Friday, May 25, 2007

The Marber School of Text Management

Spoiler Warning re: Asylum; Closer; Notes on a Scandal; Spider

A few years ago David Cronenberg filmed an amazingly faithful adaptation of the Patrick McGrath novel Spider. The screenplay credit belongs to McGrath, who obviously worked closely with Cronenberg to maintain the story's point of view. Capturing a world of schizophrenic delusions presented a visual challenge that the director embraced, instead of shying away or modifying. The result earned justified critical acclaim, although the film was not Cronenberg's most popular.

Soon after, another McGrath novel was made into a film.

Enter Patrick Marber, the British playwright who adapted his own work, Closer, for the screen. Marber wrote the screen adaptation of McGraw's novel Asylum. I think you can get a sense of what happened to the story and point of view by reading the first line from the novel and comparing it to the IMDb plot outline for the film:

"The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now."--Asylum, the novel

"A woman becomes very curious about one of her psychiatrist husband's inmates, a man who was found guilty in the murder and disfigurement of his former wife."--IMDb outline

At first glance, you might think nothing has changed. But if you take into account that the character speaking in the novel is not the woman in the film outline, you can see how much Marber sacrificed in the adaptation.

The film, which was made thanks to the efforts of its leading actor, Natasha Richardson, shifts point of view to see what she sees. Occasionally we glimpse the novel's narrator, Dr. Cleave, watching the beautiful and passionate object of his affection, Stella Raphael, as she makes a mess of her life. But you never get what gave the book its momentum, which is the awful feeling of a slow motion accident described in excruciating detail by a person who actually enjoys the suffering and contributes to it. The narrator shapes and defines Stella's tragedy, weaving an elaborate though invisible web to trap what he desires but cannot acquire through his own merits as a lover.

This is fascinating stuff, and it is all but entirely excised from the film.

In Closer, Patrick Marber designed a thoroughly unappetizing yet brutally honest portrait of urban yuppies. His characters were self-involved and self-serving. The banality of their lives was matched in absurdity by their belief that they were unique and talented individuals. They treated one another like garbage, and got what they deserved. The one poignant fact of the play, upon which all the action and reflection hinged, was the suicide of Alice, who had been dumped one too many times and whose life appeared to be going nowhere. It was a hard fact, but it worked and it made the rest of the story work.

So why, in Marber's self-adaptation for director Mike Nichols, did the author delete the suicide? Was Natalie Portman just too cute to kill off? Did we need to see her getting on a plane, returning to America, and walking the streets in bad clothes and bad hair? In the U.S., does this count as suicide? What was Marber thinking?

Which brings me to his latest textual offense.

Marber adapted one of my favorite recent novels, Notes on a Scandal (American title: What Was She Thinking?) by Zoe Heller. Naturally, I was excited to find out how closely the film followed this merciless and perfectly constructed tale. The story is a chronicle of foolish love observed by a spectacularly unreliable and cruel narrator who gets exactly what she wants in the end.

First of all, I loved Heller's willingness to "go there," to tap into the place where envy and desire merge into a lethal form of admiration. And I was delighted that the author had mined the events of a 30-something teacher's romantic and sexual obsession with a student half her age (we in Seattle always have a special place in our hearts for the madness of Mary Kay LeTourneau). What Heller found was the essence of public judgment, as well as the nature of obsession itself. In her version, the obsessed lovesick teacher is herself the object of the narrator's obsession.

In the end, the narrator succeeds in destroying her love object's marriage, career, relations with her children, and the respect of her peers. All is gone. The narrator makes the woman she loves entirely dependent upon her. And the most awful thing in this horrible situation is that the teacher has no recourse, because she brought this upon herself. She is trapped, enslaved, in a deeper, more permanent sense than she ever imagined when she felt trapped by her own affection toward her teenaged lover. This is the power of the story--not attractive, not nice, but deeply disturbing and resonant as only works of art true to human nature can be.

Thanks to Patrick Marber's wizard pen, none of this occurs in the film. Instead, the teacher (played by Cate Blanchett) goes back to her husband. Even more preposterous, he realizes that his wife's lust for a student is a lot like his long-ago lust for her when she was quite young, and so he forgives her! The narrator is left to sharpen her hideous skills on a different victim. As though the narrator had control over when and how she desired people.

Aside from the obvious (money; movie producers and their incapacity for meaningful storytelling; movie actors fearing unlikable characters), what makes a writer cut the balls off a terrific story? And how much money must Patrick Marber be making, to castrate the work of two other writers as well as his own? It may render the final film less frightening, and it may allow for that all-important ray of hope we Americans cherish more than the truth, but it does not have staying power. It doesn't knock your socks off, the way the original did.

The correct objects are placed in the correct light, but without the shadows lurking behind them, the stories now have no dimension. They are seen, noted, and forgotten as quickly as a TV news report about a violent act in a faraway city. They do not bring us agonizingly close to what we really are. They do not force us to face ourselves.