Has Franzen's 'The Corrections' dodged a big-screen bullet?

Posted by · 5:30 pm · November 8th, 2011

Since I first read Jonathan Franzen’s National Book Award-winning novel nearly a full decade ago, “The Corrections” has been simultaneously my most anticipated and most dreaded of all mooted Hollywood prestige pics — a project that has wavered from inevitability to promise to mirage in the years since the film rights were first snapped up.

Anticipated, because I love the novel as much as legions of other people: its ubiquity has done little to dim the brilliance of its densely knotted construction, jagged comedy and profound capacity for pain and empathy in its deconstruction of what makes and breaks the modern American family. Dreaded, because — well, everything I just said. It’s such a vast, heaving, emotion-sodden work that the odds would be against even the most judicious film treatment matching its breadth and tonal range; a less judicious one, meanwhile, could veer into unholy realms of soggy highbrow soap-opera.

The names fleetingly attached during the novel’s long, unfulfilled cinematic courtship were never quite the ones you wanted to hear. Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare were linked to it after their successful 2002 adaptation of another structurally intricate American literary hit, “The Hours,” but their combined sensibility seemed entirely too placid, too vanilla for Franzen’s quicksilver writing: the rumors that they’d lined up the not-especially-suited Judi Dench to play bristly Midwestern matriarch Enid Lambert foretold a kind of over-polished, Academy-ready approach to material that required a spikier stylistic touch.

That certainly wasn’t what seemed on the cards when the project next fell into the hands of Robert Zemeckis, not the first name you’d associate with acrid, honest human drama: the material was so far removed from any of the fanciful narrative from his directorial oeuvre that it was hard to imagine what his film would feel like, but either way, a filmmaker whose keen interest in motion-capture technology has defined his career of late didn’t sound like anyone’s first choice for such a high-stakes film.

Between this sporadic updates, wary fans like myself were left to our imaginations: I considered filmmakers like Kenneth Lonergan, Ray Lawrence and even Paul Thomas Anderson, all the while hopelessly dreaming that it could be a final project for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; in the real world, casting possibilities like Brad Pitt, Naomi Watts, Tim Robbins and Cate Blanchett floated in and out of the frame.

This was all a few years back; of late, the project had slipped off the radar to such an extent that an adaptation of Franzen’s 2010 follow-novel “Freedom” (the film rights to which were snapped up by Scott Rudin) seemed likelier to start rolling first. That’s until HBO, that recent unlikely bastion of American high culture, came to the rescue of “The Corrections,” confirming that it’ll be coming to our screens in the format that arguably always made more sense: as a TV drama.

I’m no small-screen aficionado, but this news pleases me enormously. TV will provide the necessary breathing room for the diffuse strands of Franzen’s narrative (which will be extended and embellished for the medium, with Franzen himself on co-writing duty) to dance around each other before gradually connecting; HBO, meanwhile, has recent form in the pithy tragicomic tone that might be less permissively accommodated in a starry studio feature. (The standard of recent US TV drama, plus the migration of major film names like Todd Haynes, ensures the medium is no longer a weak sister, while the novel’s certainly a closer cousin to “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” than anything directed by Zemeckis.)

The casting of Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest in the central roles is classy but reassuringly character-serving; the appointment of sweet-and-sour indie prince Noah Baumbach as co-writer and pilot-director is also astutely judged, considerate of both the required tone and scale. (Rudin, once more, is on board as executive producers.) I’m not a great one for celebrating the non-occurrence of films, but suddenly, the screen adaptation of “The Corrections” is something I’m anticipating a lot more than I’m dreading; indeed, my most eagerly awaited film of the next year or two may not be a film at all.

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