Tag Archives: film adaptations

The Girl on the Train, Page and Screen

I was late to the party, but The Girl on the Train is one of the most entertaining thrillers that I’ve read this year. My mom and I both waited impatiently for it to be released in paperback, and last weekend we saw the movie together. As you may have gathered from the previews of disgruntled Emily Blunt demanding to know WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, it’s about an alcoholic woman trying to piece together her involvement in another woman’s disappearance.

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What makes the novel so interesting is also what makes it difficult to adapt to film. Paula Hawkins tells the story from three women’s perspectives and uses a nonlinear structure. The narrators are Rachel, the titular “girl on the train”; Anna, her ex-husband’s new wife; and Megan, the woman who disappears. Like Gone Girl before it, an easy criticism of this novel is that none of the characters are particularly likable. I happen to love Gillian Flynn’s penchant for deeply flawed women, and I feel the same about Paula Hawkins. Also similar to the experience of reading Gone Girl, I find my sympathies evolving as the book reveals more about each character. I wouldn’t want every book I read to have characters like this, but I enjoy it under the right circumstances.

Nonlinear story structure is usually an exciting device in fiction, especially for mystery writers. It can add to a sense of unease or confusion while also necessitating that the reader be engaged with the details of the mystery in order to follow along. However, visually indicating shifts in time can feel awkward on screen. The Girl on the Train attempts to do this with time and narrator shifts, which felt clumsy to me as a viewer. I also spent the first 20 minutes confused about why almost everyone in suburban London had an American accent, only to realize that the film switched the setting to New York and the Hudson River Valley. Except Rachel is still British and Anna has a slight Scandinavian accent. Paula Hawkins has pointed out that the story could take place in any commuter town, but I certainly missed the British-ness of the novel.

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The three female perspectives are my favorite part of the novel. At first they seem quite different, but the reader begins to see commonalities in their experiences. On the other hand, the film is shot from a very male perspective. This is particularly apparent with Megan, who is frequently half-dressed and being ravaged by her husband with a bored look on her face. An aggressive sexuality is part of her character, but the film makes her an object rather than an agent. There’s also a certain meekness to Anna that isn’t present on the page. For a story that delves into three women’s psyches, a detached and sexually voyeuristic mood feels incongruous. Rachel suffers the least in this respect, both from getting the most screen time and Emily Blunt’s committed performance.

As is often the case with adaptation, I might like The Girl on the Train better with a second viewing, but for now I’ll stick to the book.

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The Erasure of Angie Gennaro

Gone Baby Gone 3

I first watched Gone, Baby, Gone in 2012, at the height of my enthusiasm for Ben Affleck. At that time I hadn’t read the novel upon which it was based, or any of Dennis Lehane’s work, and Ben hadn’t tainted his career renaissance with the scandal surrounding his separation from Jennifer Garner. In short, it was a simpler time. Becoming familiar with the source material, as well as two articles by Anne Helen Petersen , affected my second viewing in unexpected ways. Back in March, Petersen wrote a pair of articles about the evolution of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner‘s public images. But what do Jen and Angie have in common?

Since reading and loving Mystic River last summer, I’ve read three more Dennis Lehane novels. Two of them are part of a series that follows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, private investigators in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Gone, Baby, Gone is actually the fourth installment, although it’s not essential to read the books in order. Normally I don’t condone such things, but I got impatient in this particular instance. And of course, reading the book required a revisiting of the movie. In doing so, I was alerted to a great injustice in film adaptation: the erasure of Angie Gennaro.

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Lehane’s novels are narrated by Patrick, but Angie is his partner in every way. To put it bluntly, she’s a total badass. She knows how to defend herself, both physically and verbally, and is a better shot than Patrick. Their partnership is one of the best things about the books. So imagine my distress at seeing her role diminished to a typical Hollywood female supporting character. Michelle Monaghan would certainly not be my go-to actress for this role, but she’s also not given much to work with. In general Affleck follows the trend begun by Clint Eastwood of going wildly off-book when casting a Lehane adaptation. Changing a character’s appearance is one thing, but Affleck’s casting choices actually make some of the characters less interesting. For instance, the detectives who work closely with Patrick and Angie have very distinctive personalities in the novel, while the film turns them into generic cop characters.

Since she should be the other lead role, the flattening of Angie’s character is the most egregious. The film cuts her out of one key action sequence entirely. Even when she is present, she serves as a passive observer who needs Patrick to protect her from unsavory characters. In fact, she’s usually so peripheral to the action that it’s a bit confusing when she does speaks. While Casey Affleck waves a gun around, she watches the scene in mild distress. Angie of the novels would be right there with him, verbally sparring and saving his neck if necessary. Affleck’s screenplay turns her into a stock female character whose only role is to provide support for the male hero and give a “sensitive” perspective about the missing child. Angie of the book continues to obsessively review the case, and Angie of the film cries when she thinks Patrick isn’t home.

