Cashing In on Dumbing Down
I know, I know. You're not supposed to compare movies with the novels they're based on. Different mediums. Different technical challenges. Different criteria for judgment. Novels are made of words, sometimes describing what you can't even see, like what's going on in a character's mind. Movies are made of images, so you can only see what's happening, whether it's in the Wild West, in a Manhattan penthouse, or somewhere in space.But watching The English Patient rake in all those statues last week, I was struck again by the problems created when a movie-maker translates something from printed page to large screen. Is a director obliged to be faithful to the source? Does she have license to take some liberties with details, to turn the verbal into the visual? Or should we just accept the age-old Hollywood rule: if someone pays enough for a title, he should be free to do what he pleases with it.In some ways, The English Patient was true to the Michael Ondaatje novel on which it was based. The central cast of characters survived, and the essential elements of plot remained. The wounded patient's memories were brought alive, and the relationship between nurse and patient was rendered decently by Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. And Andrew Minghella's highly praised film had an actual advantage, since the sublime desert landscapes that appeared on the screen were more striking than any printed descriptions could be.But while Minghella succeeded at conveying some of the layered complexity of Ondaatje's story, he gave short shrift to one of Ondaatje's major themes-the relationship of East to West, of Europe to Asia, of people of color to white imperialists. The moral dilemmas of Kip, the Sikh "sappe," or demolition expert, are given much more attention in the novel than in the movie, as Kip wrestles with personal and cultural questions about identity and loyalty. His guilt over putting his skills to use on behalf of his country's oppressors is neutralized for a time by his commitment to the Allied cause.But when he learns, toward the end, of the atomic bombing of Japan, he has a powerful epiphany. He realizes that, as his brother had warned him, the forces he was working for had no respect for people like him. They might use his remarkable technical skills, but they had no regard for him as a person because he was "colored," just like the victims of the Bomb. Ki's bitterness and disillusionment bring alive the largest kinds of issues, giving the novel a dimension that takes it well beyond the thin, pedestrian romance which Minghella makes the centerpiece of his film.It's like turning The Scarlet Letter into a bodice-ripping Harlequin, leaving out the parts about human nature, sin and redemption, and all the things that gave the novel weight and meaning (which, come to think of it, Hollywood tried, disastrously, last summer, with Demi Moore in the starring role). Through Kip, Ondaatje dramatized the price of imperialism and racism. By minimizing this central issue, Minghella gives us sterile passions and Saharan spectacles, nice to look at, but barren and light.Changing authors' intentions is nothing new for Hollywood, of course, where a happy ending was grafted onto The Grapes of Wrath, extensive additions were made to Hemingway's "The Killers," and serious deletions altered classics like Pride and Prejudice and every Dickens novel ever adapted to the screen. It's been that way for so long, no one even notices much any more.And yet, something about such license rankles. When authors have labored to develop a theme, articulate an idea, dramatize an important moral issue, shouldn't their intentions be honored? If you're going to use the title, shouldn't you be obliged to stay as true as you can to the spirit of the original?Imagine Hamlet with a happy ending, with the melancholy prince suddenly revived and reconciled with his sexy mom and his dapper uncle. Imagine Sister Carrie as a toe-tapping musical, tracing the career of the Wisconsin farm girl who rises to success on the New York stage, getting support from her mature and steady husband. Imagine Anna Karenina as a Harlequin heroine, using sexual wiles to make some calculated career moves.It's what Hollywood does way too well, this dumbing down of American entertainment, to make things easy, or "cute," or painless, for a public that goes to movies to be "entertained," which in today's parlance, means shutting down their brains and their critical faculties. It results in things like the movie version of Bernard Malamud's The Natural, a flawed novel, to be sure (Malamud didn't seem to know much about baseball, for one thing), but a novel which tried to make a serious statement about how the best natures and finest intentions can be corrupted by the hideous crassness of American life. Tapping into myth and legend, Malamud gave us Roy Hobbs, the innocent from the West, who comes East to pursue his dream of becoming a baseball star. And hope turns to horror as we see the forces of lust and venality which thwart Roy in his pursuit.The novel builds toward a climactic scene, when Roy has a chance to be a hero and counteract the corruption which has poisoned the game. But in the novel Roy strikes out in that last at-bat, unable to combat the commercialism and greed arrayed against him and his ideals.It was a cautionary tale, in other words, prophetic when Malamud wrote it in 1952; more timely still when the movie came out, in 1984; and painfully relevant now, when everything in our culture, from politicians to athletes to journalists, is up for sale to the highest bidder. But Hollywood couldn't release a sad, challenging story like that; so we got Barry Levinson's sugary concoction, with Robert Redford blasting one in the final scene, complete with fireworks and other pyrotechnics. The cheap thrills were popular, of course; but they bore no relation to Malamud's intentions.Compared to most current movies, The English Patient was a decent effort, though it lacked the realistic heft of Lone Star and Secrets and Lies. But compared to what it might have been, and what it was in novel form, it was a slight thing, lightened to accommodate an undemanding audience. It may seem like a minor matter. But too much more accommodation, and there'll be no market for provocative statements by serious artists. Too much more of this dumbing down, and we'll create a culture that makes the Sahara seem lush.