As François Truffaut says in his book, The Films in My Life, when he talks about Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, “I will spare the reader the usual speech about faithful or unfaithful adaptation”. I watched and loved all three movies I am talking about here before I read the books they were based on. Then I read the books and loved them, too, without feeling the need to compare the films with the books. I am not sure I would like a very faithful adaptation of a book on the screen – I saluted Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, for that matter. Books and films are different worlds and I love them both, but for different reasons. Furthermore, I am hoping a film has its own vision, adds its own spin on the words of the writer that inspired it, be the book as good as it may be.
But why these three books? Quite frankly, the idea came to me when I was rearranging my book shelves to be able to accommodate some new arrivals (a constant activity of mine, appearantly) and it made me think of some of my favourite (again, not necessarily faithful) film adaptations of books. One more thing: The Big Sleep, summer movie? What can I say? I seem to love films noir even more during my favourite season, and here it is why. And it so happens that I revisited this noir a couple of nights ago, after a scorching day, when you still couldn’t breathe right in the dead of night because of the heat. It was like a scene from The Big Sleep, where the time of day is appropriately night.
Writer: Vladimir Nabokov
Director: Stanley Kubrick
“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”, one of the posters for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita proclaimed. Indeed. When Lolita was first published, some critics thought it too explicit in dealing with sexual matters. As Gene D. Phillips notes in the book The Stanley Kubrick Archives, Nabokov wrote to Graham Greene at the time, commenting on the controversy surrounding the book: “My poor Lolita is having a rough time. The pity is that, if I had made her a boy, philistines might not have flinched.” Still, the book found champions, too, and it was in fact Greene who stirred up serious interest in the book when he gave it a rave review in the London Times. Over the years, Nabokov’s novel has been recognized as the elegantly written, superb piece of fiction that it is. And, most of all, in Kubrick’s own words, “Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author’s approval of the relationship”, because it is at the very ending of the book that Humbert’s genuine and selfless love he has for Lolita is revealed.
When Kubrick acquired the rights for the film, there was much speculation in the press as to how he would approach the controversial story. Nabokov’s novel “fairly begged to be committed to cinema”, remarks Gene D. Phillips, since he makes several references in this regard in the book. “If I have my way … the audience will start by being repelled by this ‘creep’ who seduces a not-so-innocent child, but, gradually, as they realize he really loves the girl, they’ll find things aren’t quite as simple as they seemed, and they won’t be so ready to pass immediate moral judgment. I consider that a moral theme,” said Kubrick in an interview with Eugene Archer in The New York Times. “Lolita is a tragedy… Furthermore, this is at heart a novel of redemption. It is about a lust that matures, under fire, to love,” asserted Nabokov.
When Nabokov finally saw Lolita at a private screening, he thought that it was a first rate film and admitted that Kubrick’s inventions were “appropriate and delightful”, that the killing of Quilty “is a masterpiece, and so is the death of Charlotte Haze”. But, ultimately, it is Peter Sellers who gives Lolita, the film, its vitality. Sellers’ Quilty has far greater presence on the screen than in the book – “It was apparent that just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative thread possible,” Kubrick declared in an interview with Terry Southern, talking about his Quilty. This is exactly what helps achieve a narrative of mystery through the duration of the entire movie, and I can see why Kubrick regarded Hitchcock as one of the most influential filmmakers for him. Kubrick’s sardonic wit and dry humour, his penchant for combining farce and terror, vision and technique ensure that the film has its own story to tell.
Writer: Françoise Sagan
Director: Otto Preminger
“Cinema is an art of the woman, that is, of the actress”, continues Truffaut in his writings about Preminger’s Bonjour tristesse. “The great moments of cinema are when director’s gifts mesh with the gifts of an actress.” And he adds Preminger and Jean Seberg to his list of Griffith and Lillian Gish, Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, Renoir and Simone Simon, Rossellini and Anna Magnani, Fellini and Giulietta Masina. “Preminger was not looking for Cecile” whe he organized his film, says Truffaut, “he was looking for Jean Seberg. And, when he found her, it wasn’t a question of whether she was worthy of Cecile, but whether Cecile was worthy of being made real by Jean Seberg.” He goes even further and suggests that Bonjour Tristesse, Sagan’s first novel, could have been inspired by Angel Face (one of my favourite noirs), directed by the same Preminger and starring the exquisite Jean Simmons. And why wouldn’t writers be inspired by films?
Unlike Truffaut, I did read Sagan’s novel before attempting any comparison with the film, and I thought the author had quite a singular, well composed, flowing writing style, which seemlessly takes you to a different time and place; her words have a merciless candour. But I have to admit that I loved Jean Seberg’s Cecile more than Françoise Sagan’s Cecile, and I do believe the film improves on the book. Quoting Truffaut again, Jean Seberg’s “every movement is graceful, each glance is precise. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect; this kind of sex appeal hash’t been seen on screen. It is designed, controlled, directed to the nth degree by her director. […] Jean Seberg, short blond hair on a pharaoh’s skull, wide-open blue eyes with a glint of boyish malice, carries the entire weight of this film on her tony shoulders. It is Otto Preminger’s love poem to her.”
Jean-Luc Godard, who at the time was still one of France’s most notable film critics, along with François Truffaut, was another one of the film’s early supporters (he even cast Seberg the following year in his debut feature, Breathless, one of the only two films of Godard that I have written about, here, the other one being Vivre sa vie – I have much appreciation for his knowledge of and love for film, but not so much for his own movies). And everything starts with Saul Bass’ exquisite title sequence, capturing the essence of the movie, the poignant sadness that lies at the heart of Bonjour Tristesse in just a few resonant strokes of art, so expressively previewing the narrative of the film.
The Big Sleep
Writer: Raymond Chandler
Director: Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks is another director that the Cahiers du cinéma critic-film-makers proclaimed an auteur. His superb version of Raymond Chandler’s novel works for many reasons. Yes, the partnership of Humphrey Bogart (the film largely owes its endurance to his compelling performance) and Lauren Bacall as Philip Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge is inspired – although scenes were reportedly re-shot at the studio’s interference, because the early version of the film missed “the insolence” that Lauren Bacall had shown in To Have and Have Not, her acclaimed debut role, the first opposite Bogart. Yes, this truly is one of the classics of film noir, wickedly clever, heavy on great dialogue, with style in spades, wit and verve, and an intricate and fast-paced plot. And, yes, it manages to maintain the enigmatic core of Chandler’s book. Or should I better say it’s as puzzling as the book? Because The Big Sleep is one of the least comprehensible films noir ever made – but that does not mean it’s any less great. Raymond Chandler allegedly claimed that not even he knew whodunnit. And if it doesn’t give us all the answers, then all the better for our next view.
If there is one kind of film that I would like to successfully reproduce a writer’s ability on the page, then that would be a film noir based on a Raymond Chandler novel. And The Big Sleep does exactly that. And, again, I have to bring up the dialogue. One of the things why I love films noir is that great dialogue and action scenes do not exclude each other, and The Big Sleep indeed has one of the most quotable of screenplays (written by William Faulkner, Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett), with the characters always ahead of the audience. But there is one thing about the film that I did not take to: that tad of mellowness from that very last shot of Bogart and Bacall. After all, another prime reason why I love film noir is that I regard it as a main contributor to restoring the balance disrupted by the traditional notion of Hollywoodian happy endings.
photos by me