Sunday, November 25, 2012

The difficulties of literary adaptations: "Life of Pi," "Anna Karenina"

Adapting books to film is a tricky business, and it’s generally the case that the better or more beloved the book, the more difficult the task of transferring it to the screen. To state the obvious, the movie needs to please—or at least avoid pissing off—the book’s fans, but also be accessible to those who haven’t read the book. This puts pressure on the filmmakers to stay reasonably (but not slavishly) faithful to the text, while capitalizing on the advantages and overcoming the limitations of a completely different medium to convey the book’s power.

In this respect, both Life of Pi and Anna Karenina pose particularly daunting challenges to adaptation. Life of Pi, a tall tale of a miraculous survival at sea doubling as a New Age-y parable of faith, was deemed unfilmable until Ang Lee decided he could do it—and did, armed with the latest and greatest in CGI and 3D technology. Anna Karenina, by contrast, had made the journey to the big screen multiple times but had yet to yield a film that came anywhere close to matching its artistic stature. Undeterred, director Joe Wright rather daringly went for a scaled-down approach that emphasizes the intimate over the epic and a theatrical, rather than naturalistic, style of representation.

Interestingly, both adaptations achieve about equal levels of success. Both are visually arresting and, for the most part, eminently watchable films that honor their sources. Yet neither quite reproduces the mysterious alchemy that gives the book its enduring appeal. What exactly is lacking is hard to say; but its absence prevents the whole from transcending the sum of its well-crafted parts.


Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan
Based on the novel by Yann Martel

I have not read Life of Pi, but by all accounts it’s an odd beast. Not least because it prominently features an odd beast, or at least an oddly displaced one: a tiger in a lifeboat. Make that a hungry Bengal tiger sharing a lifeboat with an unarmed young man.

Showing that interaction was apparently one of the biggest technical hurdles facing director extraordinaire Ang Lee, who responded by drawing on the most state-of-the-art computer wizardry this side of Peter Jackson. (In fact, for my money—or more accurately, the studios’ money—“Life of Pi” easily beats “The Hobbit” in the FX department.) The most formidable hurdle, however, wasn’t technical so much as existential: how to make a gripping, believable film out of a novel that has fantastical elements but isn’t exactly a fantasy and embeds an allegorical subtext but isn’t (necessarily) an allegory.

At the center of the novel, which the movie tracks closely, is a man who cleaves instinctually to the divine. As a boy, Pi Patel is attracted to not one but three of the world’s major religions and rather than choosing, adopts them all; as a young man, he finds his pan-spiritual faith tested—and transmuted—by a literally life-changing experience at sea. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a tiger after the ship on which he and the tiger were both passengers sinks in a storm. The two aren’t complete strangers to one another, as the tiger (quirkily named Richard Parker, the result of an administrative error) formerly belonged to a zoo owned by Pi’s family. But they become much better acquainted over the course of some 227 days, as their boat drifts idly across the south Pacific Ocean and they become unlikely allies in survival. Demonstrating a rare blend of guile, resourcefulness, and empathy, Pi manages to keep Richard Parker at bay and tame him after a fashion, assisted by little more than a makeshift raft and some rope, a sailor’s whistle, and his own wits. The pair have many strange adventures and see many strange and marvelous things before finally returning to the shores of human civilization. And it’s at that point, arguably, that the story really becomes interesting, at least for those with whom its metaphysical message resonates most deeply.

Portraying all this on screen is a tall order, but the Ang-man is game. More importantly, has game. The man’s never directed a bad movie, and he doesn’t here, even if this one gets off to a somewhat slow and creaky start as it intercuts between middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan)’s conversation with a curious writer (Rafe Spall) and Pi’s memories of his youth in India: how he came by name, how he first met Richard Parker, his quest for God, his first love. Most of the childhood scenes are a tad too cutesy, bordering on twee, while the present-day interview with the writer feels like what it is—a fairly pedestrian framing device—though it’s always good to see Khan, a really terrific actor who sadly isn’t given much to do here.

Lee finds his stride, however, once the story hits the open ocean, and Pi’s desperate struggle to survive and the evolution of his relationship with Richard Parker prove thoroughly engrossing. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi during this critical period of his life, makes a sympathetic and compelling protagonist while Richard Parker, thanks to some spectacularly lifelike CGI, is a more than worthy co-star. Even beyond Richard Parker, the visual effects are a wonder to behold, whether it’s a positively Biblical flood of gleaming flying fish, a bobbing thicket of incandescent jellyfish, or the simple grandeur of acres of constellations in a clear night sky. It’s these sequences that come closest to capturing the sense of childlike awe, of being transported to another plane of existence, or, as Emerson might have put it, becoming a transparent eyeball, that the book (I suspect) was able to evoke in its readers. Yet something about the film’s presentation of such jaw-dropping moments feels more calculated to dazzle the physical eye than the mind’s eye—an impression heightened by an extended interlude on a mysterious, dreamlike island that almost literally devours Pi whole. Perhaps some subconscious knowledge that what we’re seeing is a glorious digital illusion, a triumph of the filmmaker’s art, diminishes any sense of spiritual transcendence.

