Variety magazine makes some sweeping generalisations about a staggeringly small sample of films, suggesting that the “literary” novel is not being picked up as much as stories about explosions and bare-chested vampires.
Such books — with their focus on characterization and ideas rather than plot — have proven awards fodder for decades, in both book and film form. The pics also helped give studios and audiences a balanced diet by offering quiet and thoughtful fare that was uplifting, enlightening — and entertaining. Pics such as “Greed” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” drew from literary sources in the early days of film. In the last few years, there has been a wide range of such prestige projects, including Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and just about any manuscript Scott Rudin gets his hands on.
But what was once a steady stream of bigscreen book adaptations has become a trickle. As one exec wryly notes, “Clint Eastwood is single-handedly holding up the adult drama at the studio level.”
Let’s put aside the spurious, non-defined rules of “literary fiction”, which I think the writers must assume consists of quiet little dramas, stuff that doesn’t get the pulse racing. You know, the things in which elbow-patched college professors agonise over some affair without committing fully to masturbation, yes, in an Oprah-stickered epic. Or something like that, the Hampstead novel gone global. I jest, of course.
The tone of the article is loaded with the subtext that quality drama and action-based films are mutually exclusive. For the sake of Variety, you can either blow shit up or rehash life’s big themes, but you can’t do both, no sir.
Are movie-goers really that black and white? Are readers that black and white, for that matter?
I think ultimately, this fictitious problem stems from classification on what qualifies as literary, or rather, the lack of such classification. It talks of “prestige fiction”, which is an implied slap-down anything that doesn’t fit this imagined criteria, yet somehow smuggles The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a staple of the crime genre, into their spurious end zone.
You’re all familiar with this kind of stuff I’m sure. It’s the kind of debate that has plagued Science Fiction and Fantasy readers for decades, which at it’s most extreme point asks: can you do the pulp and broad thematic / experimental stuff simultaneously?
What is clear to me these days – and it had never really occurred to me that it had moved from books to movies – is that “literary” is very much a genre of its own, and I’ve no agenda against it – one of my favourite writers, Don DeLillo, is often seen as a literary heavyweight, and there’s much to admire about contemporary writers (though I prefer mine with a hint of something else, like Jonathan Lethem). But just like crime, or fantasy, the literary genre exists with its own conservative forms and clichés, its own zones of absolute comfort.
The notion that, in any media, only literary media can be meaningful or prestige strikes me as absurd.