A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935)

As long as there are novels and movies, there will be people trying to turn novels into movies. Which is a task usually doomed to some degree of failure, given that the two art forms have significantly different aims and techniques. Novels are interior: They reveal what people think and feel. Movies are exterior: Thoughts and feelings have to be depicted, not reported. Novels breed reflection; movies breed reaction. Novel-based movies usually succeed only when the genius of the filmmakers exceeds that of the novelist, as in the case, for example, of Alfred Hitchcock's transformation (1960) of Robert Bloch's Psycho, or Francis Ford Coppola's extrapolation (1972) from Mario Puzo's The Godfather. We mostly settle for, at best, a satisfying skim along the surface of the novel, which is what we get in Cukor's version of Dickens's novel. I'm not claiming, of course, that Cukor or the film's producer, David O. Selznick, was a greater genius than Dickens, but together -- and with the help of Hugh Walpole, who adapted the book, and Howard Estabrook, the credited screenwriter -- they produced something of a parallel masterpiece. They did so by sticking to the visuals of the novel, not just Dickens's descriptions but also the illustrations for the original edition by "Phiz," Hablot Knight Brown. The result is that it's hard to read the novel today without seeing and hearing W.C. Fields as Micawber, Edna May Oliver as Betsey Trotwood, or Roland Young as Uriah Heep. The weaknesses of the film are also the weaknesses of the book: women like David's mother (Elizabeth Allan) and Agnes Wickfield (Madge Evans) are pallid and angelic, and David himself becomes less interesting as he grows older, or in terms of the movie, as he ceases to be the engaging Freddie Bartholomew and becomes instead the vapid Frank Lawton. But as compensation we have the full employment of MGM's set design and costume departments, along with a tremendous storm at sea -- the special effects are credited to Slavko Vorkapich.