by Sasha Gattermayr
The age-old question: Do you read the book before you see the movie? Adaptations are notoriously fraught with artistic danger. How does a filmmaker balance the deeper intention behind the writer’s work with their own creative vision? Is an adaptation a separate work of art that poses different questions than the original piece? How can the perfect actor be cast for a role that is already familiar and beloved? There are the swathes of devoted fans that demand blind fidelity to characters, a world, a plot, and a message that means so much to them, and there are studio executives that demand more dramatic deaths and tempestuous love scenes. The entire process of adaptation is a creative minefield and can be the maker or the breaker of directors, so here are a few that made it.
Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino dir.)
Luca Guadagnino’s films are notorious for luxuriating in the folly and idle of the elite, intellectual and wealthy but in his critically-acclaimed 2017 adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel he achieves something far more sensitive. As much a story about love and queerness and sexuality as it is about the contradictions of maturity, Elio’s journey into adulthood over the course of a summer romance feels crashing and sudden and intense against a backdrop of Northern Italian lethargy. The texture of the film is inflected with 80s fashion and music but is one that both comforts its audience and electrifies it, allowing the affect that simmers just below the surface to remind us that the lessons of life run deeper than education and intellectualism.
Palo Alto (2013, Gia Coppola)
Gia Coppola’s feature directorial debut is one of the few cases where the film adaptation outshines its novelistic counterpart. No one but a Coppola could infuse James Franco’s 2010 collection of overly-gritty short stories with the sensitivity to teenage frustration these misunderstood characters so badly crave. Coppola’s lens softens the rawness of the adolescent experience that Franco mercilessly lacerates; instead synchronising the characters into a fluid ensemble arc while still retaining the torment that punctuates their interiority, rather than condemning them to isolation in their own chapters. This is simultaneously a lament and tribute to the contradictions we confront at the brink of adulthood; collective and individual, both a plight and a euphoria, a cry for love and a craving for danger. They chase anything and everything in order to feel something at all.
I am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck dir.)
A visionary experiment in documentary filmmaking, Raoul Peck transforms the notes James Baldwin left behind for his unfinished final manuscript Remember This House into a radical valuation of the racial climate in America and the world today. Archival news reels of street protests in the 1960s Civil Rights movement blend seamlessly with footage from recent riots in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Charleston in 2014. The filmmaking joins politics on either side of the millennium to show us how little has changed, and alert us to the indisputable resonance of Baldwin’s writing today. Peck has used adaptation as a tool to remind us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past yet.
Wake in Fright (1971, Ted Kotcheff dir.)
The adaptation of Kenneth Cooke’s 1961 novel grips us with a terror of the outback and the dangerous potential of strangers. Travelling school teacher, John Grant, spirals into a desperate lunacy provoked by his desert isolation when his car breaks down in a dust-bucket town in the middle-of-nowhere. Unease slowly festers into horror as we watch his overnight descent into a maelstrom of rural Australian weirdness that is dominated by spasmodic violence and unanchored malice of the townspeople. This adaptation participates in the colonial literary tradition of ‘lost explorer’ narratives that captivated Patrick White and Henry Lawson, and places it at the centre of the Australian gothic genre by joining literary and cinematic traditions.
The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola dir.)
As an adaptation of an adaptation, Coppola’s re-rendering of Don Siegel’s 1971 Civil War drama (starring Clint Eastwood) based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil sits in a unique place in the adaptation category. Do the differences in her work critique or reinterpret Siegel’s earlier film? Or is it in dialogue purely with the Cullinan’s novel? As Coppola is the first woman to tell this story, I think it is both at once. Where Siegel centres on Eastwood and the sexual frenzy his entry as a wounded Union soldier excites among the inhabitants of an all-female boarding school in Virginia, Coppola radicalises the strength and capacity for violence this group of women retain when their cohesion is threatened by an intruder. She explores the protective bonds of collective femininity by replacing girly intimacy with a kind of frontier fortitude as they defend their insular world which is held together by the rituals of dressing and cooking, both activities that cloak more sinister motives. Coppola presents her audience with the nuances of womanhood and female-centricity that Siegel’s interpretation lacks and Cullinnan’s novel oversees. The dreamy Southern fashion is also #aesthetic.
Some honourable mentions:
Clueless (1995, Amy Heckerling dir.)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, Peter Weir dir.)
10 Things I Hate About You (1999, Gil Junger dir.)
The Dressmaker (2015, Jocelyn Moorhouse dir.)
Atonement (2007, Joe Wright dir.)
Learn more about Sasha here.
Sasha has just completed her undergraduate Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University with Honours in Literature. She plans to develop this love for art and literature into a career in film production or food writing.