Hollywood Eyes Some Serious Literature


By: Steven Rosen

Friday, March 21, 2003 - LOS ANGELES - Hollywood has a difficult time making good movies from literary sources because it's often clueless as to what constitutes literature.

That was made all too clear recently when director Mark Steven Johnson introduced the world-premiere screening of his "Daredevil" comic-book adaptation to a Pasadena audience. "I've wanted to do this since I was 10 years old," he said. "I grew up with this; it is my Greek mythology."

As the trite fantasy-adventure film unfolded, it was pretty clear it was many things, but not the equal of Greek mythology. If Johnson wants to make an escapist movie based on a comic book, more power to him. But when it is accompanied by pronouncements of profound literary merit, and backed with $100 million of a major studio's money, something seems wrong.

Hollywood thinks such a film is a major creative event. And it thinks that old comic books are serious modern literature. Trying to change that mindset is a task of Olympian proportions.

In fact, one reason "The Hours," which has been nominated for several Oscars, including best picture, is so extraordinary is that it is a rare, successful, major-studio adaptation of serious fiction. And that's because the producer, Scott Rudin, is tirelessly dedicated to such adaptations. Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is next.

The co-producer, Miramax Films, is somewhat less dedicated, having made a muddle of E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" by turning it into a showcase for a badly miscast Kevin Spacey. But having won the Oscar for its 1996 version of Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient," Miramax at least keeps trying. Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" arrives later this year.

Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "The Hours" reimagines Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" by building parallels between its story and the lives of three women in three different eras. One of those women in Cunningham's novel is Woolf, herself, as she contemplates life and suicide.

As adapted by playwright David Hare and director Stephen Daldry, the film "The Hours" builds in dramatic power while moving sideways among its stories. And with a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, it has top actresses at their best.

Still, many who have seen "The Hours" have complained that it's a downer because it is tragic. Of course, so is so much Greek mythology. "The Hours" also takes risks with structure, by cross-cutting between three seemingly separate narratives to create a whole. As a result, it is the most visible example of recent literary films that radically experiment with structure.

Another is the new "The Safety of Objects," adapted by director-writer Rose Troche from a collection of short stories by A.M. Homes. (It is now playing at the Esquire Theatre.) Unnervingly yet smart, and marvelously directed with fine acting from Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, Patricia Clarkson, Dermot Mulroney and others, it's a worthy addition to the list of successful movies adapted from contemporary literature.

Homes' stories, mysterious yet wryly detached in tone, merit comparison to John Cheever - whose great "mysteries of suburbia" short story, "The Swimmer," provided Burt Lancaster with one of his best roles in the 1968 adaptation. Troche, too, has set her "Safety" in suburbia. In fact, she has used suburbia to connect her characters and Homes' separate stories.

"I wanted 'Safety' to feel like one story with multiple characters. I wanted to use that to get at the emotional continuity that she (Homes) moves in and out of," Troche says. "I don't mean 'Safety' to be a critique of suburbs. I think that's a viable choice to live. But there's an extra something about the suburbs. It carries a statement with it that says you will be safer here, there are certain guarantees you'll get when you chose this life. It's like you're living in an advertisement."

Troche, who lived in Boulder in the 1980s and wrote her first screenplay there, now is at work adapting a novel by Homes, "In a Country of Mothers."

Perhaps the most daring new movie inspired by a contemporary novel isn't an adaptation at all. Called "Stone Reader," it's an essayist-style documentary, extremely literary in its own right, about a filmmaker's quest to find an obscure author whose sprawling, demanding, coming-of-age novel moved him when it was published in 1972.

As the director, Mark Moskowitz, undertakes his search for author Dow Mossman, whose book was "The Stones of Summer;" he finds much more. He explores why novels are so important to all of us. (The film opens May 2 at Madstone Theatres at Tamarac Square.)

Moskowitz, a Pennsylvania-based commercial filmmaker, is keenly interested in contemporary fiction. John Barth, Joseph Heller and William Gaddis are favorites. He considers Mossman's book in their league. Yet he didn't try to make an adaptation, much as he'd like to see one.

"I have the chops for this," he says of his approach. "What this movie is about is its own story. What the book is about is a substantially different story. It's a big epic novel, but you could focus on just one plot. The stories are great, the dialog is fantastic...

"When I started out, I knew I wanted to express myself on the topic of what reading meant to me," Moskowitz says. "What happens when somebody is creative and stops creating? And the film sort of found itself as I realized the search for Dow Mossman was fun. It wasn't until I sat and edited myself and found a way to tell the story that I had the idea this was a motion picture."

As a result, he has made a movie about contemporary literature, about a specific novel, that is as exciting as the best of fiction. And, fittingly, as successful as any adaptation.