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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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: An Appreciation

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Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!
~ Betty Smith

“Stop by the library and grab a movie for this weekend.” It’s a simple request I’ve heard from my wife countless times, but I always take it up as a challenge: Can I find something we’ll both enjoy? We have limited time for movie-watching, so I like to make it count.

Unless I have something in mind already, I usually skip the “New Releases,” and instead head directly to the librarian’s re-shelving cart. I suppose it’s a “wiki” approach to winnowing the field, perusing what others in my neighborhood have been checking out, and it often leads to some happy discoveries. It’s how we originally came across the six-hour BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice,” now a family institution, along with another classic favorites like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945).

tumblr_my6ero4jWv1roqtzko2_1280-600x375I remember our first viewing of “Tree,” and marveling that I’d never come across it before. It’s the story of Francie Nolan and her impoverished family struggling to survive in Brooklyn after the turn of the twentieth century, and how flourishing can still be nurtured in the midst of tremendous strife. Director Elia Kazan managed to shape a powerful, beautiful, believable narrative about struggle, sin, and salvation – truly magnificent. Every character – every character, both amiable and repellent – somehow captures the viewer’s attention and sympathy. It’s a remarkable achievement.

The funny thing, though, is that my love of the movie never drove me to seek out its inspiration, the novel by Betty Smith, and I only did so at the urging of my daughter Margaret. “If you liked the movie, you’ve got to read this,” she insisted, handing it to me. “It’s my favorite book now” – high praise from my literary teen. I followed her advice, and by the time I finished it, I knew I had a mission: To get people to read it. I haven’t been affected by a novel – actually any book – like that in a long, long time.

To begin with, Smith’s compassionate portrayal of her characters is clearly what inspired the film’s benevolent tone. There’s no excusing, for example, the alcoholism of Francie’s father, nor the repugnant selfishness of Uncle Willie, but both men elicit our understanding, pity, and even mercy. The novel’s bad characters, like rea57e00kgd-bettysmith-jpgl life, aren’t all bad, and the good characters similarly have their obvious flaws. There’s room in the narrative for grace to operate on every individual’s margins – a place in their broken personalities and spirits for God to stake a claim and undertake a sanctifying operation.

That leads to a second appealing aspect of Betty Smith’s epic that makes it stand apart: its authentic unfolding. Unlike other classic coming-of-age novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows its protagonist’s fortunes throughout adolescence and beyond (unlike the briefer slice of life depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird), and there’s no implied assurance to the reader that all shall be well in the end (as in Anne of Green Gables). Thus, there’s a longitudinal continuity and open-ended moral vision in Tree that seems to be palpably present as you read – as if you’re living what is happening in the novel as it is happening. It’s like an urban American Neverending Story: you get caught up into it and it becomes real.

And it’s a reality you don’t want to end. There were several moments in the reading of this novel that brought tears to my eyes – the first taking place within the first ten pages – but my sobs at the conclusion coincided with turning the last page. Smith’s story was over, and I was left thinking about Francie growing up and moving on to college in Michigan. Would she be alright? What new hurdles and challenges would she face? I missed her already, but I knew I was a better person for having gotten to know her – for having the opportunity to walk beside her and share in her trials and triumphs.

The foregoing assertions are pretty bold, I know, and ordinarily I’d shrink from such ticklish claims given my lack of literary criticism street cred. But I happened upon an article a while back that emboldened me, and I was persuaded that my (and my daughter’s) singular devotion to Tree wasn’t so far-fetched.

AS-edition-Tree-Grows-in-BrooklynIt wasn’t an article about Betty Smith or her story directly. Instead, it was about the cheap, specially-sized paperbacks distributed to U.S. forces overseas during World War II. Molly Guptill Manning had published a history of these “Armed Services Editions,” and Jennifer Maloney reviewed it for the Wall Street Journal.

In her review, Maloney included a brief and engaging portrait of troops taking up serious literature in the midst of combat, but what really caught my attention was her sketch of the Marine who wrote a letter to Betty Smith.

He told her his heart was dead after watching his friend die. For two years, he walked around in an almost comatose state. After contracting malaria he found himself in the hospital without anything to do. When he asked the nurse for a book, she gave him “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” “He started reading it, and he could not believe that he laughed,” Ms. Manning said. “He hadn’t laughed in such a long time.”

Apparently Smith’s narrative also elicited her correspondent’s tears – something the Marine acknowledged as unusual. Nevertheless, “he was proud of his tears because it proved that he was human again,” Manning noted in an NPR interview. “He closed the letter saying that he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep through the night if he hadn’t thanked the woman who caused him to live again.”

Laughter and tears; joy and tragedy – the two extremes of the human condition. Betty Smith’s wonderful tale provides unexpected, subtle insights into how those extremes are intimately connected. “Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and to scream out, and even to suffer that terrible pain,” Smith declares through one of her characters, “than just to be … safe.” That’s a core affirmation in Tree that not only rings true, but clearly confers healing as well.
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