Friday, September 14, 2012

Fit To be Tied (In): A Critique

Not long ago, I viewed trailer for the film adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. While the film version will very likely pale in comparison (not to mention the fact that the trailer did not, or rather could not, come close to visualizing the novel's intricacies and layers), it has led to increased attention and demand for the book itself. In one of the rare instances of joy in corporate bookselling, I've been able to discuss Mitchell's work with a variety of people, most of them new to the work, buying it because of the upcoming film. Virtually all of these people seem excited to tackle the book itself, especially when they receive a glowing endorsement and hints that the reading experience will be much more than they anticipated. Since sales of the work have jumped, I've taken to replenishing stock of the book, as well as tracking how many copies are selling everyday. However, I did this the other day, and I was taken aback by a new entry on the computer screen. I clicked, and while I knew full well what it was, I sighed anyway when I saw: Cloud Atlas--Movie Tie In Edition.

Before I continue, I'll gladly admit to owning a good handful of movie tie-in books (for clarification, I mean original works with movie poster covers, NOT novelizations of film screenplays, the last one of which I read when I was around eight years old), but these were purchased on clearance, since most publishers put out staggering numbers of these editions in hopes of capitalizing on the attention a film adaptation will receive. In my case, these MTIs were bought solely for the text and the chance to pick up a noted work for a bargain price. But I've never understood the appeal of picking up a book simply because it has a movie poster on the front of it. Add the fact that the original paperback version of Cloud Atlas, designed by Casey Hampton, is one of the most beautiful jacket designs in contemporary fiction, and it seems to add up to an assumption that a reader wouldn't be able to see a regular book cover and realize that it is the source material for the movie playing down the street. Someone with a more optimistic outlook could point to the possibility that MTIs might lead people, ones who would not otherwise be inclined, to read books after enjoying its film adaptation. There's a pretty complicated battle here, one between design aesthetics and the overlap between two very different mediums. While a film version of a novel needs to in some way pay homage to the original source material, there are other ways to go about this. Perhaps, during the opening credits, a full block of text, five seconds longer than the other credits, with a bold declaration of "BASED ON THE NOVEL BY ____" I have no aversion to a small, tasteful sticker that states "now a major motion picture," provided it can be peeled away easily. While some movie posters are powerful works of art in their own right, placing it on a book cover screams of an uneasy relationship between what started as a written story and is now a vastly different form altogether.

Some examples are insulting. When the MTI of The Hunger Games came out, the list price was about five dollars more than the original paperback version. Five dollars more for a glorified movie poster, for a series that would go on to reap a ridiculous amount of money from box office sales and an embarrassment of merchandising tie-in riches. Years ago, I purchased a clearance MTI of Jose Saramago's Blindness. The film poster (and subsequent book cover) was uninspired, and had two of my favorite actors featured: Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal. I never saw the film adaptation, and while I generally enjoyed Saramago's novel, I found myself subconsciously envisioning Moore and Bernal in their respective roles (even though I never saw the film, I did look up the casting online). In this case, the merge between the film and the book was an unpleasant experience, and it's why I much prefer reading the book before seeing the film. I enjoyed the language and the plotting, but in my head, it managed to be more "cinematic" than "literary." Am I making petty, needling arguments? Perhaps, but I generally limit my strictly opinion-based blog posts, and I'm trying to back these thoughts up with honest assessments. In other MTI examples, there's a question of what exactly the new book version is trying to do, visually:

The MTI of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis is perplexing. I read parts of it years ago, and from what I've read, the film is generally faithful to the source material. And I enjoy the movie poster's design, but I can't help but wonder: Robert Pattinson looks pale, brooding, and isolated, just like Eric, his character (from what I remember of my early readings). But is this too, well, Twilight-esque? I highly doubt that this MTI was done to dupe Twilight fans into reading a novella that dives into post-9/11 and pre-financial crisis America. However, Pattinson is still so tied to his vampire character that any insinuation will call to mind his most famous role instead of hinting to his new territories as an actor. However, in a perverse way, I'd love to see teen Twilight fans read this and attempt to create Cosmopolis fan fiction. But in all seriousness, this MTI manages to create three levels of distraction: by (even unintentionally) evoking Edward Cullen, it detracts from David Cronenberg's film, and by the process of getting to the novel, DeLillo's original novel. I'm delighted that DeLillo's work is being adapted, so I really shouldn't be complaining too much. But my point is that MTIs can do more harm than merely blurring the lines between words and film.

