Atticus authors John Minichillo, JM Tohline, and Tommy Zurhellen wrap up their conversation on retellings in literature with a discussion on Hollywood film adaptations of books. Read last week’s conversation.
The following conversation is conducted by Atticus Books publicist Lacey N. Dunham and editorial/marketing assistant Abby Hess.
Let’s talk about the other great adaptation of literature, that of books into movies. Any thoughts?
John Minichillo: This is without a doubt the best thing that can happen to a writer’s career. It gets an author’s name in front of millions, which can’t happen otherwise. It’s also incredibly rare. A script has to be written and a director and producer have to be gung-ho enough to convince investors the movie will make money. Publishing didn’t used to be about money so much. Movies have always been about money.
JM Tohline: I love what John said: it is without a doubt the best thing that can happen to a writer’s career. And at the same time, it can cripple a new reader’s ability to approach a book with a fresh and open mind. It’s a conundrum, sure—but still, it’s one that no author (well…with the exception of Salinger and his famously staunch stance against the Hollywood adaptation of any of his works) would mind facing themselves.
Tommy Zurhellen: What about books that don’t translate well into a Multiplex film? There has to be a territory, some sort of sacred ground perhaps, that is owned entirely by the printed word. Otherwise, aren’t we all just screenwriters? I do very much enjoy seeing someone’s interpretation of a book I have enjoyed, since it makes me re-think the story in my mind, and its nuances. Sideways would be a good example of this. But what will History of Love look like on the screen? I might not want to find out.
The Great Gatsby has been adapted to the screen five or six times since its publication, the most famous of which is the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. And, of course, there’s the forthcoming Baz Luhrmann adaptation.
Tommy Zurhellen: It’s a good time to revisit Gatsby, a tale that’s as much about decadence and the frailty of a gilded society as it is about love and betrayal. Perhaps one reason why it hasn’t translated into a Hollywood blockbuster is its complexity: it’s hard to pick out a hero or a villain. And the action: there’s a car crash, that’s about it. I would expect Luhrmann (La Bohème) to add the sex and violence that Fitzgerald alludes to.
JM Tohline: I’ve never watched any of the former Hollywood offerings of Gatsby, because I never wanted my personal vision of the book tainted by something as concrete as a movie. That’s one thing that I look forward to in the newest iteration of Gatsby. “Something as concrete as a movie”? Watching a Luhrmann flick is less like watching something concrete and more like drinking too much absinthe and stumbling around Las Vegas. Should be fun. And dizzying.
Publishing didn’t used to be about money so much. Movies have always been about money.
The Bible (or, perhaps more accurately, Biblical stories) has been adapted for film numerous times, but what looms largest in my mind is Charlton Heston’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Monty Python’s The Life of Bryan, and—although I’ve never seen it, the controversy was unavoidable—Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Tommy Zurhellen: You have no idea how many old Hollywood potboilers I watched while writing Nazareth, North Dakota. The Robe! The Greatest Story Ever Told! I will admit I never saw Gibson’s entry, but I don’t feel like I’m missing much. When you need to translate a film from Aramaic, it sounds like you might be taking yourself a bit too seriously.
John Minichillo: I’m probably the only non-evangelical who loves Gibson’s movie. I watch it every year around Easter. I think it’s a great film from an entirely non-religious perspective, if such a thing is possible, and I’m able to separate it from the critiques of both the film and its director.
JM Tohline: I’m with John on this one—except, I should say every year around Easter I plan to watch The Passion of the Christ, and then I never end up getting around to it.
Has Moby-Dick been adapted into a film? Should I be embarrassed that I don’t know the answer to this?
Tommy Zurhellen: John is the authority here of course, but for my money the best re-telling of Moby-Dick so far on screen is Jaws. This is the power of allegory: take a great story and make it your own. The film is pretty faithful to the themes of Melville’s book, believe it or not.
John Minichillo: I haven’t seen the film yet, it’s been in my ever-expanding Netflix queue, but it stars Gregory Peck and the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury in two days. Two days. We miss you Ray.
There have been a couple of more recent versions that I also haven’t seen, one with Patrick Stewart and one with Ethan Hawke that were both made for TV, which I also haven’t seen. I have seen Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, which is considered a rewrite, with Khan pursuing the white whale of the Enterprise. That’s closer to the kind of thing I was going for with The Snow Whale, that it would be a great story whether or not you knew squat about Moby-Dick.
If you could cast and chose a director for film adaptations of your novels, who would you cast and who would direct?
Tommy Zurhellen: I love the writer fantasy questions.
