Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The bumpy path from book to film

Last night, I received an agitated email from a friend who was gravely disappointed by "Revolutionary Road," a movie my friend had just seen at a preview. The movie -- already open in New York and Los Angeles -- begins its Denver run Friday.

A fan of the Richard Yates' novel on which the film is based, my friend experienced something I've frequently felt after seeing a big-screen adaptation of a book that meant something to me. Call it "reader rage," the conviction that a long-cherished work has been betrayed by filmmakers who mostly missed the point.

I'm reviewing "Revolutionary Road" for the Rocky Mountain News Friday, but I'll offer a brief preview of coming attractions. I thought director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and his two stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) turned out a legitimate and even worthy interpretation of Yates' much-admired novel. My review, though qualified, will be positive.

My friend didn't see it that way.

For those who don't know, "Revolutionary Road" is a 1950s story about Frank and April Wheeler, two suburbanites who watch the promise of youth gradually slip away from them. April -- played with raw honesty by Winslet -- devises a plan that represents a pathway to secular salvation. Frank and April and their two children will move to Paris. The hope: He'll escape the stultifying routine of a job he hates, and she'll experience a much-needed sense of renewal. Clearly, things don't go according to plan.

So what were my friend's objections to Mendes' approach, which I admit tends to be a bit too arty for its own good.

First, a casting error. My friend thought DiCaprio looked too young to be playing a jaded office worker who staves off boredom by philandering with women from the secretarial pool. I. too, thought, DiCaprio looked younger than Winslet, but it didn't bother me. When Winslet begins to gather April's rage, she practically blows DiCaprio off the screen. This is not so much about any weakness in DiCaprio's performance but about interpretation. DiCaprio's playing a character who's ill equipped to deal with his wife's unfolding fury. This is a slightly different twist from the book, but it's reasonable and, I thought, interesting.

Second, my friend objected to the fact that one of the Wheelers' neighbors -- a man named Shep --has a severely reduced presence in the movie. True, and this may have been a mistake. My friend also thought that the Wheeler children received short shrift. Also, true, but this didn't bother me. Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe have done what adapters should do. They've identified what they see as the core of the novel (the Wheelers' failing marriage) and stripped away most everything else. Mendes does evoke a view of the '50s as a kind of conformist hell, but the pain of the movie has more to do with the Frank and April's insufficiencies than with post-War American disillusionment. I thought that the movie had a sad essence of its own.

Here's a disturbing thought, which I pointed out in a reply to my friend's email: Yates' work may not be widely known for good reason. Some of his concerns have dated. He offers -- in more harrowing fashion than the movie to be sure -- a cameo view of certain kinds of presumptions about life as it began to evolve in the '50s. About 20 years ago, I went on a Yates binge, and I skimmed through "Revolutionary Road" after I saw the movie, re-reading key passages. Is the movie as good as the novel? Hardly. Why? It's certainly arguable that Yates was a better writer than Mendes is a filmmaker.

Still, I didn't feel the same kind of reader rage that brought my blood to a boil when I saw "Elegy," which -- for me -- represented a disastrous misreading of Philip Roth's short novel, "The Dying Animal." I guess what I'm saying is that "Revolutionary Road" struck me as an admirable adaptation of Yates' novel, although it certainly is not without flaws.

I also pointed out to my friend that those who find themselves in the opposite camp may want to read Manohla Dargis' review of "Revolutionary Road," which ran in The New York Times on Dec. 26. Dargis makes the best case for those who leave the theater dejected -- not because of the painful on-screen battling between Frank and April but because of what they see as another squandered movie opportunity.


Anonymous said...

"I don't want to talk about the Wheeler's anymore."

Anonymous said...

I don't blame you.

Anonymous said...

See parts of yourself in the Wheelers, do you? Many of us do to.