Translating Between Media

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a short novel about South Africa after the end of apartheid.  The novel is the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace written by J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.  Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a white South African professor of English, who loses his job and goes to the countryside to visit his daughter on a farm there.  I won’t spoil the novel by giving away plot points.  But this book is not brilliant because of its plot (although the plot is very interesting).  It is brilliant because of its portrait of a completely unlikable protagonist, whose attitudes increasingly bring him into conflict with the changes that have taken place in his country.  His attitudes towards other people, especially women and black South Africans, are reprehensible and yet, reading the book is like watching a horrible accident.  You want to look away but you’re fascinated by the horror and can’t believe that it’s unfolding as it is.  Despite Lurie’s arrogance, by the end, I felt sympathy for him as man whose world had changed so drastically in such a short amount of time that he just couldn’t keep up.  Coetzee’s skill is in making us, as readers, understand this character’s point of view without forcing us to condone it.

Ann had recommended Disgrace to me because she loved it and thought it was an interesting post-colonial novel.  We’ve had a number of interesting conversations about it.  So we were quite excited last year when we learned that the novel had been made into a movie.  I heard an interesting conversation about the movie on NPR and Wikipedia told us this: “A motion picture adaptation starring John Malkovich had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics’ Award.”  We checked various web sites and discovered that the movie played in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this–it could be that the movie was really bad or it could be that it tackles subject matter that is not particularly interesting.  We waited and waited and the movie never went into wide release in the United States.

Recently, Ann found that the movie had been released to DVD and that NetFlix had it.  So she rented it and we watched it together.  It was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  The movie is a fairly faithful recreation of the major plot points of the novel.  And so, it was interesting to both of us that the movie was so bad that we checked in with each other every 10 minutes or so to determine whether we really should keep watching.  It all made me very curious about the differences between media and why a story that was so successful in one medium can be such a huge failure in another medium.  Here’s what I came up with (and please remember that I am not a movie critic).

The first problem with the movie is John Malkovich.  He is supposed to be playing an arrogant white South African.  As Ann pointed out, the South African accent is a difficult one to master.  Malkovich completely fails in this task.  He says his lines nasally, but mostly with an American accent (he is American, after all).  When he does slip into some other accent, it is a strange British one, but it never sticks.  The American accent is too persistent.  This problem is just one of many acting issues in the movie.  The acting is all-around horrible.  From major characters to minor characters, it seems that everyone is aware that they are in a big D Drama.  It’s painful to watch.

The second, even bigger, problem is the script.  The script hits the major plot points from the novel.  But so much of the novel is about character development that I think I would have had a difficult time understanding what was going on if I hadn’t read the novel.  I think I can give an example without giving away the plot.  In the novel, Lurie goes to visit the family of one of his female students without her knowledge.  It is a scene of great suspense, as he meets the student’s young sister, worms his way into the house, and ends up having dinner with the family.  This action makes sense to us in the novel because we have access to Lurie’s inner thoughts (or at least as much as he, an unreliable narrator, is willing to allow us).  But the scene makes sense.  In the movie, Lurie goes to visit the family, encounter the student’s young sister, but the scene ends when the student’s father comes home.  There is no suspense in the scene and his motivation for visiting is completely lost on us (unless we’ve read the book).  Lurie doesn’t have dinner with the family.   But that divergence from the novel is not the main problem with the script.  The problem is that we have no sense of the character’s motivation for doing what he’s doing.

I don’t think this lack of understanding of motivation is something that is always a problem with movies.  In other words, there’s nothing inherent in the medium that disallows the understanding of character motivation.  I think the problem is that the novel contains characters who behave in surprising ways, in ways that make sense only if you are inside their world, inside their perspective.  Without that perspective, their actions seem arbitrary and baffling.  The movie doesn’t provide us with that perspective and therefore, the actions of the characters make no sense.

I am very disappointed that this particular adaptation was such a failure.  The focus on the story misses the point of the novel.  This particular story is fascinating but really only makes sense in the novel because we understand what motivates the characters.  Translating between media is more difficult than simply transcribing a story.  Maybe I’ll have to stop watching movie adaptations of the novels that I love.

And, by the way, who are these critics at the Toronto Film Festival, who gave this movie an award?  It was awful!

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