Narrative in American cinema is a little like the weather: everybody complains, but nobody really does much about it. Producers have long seen novels and short stories as a place to borrow both plot and audience. Writers sample cinema for structural clues and gesture. Studio options and movie tie-ins have raised the standard of living for a privileged few novelists. It’s a relationship we’ve all learned to live with, and it’s changed our way of reading, seeing and storytelling. But in the United States, it’s also produced a drive to reduce cinema and literature to a monolithic narrative style. The problem with so many current Hollywood adaptations of great books is not that the story is trivial, but that there is nothing but story. Even those novels and short stories that were never really grounded in a forceful plot are scuttled for the faintest traces of linear account. A few years shy of a change in millennium, the nervous speed of daily life demands that the universe be ordered into a knowable narrative.
Nowhere is this anxiety more acutely displayed than in two recent reworkings of American novels. Russell Banks’s novel Affliction reads like a fuse burning its way to a mysterious and terrible explosion. The story is narrated the articulate and damaged younger brother of Wade Whitehouse, a well digger and policeman in a bleak New Hampshire town. From the opening lines, the narrator’s voice brims with artfully rendered emotional dissonance: No one urged me to reveal these things; no one asked me not to. By telling his story like this, as his brother, I am separating myself from the family and from all those who ever loved him.” Banks plays this dissonance to great effect underscoring the ways patriarchal violence is passed down across generations. But that same dissonance undercuts the efficacy of Paul Schrader’s cinematic version. All in all, Schrader has made a decent film. It is not as good as his earlier work Light Sleeper, but it’s adroit. Schrader is a great rector, Banks is a great writer. Nick Nolte is at once charming and frightening as Wade Whitehouse, former high-school star gone to beer fat and cruelty. Sissy Spacek brings a pathetic empathy to the role of Margie Fogg, Wade’s girlfriend who tries but can’t wean him of his dependency on male violence. The only trouble is that, compared to Banks’s book, the film is inert.
Similar problems torment Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. Morrison’s shattered approach to narration and language allows for deeply buried sentiments to blossom like the scars on Sethe’s back; her language allows interior to flow into exterior, form into content, death into life. Recovering in Reconstruction-era Cincinnati, the book’s characters are haunted by the legacies of slavery: Sixo, who “stopped speaking English because there was no future in it”; Mister, the overseer, who defines the black men and women he has enslaved in terms of “human” and “animal” characteristics; Baby Suggs, who makes her living with her heart because slavery “had busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue”; and Paul D, a good man with a rusty heart. At the center is Sethe, a woman who tried to kill her children rather than let them be taken back into slavery; Denver, her daughter who survived, and Beloved, the ghost of the daughter who did not. Only a crank would expect a filmic adaptation to be true to the minutiae of the novel.
And only a cynic could not find some pleasure in linear narration. No one is questioning the skill of the directors and actors, but they have the misfortune of working in a time when the demands of the medium ask poetry to compete with plot. There are some beautiful moments in Demme’s Beloved. They are mostly moments of geese flying and leaves turning in the fiat Ohio autumn, but these seem all too briefly glimpsed, as if something were propelling us quickly back to the story instead of allowing us to inhabit it. The result is a film lacking in language. The rich vernacular and shifting structure that Morrison uses to sketch her characters’ interior lives is abandoned for a story that can be easily followed. The profundity of abjection Morrison conveys in her finely wrought prose becomes merely gross or pornographic as an image. In Demme’s Beloved, history is nothing more than a licentious flashback. It does not take up life with its audience.
If anything, films like Beloved and Affliction resemble television more than cinema. Cinema is an art based on movement and migration, a screen where everything is in flux and a character can never be fully known. Television gives the illusion that we can know a life through serial viewing. Unlike cinema, which is a communal experience, television is focused on its audience being at home. It is a medium well-suited for the privatized culture of late capitalism. Television is about the primacy of the individual. At its most focused, cinema can be a call to abandon the self. “The cinema longs to go beyond individuality,” wrote John Berger. As a film unfolds, its characters abandon their individuality and come to share themselves with their audience. Literature demands that its readers take the time to inhabit its stories and language, a demand that is often at odds with the daily drive to get back to the master narrative of progress and making money. A good film, like a good book, is an expression of longing, and can resemble a prayer: a prayer to abandon the self and discover the world that we belong to, a dream outside a single, individual life. Sadly, America’s new cinematic narrative only returns us to the terms of the self, and the dreams they conjure are base desires.
Affliction was released this December by Lions Gates Films and Beloved in October by Touchstone Pictures.