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The erasure of Angie gave me surprising flashbacks to Anne Helen Petersen’s article about Jennifer Garner. The article is a great read, but to summarize: Garner was an action star on Alias and poised to become a romantic comedy star with the success of 13 Going on 30. After she married Ben Affleck, her public image was mainly used to make him more likable. Obviously Affleck isn’t to blame for the existence of Hollywood character tropes, but he and co-writer Aaron Stockard did nothing to combat them either. Art imitated life in a way that was only recognizable years later. The greatest irony of all is that the Jennifer Garner of yore could have played Angie Gennaro with ease, but instead she’s starring in movies about cats and children miraculously recovering from diseases.

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Mockingjay: A Fan’s Reaction

Blah blah, spoiler alert, blah blah, don’t read if you haven’t read Mockingjay, it’s been out for years, get your life together.

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The time has come to complete my trilogy of Hunger Games film reviews. But Courtney, you may be saying, shouldn’t it be a quartet? Yes, but somebody didn’t like her review of Mockingjay: Part 1 enough to post it. So like the book series that spawned them, my reviews come in a trio.

The whole trend of splitting final book installments into two films is fairly odious to me. You have examples like Breaking Dawn, which would have barely had enough material for one film to begin with. Then you have Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, which actually had enough material and produced two decent films. Mockingjay probably falls somewhere in the middle. When you turn the second half of a book into its own movie, the result tends to be action heavy to the point of excess, but for The Hunger Games it works out.

Mockingjay offers some new adaptation challenges for the filmmakers. The first part of the book takes place in District 13, which is entirely underground. Ah, nothing says great cinematography like a complete lack of natural light and space. Part 1 suffered more on this front and, despite the honeycomb sets that were more interesting than the District 13 of my imagination, probably led to my impression that the film was a bit drab. Part 2 has the advantage of new settings as the rebellion advances on the Capitol. There are some great set pieces like the Capitol apartment courtyard where a big action sequence takes place.

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Mockingjay: Part 2 has another advantage besides a change of setting. Katniss and Peeta are back in the same place, allowing the central relationship of the series to do the emotional heavy-lifting. Liam Hemsworth may be easy on the eyes, but I’m Team Peeta 4ever. If anything, I could have done with a little more emotional development, but the actors make good with what they have. (Can anyone dispute the centrality of Katniss and Peeta? The relationship between Katniss and Prim is a catalyst for story action, but Prim gets minimal page time and even less screen time.)

The tipping point that turned me into an absolute fan of this movie was the ending. With no easy triumphant conclusion, it was a tricky balance for the filmmakers’ to achieve, but they nailed it. By the time Katniss makes her surprise decision at the execution, her actions feel justified and her reasoning clear to the viewer. The return to District 12 has room for mourning and cautious hope. Can Jennifer Lawrence make us cry by screaming at a cat? Oh yes, she can. And I would likely have thrown a small tantrum if they hadn’t included one of my favorite romantic exchanges in young adult lit. Real or not real? Real. 

 

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Mystic River, Page and Screen

Mystic River Cover

Before my stint as a bookseller, I ignored the mystery section at book stores and libraries. Perhaps I was being a bit of a literary snob. However, when I had an opportunity to become familiar with the section, I started to notice things like, “Hey, the guy who wrote Mystic River is shelved under mystery.” In fact, Dennis Lehane is the guy who wrote Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island as well. What really tipped my interest was Gillian Flynn mentioning Mystic River as an inspiration while she was writing her first novel. This fangirl will take a second look at anything if Gillian recommends it.

Mystic River centers on three childhood friends in a fictional Boston neighborhood: Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle. After Dave is abducted for four days and returns home, the three boys are never able to rebuild their friendship. Sean, the boy from the right side of the neighborhood, becomes a state police detective. Their lives converge twenty-five years later when Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter is murdered and Sean is assigned the case. Solving the murder forces the men to face how this shared childhood trauma has shaped their lives—Sean and Jimmy because they didn’t get into the abductors’ car, and Dave because he did.

Given my predilection for Boston films and actors, I was already biased in favor of Dennis Lehane. As it turns out, he’s a sharp writer with an eye for detail. It’s clear why filmmakers are attracted to his books as source material. The setting is crucial to Mystic River, and Lehane makes his readers feel right at home in a working-class Boston neighborhood. The intertwining lives, the lack of anonymity, an inability to escape the past—it’s all immediately accessible to the reader. Lehane gives an insightful portrayal of all three main characters, as well as musings on how gentrification is slowly erasing the neighborhood that is central to their identities.

