I’ve seen any number of first-rate movies made out of novels I’ve never read. To Have and Have Not, In a Lonely Place, The Night of the Hunter, Vertigo, True Grit: all are important to me in their varied ways, and I’m sure the books on which they were based are worth reading, too. (Well, maybe not To Have and Have Not.) So why haven’t I checked out the originals? Because the films are so satisfying in their own right that I feel no need to know their sources. From time to time I’ve made a point of doing so, and usually been disappointed–James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, for instance, aren’t nearly as effective on the page as on the screen.
I recalled these words the other day as I read a posting on Lance Mannion‘s blog. Mannion is a fan of Charles Portis’ True Grit, the novel on which the 1969 movie is based, and he posted this scene from the book, an encounter between Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal, and Lucky Ned Pepper, the bandit he’s been chasing:
Lucky Ned Pepper said, “Well, Rooster, will you give us the road? We have business elsewhere!”
Rooster said, “Harold, I want you and your brother to stand clear! I have no interest in you today! Stand clear and you will not be hurt!”
Harold Permalee’s answer was to crow like a rooster, and the “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” brought a hearty laugh from his brother Farrell.
Lucky Ned Pepper said, “What is your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?”
Rooster said, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience! Which will you have?”
Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”
Rooster said, “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits. It was a sight to see. He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of his plunging steed. The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead.
It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!
This is the big scene in the film of True Grit–the one everybody remembers–and if you’ve seen it, you’ll realize that Marguerite Roberts, who wrote the screenplay, lifted the dialogue straight from the novel. I’m not saying it’s more effective on paper. Once you’ve seen it on the screen, with John Wayne and Robert Duvall staring one another down across a clearing, you can’t imagine it any other way. But it’s not the pictures you remember: it’s the words. And while Wayne and Duvall speak them with exquisite appropriateness, they wouldn’t have had anything to say had Portis not written those exact words in the first place.
Now, I’m not out to start the gazillionth argument so far this week on the auteur theory of filmmaking. That’s soooo Sixties (and Seventies and Eighties and Nineties). Instead, I have a different question to ask: ought a critic to be responsible for examining the source material of the films he reviews?
In one sense, of course, it doesn’t matter who wrote the words spoken by Wayne and Duvall in True Grit: the important thing is that they’re the right words. What I’m wondering is whether a critic can do his job properly without having direct knowledge of the extent to which a film adaptation of a pre-existing novel draws on its source.
I’m of two minds about this matter. In my review of The Human Stain, I went on to say:
Conversely, I almost always recoil with anticipated horror from movies based on great novels that I know and love, for the perfectly good reason that they aren’t necessary. I don’t need to see what the characters in The Portrait of a Lady or The Age of Innocence look like: I already know. As I’ve said before in this space, a great work of art is complete in and of itself, and can only be effectively translated into a different medium by being subjected to a radical imaginative transformation, the ultimate object of which is the creation of a new art work that can be fully experienced and appreciated without reference to its source. Anything short of that is a waste of time.
That much I’ll stand by. But then I added:
Somewhere in between these extremes lie those films based on “important” novels that aren’t any good. I suspect Philip Roth’s The Human Stain belongs in this category, but I don’t know because I haven’t read it, and don’t plan to. I’m one of those unfortunate folk who is allergic to most of the Major American Novelists who came of age in the Fifties. Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Updike: all leave me cold as last month’s fish. My guess, however, is that Robert Benton and Nicholas Meyer, the director and screenwriter of The Human Stain, have made a good-faith effort to preserve the essence of Philip Roth’s novel–and that this is why the movie doesn’t work….
Looking back on this passage, it now strikes me as more than a little bit irresponsible for me to have made such a wild guess instead of reading the book. On the other hand, full-time film reviewers (of which I’m not one) rarely have sufficient time to do the research that would allow them to intelligently compare film adaptations to their sources. The classics, yes–we all at least pretend to have read them–and it’s also taken for granted that film-to-source comparisons will be made in the case of Gone With the Wind-type blockbusters, if only because the first thing everybody wants to know about such films is how faithful the screen version is to the original book. But when it comes to old movies adapted from obscure novels, who bothers? I think I remember Sarah mentioning somewhere that she’d read In a Lonely Place, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s read all of The Night of the Hunter.
Again, though, does it really matter? Film, after all, is a radically collaborative process in which creative responsibility can only be assigned tentatively and on a case-by-case basis. This is something that all but the most rabid auteuristes accept as a given–but it’s also one of the reasons why most of us prose-oriented types have a sneaking suspicion that film is by definition a lesser art form than the novel. We like the idea that every word of a novel is personally written by the person who signs it (even though we also know that an anonymous editor may well have played a more or less substantial part in its creation), just as the billionaires among us will happily pay more for a Rembrandt than a studio-of-Rembrandt, even though the collaboratively produced painting might be better in aesthetic quality (or physical condition) than the bonafide solo effort.
In short, most of us stubbornly persist in believing in aesthetic heroes, a belief which I think goes a long way toward explaining why the auteur theory caught on. It goes against human nature to accept the attributional ambiguity inherent in the process of making films, in the same way that you’d think less of, say, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony were some musicologist to discover that it had been orchestrated by a student of the composer. Is that logical? Not really. It’s the work that matters, not the attribution–yet there’s a difference between knowing that to be true and feeling it in your bones. It takes a special kind of confidence to buy an unsigned painting without a provenance, based solely on the evidence of your eye. Most of us aren’t nearly so sure of ourselves. We like to see that signature in the lower right-hand corner.
As for me, I’m delighted to find out that Charles Portis wrote the words that John Wayne and Robert Duvall spoke in the climactic scene of True Grit, and I’m more inclined as a result to read his novel than I was last week. Even so, I reluctantly confess that I’m even more inclined to pull the DVD off the shelf and watch the movie yet again, and maybe even show it to one of my women friends who’s never before seen a Western and insists they can’t possibly be any good. Were there world enough and time….
UPDATE: Lance Mannion responds, interestingly.