January 5, 2009

Tell No One: Novel Into Film

Tell No One: Novel into Film

I found a copy of this in the informal circulating library--leave a book, take a book--in the basement of our building, and temporarily put aside Baudolino to read it over the holidays because the French thriller adapted from it was one of the two best movies I saw last year and I'm always curious about the process of adaptation to the screen. What was retained from the original novel? What was changed? How does the impact of the two compare?

The biggest change, obviously, is moving the main action form New York to Paris, which I found on reading the novel made less difference than you might expect. A midlevel drug lord from Harlem becomes an Arab hood from a no doubt equally well known neighbourhood of Paris, but the plot, which involves big money and, therefore, global forces, is retained and here and there fine tuned.

The intricate plot is what's strongest in the novel. Characterizations seemed sharper in the film, though the basis of them was fully laid out in the novel as well. The visual style--film's equivalent of narration--is consistently swift and taut (inconsistently so in the novel, particularly it's first half; I might have had trouble getting through that if I didn't have the filmed version as a spur to reading). The visual style of the film is also beautiful in an unassuming way--finely composed images which never call undue attention to themselves. The style of the novel is at best efficient; never (as it is in Martin Cruz Smith for example) so beautiful that you stop to reread and savour a sentence or a paragraph.

I suppose it's obvious from this that I thought the changes from novel to film were improvements, but it raises an intersting question. The beauty of the film, not to mention its emotional and philosophical weight, rests on the foundation of its marvelously labyrinthine plot, which as I say comes just about completely from the novel. So how do you weigh and evaluate the respective contributions? Guillaume Canet elevated an interesting thriller into a first rate film, satisfying on all its levels, but could he have done the same starting from scratch? I know Peter Barnes, whose script was the chief reason Enchanted April was such a great film, could have written a work to equal or exceed its power without a novel to adapt, because he did more than a dozen times. But a good many film directors, even legendary ones--Kubrick for example--never made a film whose story they personally initiated. Without knowing more of Guillaume Canet's oeuvre I can't say whether he more resembles Kubrik or Peter Barnes in this, but it has got me wondering: in a collaborative medium, how much do visionaries without much talent for structure depend on people whose style might be formulaic and conventional, but whose structural sense is profound and original. And what is the relative weight of each contribution?

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