When I first finished reading McEwan’s Atonement, I would never have thought it as the kind of fiction that could ever be translated into films, had I not watched the film in the first place. What is essential in this masterpiece is the montage of abstract conceptions, the expression of which is uniquely endowed in a writer’s command of words, which I thought would be no doubt lost in films. Yet Joe Wright did a surprisingly good job – if the film does not succeed in outlining such mentality, it certainly gives clear evidence for its existence.
The fiction industry and film, or rather the theatrical performance industry, have gone hand in hand over the centuries. Aside from plays that are written for the purpose of performance, fictions and films work in completely different departments. Fictions explore the inner faculties, the moral torment and emotional evolvement to which we have our earliest exposure from Andersen’s fairy tales. Films are concerned primarily with outward expressions, violent actions and striking narratives that move the audience to tears. It is instantaneous, impulsive, and it does not allow time for pauses, compared to the phlegmatic qualities of literature. It has always eluded me how they do so frequently collide, while it seems obvious to me that the feeling of seeing a newborn baby could never be properly depicted on screen.
But hoorah, look at the stream of successful adaptations that have contributed a lucrative sum into the business of Hollywood, and has become such a workaday practice that no one ever bother to compare them with the original work anymore.
But a closer look into more modernist mainstream fictions would reveal a clear trend – the lesser role of the dramatics. Earlier fictions are more or less distinguished by the pronounced effect of a distinct and articulate plot – Victorian romance and Gothic horrors. But as we progress into the age of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the violent shuffling of fortunes, like in The Count of Monte Cristo, are replaced by a capacity to evoke an authentic sensation that delineates a tableau, a cross-section of a fragment of life itself. Readers realize that they can no longer be satisfied by just a good story – they need a dose of heroin that would make them high.
This is why I would be very interested in seeing a film based of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. I can’t imagine how the maniacal paranoia in a disintegrative pursuit for the Tristero that reaches down into the heroine’s suppressed intentions and self-abuse could be transpired into moving pictures, to convince the audience of its inevitability despite its absurdity. The film industry has yet to learn from the fiction industry a crucial lesson to make a breakthrough that would rescue it from its current plateau – it’s no longer about what you see; it’s about what you feel.