Literary Adaptations: The Gentle, The Conversational And The Beautiful By Géza Csákvári

in 31st Toronto International Film Festival

by Géza Csákvári

The Toronto-born actress Sarah Polley’s directorial debut was probably the most expected home premiere. After directing a couple of shorts, the “national asset” of Canada, (who has rejected the temptation of Hollywood several times) has decided to adapt a fellow Canadian writer, Alice Munro’s, short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Among others, Atom Egoyan helped Polley with the project. The gently directed movie is not only a good first feature, but a real breakthrough.

Away From Her is about a man, called Grant, coping with the institutionalization of his wife, Fiona, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Grant fears that his wife will have to stay in permanently, which might hasten Fiona’s decline. Still, she insists on staying, despite the facility’s policy of barring all visitors and phone calls for the patients’ first 30 days. When, at last, Grant can visit Fiona he faces an epiphany by seeing her turning her affections to another man, Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound mute, who is also a patient at the nursing home. Grant cannot decide whether Fiona has forgotten him completely or she is just punishing him for his past indiscretions. It is always risky for a young person to talk about wisdom and the great truth of life, but Polley succeeds in doing so. Her work is an ambitious and heart-warming piece about the ending of a very deep and complicated relationship.

Screenwriter and director, Polley, is fully focused on character-based material, which is helped by terrific performances of Canadian veteran, Gordon Pinsent, and Julie Christie. The 27-years-old director shows a remarkably assured hand for someone of her age. She can capture the untold things through simple winces of the faces. Although this is not a real surprise since actor turned directors are usually quite demanding in conducting actors. Polley’s viewpoint is also rather noteworthy; she is able to give the full story of two people showing it all through Grant’s flashbacks. Moreover, she is also able to guard the surging emotions, keeping the material away from becoming a squish.

We can call Ethan Hawke’s second directorial work a highly personal movie, still it is an adaptation because he has written and directed for screen his own novel, The Hottest State, published in 1996. (His second novel, Ash Wednesday, hit the streets in 2002.) The movie is a story of a deeply passionate, almost manic state of mind, first love. The very sensitive period of the man’s life, is alone hard enough to survive, but Hawke’s hero, William, is also carrying an old childhood wound, the absence of his father. When the short-lived romance between William and his girlfriend comes to an end, he is not able to separate the two enormous losses he has suffered. This is the point, when the film becomes really extraordinary. Hawke curses his hero with the past, which will always haunt him, and will always be part of his present. The only thing that changes life lies in the understanding and reconciling with the past, the major determiner of our personalities.

Ethan Hawke, as an actor and as a director too, is obviously interested in exploring the human soul. He gets a lot from his old friend and procreative artist, Richard Linklater. Their two joint efforts — Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — are very closely related to The Hottest State. Although it sounds a bit cynical, it has to be remarked that Hawke has clearly outshined his master. The most dramatic dialogues have the familiar semi-improvised feeling to them, but their depths are different. The couple in Linklater’s works create their own mutual wounds, Hawke makes his couple suffer from the beginning — even before the beginning. Of course, they (and we) don’t know it yet. This approach redefines the use of such phrases as honest and personal. It makes us think, and not only relieve these values.

What is good about a literary adaptation, is that the original stock is not the ceiling, but rather, works just the opposite way: it widens the opportunities for filmmakers. Feng Xiaogang by his own admission, picked up William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to adapt for his new period action-drama, The Banquet (Ye-Yan), so the Western audience could easily relate to a typically Chinese production, or rather, they could think about it, as theirs. After all, it does not matter how extremely the filmmaker changes the original, but how many twists and surprising turns he puts in. In The Banquet even the fact that the Hamlet-figure is no longer the central character, works. It is not him, who is the “puppet master”, but the Empress, who is a classical scheming. This means that only the frame of the classical theatre play is kept. It might be the result of mature and deliberate storytelling, or maybe because the beautiful Ziyi Zhang, who took the Empress’ part, is a bigger guarantee for a box office hit than any Hamlet ever could be. Anyway, this classical martial arts movie, which (only sometimes) has all the qualities of becoming a wonderful buzz, as a real Zhang Yimou piece could be.