Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book to movie

A couple of days ago we watched the movie, The American, and I wrote some notes about it.  It was the most irritating movie I'd seen in a long time.  However, it prompted me to check out the book it was based on, A Very Private Gentleman (though if you search for that book now, you'll find it's been republished under the title The American, which is a bit daft, since the only Americans in the book are minor characters).  The book is by Martin Booth, who turns out to be an excellent writer - one I'd never come across before.  His style, at least in this book, is akin to that of Graham Greene.  Greene used his more serious books (and sometimes even his 'comedies', as he called them) to explore how men think about and deal with religion, women, life and violence.  In this book, Booth looks at all these issues too, while telling an intriguing story.   More of that in a minute.

We also watched The Prestige last night, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.  I read the book this film is based on back in 2008 (according to my records - my memory's not that good) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The intriguing thing is that Christopher Nolan, who made the film of The Prestige (and retained its title) has so thoroughly adapted it that, while it retains the integrity of the story and many elements of it, it's a quite different kettle of fish.  The American didn't retain the original book's title - which it should have - and it thoroughly altered the original, retaining only what it cared to retain, and adding in things that were irrelevant to the original story, and altering the climax so remarkably that you have to gasp at their audacity. Martin Booth had died by the time the movie was made, which is probably just as well: he might have had a heart attack when he saw what they'd done to it.  Christopher Priest, the author of The Prestige, would have been more happy with the adaptation of his book, I think, because it doesn't take a worthwhile piece of writing and turn it into nonsense.  It remakes it in an excellently dramatic way, and, if my memory serves me right, doesn't do injustice to the original. The American destroys the original, by changing practically everything in its focus, and thoroughly confusing the original story, even adding in detail that makes no sense - making the priest the father of the mechanic, for instance.

Booth's book is a long narrative from an anonymous character who is insistently private, not because he's an introvert, but because his very specialised craft is likely to get him eliminated at any minute if he's not careful to keep his cover safe from those who'd destroy him.  He's nearly killed at the very end, in fact, because someone - an amateur, as it happens - has managed to track him down, much to the narrator's surprise.  He doesn't die - as Clooney does in the movie (for entirely the wrong reasons) - but his cover is so blown that he has to 'vanish' yet again.

In the book the anonymous narrator gradually reveals his secrets, but with considerable caution, as though at any minute what we learn is likely to make us discover more than he wants us to know.  He's cautious with everyone he meets and knows, even his mistress.  But those close to him, the priest and the mistress, are people who ask questions, and gradually manage to dig under his skin.  (Some snippets of his conversations with the priest survive into the movie.)  For the rest, he remains an elusive character revealing only what he wants to tell us; though Booth's craft is such that he allows us to learn more than his narrator thinks he's telling us.  The writing throughout is superb, full of interesting detail (about guns and the making of them, about butterflies, about the Italian countryside, about the contrasts between different nationalities - Booth is quite forthright on this) and full of suspense in spite of the fact that the book seems to move slowly. The difference is that in the book the slowness works; in the movie it's just plain annoying.

The movie of The Prestige is very well-handled, and of course is full of trickery, not just between the characters, but in fooling the audience as well.  The revealing of the trickery at the end only serves to make us wonder even more about what's actually happened (I seem to remember the book was even more ambiguous on this score than the film is) but it leaves the viewer satisfied, something The American certainly didn't do, in spite of its weak attempts to 'round off' the storyline.  

Bale and Jackman present two strong and interesting characters - though I think Bale walks off with the honours, even though he gets second billing.  Furthermore he manages a passable London accent, though I was puzzled as to why he never wore a hat, when it was the norm at that time.  Was that something related to the original character in the book?  I don't remember.  

The Prestige is the sort of film you could watch again straightaway and get more enjoyment out of, because you'd be looking for further understanding of the intricate plot.  The American you wouldn't want to watch again...ever.  But A Very Private Gentleman would be worth reading again, because it's just so well done.  At the very least it encourages me to search out more of Booth's books.  
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