I read Stephen Chbosky's The Perks Of Being a Wallflower a few times as a teenager, and like it did for many others, the novel did an amazing job of speaking to the intangible teen angst I felt at the time (I should do another reading, to see how my reading of it at age 29 differs from my reading at age 19). Much like the Cloud Atlas poster above, this does absolutely nothing to even broadly hint at the novel's content. The actors look vainly detached, but sort of bemused, a far cry from Charlie's (the main character in Wallflower)honest looks at growing up, sex, drugs, and maturity. The poster doesn't detract, but doesn't add anything, either. But this might be the most promising example of the bunch: I can imagine a lot of young adults seeing this film and being drawn to the book (even though the book is a perennial bestseller, I'm assuming that a good number of people will see the film first), and discovering a good narrative and epistolary story line. This film will be released in the next couple of weeks, and if I don't see it, I'll still be curious to read reviews to find out if the critical opinions reflect the book's overall atmosphere. So while I still prefer the cover of the original paperback, I can't criticize an MTI that might lure in younger, potentially reluctant readers. If adults need to be swayed by an MTI, that's sad; if it helps the other demographic read, I'll tip my cap.

I'm closing with an older example, and probably the biggest culprit in movie tie-in editions. I'll start by admitting that I haven't read the book, nor have I seen the film. Years ago, a co-worker of mine enthusiastically recommended Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, and even just by paging through the book, it's one of the most captivating blends of cover art and title. These two elements (words and illustration) combine to be mysterious, dark, darkly funny, and beautiful. No, you should never judge a book by its cover (or, for this matter, its title). But one would be challenged to think of any other immediate examples of the perfect evocations:

And below is the MTI/film poster. Yes, I'm critiquing a film I haven't seen, but despite the inclusion of Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano, two fine actors, the poster (and movie tie-in book) is an utter mess. It's trying to be "artsy" and "edgy," with the bright glare and faint outlines of the two characters. Of course, the book's title could never be marketed, but slapping the film title (what is less imaginative than Being Flynn) onto a cover that's the exact opposite in aesthetics? It's an insult to Flynn, plain and simple. Perhaps he liked the changes. If so, nobody should fault him, since the book itself was so highly received and is still well regarded today. But to go from the beauty above to the blandness below is staggering. And despite the lackluster title, the original title is clearly printed below ("Originally published as Another Bullshit Night In Suck City"), therefore doing away with the original intention of not offending anyone who would take offense to the word "bullshit." In this case, the book and the film need a vast separation. The movie tie-in doesn't have the true heart or edginess of the original.

And really, this is where "bullshit" is needed in big, bold letters. I'm not trying to be petty--visual design is not my field, so I'm trying to look at it from a literary standpoint. But to fall back on an argument that I tend to avoid, I know what speaks to me from a visual standpoint. The movie tie-in edition will not stop, and I know I should come to accept it, to cling to my original hardcovers and paperbacks, and hope that the words inside of a book become more important to someone than what's on the front.

However: if I discover a movie tie-in for The Great Gatsby this December, there will be some strongly worded letters and e-mails.


Katherine said...

You have hit the nail on the head, my friend.
I fear the potential "Great Gatsby" mti. And the one for "Les Miserables". And the one for "Anna Karenina" (NOOOOOOO! ONE OF THE GREATES HEROINES IN RUSSIAN LIT SHOULD NOT BE PLAYED BY A BROOM WITH A FACE!)
In fact, I can only think of one mti that's come out in the last year that I have sort of liked: The "Life of Pi" mti. And that's more because I did not like the original cover very much at all.
Great post!

James Yates said...

Thank you, Katherine!

I have to Google the "Anna Karenina" movie poster. And please, sometime in my lifetime I want to read a novel called "A Broom With a Face" by Katherine van der Vliet.


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