Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Milton looking for his portrait in a spoon?

I'm not sure how I feel about the news that Sam Mendes is at work on a film version of my very favorite novel, George Eliot's Middlemarch.

I have a lot of respect for Sam Mendes, so I expect he'll do a decent job. And he has exclusive access to Kate Winslet, who might just be the perfect Dorothea. But the best possible movie adaptation would still be a poor substitute for rereading the book, in my opinion. I feel that way about books-turned-movies in general, and I'm always surprised that others don't. I loved The Lord of the Rings on the page, but I fell asleep watching the first movie. Which is about what I expected, because the fact that it was a book was a huge part of why I liked it in the first place. Peter Jackson's realization of Middle Earth, spectacular as it might be, could never be as exciting as the one I built in my head as I read Tolkien's words. I have the same basic reaction to the idea of George Eliot on the big screen, albeit for slightly different reasons. Eliot's greatness lies in large part in her keenly observed psychological portraits. I wouldn't expect to see that reproduced on the screen, but watching the denizens of Middlemarch go about their business without the emotional insight backing it all up seems like a pointless exercise to me.

I suppose it's possible that the movie will turn out to be a creative complement to the novel, instead of a lackluster replacement. I can think of one occasion where that was the case: Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie Lolita is very nearly as fascinating as Nabokov's book. It somehow captures the spirit of the novel even when tweaking the particulars -- and maybe because Kubrick and screenwriter Nabokov knew when to depart from the page -- so it succeeds as a stand-alone work and as a companion to the book. I have a hard time imagining so felicitous an outcome here -- after all, Eliot is not available to draft the screenplay -- but one never knows, do one? Especially if Kate Winslet gets the part. And anything that inspires people to pick up the original is probably a good thing. I kind of want to read it again right now.

No comments: