The conventional wisdom of scriptwriters, as I understand it, is that when you adopt a novel into a screenplay for a movie, you are creating something different from the novel. In this way, Hollywood justifies bastardizing the best novels ever written. Now I learned that they are planning to adopt one of my favorite novels, William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, to the big screen, and Kristen Stewart is slated to play Peyton Loftis, the main female character. As always when I learn a favorite novel will soon be a movie, I suffer mixed feelings. I want to see it! At the same time, I remind myself that Hollywood’s adaptation of literary novels tend to be barbaric. They cut vital scenes, reword important dialogue, even rewrite the ending. Anticipation often leads to disappointment.
Lie Down in Darkness will be a harder novel than most to adopt into film. Since its style is stream-of-consciousness, the characters’ thoughts, emotions, passing perceptions, fleeting impulses, and other workings of the inner world are as much a part of the novel as the plot, the dialogue, the characters, and the setting. It is a dark, depressing story about a dysfunctional Southern family, headed by the charming but alcoholic Milton Loftis. Milton loves his daughter Peyton more than anyone, including himself, and for that reason, her mother, Helen, treats Peyton with jealousy and scorn. Styron writes about doomed characters, and every character in this novel, in his or her own way and for his or her own reasons, is doomed from the first page to the last.
I have no objections, per se, to Kristen Stewart playing Peyton. If anyone must play Peyton, it might was well be her. It is an opportunity for the Twilight star to show she is capable of more serious work, and I do not begrudge her this opportunity. The director slated for this project, Scott Cooper, also wrote the screenplay. I am unfamiliar with this director’s work (Crazy Heart), but I assume he adopted the novel for love of it. I wish he had loved it well enough to leave it alone.
How can I feel this way before seeing the movie, before it is filmed, even before it is financed? The answer lies in the difference between the two mediums—the novel and the movie.
A novel is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. When I read a novel, a movie plays in my mind. I see the characters, the setting, the props, the costumes; I hear the dialogue, the background sounds, the music that is playing. Some of this description comes from words the novelist wrote, but most of it comes from me. Years ago, as I began my studies in creative writing, I ran across an exercise in a book. Recall a favorite scene in a novel and write down everything you remember about it. Then return to the novel and reread the scene. When I did this, choosing a scene from At Play in the Fields of the Lord, I discovered that only thirty percent, maybe less, came from the words on the page. The rest came from the imaginary movie that played in my mind as I read the novel.
A movie is a collaboration between the director, the actors, the scriptwriters, the cameraman, and a hundred other artists, craftsmen, and technicians. It is presented to the audience wholesale, so all the viewer has to do is sit in the dark, munch his popcorn, and train his eyes on the screen. I won’t contend that the viewer’s imagination is inert, but I will say that, as the novel depends on that imagination to relay the story, the movie depends on visual and audio messages. If I were to perform the same memory exercise with a movie, instead of finding seventy percent came from my imagination, I suspect, that only ten to twenty percent came from my imagination.
I love movies; I love anything that tells a story. But what makes a great novel great is different than what makes a great movie great. How many great movies are there? How few of them are adopted from novels! The scriptwriter is right to know that he cannot recreate the novel on film, that he must create something different. I wish he would follow that knowledge to the ultimate conclusion of not even trying. That is the story of Robert Towne, the writer of Chinatown. They offered him $125,000 to adopt The Great Gatsby. Knowing he couldn’t do justice to the Fitzgerald novel, he wrote Chinatown instead. How much richer is film history for that decision!