Saturday, September 03, 2005

Adaptation Season

Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is one of my all-time favorite novels (her upcoming Wickett's Remedy would have been on my most-anticipated list a few weeks ago were it not scandalously forgotten). I've been nervous about the film adaptation for a while (Richard Gere as Saul? Juliette Binoche as Miriam? They're both about as Jewish as Madonna). Now that the trailer has come along, I can see that nervousness was the wrong reaction--I should have just written the whole film off as soon as I heard about it.
Contrary to what you might assume from watching the trailer, Bee Season isn't a heartwarming drama about a damaged family coming together. It is a heartbreaking drama about a damaged family falling to pieces. More importantly, it's a book about the search for God in everyday life, and about the different ways in which people can approach that search--arrogance, obsession, spite, humility.

The six minute featurette on the same site only serves to demonstrate how far the writers have deviated from their source material. In the book, Saul isn't a well-meaning control freak; he's an arrogant prick who uses his children's accomplishments to dull the pain of his own failed ambitions. Similarly, although Miriam is an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac, in the book she doesn't want to get better--she believes that her actions are helping to perfect the world. The entire thrust of the film seems to be that the Naumanns' problems can be solved, with Eliza's ascent to the National Spelling Bee Championship as the catalyst, whereas the book unequivocally states that the Naumanns are beyond repair--even when one member of the family achieves spiritual enlightenment. It's a complete reversal of the book's central theme.

Why do the people who write film adaptations do this? Pride and Prejudice isn't a romantic comedy. Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair aren't stories about damaged young women looking for love in all the wrong places. The English Patient isn't a love story. Why adapt the novel if you're going to ignore the very things that make it what it is?


Anonymous said...

Actually I thought Richard Gere is (was?) a Jew. But I think it is more apposite to complain that he's perhaps not the right actor for the part. I have to think about what the ideal casting would be.

It would be less galling to swallow the changes made to the plot and characters of a book by a movie version if the producer were more upfront about it. Think about Adaptation/The Orchid Thief, for instance.

Myla Goldberg's new book is set in the time of the flu epidemic in the early 20th century. From what I read, it might have the same sort of broken characters as Bee Season, and I'll be interested in checking it out.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

According to the IMDb, Gere is Irish-American - which doesn't mean he can't also be Jewish, although these days he's famously Buddhist. You're probably right that it would be more accurate to say that he's all wrong for the role of Saul.

It certainly seems, from the trailer, that the Jewish aspect of Bee Season is being drastically de-emphasized in the film. If it weren't for the fact that the script keeps the Naumans' name, I would wonder if their very Jewishness had been cut out.

Anonymous said...

I have this theory that novels aren't the best literary form to adapt into movies, from an artistic standpoint, because that format is too constrained to contain the nuances of personality and of setting. Short stories or novellas can be more direct in these areas and work better. (I'm thinking of the Philip K. Dick stories, among others, here.) The problem comes with the marketing of the movie, because while there are lots of people who might want to go to a film based on a book that was on the best sellers list, a lot fewer will be impressed with a short story which will have received much less buzz.

My current favorite choice to play Saul: Paul Sand, who was Rabbi Polonsky in Joan of Arcadia. He could probably do the arrogant prick thing.

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