Writers and Poets on Film
By Simon Augustine
Could writers working prior to the 20th century have imagined their creations and characters being expressed in films, with all the dramatic innovations that moving pictures afford? With the advent of film, the literary arts, ancient by comparison, were instantaneously afforded a new interpretative dimension, as occurs when any new art form appears and is able to comment and expand upon another. In this process, the old art form and the new one are changed forever. Placed alongside the fresh aesthetic abilities of cinema, the frame of the written page acquires an adjunct frame, that of the screen, and a conversation ensues between the two frames that provides a new conceptual space, not to mention limitless new fodder for critical thought.
As the events in the pages of a novel or poem become translated into a new medium, the "language" of cinema opens up new frontiers for the tradition of written language: the film allows us to see the book in new ways, and vice-versa. In effect, just as when we read a book and form a picture of the narrative in our "mind's eye," the filmmaker makes a permanent document of his or her own version of that narrative on celluloid. The substance of the mind's eye becomes a public performance, and thus a fixed commentary on all the versions of the book each individual has formed for themselves in their own minds. In this way, the film refers back to and interacts with the original written work, and exciting things begin to happen in terms of widening interpretive horizons.
The permanent document on celluloid as it is formed from literary sources can take several forms. The most obvious and numerous is a straightforward interpretation of the written story - that is, books "made into" movies. But there are other, less frequent, examples in which the literary/cinematic loop is given an additional twist and becomes more complex: those in which a real-life author, and/or characters based on or extrapolated from his or her text, appears as the central figure. Here we are given not merely an example of the visual realization of the written word but also insight into the writing process itself; we are presented with portrayals and imaginings of the dramas surrounding literary invention.
The journey from book to film is reversed and turned in upon itself: we witness not the translation of the mind's eye of the writer into a visual, fixed medium; instead, the fixed visuals of film are used to dramatize the writer in the act of using their mind's eye. In these films, viewers are hopefully exposed to new inroads toward understanding the traditional literary experience and its modes of creation. For instance, the vehicle of cinema might provide a meditation upon the author's intentions and state of mind while creating a work - i.e., the biographical film, such as Sylvia (2003), about Sylvia Plath, or Pandaemonium (2000), about Coleridge and Wordsworth; or it might be an account of fictional events inspired by an author's life or literary work, such as Dead Poets Society (1989); or a postmodern type of story, woven from the relationship between an author's life and the "life" of his or her work, such as the recent mind-bender Adaptation (2002).
Portraying the writing process in the movies with excitement and insight is difficult to pull off, given that writing is such an interior, personal process, mostly done in isolation. (And the operations of the mind's eye can be so hard to capture in a medium that simply presents rather than comments; just think about all the things books convey that get lost in movies - observational details, aspects of characters, philosophizing, etc.) At their best, films about writers and poets manage to shed fresh light on aspects of an author's personal struggle to get words on the page and to handle the world outside the page while still maintaining a writing career.
Or they present the actual literary work itself in a fresh light. At their worst, they descend into a contented form of melodrama or a superficial, convenient representation of an author. But usually they center on the personality of the writer, since this is the most easily dramatized component in the mix.
Outsize and Tragic Personalities
Some personalities have an irresistible quality that engages them in an ongoing love affair with the public imagination. They may not be the most deserving literary heavyweight, or even a particularly pleasant or moral person, but something they have given to readers draws filmmakers to them, sometimes more than once. Perhaps it has to do with the way specific writers give some part of themselves entirely to the page and to life: in unmistakable and excruciating ways, stripping away the barriers of pretension, these artists manage to communicate an undiluted element of themselves, and in the process of taking this risk, often sacrifice their well-being and even their lives.
Writers, and in particular poets, are famous for this variety of self-destruction - Hemingway shooting himself; Dylan Thomas drinking himself into oblivion while simultaneously torturing everyone close to him; Hart Crane throwing himself off a ship; Sylvia Plath putting her head in the oven; and confessional poet Anne Sexton subjecting herself to carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage, among many others. In the brave act of self-revelation, the self does not always survive the show; yet a self-destructive artist makes for a particularly good film subject, not only because of the excess of personality involved, but because of film's fascination with violence, even if it is the interior violence of a persona in turmoil.
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