A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a copy of Ranier Werner Fassbinder’s “Despair” at my library. The cover caught my eye, and the jacket sold me: an adapted early Nabokov novel about a chocolatier who goes mad. All I knew of Fassbinder was the title of one of his movies (“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul”)and his status as a artistic director of world cinema, like Fellini or Kurosawa, which means I knew very little at all. Tom Stoppard was also a name I recognized but didn’t know, having never read or seen “Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and apparently having never paid attention to co-writer credits on ‘Brazil.’ In “The Cinema and It’s Double,” the making-of documentary (thanks, Blu Ray!), Stoppard talks about adapting Nabokov and his goal not to, as he says sarcastically, make it for ‘fans of the book,’ that being, of course, too low an aim for true artists. (He speaks with crisp, British precision that led me to assume he walked on top of the upper crust, but a little research into his background suggests quite the opposite.)
A couple of years ago I had an epiphany: most of my favorite films are adaptations. As with most of my epiphanies, this would have been fairly obvious if I had given the matter any thought. I am a writer. It makes sense that I enjoy films based on written works, but then I got to thinking about the Sisyphean complexity of adapting a novel in any meaningful way. Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” captures the process perfectly, playing with the connotations of the word to suggest that a work might change, becoming better suited to its environment. In most cases the more simplistic or obscure the work is, the better off you’ll be. In Pauline Kael’s review of “The Godfather,” she calls the original novel ‘trash’ while acknowledging the ‘Promethean spark’ it contained. Adaptations work best not on grounds of faith but inspiration.
A couple of nights ago, I watched “The Vanishing.” The original Dutch title translates to ‘without a trace,’ a slightly more direct indication of plot that reverberates just as loudly with the central conceit of the “The Golden Egg,” the title of the original novella. The adaptation of “Despair” glittered, the work of an artist attempting his ‘Hollywood’-style movie with an ace writer, photographer and composer. Every shot is impeccably framed, many are worth remembering; Fassbinder choreographed his actors with such minute attention that they appear to dance around each other on the screen as gracefully as Nabokov’s lilting sentences do on the page. “The Vanishing,” on the other hand, mined its source material for tone and plot. The dream that begins the story manifests itself in the terrible conclusion, a stunning symmetry that plays like a game of chess, the winning side made of calculation and practice, the losing side made of love and curiosity.