discussions genre stuff

Flick Lit

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.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

7 replies on “Flick Lit”

I’m not totally sure I understood this one. So you’re saying that in the last few years, movies have been sliding more towards expensive rubbish and flashy gimmicks over anything even half-decently written?

Cos if you are, I’ve been saying that for years! lol.

The article misses the point. My problem with the movie industry is at how few movies are based on original screenplays. Virtually everything is adapted from a book, comic, old tv show or computer game. While there are many great adaptations out there, I feel as if the industry is admitting that it can’t make films. When films are made from original screenplays then they often do really well – probably because it was always intended to be a film (although some authors are kind enough to publish screenplays veiled as books).
If all we saw in books were adaptations of films we’d think there was something seriously wrong.

No, the pulp and the more dramatic are not mutually exclusive. One of the things I loved about District 9 was the way it was an action flick with some heavy themes.

But genre is guilty of ghettoising itself, of putting in those partitions between the big explosions and the quality drama.

Look at Twilight down at the pulpy end. Now you don’t see many of the fantasy fraternity say “hey, what a different twist of the Vampire mythos”. Instead you get “Sparkly Vampires? Eugh!” And because it’s popular, we deride it even more. Whilst there are many who have read it and made up their own mind (fair enough) to some it can’t possibly be good, SIMPLY because it is popular. I’ve seen people deride Harry Potter and label it as “not fantasy” for similar reasons.

And look at fantasy these days. There is abundance of fantasy that, whilst very very good, strips out a lot of fantasy elements to create some form of fantasy minimalism, as if the genre is willing to sacrifice some of its staples in favor of literary acceptance. The more pulpy end of genre seems to be in the process of emigrating to YA and I think that is a huge loss.

Mark – I don’t disagree with you. I think it all comes down to what you define as ‘literary’, which in my opinion depends on the context the book was published in as much the actual content of the book. For instance I know several people who insist that the original ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ is a piece of literature… even though if it was written today it would be disregarded as a piece of trashy pulp fiction. Times and tastes change, as do views on the relative importance of books. Moby Dick wasn’t exactly a bestseller when it first came out. It spent a long life in obscurity before it was heralded as an important work.

And yes, I would agree that there is now (confusingly) a ‘Literary’ genre. Don DeLillo, Pynchon, Martin Amis etc etc…

Neil P – But you can at least understand why the Film Industry is taking this approach! By using a source like a book or comic their movie is both instantly recognisable and has already courted part of it’s future audiance. In addition the book has already been successful as a Story, so there’s every chance it can be successfully retold in a different medium.

While i’m a great fan of some original TV Dramas, I must admit that i’ve been less than blown away by most movies that don’t have an original source.

Jo – I completely understand the logic of films cannabilising tried, tested and recognisable sources but i’d still turn the concept on it’s head and say what if the only books we read were hose based on successful films/tv shows? I know the answer really boils down to money – it cost’s a shit load to make a film so the risk is far greater and while there is still risk in books/comics it is far less.

Adrian: You can’t beat the good old “indie” mentality of hating what’s good. In all fairness I’d dislike the Twilight concept regardless of success but you have to admit that these kind of things can only come to your attention if it is popular – you’d have to be dedicated to dig out an obscure book on a subject you don’t agree with. The hardcore “indie” mindsight is too love something when it’s fairly niche/unknown and then retroactively decide it’s crap when it becomes hugely popular. Brace yourself Mark 🙂

Daniel – no, I’m commenting on the magazine’s approach to criteria, or lack of, of literary media.

Neil – yes, that’s a fascinating point. I guess the appeal lies in the fact that something is readymade – and potentially with a vast fanbase. If so, then perhaps it’s easier to commit money to?

Adrian – there does seem to be a huge slide towards YA, yes. Is that a bad thing though?

Jo – indeed, but Variety seems to have acquired it’s own concepts of literary, without defining what exactly it is, in order to write their article. It’s like they’ve manufactured an issue out of nothing!

Neil again – I’ll happily take comments of crap if I’m living in a Hawaiian sea-view mansion. 🙂

Neil, a more charitable description of indie types might be: those people who are prepared to dig a little deeper to find examples of great but overlooked work, of whatever form / genre. If such an approach leads to wariness of mainstream output by comparison then at least it’s an informed view.

Generally the overlooked works, however great, are more difficult, uneven and well… un-filmable. Or the rough edges get smoothed out to make them acceptable. This echoes Jo’s point about the film industry playing safe, when large sums are at stake. While many Booker winners would translate easily into movies on the surface, at some point literary fiction becomes un-filmable (or un-filmable in a way which remains faithful to the author’s vision).

The need to pigeonhole everything has created a host of false distinctions between literary and genre fiction of all types. In practice of course the dividing lines are much less clear and there’s plenty of bleed-across in all directions.

That said, the further extremes of each pigeonhole do tend to reinforce the generalisations. Crime fans like the mystery, Sci-Fi fans like the tech and fantasy fans like the swords and sorcery. The more you ratchet-up the genre elements, the less room / demand there is for themes, detailed character studies and so on. Perhaps this is why,outside the ghetto, more traditional genre fare is migrating to YA?

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