Can ‘Revolutionary Road’ be too good for film?

Posted by · 3:45 am · August 17th, 2008

It’s a slow month for news, so I understand that film bloggers’ minds can wander. I sympathize with that. But even taking that into account, Jeff Wells’ recent post outlining his doubts over the upcoming ‘Revolutionary Road’ struck me as pretty tenuous. Wells’ essential argument is that the film’s stumbling block looks to be the sheer brilliance of Richard Yates’ source novel:

The more formidable the reputation of the book that’s been made for the big screen, the greater the odds that the film will have problems of one kind or another. The motto, in short, is that it’s not the beauty of the prose but the strength of the bones that counts.

Truthfully or not, fairly or unfairly, that’s the general belief. And given this, it’s hard not to feel a little queasy about Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road,” the forthcoming Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet drama that’s based upon Richard Yates’ hugely respected novel about suburban middle-class malaise in the 1950s.

In response, let me begin by offering offer a subjective, by-no-means comprehensive selection of exceptions to Wells’ stated theory – literary adaptations that are in equal proportion of greatness to their source material. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” for one. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is another. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was okay, and “A Clockwork Orange” didn’t totally suck either. “The Grapes of Wrath,” “LA Confidential,” “Tess,” “Trainspotting,” “Kes,” “Howards End” … you get the idea.

I’m by no means arguing that Mendes’ film is any more likely to be good because of its literary pedigree; I just don’t think that’s the relevant factor. An adaptation stands or fails by the level of insight and structural dexterity the screenwriter brings to the work at hand, whether it’s Jane Austen or Peter Benchley. Certain works may appear to have more cinematic potential than others, depending on such factors as dialogue, perspective and plain old storytelling verve, but that’s no rule of thumb either – otherwise DePalma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” would be a masterpiece and last year’s “Atonement” an outright trainwreck. (Remember people saying that Ian McEwan’s novel was “unfilmable?”)

Wells’ post suggests that he hasn’t read “Revolutionary Road” (he resorts to pulling quotes off the back cover to prove its greatness), so he’s ill-positioned to judge what challenges Mendes and relatively green scripter Justin Haythe face in taking on the novel. As a keen admirer of the novel, and of Yates’ work in general, I’d say they’re pretty hefty – like that of his relative contemporary John Updike (who has never been successfully filmed), Yates’ prose hinges more on the interior workings of his characters and the gradually shifting relationship between them and their environment, aspects that are difficult to visualise without resorting to the prosaic.

But there are points in their favour too: Yates’ rich, witty dialogue which reaches particularly thrilling heights in the leads’ frequent confrontations, his immaculate sense of locale, and a crisp, clear narrative thrust that builds to a staggering emotional climax. Given some clear thematic parallels in the material, not to mention the films’ choice of leading lady, there will be inevitable comparisons made with Todd Field’s 2006 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children,” a stunning film (though I know Kris disagrees) that made resourceful cinematic sense of a luminous novel with a far more unwieldy narrative, and far more opaque characters, than Yates’.

It helps that “Revolutionary Road” is, to my mind, ideally cast (I can’t wait to see what exciting star-on-the-rise Michael Shannon makes of the hair-trigger character of John Givings) and has a milieu – the moneyed mid-50’s East Coast, and all the brittle social trappings that go with it – that couldn’t be more en vogue at the moment thanks to America’s love affair with the moderately later-set “Mad Men.”

I’m mildly concerned that Sam Mendes’ directorial record is so patchy, but I remain a defender of his work on “American Beauty” (his heightened mise-en-scene made Alan Ball’s script appear much more enigmatic than it really was). This, moreover, looks to be his first project since then that accommodates his strengths (in terms of scale, setting and actorly weight) as an ingenious stage director.

So I remain optimistic. I could be sorely disappointed, and I’m prepared for that too. But, much as I respect Jeff Wells, dismissing the project based on its literary cache displays both short sight and a short memory. As always, we can only let the film speak for itself.

→ 22 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

22 responses so far

  • 1 8-17-2008 at 4:53 am

    Mimi Rogers said...

    I think people also said that Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” is too difficult to translate to screen. I think David Hare’s screenplay is absolutely genius and Stephen Daldry’s direction simply breathtaking. It is one of the best films of the decade in my humble opinion.

  • 2 8-17-2008 at 5:21 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Good example, Mimi – “The Hours” has its detractors, and I think it has some flaws (particularly in the final stretch), but it largely pulls off a very difficult feat of adaptation, turning the novel’s most literary conceits (the shifts in authorial voice and perspective) to its advantage.

    On the strength of that, I’m glad Hare is adapting The Corrections – easily my favourite book of the decade so far – though the thought of Robert Zemeckis at the helm still makes me nervous.

  • 3 8-17-2008 at 8:18 am

    Jeff said...

    I’m going have to agree with Kris about Mr. Wells, but maybe not for the same reasons. I think a novel “unfilmable factor” is determined by its structure, not its quality. The aforementioned works, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, do in fact work well with both.
    But a book like Ulysses remains totally unfilmable. It’s just meant for prose, not visuals. There’s too much “thought” and streams-of-conciousness that can’t be conveyed through anything visual. Even a narration doesn’t work, because it *sounds* (for lack of a better word) like speaking, and not a thought.
    Actually, I find the biggest affront to the movie by Mr. Wells is the fact that he hasn’t even read, or at least hasn’t appeared to have read it.
    Plus, don’t get offended or anything like that, but it’s not like Revolutionary Road was written by Shakespeare or anything!

  • 4 8-17-2008 at 8:46 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks, Jeff – though I wrote the post, not Kris. I agree with you that structure above all determines the level of challenge in an adaptation – but I think people can be far too quick to brand a novel “unfilmable.”