Nazareth, North Dakota and Apostle Islands are fragmented collages, and I would think directors who work in similar ways might understand the books more: folks like Wes Anderson, whose Moonrise Kingdom I just watched and absolutely loved. As far as dramatis personae, the hardest parts to nail down would be Roxy Boone and Lazlo Hooker. If Roxy were cast today, I’d say Emily Mortimer. For Laz, I see someone like DJ Qualls. Ah, perchance to dream!
John Minichillo: I think The Snow Whale, as a film, would have expanded comic potential and just about any mid-thirties to mid-forties white comic actors would be great. I can start with my dream main characters but there are up-and-coming comedians who would also give it presence. For me, there’s the visual irony of the main character being extremely white, but also repeatedly declaring, “I’m Inuit”: Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Ed Helms, John Krasinski, Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson… Oh, you see what I did there. I got stuck on The Office. My book is also an office comedy/satire so dang, I guess they are pretty good at it. What I’m looking for is an American Ricky Gervais.
My female lead is harder. She has to be a little overweight, mousy, and lacking confidence. That’s pretty hard to find in Hollywood.
As for directors, I rarely see a film that’s not competently produced. I can’t imagine what it’s like to direct a feature film and I would respect just about anyone who’s done it before. Having said that, Ken Kwapis (most famous for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) would be my dream director. For his last film, Big Miracle, he shot on location in Alaska, built a set very much like the village of my setting, and filmed whales underwater. He’s also directed episodes of The Office over the years, so he’s got the comedic skills and the connections to the right kinds of comedians as well.
JM Tohline: When I first started writing, I often wondered, “Who would play this character if it were made into a movie?” Then I realized that it would take a year or two for a completed work to be published, then—if the movie rights were sold—it would be another couple years of adaptation and development and contract haggling. Then casting. Then changes in casting. Then pre-production, production, post-production, etc. And I realized: Whoever is the right age to play these characters now would no-way be the right age by the time it finally happened! Since that realization, I’ve left that question alone. As for director, however…I imagine I can give a blanket answer for any work I will ever write: Woody Allen or PT Anderson. Or a baby birthed by Woody Allen and PT Anderson.
A popular author for adaptations is Shakespeare. What’s the worst Shakespeare adaptation (stage, screen, novel, whatever) that you’ve seen or read?
Tommy Zurhellen: How many films aimed at teens are based on the framework of a Shakespeare play? Of course, Shakespeare’s plays are based on older works, too, including his own plays. And so it goes.
When [film adaptations are] done well, it’s magic. When [they're] not, it sounds contrived.
John Minichillo: I’m not going to make any friends by sticking up for the work of Mel Gibson yet again, but I think his Hamlet is really good. Filmwise, the ones I’ve seen are pretty good. What doesn’t work for me when Shakespeare is performed is when the comedy isn’t present. There’s nothing worse than mediocre actors acting serious for 3 ½ hours, especially when you already know the plot. Another necessary necessary skill for Shakespearean actors is to make the poetry sound like natural speech. When it’s done well, it’s magic. When it’s not, it sounds contrived.
Tommy Zurhellen: What makes an adaptation truly bad? If a high school puts on King Lear but sets it in World War I, and the play is horrible because, well, most high school plays are horrible, does that count as a bad adaptation? Or is it good, because the original idea/shift was interesting? I’ll let John stick up for Mel Gibson here.
Do retellings help the public memory of the original story or misshapen/change it? Is there a concern that someone will only ever watch Ethan Hawke as Hamlet and never go back to the original text which is so much richer than the movie was?
JM Tohline: There are people who will almost always read the book first, and there are people who will almost always watch the movie first. And the way a person perceives the original work will always be influenced by their initial experience with the story.
Tommy Zurhellen: Stories are more than simply novels and the written word, of course. Young folks today are surrounded by stories in film, video games, text marathons, you name it. As a reader, I don’t like it when kids don’t read. They’re missing out on all the things I learned while in the pages of books. But there’s something to be said for how kids today receive narrative differently. The problem is still the same: young people developing critical thinking so they can dissect all these stories thrown at them. They’re just doing it with a PS3 instead of a paperback is all.
John Minichillo: Grendel is read a lot in high school and Beowulf is not. Young readers just don’t have the literacy skills to tackle the real thing and Grendel speaks to our contemporary sensibilities. It’s gross. It’s funny. It’s fun. By the time a reader gets to Beowulf, I think we’re all probably really grateful for what John Gardner did. As the Old English man-versus-monster tale plods along, I think the Gardner version sticks. Monty Python does the same for the Arthurian Legend. Go back and read some Mallory and I dare you not to laugh, though it is absolutely dry and Mallory was 100% serious about what he was doing.
Read part one of the conversation on writing within the limits of a previously told story. Read part two of the conversation on reader responses to retellings and paying necessary homage to one’s literary heroes.