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Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film adaptation earned many award nominations and Oscar wins for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. You have to feel a little bad for Kevin Bacon as the only one of the Big Three who wasn’t showered with awards. As Sean Devine, Bacon has the least showy role, whereas Sean Penn is emoting all over the place about his daughter’s murder. I read the book before watching the movie, but I knew its actors were well-received. I was surprised to find that Eastwood didn’t bother much with fidelity to the source material in his casting. It’s a classic dilemma in adaptation. Should you cast someone who looks the part or just find the best possible actor for the role? Common sense would say the latter, yet there are times when these changes affect the story.

The most glaring change is the ages of the main characters. Jimmy Marcus should be about 36. He had his oldest daughter and lost his first wife at a very young age, and these events helped conform him into a pillar of the neighborhood. Sean Penn was 42 when he played Jimmy. The other two men should be the same age, but Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon were 44 or 45 when they played their roles. Six to ten years is probably not that drastic by Hollywood standards, but it made a difference to me. These men have young families, and they’re still trying to sort out their lives. It’s similar to how The Great Gatsby adaptations always cast someone older than Gatsby in the novel. A Gatsby who is almost 40 is a somewhat different character, in my humble opinion.

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Despite my issues with the casting, I can’t deny the talent of the performances. Sean Penn is a powerhouse, and I enjoyed the way he worked off of Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. The film was shot on location in Boston, which is crucial for authenticity when a story is this connected to its setting. A few minor characters and red herrings were understandably cut out, but the meat of the story is there and mostly unchanged. In general I liked Clint Eastwood’s moody direction, although the way he shot Kevin Bacon’s estranged wife was on the cheese-tastic side and out of sync with the rest of the movie. Mystic River as a film is a different beast, but both versions have their merits.

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The Dream Team Gives Us Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn and David Fincher are a match made in book-to-film adaptation heaven. Fincher’s directing style perfectly communicates the domestic menace of Flynn’s psychological thriller. He presents Gone Girl in a blue-gray color palette with an insidiously droning score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Every detail hints at the danger that can lie beneath a calm facade. Rosamund Pike stars as Amy Dunne, the wife who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, and Ben Affleck is her troubled husband Nick.

Warning: This post is intended for people who have read the book or seen the movie. Gone Girl is just infinitely more fun to discuss when you don’t have to worry about spoilers.

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Can we take a moment to marvel at this casting? Admittedly, I’m biased when it comes to Ben Affleck, but even if he doesn’t fit your image of Nick, the aging golden boy is a character that he embodies with ease. The role of Amy could make or break the movie, and I think Fincher was wise to cast a low-profile actress. Hopefully the reveal of Amy’s true character is more effective when viewers have no preconceived notions about Rosamund Pike. An impeccable supporting cast helps to ground a story that could feel apart from reality. I’m absolutely obsessed with Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the local police officers, and Tyler Perry is refreshingly understated as defense attorney Tanner Bolt.

Rosamund Pike as Amy requires her own paragraph. Her ethereal beauty is a perfect fit, and she’s inscrutable enough to play Amy. I’ve seen the movie twice and been thrown by her voice both times. It’s low and posh, somehow making her feel British even though she’s using an American accent. Pike excels at portraying Amy’s dark side, but she performs the voiceovers in a way that creates less juxtaposition between Diary Amy and Real Amy than I feel when reading the book. To her credit, by the end she is a truly frightening creature. After my second viewing, I enjoyed hearing the teens in front of me discuss how creeped out they were.

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Some viewers complain that they miss Nick’s voice, the way the novel’s alternating chapters give equal weight to both points of view. Honestly, the thought didn’t even cross my mind when I first saw the movie. Gillian Flynn actually wrote the script, and she says it felt appropriate to have Amy acting as the “voice of God.” After all, it’s her orchestrations that set the plot in motion. In my opinion, the film still presents the dual perspectives in a way that works for the medium. As Flynn points out, too many voiceovers would start to feel like a book on tape.

Seeing the movie a second time, I found myself thinking about the Bechdel Test. Whether or not the film features female characters talking to each other about something besides a man, as the Bechdel Test requires, Gone Girl has a lot of female characters. And rather than the genders talking among themselves, the movie most often shows men and women talking to each other. This feels apt for a story that hinges on gender dynamics. Fans of the book will be happy to know that Amy’s “Cool Girl” monologue is preserved for the screen. While her acerbic speech (about women taking on characteristics based on what men will find attractive) is startling, it underlines the theme that identity is a performance. The film fixes on this crucial concept, which is enough for me to deem it a success.

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The Virgin Suicides, Page and Screen

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to read for literally years. In April something finally compelled me to pick up The Virgin Suicides. It’s a ballsy title for a debut novel, imbued as it is with both sex and violence. You will find that my review focuses on neither because there are deeper things afoot.

The Virgin Suicides is about the five Lisbon sisters and the neighborhood boys who observe and obsess over them. It’s written in the first person plural, with the boys serving as the collective narrating voice. I can’t recall another book written in this style, and Eugenides uses it to powerful effect. A collective narrator can be disconcerting since the mind wants to attach the voice to a specific character. Instead the story is told by the boys in adulthood, trying to piece together this shared adolescent experience.

