Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

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A Thousand Miles for Love

I only wrote for money. The Path to Rome is the only book I ever wrote for love.
~ Hilaire Belloc

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3 Fairy Tales with Not So Tidy Endings

Your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much.
~ George MacDonald

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A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….
~ Georges Bernanos

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Fitting Our Journey to God’s Map

You must have a map, no matter how rough.
Otherwise you wander all over the place.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

There is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

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There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.
~ Raymond Briggs

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Coming to a Theater Near You! (or not…hopefully)

After Ted Turner bought the rights to the MGM library in 1986, he started digitally colorizing old black-and-white classics – much to the dismay of cinephiles, critics, and filmmakers alike. When Orson Welles’s masterful Citizen Kane was due for the same treatment, however, the outcry really spiked. “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons,” Welles pleaded before his death, but Turner started color-tinting Kane anyway.

Although the project was never completed, colorization itself has become standard fare – we’re totally used to it now, and entire generations will grow up and grow old without ever seeing the B&W originals. That’s too bad, for the color tinting represents an additional layer of interpretation and artistry that the filmmakers themselves did not intend. “Black-and-white films aren’t automatically better or worse than color films,” Vincent Canby wrote of the controversial process. “They are different.”

The same goes for books and the films they’re based on – which seems obvious, but maybe not in Hollywood. I got to thinking about this the other day after Meg arrived home from college for spring break. As soon as she walked in the door, we started peppering her with invitations and tentative plans – including movies. “We haven’t seen Black Panther yet – you want to go?” I asked.

Meg made a non-committal shrug, and then her sister Kath jumped in. “We haven’t seen A Wrinkle in Time either,” she suggested, referring to the newly released film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel. “How about that one?”

“Maybe,” Meg replied cautiously. “I don’t know. It’s such an important book to me. I’m worried that I won’t like how they did it.”

Got that – totally. Books change lives, and we revere the ones that change our own lives, so it’s always tough to see Hollywood treat them as hit-fodder. There are exceptions, but it seems like filmmakers and producers are generally less interested in faithful, inspired screen adaptations than in filling theater seats, earning accolades, and auctioning off streaming rights.

That’s why I dreaded what director Peter Jackson was going to do to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example. The Middle Earth cycle is among a select set of books that I have re-read on a regular basis for decades. It helped form my sacramental imagination after I converted to Catholicism; it buttressed my courage as I launched into the unknown (namely marriage and fatherhood); it provided me literary respite from the stresses of nursing school and my first nursing jobs. Tolkien’s books have been a lifeline and a comfort for me, and I was nervous about seeing them translated into film. In fact, I seriously considered skipping the movies altogether – just in case.

But I succumbed in the end, and I have to confess (begrudgingly) I was pleasantly surprised. Although overlong, the three Rings films were largely successful in telling Tolkien’s epic tale and capturing its spirit. Plus, I was pleased that the movies spurred my own kids to pick up the books to actually read – score one for Hollywood! Too bad the magic didn’t last when Jackson tackled The Hobbit though. Why he dragged out the comparatively brief narrative to fill another three overlong films, let alone adding all manner of invented characters and confusing sub-plots along the way, is beyond me. Was it just money – more theater seats and DVDs? I hope not.

Anyway, Meg’s hesitation about Wrinkle got me thinking about other books from my re-reading canon that I’d be anxious about seeing theatrically updated and “cinemized.” I just think some stories just weren’t meant to be made into movies. Here’s three of them – see if you agree:

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces (1980): This New Orleans Pulitzer-winning revel by John Kennedy Toole has my vote for America’s premiere sui generis novel. Truly, there’s nothing quite like it. Starring Ignatius J. Reilly, an anachronistic anti-hero, Confederacy grabs the reader from page one and sends him packing on a wild frolic that would be near impossible to replicate onscreen. In fact, there have been several attempts that have all fizzled, leading director Steven Soderbergh to remark that the endeavor is “cursed.” Besides, Toole packed Confederacy with so many memorable characters that finding somebody to fill the lead role of the idiosyncratic Ignatius would only be the first of innumerable casting hurdles. Best skip it.
  2. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959): Part sci-fi thriller, part monastic tragi-comedy, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle is a post-apocalyptic epiphany. The world is recovering from nuclear devastation, and its tenuous hold on the remnants of civilization is guarded – or, rather, shielded – by the cowled sons of St. Leibowitz. The novel captures the cyclical character of human folly – both on a personal and societal scale – and dramatizes its consequences in a mysteriously inaccessible way. “I had read the book with the first of the pricklings of excitement I was to feel on successive readings,” Walker Percy once wrote of the novel. “When I tried to track down the source of the neck-pricklings, my neck stopped prickling.” Percy goes on to write that “the book has a secret, (but) the secret can’t be told. Telling it ruins it.” I’m afraid any effort to turn it into a film would do the same.
  3. Mr. Blue (1928): My conversion to Catholicism was spurred by reading Dorothy Day’s powerful biography, The Long Loneliness, and I used to give away copies of that book by the boxful to help friends and family – even strangers – understand my enthusiasm for the Church. In short order I discovered that Dorothy Day’s gritty Christian vision isn’t for everybody, and so I started handing out Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue instead. It’s the story of a saint-in-the-making, but it’s narrated by a reluctant fellow traveler whose reservations about Blue’s eccentricities and extravagances make him the ideal companion for the wary reader. At the novel’s outset, the narrator writes Blue and urges him “to get a good job with a reliable firm or he would end up in the poorhouse” – sensible enough, right? Here’s Blue’s response: “That will be glorious…. I will become the troubadour of the poorhouse.” Voiced on the screen, lines such as these would sound trite and tawdry; on the page, they’re gripping and dangerously inviting.

Ironically, given my thesis here, Myles Connolly himself worked in the film industry and contributed to the creation of over 40 films. Could Connolly have nudged Mr. Blue in the direction of cinemization? Did he try and fail? Maybe, but it’s noteworthy that he embedded a Hollywood-style pitch – a “story for a motion picture” – smack dab in the middle of his novel. Blue lays out a vision for an end-times thriller akin to Orwell’s 1984 – or, better yet, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Freedom has been superseded by servility. There’s no joy, no hope, no God in the new world-state; only grim compliance and soulless subsistence. But hiding out in the midst of this horrific future is a lone priest armed with wine and wheat. In a desperate, almost suicidal act of defiance, he isolates himself on a tower’s pinnacle and begins the liturgy. “He was keeping his promise to bring God back to earth,” relates Blue with passion. “Can you see that heroic figure in the twilight of the world saying Mass in the citadel of the Antichrist?”

Yes, I can. And I can close my eyes and see it on the screen – hear it in a theater. I think Connolly’s movie within a novel hints at a way the book-to-film challenge can be handled – to wit, instead of tackling entire books, filmmakers could shave off select portions for film treatment. That’s what screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger did with their Oscar-nominated adaptation of Betty Smith’s glorious A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – another book I would’ve thought incapable of celluloid transmutation. By zeroing in on a mere fraction of the novel’s narrative arc, the screenplay – and thus Elia Kazan’s 1945 film – succeeds abundantly.

What’s more, it entices viewers to pick up the actual novel to get the rest of the story. And that, in my book, is worth all the cinemization in the world.
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Snow White and the Seven Monks: A Fanciful Lesson in Humility

It is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do
marvels for us if only we did not despise them.
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade

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