By David D'Arcy
In Adam Resurrected, Paul Schrader's new film which premiered at Telluride in September, a psychiatric institute for Holocaust survivors in the Negev Desert becomes a stage for the enactment of a painful tangle of memories. These walking (and crawling) wounded are anything but pious. The sanitarium is also the place for an encounter between a Jewish cabaret clown (Jeff Goldblum) who survived Auschwitz while playing a dog for the camp boss (Willem Dafoe) and a teenage boy, David (Tudor Rapiteanu), who believes he is a dog.
The film is adapted from the 1968 Israeli novel by Yoram Kaniuk, which was received coldly in Israel for its seemingly irreverent treatment of the Holocaust with a cast of mad survivors and its examination of an odd case of a clown's compromise in the face of death. The book developed an international reputation after Susan Sontag gave it a glowing endorsement, which helped turn Adam Resurrected into a modern classic in the comic-grotesque strain of The Tin Drum and Slaughterhouse-Five. Filmmakers have been trying to put it on the screen ever since, among them Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.
This adaptation, which still lacks a US distributor, is written by the young Israeli-trained screenwriter Noah Stollman. Critics, so far, have not been kind (including Israelis), although I am an exception - see my review in Screen. You'll be hearing more about the novel, regardless of when the film finally gets a theatrical release. A new edition is due out soon.
What follows is a conversation about adaptation and its challenges among Paul Schrader, the novelist Yoram Kaniuk, producer Ehud Bleiberg, and myself at the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel, where Adam Resurrected saw its Israeli premiere.
David D'Arcy: What's the challenge of adapting a book for the screen?
Paul Schrader: Well, I've also adapted The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis, and that was as difficult as adapting Adam Resurrected. I did Mosquito Coast for Peter Weir, and I did Affliction for myself - and I directed Ian McEwan's Comfort of Strangers, and something else out there, too.
Look, every book is different. Every book is a different challenge. Sometimes they're easy, where the narrative of a book just folds into two hours. That was the case with Affliction. And sometimes they're extremely difficult. Sometimes you're out to capture the book itself, and sometimes you're not. Sometimes you want to do something different than the book does. Sometimes, as in the case of Last Temptation, there were maybe five or six different scripts inside that book. You had to go inside the book, dig out all the various ways you could go, and pick the one you want to do that means the most to you. With Adam, I did not adapt it. It was written by Noah Stollman, an American who studied here at Sam Spiegel [School of Film and Television in Jerusalem]. One of the fierce challenges of this particular book is that it does not lend itself to realistic translation.
It's not quite magic realism, but it's not quite realism either. There's a lot of internal monologues in it, the chronology is completely scattered, the ending of the book is about two-thirds of the way through, characters have doppelgangers who may or may not be real. There's a second Adam called Herbert. The character of Shasta, played by Hana Laszlo, has a twin sister who may or may not be her at any given time.
I'm a huge fan of Yoram's book, so I have to preface all my remarks by saying that we made a very good adaptation in this film, but we cannot approach the greatness of the book. The greatness of the book is defined by its literary quality, by its words. When a book is really a literary masterpiece, rather than a narrative masterpiece, you can never quite do it justice, because it is what it is. You are never really going to do The Sound and the Fury or Lolita. You can get pretty close, but you can't really nail a book whose very language is its greatness. The reason that Philip Roth's books have failed to make good films is because he writes about despicable characters who are redeemed by language. When you translate them into film, you have despicable characters, but you don't have language.
D'Arcy: Yoram, given what Paul just said about the difficulty of adapting any novel and the difficulty of adapting this novel, were you skeptical or wary of anyone trying to make a film about this book? And Paul was not the first person to try it.
Yoram Kaniuk: The idea for this book is that first it was an idea for a movie. I gave it to Lewis Milestone, who was a very famous director. I started to write it when I was still a painter, so I saw it all the time. I saw, with my eyes, every thing in this book. It took me ten years to write it. I saw it lend itself to be adapted, but if you adapted that book, it would be a 16-hour movie.
Paul captured the essence of this book. I didn't read the script. I didn't want to read the script. I went to a few days of screenings, and the only words I herd were "cut, cut." I finally saw it in a theater in Tel Aviv, and I was a bit nervous, but it is exactly the essence of the book. I think that Paul, and Noah, and of course Jeff - Jeff was not the actor I imagined; I thought more of a German Jew in the role. The idea of a man who is a genius, but all he can do is be a clown, is one that I had seen many times in my life. When Jeff is talking, and he's talking about his childhood, it's me that he's talking about. So, in a way, I think Paul adapted me, and not only the book.
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