a substitute for the book. (This is especially true if the film is old. slow-paced, or otherwise lacking in state-of-the-art production values. About technical filmcraft young people are terrible snobs. For them, sitting through an antiquated movie is hard work, almost as hard as turning pages.)
To lead off with the film is also to give it a prior claim to authenticity, and to reduce the book to source material - or worse, corrective. The process of reading and discussion thereby becomes one of finding fault with the movie. This is no fun and often prompts students to say, "We're sure you're right, Professor Scoldtongue. But we liked the movie!"
Thus it follows logically that the right time to show the film is after the book has been thoroughly digested. If the film is halfway competent, it will provide the pleasure of allusion, as students recognize characters, details, and themes.
To students who have difficulty visualizing from the page, the film will also provide the pleasure of illustration (which, contrary to the print-worshiping McLuhanites among us, is a perfectly respectable pleasure that has been around for many centuries).
But most important, showing the film after reading the book puts the burden of correction on the students. And in my experience they take great delight in parading their superior understanding, using the text as the standard by which the film's every deficiency may be rooted out.
This isn't a reason to show lousy adaptations. The more elusive a film's deficiencies, the harder the students must work to root them out. Again, these observations are based on a tiny sample: my own students. But here is my rule of thumb: when good books are followed by good movies, the classroom comes alive.
Brace yourself. We are now entering the season of feel-good TV movies in which angelic choirs, colored lights, and lightly falling snow possess a miraculous healing power over even the worst family traumas. Most directors of holiday movies have never seen an estrangement, betrayal, embitterment, or deep psychic would that does not instantly dissolve when two family members say "I love you" and give each other a big bear hug.
I won't kid you - there's just such a moment in "The Wool Cap," a made-for-TV movie airing this Sunday, November 21 on TNT. But "The Wool Cap" is worth watching all the same, because while it is definitely full of cliches, it manages to suffuse them with rare honesty and humor.
The secret ingredient is William H. Macy, an actor who was never a favorite of mine until last year, when he and Steven Schachter made "Door to Door," an Emmy-winning film about a traveling salesman with cerebral palsy. Now they have collaborated on a new, equally affecting character: Gigot, gloomy alcoholic who works as a janitor in a dilapidated New York tenement.
Gigot cannot speak because of a neck injury sustained in a long-ago car accident, but thanks to Macy's terrific wordless acting, Gigot's feelings are crystal clear as gradually, through no wish of his own, he becomes the sole responsible adult in the life of Lou, a young African-American girl abandoned by her crack addict mother.
Maybe "The Wool Cap" works because the Christmas-Bear-Hug scene is not the main event but rather a step in the process by which Gigot learns to be a father (by reconciling with his own father). Or maybe it succeeds because of Keke Palmer, the gifted young actress who brings Lou to vivid, unstereotypical life. Or Don Rickles, pulling off a lovely understated star turn as one of Gigot's tenants. Or the pet monkey who steals every other scene. Whatever the reason, "The Wool Cap" is a keeper. Take it from someone who actually likes eggnog and fruitcake - but only when made with the finest ingredients.
I quit reading Philip Roth around the time he wrote "The Breast" - a case, methought, of Big Author morphing into Big Boob. But "The Human Stain" is supposed to be a good book. Which may well be, because it stops short of being a good film the way films made from good books often do. In particular, the film faithfully depicts every surface wrinkle of a relationship that is of interest only in its emotional depths. Among other things this causes the sex scenes to have an odd, second-hand quality, as though they had been staged by one of those aliens who go around abducting humans and calibrating their gonads.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. "The Human Stain" is two films, and one is indeed very good (if truncated). It opens with the less than good one, starring Anthony Hopkins as a sixtyish classics professor named Coleman Silk, who uses the word "spook" to describe two students who never show up in class (and are therefore invisible, like ghosts). As luck would have it, the students are black, so Coleman is hurled into the sort of P.C. hell that could erupt all too easily in place named "Athena College" in "Athena," Massachusetts.
Poor Coleman’s wife is so distraught she dies of a heart attack, and the only friend he has left is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's fictional alter ego (Gary Sinise). It's just as well Nathan is there, because when Coleman meets Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), an unhappy young woman who works menial jobs in the town, the resurgence of lust he experiences might escape the viewer’s attention, save that Coleman tells Nathan all about it. On the screen Coleman's emotion looks more like dyspepsia. More erotic than any of the Hopkins-Kidman scenes is the sequence where Coleman puts Fred Astaire on the stereo and induces Nathan to dance with him to "Cheek to Cheek."
Part of the problem is Kidman, who labors so hard to look scuzzy, she has no time to flesh out a character who (in the novel) must labor to look pretty. One of these days, Hollywood will cast a plain woman as a plain woman. But don't hold your breath.
Of course, none of this is the point. Just as Kidman is trying to pass as a scuzz, so is Coleman trying to pass as something he’s not. In particular, he’s not Jewish, as everyone thinks. He’s black. Hence the irony of the racism charge. And hence the plot of the other film, the good but truncated one.
The good film is a flashback in which Wentworth Miller plays the young Coleman, the son of a genteel African-American family who learns the hard way that the world of his aspirations is off limits to him as a Negro. So Coleman (who is, as the saying goes, "light, bright, and damn near white") decides to pass - and in doing so breaks two hearts, his mother's and his own. Every actor in this flashback is superb, from Anna Deveare Smith as Coleman’s mother to Jacinda Barrett as the white girlfriend who leaves him when she learns of his background. It’s too bad this part couldn’t be the whole movie.
Coleman never shares his secret with anyone – not colleagues, not Nathan, not even his wife – until at the end he shares it with Faunia. He does so because Faunia has painful secrets of her own. The trouble is, it’s hard to care about Faunia’s secrets, because they seem cobbled together for the occasion. First, her poverty is not inherited, like that of most struggling people who mop floors in elite institutions. Like a character in Dickens, Faunia is high born but fallen low through no fault of her own.
Whose fault is it? Brace yourself for the cliches: a sexually abusive stepfather, and a crazy Vietnam vet husband (Ed Harris, wasting his talent). For the sake of the story, I’m willing to tolerate Hopkins as the older Coleman, although his resemblance to the younger is nil. But compared with the other female characters, Faunia feels like something cut and pasted from a bad TV movie. It is sad her crazy husband drives the lovers off the road into a frozen lake. But it is not surprising. For all the talent that went into it, this movie was badly steered from the beginning.