Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Men with Mirrors: The Problem of Emphasis

When I mentioned to an acquaintance of mine that I was reading Madame Bovary, he immediately raised eyebrows, accusing it of being a racy book.  Come to find out, he hadn’t read the book; neither was he basing his impression on the famous obscenity trial of 1857, but instead on a movie version he had seen years ago.  If you’ve read Madame Bovary, you’ll see (as many of Flaubert’s contemporaries failed to see) that sex is beside the point; instead, it’s a tool—among others more outstanding—that Flaubert uses to make a thematic point.  Many point to ennui as a great theme in Madame Bovary.  You might also take away thematic ideas on the danger of allowing disillusion to take over when life fails to live up to a person’s ideal vision of it.  You can see how these themes are far richer and far more needing illumination than mere sex.

Now, I’m not so closed-minded to proclaim that movie adaptations of books are evil and can never live up to the original.  The problem comes in forgetting that a movie, even one that seeks to be completely faithful to the book, is a separate work.  It is impossible to judge a book based on the movie because to do so is not only to mistake another person’s interpretation as the original intent but to wholly discount the craft of the novel itself.  And one aspect of craft is the way the author proportions scenes and characters in service of the larger intent, or theme. 

There are many elements of fiction that cannot be neatly translated into a movie, like point of view and voice.  (For a great essay on point of view in fiction and movies, pick up a copy of Writer’s Workshop in a Book and read Alan Cheuse’s essay, “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.”)  But in my Madame Bovary-judging friend’s case, what was lost in translation, so to speak, was the emphasis. 

This is a timely topic for the new Jane Eyre movie that’s out.  I have yet to see it, but I hear that the movie begins with Jane at the Rivers’s home (which in the book occurs about three quarters of the way through).  This bodes well in rectifying the horrible omission of an otherwise fine adaptation, the 1996 version with William Hurt in which the Rivers’s section is almost entirely cut and very ineffectively alluded to.  For those of you who agree with me that Jane Eyre is hands down the all-time best book—or even if you simply enjoy it—you’ll recognize that here too is a problem of emphasis.  Plot-wise, thematically, and aesthetically, Jane’s time at the Rivers’s is extremely important for 1) Jane’s achieving social independence, 2) suggesting the immoral nature of marriage without love and the necessity of retaining a sense of self, even in would-be self-sacrifice and 3) creating a pleasing contrast to the other sections of the novel.  Not to mention that St. John Rivers is a character who, in my opinion, is as fascinating as Rochester and as ingeniously drawn.  Clearly, to de-emphasize the Rivers’s section is to lose a section of Bronte’s artistic achievement.  Even moving it up front, as the new movie does, changes Bronte’s intended emphasis. 

But here I am, rambling away about movies changing a book’s emphasis when I have stated that movies and books should be understood as separate works.  The fact remains that it’s very hard for us to separate them—who hasn’t returned to a favorite old book after seeing the movie and suddenly felt one’s own imagination violated by persistent images of particular scenes and characters from the movie version?  The imagination’s autonomy is fragile, and we often don’t think twice about sacrificing it. 

The topic of film adaptation is far bigger than I can cover in a single blog post.  I meant only to offer some thoughts on the danger of assuming a book from the movie version.  I’ll close by offering a passage from Stendhal, who says:

“Well, sir, a novel is a mirror being carried down a highway.  Sometimes it reflects the azure heavens to your view; sometimes, the slime in the puddles along the road.  And you will accuse the man who carries the mirror on his back of immorality!  His mirror shows you slime, and you blame the mirror!  Rather, blame the highway where the puddles stand; or rather still, blame the inspector of roads who allows the water to stagnate and the puddles to form.”

While this may form a defense for Flaubert against obscenity, I offer it here as a useful image for remembering that good fiction, literary fiction, fashions a construct beyond mere story.  (Let’s pause to sigh as E.M. Forster does in Aspects of the Novel over that dreadful necessity, “Yes—oh dear, yes—the novel tells a story.”)  Movies can show you the highway and the puddles, but don’t forget: there is yet the man carrying the mirror who angles it just so. 


  1. I would just like to point out that Jaws, the book, is terrible, while Jaws the movie is fantastic. Peter Benchley's novel gets so involved in characters and their issues, like an affair between Sheriff Brody's wife and Hooper. Spielberg's movie wisely ignores all of that in favor of giant shark attacks and the terror that goes with them.

    Is the movie less meaningful than the book? It depends on what meaning you're looking for. I would argue that the visceral emotions that the movie brings up are more effective in the long run than the trite social and moral questions from the novel.

    Other books make the transition well to the screen, including the underlying messages and even the tone: To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch-22, for example. And that's without going into more popular novels that have made popular movies like The Godfather or the Shawshank Redemption.

    In the end, like usual, it comes down to the talents of the people involved. A strong screenwriter and director (Kubrick) can take a good-but-not-great piece of writing and turn it into a classic (Dr. Strangelove or The Shining), while a weak one can ruin a literary favorite.

    I for one am thankful we have juggernauts like Stephanie Meyer and Catherine Hardwicke to make this generation's literary and cinematic classics.


  2. Ah, I just learned that Catherine Hardwicke will be working on a "modern-day, supernatural" version of Hamlet. Great.

  3. Leave it to my dear husband to temper my remarks :) I depend on him for it. But really, Nat, you raise good points, and I was thinking while we had our annual viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar last night that even it is an adaptation of a story, though admittedly not one to compare to the type of fiction and adaptation we've been discussing. What drew my eye this time around was how much the staging and choreography focuses on hands and arms, which not only gives physicality, but has deeper implications like our desperate reaching out to Christ or even a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. In this case, the visual emphasis led me to ruminate on thematic qualities that enhanced my experience of an old, old story. Kudos, Norman Jewison!

  4. And this was the first "annual viewing" (I did not realize this was a tradition) through which I stayed awake!