And it’s in the effects-free coda that “Life of Pi” pushes up against the limitations of that art. The revels now being ended, Pi’s visions all melted “into air, into thin air,” the film concludes with a discussion between older Pi and his rapt listener on what his story means, or could mean. Ostensibly a dialogue, it comes across as a graceless lump of exegesis that lands with a resounding clunk, though it’s hard to say what alternative would have worked better. Perhaps the framing device should have been abandoned altogether, leaving audiences to decide for themselves what to make of Pi’s wild tale. As it is, the filmmakers decided, understandably enough, not to risk non-readers of the novel completely missing its underlying message. There’s no question it could have been much worse. The unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, question is whether it could have been better.



Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, Ruth Wilson, Michelle Dockery, others
Adapted by Tom Stoppard

Is Anna Karenina a tragic love story? A cautionary tale of reckless, self-destructive adultery? A critical portrait of an appearance-obsessed society that accepts adultery only so long as it conforms to certain unspoken rules and boundaries?

The truth is it’s all of these things, and much more besides. It’s just as much a celebration of life without artifice, of love free of guilt, of happy marriage, and of the struggle to find one’s role and place in life—mostly via the other main character of the novel, Konstantin Levin, who serves as a stand-in for Tolstoy and whose experiences offer a counterpoint to Anna’s. It also offers, if not exactly a treatise, an extended meditation on the changing socioeconomic relationship between Russian landowners and peasants in Tolstoy’s time. The novel is large, it contains multitudes, and perhaps as a consequence, it defies easy or smooth transfer to the big screen.

But it never pays to underestimate Joe Wright, who’s no stranger to handling high-stakes literary adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) with confidence and panache. Here, working from an elegantly streamlined script by Tom Stoppard, he manages to produce a fluid, crisply paced film that remains quite faithful to the book. Like many of his predecessors, however, he chooses to focus primarily on Anna’s romance and its reception by the Russian aristocracy. (So much for the peasants, or for Tolstoy’s preoccupation with the ideal political and agrarian model for modern Russia.)

What’s distinctly original is Wright’s visualization of that particular set of social dynamics. Most of the film’s action is shot inside an old theater, and by most I mean the vast majority, from balls, soirées, and horse races to illicit trysts and private tête-à-têtes—sometimes on the stage, sometimes backstage, sometimes bleeding into the audience. Nearly every movement is carefully choreographed, as if everything we’re seeing is part of an elaborate performance, which is clearly the point. Some viewers may find the device overly gimmicky, but it’s intriguing to watch and really drives home the sense that these exquisitely dressed people are each playing a part for the others as well as for us. (The dresses, incidentally, are scrumptious—especially Anna’s, which, in addition to being gorgeous, often appear to reflect her emotional state at any given moment.) Tellingly, the few scenes that don’t feel that way usually involve earnest Levin (Domhnall Gleason, son of Brendan) and innocent Kitty (rising Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who bears watching), the girl he loves.

Not for the first time, Wright's casting choices are idiosyncratic, with almost no correlation between what actors he likes for key roles and whether they bear any resemblance to the characters as written. He also appears to have appointed Keira Knightley as his go-to muse for period pictures, and while he’s had remarkable success with her in the past, it doesn't take here. His casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, Anna’s lover, doesn’t help, either. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, while perfectly pretty, seem too young, too callow, and literally too slender to play Anna and Vronsky. They lack the sheer vitality those two are supposed to exude without effort. They also don’t generate any sexual heat when together, which is a real problem.

Knightley has the hardest sell because Anna, for all her charm and vivacity, is a difficult character to root for, especially towards the end of her downward spiral. In both novel and movie, it’s very wearing on one’s patience to watch her torture both herself and those closest to her simply because she can’t face the admittedly crappy choice her society's thrust upon her. It’s all the more frustrating when you can’t see what it is about Vronsky, or her connection with him, that inspires such intense emotions. And without access to the trajectory of Anna’s inner thoughts, all we can see is their manifestation in her increasingly erratic outward behavior and agitated demeanor. Knightley does her best, but she never really succeeds in elevating her character’s predicament from avoidable pathos to inevitable tragedy.

Curiously, it’s Anna’s husband who ends up being the most compelling character in this ill-fated love triangle. Jude Law is a revelation as the cuckolded Karenin even if at first glance he, too, seems miscast, being too young and frankly too good-looking for the part, despite the film’s attempts to uglify him a bit. Karenin’s a cold fish, but he’s not without feeling, and Law does a fantastic job showing the stiffness and reserve of a man overly concerned with propriety and the appearance of what’s right, as well as the flashes of genuine pain, anger, and compassion that break through at crucial moments. As such, he threatens to upstage Anna as the true hero of this sad tale. That was probably not Tolstoy’s intent, and I’m not sure it was Joe Wright’s, either. Still, a little subversion, whether intended or not, is healthy, as Wright’s general approach illustrates. It keeps the dust from collecting on our most cherished classics, and that can only be a good thing.



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