As those of you who are hardcore cineastes probably
know, "High and Low," the headline for this inaugural
Freeze Frame, is also the title of a film by the legendary Japanese
filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa, of course, is best known to
American audiences for his brilliant Samurai films, based on Japanese
legends, and for two masterful reworkings of Shakespearean
plays: "Throne of Blood," which was based on "Macbeth";
and "Ran, " which was based on "King Lear."
But for "High and Low, " he drew on a more contemporary
source: Ed McBain’s suspense novel "The King’s Ransom."
The result was one of his best (if lesser known) films, a gritty
thriller that made up in immediacy what it lacked in grandeur.
The point being, any source material is fair game for
a true artist. After all, Shakespeare himself consistently drew
on both historical and contemporary works to fashion many of his
greatest plays. And who today remembers Arthur
Brooke’s long narrative poem "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus
and Juliet," which predated the Bard’s "Romeo and Juliet"
by a scant 35 years; or Giraldi Cinthio’s "Tale of the Moor,"
which was the basis for "Othello"? Shakespeare transformed
these works through his dramatic and poetic genius, and in the same
way our best filmmakers have worked to transform their source material
through the unique magic of cinema.
Three recent adaptations that show the benefits and
pitfalls of translating other art forms into movies are "The
Fugitive," directed by Andy Davis, which is based on the
television show that was a cult favorite in the ’60s; Martin Seorsese’s
"The Age of Innocence," based on Edith Wharton’s
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; and Robert Altman’s "Short
Cuts," which is loosely drawn from the short stories of
To begin with, "The Fugitive" was one
of the summer’s biggest hits, and, at least on a surface level,
it’s easy to see why. The film is a nonstop action fest that borrows
at least as much from Hitchcock’s "North By Northwest"
as from the TV show that inspired it, and it gets added depth from
the utterly convincing performances of Harrison Ford (as the title
character, Dr. Richard Kimble) and Tommy Lee Jones. On the other
hand, Davis’ direction is merely competent, many scenes strain credulity
(particularly Dr. Kimble’s plunge from the top of an enormous dam),
the real villain is obvious a mile away, and the conspiracy that
Kimble is framed for isn’t very clearly thought out. But given the
breakneck pace of the film, few people bothered to worry about such
details. Most important to the success of "The Fugitive,"
though, is its terrific marketing campaign, which started about
thirty years ago with the TV show on which it was based
The trend of plumbing TV for movie fodder is one that
has troubled critics, and for good reason. When filmmakers adapt
a literary work, more often than not they’re trying to bring that
work to a new, larger audience. But when they adapt TV, they’re
just trying to maintain an audience. Aesthetic surprises and originality
aren’t welcome; as with sequels, audiences want more of what they’ve
already gotten, but on a bigger scale. If the medium is the message,
then the message is mixed: according to common wisdom, the audience
wants TV-style familiarity and movie-sized special effects, which
is a sure recipe for mediocrity.
No one has ever-accused Martin Scorsese of going for
mediocrity. (With his penchant for guilt-obsessed characters, he
could have made a great version of "The Fugitive.") At
this point in his career, he is the closest thing we have to cinematic
royalty, especially given Woody Allen’s much-publicized downfall.
"Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and
"GoodFellas," to name just a few, are certainly
among the best films of the last two decades, gritty urban dramas
that tell us more than we want to know about the decay of contemporary
society and do so with an unsurpassed technical virtuosity. But
while "The Age of Innocence" matches those earlier films
in technique, it can’t approach them for emotional resonance. Looking
at Edith Wharton’s New York (the New York of the 1870s) rather than
his own, Scorsese seems utterly lost, a fact that all his dizzying
crane shots and exquisite closeups of gourmet food can’t hide. While
he was able to take us inside the heads of Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta
and the gangsters of GoodFellas, he seems perplexed by Wharton’s
proper socialites, and in the end even actors as talented Daniel
Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder can’t compensate for
the hollowness of Scorsese’s conception.
Given the relative merits of these two films, the accomplishment
of Altman’s Short Cuts seems all the more remarkable. First
of all, the Carver stories on which Short Cuts is based do
not readily lend themselves to cinematic adaptation. Unlike Wharton,
Carver was less a storyteller than a writer, and his work was never
particularly plotoriented. Yet Altman has found a way to play the
stories off of one another, to weave them together into a unique
tapestry. The world he gives us is his world as much as it is a
reflection of Carver’s. He hasn’t sought to recreate the experience
of his source material, as, for example, the recent adaptation of The Joy Luck Club did. Nor has he tried to redefine his source
material, as Scorsese has with The Age of Innocence. And
he certainly hasn’t sought to spectacularize his source material,
as the makers of The Fugitive did. As Carver’s
widow Tess Gallagher has said, he has improvised from Carver’s stories
the way a jazz musician improvises from a simple melody, creating
a new and original work of art.
That, more or less, is the same thing Kurosawa has done,
whether working from Shakespeare or from Ed McBain. And, in the
end, it’s the greatest accomplishment a filmmaker/ adapter can hope
to make. As filmmakers search high and low for their next projects,
they should, first and foremost, look for an experience that they
can reimagine, rather than one they can merely translate. MM