The Jason Cowley Column

March 2006 /

About ten years ago I spent an evening in London with Tom Clancy before, during and after he delivered a speech to senior naval officers at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall. He was, at that time, probably the most successful writer in the world. In fact, he was so successful and the demand for his techno thrillers was so great that he had begun to franchise out his name to a team of ghost writers who were producing “Tom Clancy” novels, under the “Op-Center” consortium: Clancy and a partner would come up with plot lines and ideas, and several anonymous labourers would be left to do the words. Needless to say these Tom Clancy thrillers, though not as popular as those written by the man himself, were bestsellers.

That evening in London Clancy, wearing dark glasses and a leather jacket, and with a cigarette never far from his lips, spoke with frustration about the two major Hollywood films that had been adapted from his novels, The Hunt for Red October, starring Sean Connery, and Patriot Games, starring Harrison Ford as the all-action adventure hero Jack Ryan. I told him that I had enjoyed Patriot Games, with its partial London setting and exploration of the tensions and intrigues of Anglo-Irish politics. “Let me tell you this,” he said. “Selling your book to Hollywood is like giving your daughter over to a pimp: nothing good can come of it.”

Apart from the money, of course. I have seldom met a writer who has been satisfied with a film adaptation of one of his or her novels or indeed a reader who feels that a favourite book has been well served by its transition from page to screen. Even writers such as Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Ian McEwan (Enduring Love), who have been well served by Hollywood, are reported to have been disappointed by the completed film adaptations of their work.

One exception is J G Ballard. He once told me how much he admired David Cronenberg’s film version of his celebrated novel Crash, which is about the pornography of violence and the erotic appeal of car crashes. It is not to disparage Ballard to say that his fictions translate well to the screen because, on the whole, they are resolutely unrealistic: he has little interest in psychology or motive, in representing the inner-life. As a result, his characters are already presented to us as more like actors on the screen than the kind of complex individuals you encounter in the best works of fiction. Ballard agrees that what matters to him in fiction are not people, but concepts and ideas, and he likes nothing more than to portray a society in a condition of crisis or disintegration.

Crash is a novel but would have probably worked just as well as a short story: once the central idea is established - that some people are turned on by road accidents - there is not much to show beyond preparing the reader for one final, apocalyptic pile up. Nor did Cronenberg have any interest in making a mainstream Hollywood entertainment, with a rich cast and multidimensional story line; he is, like Ballard, more interested in the stylised effect. In this sense, he was true to the integrity of Ballard’s singular vision.

Yet the trouble for most novelists is that directors, supported by script writers, are seldom true to their source material. How can they be when film, as a medium, is all about compression, whereas the novel, at its best, seeks to expand and inflate? A good film maker will take the best from a novel - an ingenious plot line, a strong character - and use it for his own ends. With adaptations, as the American journalist Liz Miller has written, “You sometimes get to see a dull caterpillar transform into a beautiful butterfly, but most of the time you watch a beautiful caterpillar burst from the cocoon as a dull brown moth.”

To Miller, who is a Hollywood specialist, Ang Lee’s Bafta-winning and multiple Oscar-nominated film Brokeback Mountain, which tells of the thwarted love of two cowboys who cannot accept the truth of who they are and what they feel for each other, is “the rarest of species” because it “emerged transformed from its cocoon, but still recognizable. Still just as gorgeous as before.”

Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain was originally published as a short story in the New Yorker magazine, in 1997; it was republished in the collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Ang Lee’s film is remarkably faithful to the story: there are just two scenes that were not in the original. The first concerns Jack Twist, the younger of two ill-fated cowboys, and the moment when he confronts his bullying, arrogant father-in-law at a Thanksgiving lunch. The second features Ennis Del Mar, the man Jack loves with a sad desperation, and his rough encounter with a couple of brutal bikers while on a day out with his wife.

Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963 and spans almost two decades, but such is Proulx’s gift for elegant compression that none of the power or emotional truth of the story is compromised by the rapidity with which she moves through time and space. It is the same with the film. In many ways, Proulx’s story reads as if it were already a film treatment, and it is left to director Ang Lee to enlarge and linger where Proulx shrank and condensed - he creates entire scenes from a brief snatch of dialogue or a succinct authorial aside. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what usually happens when a novel is adapted for the screen. “Selling your novel to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp,” as Clancy said.

Could it be, then, that short stories, because of their very brevity and concision, and for what they leave undescribed and unsaid, make for better films than novels?

Philip K Dick is one writer whose short stories translate especially well to the screen. Stories such as Minority Report, which was first published in the magazine Futuristic Universe in 1956 and then filmed much later by Steven Spielberg, or We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall, in 1990, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), are attractive to film makers because they are so suggestive and open-ended. His futuristic settings and clever concepts inspire and tantalize with thrilling possibilities, not least in the area of special effects. The writer imagines a future world, and Spielberg and others, usually the colossal resources of the Hollywood studios, show us how that world might look.

One of the films I return to most often in my imagination, but without ever deciding definitively what it is about, is The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Frank Perry. The setting is suburbia, up-state New York, a place of plenty, of large, opulent houses, weekend garden parties and swimming pools. But behind the veneer of luxury and affluent contentment the inevitable anxiety seethes. Into this world returns Neddy Merrill (Lancaster) on a midsummer Sunday, dressed only in his swimming trunks and consumed by a crazy idea: he wants to swim home, across the county, through his neighbours’ pools to the house he shares with his wife, Lucinda, and their children. And why not, you think?

Soon you realise that there is something seriously wrong with Merrill - and not only because he is running around in trunks. Clearly, something has gone wrong in his life and yet he seems gloriously ignorant of exactly what even as some of his neighbours, astonished by his appearance in their gardens, shun him, as you might. Yet others are moved by his plight. So where has he been? What exactly has gone wrong? There are suggestions of financial and drink problems, and hints that his marriage has failed. Still, he carries on all the same, swimming his way across the county, heading straight for oblivion.

The Swimmer is clearly an allegory - but for what? For the inevitable failure of youthful dreams and ideals? For a loss of direction in mid-life? It is never explained.

Many years ago, when I first saw The Swimmer, I was delighted to discover that it was based on a work by John Cheever. Excellent, I thought, now I can use the book to find out what this film is really all about. But this work turned out not to be a novel but a 13-page short story, which I found in a book called, unimaginatively, The Stories of John Cheever. The story was disappointingly unenlightening; it was even more opaque than the film, which had taken the bald details of Cheever’s story - the crazy desire of Neddy Verill to swim home - and transformed it into something rather beautiful and profound, one of the oddest and most affecting films I have ever seen.

I’ve often wondered what John Cheever, who died in 1982, thought of the film of his story, just as I’m intrigued to know what Annie Proulx thinks of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. I’d be astounded if either writer were of the same view of my old friend Tom Clancy. Selling your book to Hollywood is…