    Many critics said “Atonement,” for example, couldn’t work on film because the novel very literally depends on the power and changeability of the written word, but Christopher Hampton found a deft way round that via some intelligently planned alterations. (And Joseph Strick’s film of “Ulysses” is nothing if not fascinating – I’m glad someone tried.)

    I don’t get the last remark, though… great American novelists and Shakespeare are kind of like apples and oranges!

  • 5 8-17-2008 at 9:30 am

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    Well Guy, if the test screeners of RR said something is beside the good respond to the actors, the film is too cold and too divisible for being an Oscar Nominee. I know, it’s not the ONLY way-destiny; but maybe hurt the chances

    For me, the last best Film adaptation from a Novel is Cunningham’s “The Hours”. I read the book and for me, the film screenplay is perfect and perfect example of a fantstic adaptation, beside the mixed feelings of Atonement

  • 6 8-17-2008 at 9:51 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Folks are gonna start recognizing the names under post headlines sooner or later…I SWEAR!

  • 7 8-17-2008 at 10:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks for the comment, Xavi, but I wasn’t really talking about the film’s Oscar chances – just the chances of it being a good film. (As we know, those needn’t go hand in hand!)

    In any case, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be an audience-pleaser – the novel, while brilliant, is decidedly bitter.

  • 8 8-17-2008 at 10:55 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    To use Mr. Tapley’s word, I think the Revolutionary Road script is atrocious( the 2004 draft). But that’s just me. In my own world. For those that have read it, what do you think?

  • 9 8-17-2008 at 11:51 am

    Jeff said...

    dude…guy lodge, i’m sorry! i dont know what the fuck i was thinking, i guess kris just writes so much here, i…apologize…hahaha
    “assumption is the greatest flaw in logic”
    no that doesn’t come from anywhere, i think, it just is my motto which i needed to look at myself again!

  • 10 8-17-2008 at 11:55 am

    Jeff said...

    and ill take a sec to examine my last line. i’m a huge critic of historicsm in literature, i.e. the study of literature purely in the context is in. i do believe that historical eras (and diff. nationalities) play roles in literature, but not the main role. i think intellect and literary merit alone are the two main areas of literary critcism, and so i have no problem comparing any nation’s books with any other nation’s…to paraphrase “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” apples and oranges in the end are all fruit! plus i think Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time and hence the golden standard.

  • 11 8-17-2008 at 12:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    My point exactly – all fruit is equal, just different!

    Viewed in those terms, I’d call someone like Updike equal to Shakespeare, but I prefer not to mess with my own head like that.

  • 12 8-17-2008 at 2:01 pm

    Jeff said...

    aha, but you see, i prefer apples to oranges! all fruit are fruit, but not all are equal-equal classification, but not quality.
    and i don’t know what to say about updike being equal to Shakespeare…i really really don’t…for me that’s blasphemy! i believe in bardolatry! =)

  • 13 8-17-2008 at 2:38 pm

    Jeff said...

    tho i must say…its so refreshing debating intelligent people about art…rather than debating neoconservatives on other sites…i have an argumentative side, its my gift/curse, and so i always welcome a healthy debate.

  • 14 8-17-2008 at 2:50 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    That’s what we’re here for, Jeff. Argue away.

  • 15 8-17-2008 at 3:45 pm

    Ryan Adams said...

    Fight Club
    25th Hour
    Howards End
    The Godfather
    Doctor Zhivago
    Charlotte’s Web
    Lolita (Kubrick’s)
    The Wizard of Oz
    The English Patient
    The Maltese Falcon
    Pride and Prejudice
    Sense and Sensibility
    The Age of Innocence
    The Lord Of The Rings
    The Talented Mr Ripley
    The Remains of the Day
    The French Lieutenant’s Woman
    Heart of Darkness (aka Apocalypse Now)
    Oliver Twist (various adaptions, all pretty damn good)
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bladerunner)

    When I don’t have anything meaningful to blog about, I watch a movie.

  • 16 8-17-2008 at 4:03 pm

    Ryan Adams said...

    “It helps that “Revolutionary Road” is, to my mind, ideally cast…”

    holy hell, yes! DiCaprio has been delivering lines with the clipped tone, the dashed-off attitude, the shy-debonair self-deprecation of Frank Wheeler in movies for years. Yates wrote this role for Leo 15 years before he was born.

    “Honey, if I had the answer to that one I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour.”

    Michael Shannon should knock this out of the park and steal every scene he’s’ in.

    Sam Mendes was able to take a sketchy stereotypical script for American Beauty and make it feel like it was based on a Pulitzer Prize winner. He did the same with a graphic novel for Road to Perdition. Can’t wait to see what he can do with an actual solid literary foundation to build on.

  • 17 8-17-2008 at 4:27 pm

    AdamL said...

    Mendes is a God and has delivered 3 amazing films out of 3 to date. They have all looked stunning, they have been exquisitely scored, the acting has been beyond reproach and his direction is always faultless. Even working with half a script, I’m sure I’ll love it.

  • 18 8-17-2008 at 5:35 pm

    Joel said...

    I think it has some definite potential. But to quote Gary Cogill: “The proof is in the viewing. I’ll be seeing this film when it comes out on December 26. So we’ll see what I think. Kris, you should write a review.

  • 19 8-17-2008 at 6:52 pm

    Colin Petcraft said...

    Someone is going to have to explain to me why we care what Jeff Wells says.

  • 20 8-18-2008 at 12:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Bit difficult to write a review when we haven’t seen it yet, Joel. But we’ll do so as soon as we can.