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A Dilemma of Old

Reviewing About Schmidt in January, I mentioned that I had not read the Louis Begley novel from which the screenplay was tenuously derived. Several people have written to say that, though they liked the film and they had read Begley's approval of it, I ought to read the book. I'm thinking it over.

The correspondents' friendly suggestion is, of course, a return to the perennial question of adaptation, the degree of responsibility of a later work to its source. Every such discussion is a matter of instances, not of precepts. Who cares if an unimportant novel is altered for screen use? Who is not offended when a good book is trashed on screen? The thorn in this prickly matter is the alteration of a valuable novel when the resulting film is also valuable. The thorn is even sharper in this instance because Begley himself said about the screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor that he "would have been proud to have written their book."

His comment almost states my dilemma. I have in my head one work, a film called About Schmidt: do I want in my head a related work in another medium? If I do read the novel and think it as good as my correspondents say, haven't I shoved myself into a small torture chamber that I could have avoided? Since the film is itself of consequence, why do I have to put in my mind an earlier version that, at best, can only make me admire Payne and Taylor's skill in changing it? I have trouble enough in admiring Arrigo Boito's adaptation of Othello for Verdi; do I need more such quasi-grudging admiration?

The oldest burden of this kind that I remember is The Thirty-Nine Steps. When I was in high school, I read John Buchan's novel of that title and thought it a terrific thriller. Four or five years later, along came Hitchcock's film. I remember being excited that Buchan's book had been filmed by a director already established as a master craftsman. Then I saw the film, and was gripped by it as if two hands were on my shoulders holding me fast. It, too, was terrific. But it didn't even have the (literal) thirty-nine steps in it, and it took some bits from another Buchan novel. In order to justify using the title, the adapters, Charles Bennett and Alma Reville, had made it the name of a spy organization. So in the decades since I have had two versions of The Thirty- Nine Steps in my head: the original, though I have never re-read it, and the film, which I have seen six or eight times. Because the novel came first and was so strong in itself, I have always had a tinge of discomfort about the film, the thought that it is very good considering that it altered the novel I had loved. Do I need to do that to About Schmidt?

The problem arose long before film itself was invented--in the theater. Bernard Shaw's first piece of theater criticism was a review of Henry Irving's The Merchant of Venice in 1880. After noting the alterations that Irving had made in the text, Shaw wrote: "Mr. Irving calls his arrangement of The Merchant an 'acting version.' What does he call the original?" I'm glad that I couldn't have seen Irving's production: I might very well have admired it and would thus have had to balance Irving against unaltered Shakespeare long before film adaptation added to the problem.

I don't advance an argument against reading. I'm not proposing that the ideal filmgoer is ignorant of every good novel or play that has ever been published and that might be adapted. I suggest only that balance can be difficult if it is necessary, and that sometimes an evasion is a comfort. A film may be well able to stand on its own without comparison to its source. To dwell on changes from the origin can load the film with obligations that may be aesthetically irrelevant. Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is drastically different from the medieval Nibelungenlied, but do those who know the epic arbitrarily derogate the Ring because Wagner departed from the earlier text? Payne and Taylor don't have to be the equals of Wagner in order for us to allow that a work in one art can stand on its own apart from its source in another art.

In 1926, before sound arrived in films, Virginia Woolf mourned--in these pages, by the way--that films spelled out famous novels "in words of one syllable." Yet she foresaw that "when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the filmmaker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking." That symbol or series of symbols has been found--indeed, was found before 1926-- and has often exalted film adaptations of novels. The exactitude and the power that Woolf desired in films have often overwhelmed us. About Schmidt is not a pinnacle in cinema history, but it is certainly good enough, especially with Jack Nicholson's performance, to exist without being primarily considered as an adaptation. Surprisingly, happily, Begley's own statement is a vigorous vote for this view.

Yet I hurry to add that I would not want to surrender the right to criticize adaptations even when the resulting films are good, if such criticism seems relevant. All of the above is only one view of the problem. Scrambling, I might take refuge in Whitman--"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself"--even though, as he said, he contained multitudes, and I, alas, do not. But, like most other people, I do contain some conflicting opinions, conflicts that I can't resolve. This is one pair. I'm still thinking it over about Begley.

LOST IN MANCHA (IFC) is a documentary about the filming of an adaptation-- the attempted filming. Terry Gilliam had written an adaptation of Don Quixote and was to make the film. Gilliam, American though he is, was one of the Monty Python group and, among other things, did the animated bits in their sane insanities. He also made Time Bandits and Brazil, so he is clearly a director with nerve and wit (despite his ghastly Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

For ten years Gilliam had been struggling to get his Quixote launched and was finally set to begin in the fall of 2000, in Spain. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, documentary makers, were apparently on hand from the beginning to chronicle the adventure. The project fizzled, so Fulton and Pepe used their footage to demonstrate the hazards of film-making.

But it doesn't. The film is not, as the publicity says, "a powerful drama about the inherent fragility of the creative process." It does not expose the tumult of problems, quarrels, differences, and sentimentalities that often bedraggle the making of a film. We see a good deal of the hubbub, but Gilliam's film floundered for a reason that had nothing to do with artistic quarrels. Quixote was to be played by the eminent French actor Jean Rochefort, who had spent months learning the English of the role. As Rochefort boarded the plane in Paris for Spain, he felt pain in his back but kept on. After five or six days of work, he had to go back to Paris for examination. A few days later Gilliam and Co. learned that Rochefort had a herniated disc in his spine and would be out of action for several months. The film had to close down.

So this is not, as vaunted, a documentary about a film destroyed by temperaments and tizzies. It is the account of a medical catastrophe that could have spoiled the opening of a supermarket.