Remember in my Hitchcock post when I talked about the male gaze with the female as the object? The Virgin Suicides is another take on that idea. Even though the Lisbon sisters are kept sheltered by their parents (with a few notable exceptions), the boys sexualize anything to do with them. Although they are trying to tell the girls’ story, the boys had very limited contact with them. Despite their zealous observation and collection of Lisbon artifacts, the sisters remain a mystery. The girls’ seclusion seemingly makes them more attractive; the boys are free to imagine them as beyond the mundanities of normal girls.

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Published in 1993, Sofia Coppola adapted the novel to film in 1999. I was curious how the first person plural narration would translate. The Lisbon sisters aren’t supposed to be particularly attractive, made extraordinary only by the boys’ obsession with them, but I expected the film to deviate on that point. And deviate it did, with Kirsten Dunst and four less famous blondes cast as the sisters. The narration was handled with a simple voice-over, not attached to a particular character. The voice-over could share some of the boys’ more poetic musings, but as a standard film convention, it can’t truly capture the inherent strangeness of reading the novel.

This being a Sofia Coppola movie, it has the highly stylized visuals that you would expect. The 1970s aesthetic is great, apart from Josh Hartnett’s haircut. (Or is that the best part? You decide!) My main issue is her portrayal of the Lisbon girls. The novel manages to show how the boys idolize them without insisting that the reader idolize them as well. By letting the camera completely take on the boys’ point of view, Coppola shows the girls in all their sun-drenched dreaminess, but she doesn’t humanize them. It’s a fine line, and others probably say she succeeded. In my opinion, putting the girls on a pedestal for the reader/viewer loses some of the story.

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I was impressed by Eugenides as a writer. He has a singular style, very descriptive and internal, portraying a worldview that’s a bit off-kilter. In an undeniably heavy story, there are countless moments of beauty. I definitely want to read Middlesex as well.

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The World According to Baz Luhrmann

As a teenager, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was one of my favorite movies. When I heard that Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby, I thought that it might be a good fit. He captured free spirit of Bohemian Paris so well, why not 1920s New York? But after watching The Great Gatsby last week, I was disappointed, and I want to figure out why.

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A film is a fantasy, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the genre. But even in the grittiest drama, we as viewers are aware that these are actors on sets saying words written by a screenwriter. We accept the facade as reality in order to experience the joy of storytelling. So to say that a film feels fake is a dubious criticism. All films are fake. People don’t break into song in real life, but I still love musicals. I’m sure that academics have written countless papers on this phenomenon, but my semi-educated guess is that people are willing to suspend disbelief for the pleasure of being entertained.

Despite all this, my main criticism of The Great Gatsby is that it feels fake. Too fake to ignore. The filters and digital effects used by the filmmakers have glossed up the images beyond any semblance of reality. The soundtrack, executive produced by Jay-Z, attempts to communicate Roaring ’20s excess through the modern-day excess of hip hop. It’s a technique that worked for Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge, using modern music to replicate how jarring the Moulin Rouge atmosphere was to the people of 1899. However, combined with the over-glossed images of Gatsby, the anachronistic music just adds another layer of unreality.

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I did not approach this movie as a Great Gatsby hater. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer, and I admire the book. It just happens to have key moments that are challenging to put on screen. The best example is when Nick sees Gatsby holding out his arms toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The gesture is awkward enough on the page, but when Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio act out the moment, it’s too much. Another detail that’s tough to swallow is Gatsby’s habit of calling people “old sport.” If I were writing a Great Gatsby screenplay, I would throw in an “old sport” or two as a wink to novel purists, but certainly not with a slavish devotion to the source material. Rather unhelpfully, DiCaprio delivers his lines with an affected upper-crusty accent that makes the verbal tick even more grating.

The experience made me a little sad because I wondered if I would still enjoy Moulin Rouge. Had I outgrown Baz Luhrmann’s pyrotechnics altogether? I dusted off my DVD for the sake of science and was happy to be reminded why Moulin Rouge succeeds where Gatsby fails. For starters, being a musical probably gives it more leeway on the believability scale. While the images are stylized, it’s not to the extent that the actors cease to look human. The plot clicks along at the speed of Christian’s typewriter, particularly in the first half, and there are genuinely humorous moments.

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Most importantly, there’s Christian, a newcomer to the Bohemian scene, who serves as the viewer’s entry into this fantastical world. Ewan McGregor’s earnest performance can be credited for grounding the story. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway should have served a similar purpose, as he does in the novel, but Nick was swallowed up by Daisy and Gatsby’s melodrama. So there you have it. Adapting a classic novel to the screen is not as easy as it looks.

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