Steve Erickson on From Book to Film

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Spanning 128 years and three or four different genres, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day might be said to have found the movies as much as the other way around. Just as these 19th- and 20th-century classics stirred filmmakers’ aspirations to a literary stature, those filmmakers also located in the novels the naturally cinematic – that innerscape where the imagination, word and mind’s eye all meet.

Did there already lurk within The Remains of the Day, before Anthony Hopkins ever read it, his great, psychologically audacious performance as the butler Stevens? Was Charles Dickens the original production designer – down to the last dust-laden chair and spider’s web – of Miss Havisham’s parlour and its monument to a forsaken wedding? Consider what all these novels have both given and taken from the movies: each is informed by the secrets of lives that are claustrophobic and clandestine (metaphorically if not socially), and their release from the shadows of the heart; each is driven by the quest of a charismatic figure who is the very stuff of movie-star immortality, be it Holly Golightly’s Audrey Hepburn, or George Smiley’s Alec Guinness and later Gary Oldman, or that gentleman of the night Count Dracula’s Bela Lugosi, and later Christopher Lee and Frank Langella, and still later Gary Oldman yet again.

Literature’s values and cinema’s interpretations collide sometimes, to be sure. For whatever reason, American movies have been somewhat more respectful of the British authors here than of Capote, who wrote his most famous character for Marilyn Monroe (and considered Hepburn’s casting a betrayal), and whose more cynical Manhattan was made by director Blake Edwards into an irresistible candyland for glamorous grown-ups. Movies by their nature transform nuanced characters into archetypes. But if movies trade in the archetypal, then so do dreams, and something about all these novels so epitomises the human narrative of conflict, desire and even transcendence as to provide the contracts by which all of our dreams conspire together – the dream of the word and the dream of the image, the dream of what is remembered and the dream of what is awaited.

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