- Peter Byrne
The Circle and the Dance of the Veils
The Berkeley Circle met on March 15th to continue its incursion into film culture. We again enjoyed the tutelage of James Kendall, director and film lecturer. He had on two previous occasions whet our appetite for the Septième Art. In 2019, [here] he fit Ingmar Bergman with care into the canon of historic film directors. That was in a three-part series with two Swedish critics participating. In 2020, James returned to tell us how to ‘read’ a film, to interpret its meaning, what it was saying. He also outlined what it was that made a successful film.
His subject this time was Unveiling Cinematic Adaptations: a process of Transcreation. He used the 2011 film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as his example. It was a Swedish, German, UK, and USA production directed by David Fincher with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian. (It’s not to be confused with the 2009 Swedish film of the same name.) The source text to be unveiled was the 2005 Swedish novel of the same title by Steig Larson.
Key scenes were stopped and considered in detail on a large screen. James pointed out the meaning in the least movement or repositioning. A flick of the head, a hesitation in speech, a wandering glance, a shift of the camera—all were full of information that, wordless, advanced the story. His assistant, Francesco, paused over the remarkable title sequence that told a story of its own, enlarging the theme. There was much to think about the next time we sit down in the dark for an emotional ride.
At the beginning of James’s lecture demonstration, he showed us a quote affirming that words could not approximate all that was going on in a frame of film. This is certainly true. So, however, is the contrary. The camera, even used with brilliance, cannot approximate the view into a character’s interior life—his consciousness—that some authors give us in words.
Unveiling a text for cinema adaptation depends crucially on what’s beneath the veil. It can be a fairly straightforward operation with material like Steig Larson’s novel. Action and dialogue tell the story, and both make the transcreation journey with relative ease. However, filmmakers regularly engage, for commercial reasons or perhaps in a genuine thirst for high culture, with unwieldy subject matter, novels of great complexity, or work that digs deep into a character’s mind. In the first case, James explained that fidelity was not a matter of ticking boxes but of rendering the spirit of the work. That’s clear. But in the other case, it’s hard to envision any means but words as used by the author.
To put it concretely, John Huston made an admirable grab at quality when for his last movie he filmed James Joyce’s novella, The Dead (1987). It’s the story of a conventional ‘good’ husband suddenly made aware that his wife had once known a love of another intensity than his. In the last pages, he lives a painful and dramatic coming to terms with what he has learned. I wish James could tell us how this could be portrayed without Joyce’s words embodying the husband’s thoughts. As it is, we can only stare at the silent discomfort of the actor playing the husband and wonder if he’s suffering from overeating at that Epiphany dinner.