February 2004

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

The Second Book-to-Film Experiment

New School Miramax: The 2nd Book-to-Film Experiment Results By Liz Miller

This year, I woke up at 5:30 AM to watch the Oscar nominations announced live, bleary-eyed and still a little unconscious. So when Cold Mountain didn't get the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination I'd been dreading, I was happy and dazed. When it was snubbed for Best Picture, it seemed an all-too-happy dream.

Thanks, Oscar. I love it when dreams come true.

Cold Mountain turned out to be a great choice for the Second Book-to-Film Experiment, in part because people were actually interested in seeing the movie and then reading the book. (Not so much for Mr. Grisham.) But also, the responses proved to be pretty enlightening.

Each respondent was asked to rate the book and movie on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the highest. As you can see from the above cheesy Excel graphs, with two exceptions in each group, both the Book-to-Movie and Movie-to-Book groups rated the movie lower than the book. What's interesting about that, I find, is that generally people respond more highly to the incarnation of a story experienced first. And yet not only did most of the Movie-to-Book group enjoy the book more than the movie, but their average ranking for the movie was 5.8, as opposed to the Book-to-Movie's average movie ranking of 6.5.

Meaning, in short, that once they'd seen the story done badly, reading a less-bad version was all the more refreshing. And I should know, because I was one of them.

Cold Mountain isn't a bad movie. It's well-made, well-produced and like many of the respondents, I was all too grateful for Renee Zellweger's wacky comic relief. (I'll admit it -- I'm a big fan of Empire Records alumni.) It's just not great -- it's an Orange Julius sort of flick, where the taste of preservatives lingers long after the sweet orange flavor fades away.

I guess the main problem is that I remember when Miramax made morally ambiguous movies about serial killers and released foreign films with all the sexy bits left in. When their distribution wasn't necessarily about winning Oscars, but challenging the mainstream with independent voices. Remember that? Wasn't that awesome?

What this movie really needed was the touch of old-school Miramax, not this new vanilla brand they're peddling. The character of Inman was ill-cast as the movie's hero, and the book's depiction of him as a deserter was much more interesting. Watching Jude Law the hero die a hero's death had no poignancy, no point really. The book at least made things a little less simple, a little more ambiguous. Was he a hero? Anthony Minghella certainly thought so, and leaves no room for argument. Me, I like arguing.

One thing everyone noticed was the increase in violence towards women. Ruby is shot, Sarah is nearly raped, Ada's virtue is threatened by a Very Ugly Man, and Sally's reward for increased screen time is to have her thumbs brutally smashed while watching her family massacred. Do we need to be convinced that times were dangerous during the Civil War? They seemed pretty bad in the book -- without beating on the wimmenfolk.

In my theater, people were cheering and crying, and I was sitting there, cold-hearted and sick to death of tragic love stories. Because the tragic love story seems to undermine everything interesting about romantic drama -- where relationships are put to the test by intense circumstances, not cut short by stray bullets or sinking ships. The only tragic love story I've ever liked was The Terminator, because I almost bought that "in one day, we loved each other a lifetime." Cold Mountain the movie, in contrast, seemed to be more about movie stars fucking than the real heart of the book, which was about human exhaustion, a dying soul returning home. I didn't much like the ending in the book (the epilogue, identical to the movie's, still strikes me as ridiculous), but at least there Frazier gave it some semblance of meaning, made Inman's return to Cold Mountain more than just a one-way ticket to Nicole Kidman's vagina. Because in the end, Nicole Kidman's vagina just can't hold my interest.

But that's just what I thought. There were eighteen people helping out with this project, and this is only some of the genius that spilled forth from them:

Yedida (BtM), on reading the book first:
It destroyed the movie for me, in the sense that I could enjoy it in relation to the book, but couldn't appreciate it for its own merits. Maybe Minghella's Teague is actually a great, true, human character -- I can't know, because I was already committed to Frazier's characterizations and use of his characters before I saw the movie.

Rachel Mindel (MtB) on what she would have done differently:
I would have made the movie more dirty and less dramatic, played down the bloody stuff... and highlighted what seems to me the true theme of the book —- the human will to live, tested and proved resplendent (this would obviously require some violent moments -— just not so obviously used to create suspense). Also, I’d have smeared some chicken poo on an unmade-up Kidman face (Are Anne Beatty and Meryl Streep the only beautiful actresses courageous enough to go bare-face?)

Nicole Fitzhugh (BtM) on what she missed from the book:
The mountain; the sense that place, that home, that the land, became the method through which the three characters became engaged in life, in living.

Wisco (MtB):
My boyfriend pointed out one problem with both the book and movie: Ada, Inman, and Ruby are all perfect people, never doing anything wrong. Meanwhile, all around them is a highly flawed world of evil -- people causing harm to others, often because of overwhelmingly bad situations. It would have been more dramatically satisfying if the main characters had been a little less sterling -- or at least if they had been shown struggling with their moral code. I mean, Ada doesn't even ever read anything that isn't Grade-A prime Literature!

Rajivi (BtM) on changes between the book and the movie:
Strangely, even though the film gave Ruby’s character much less backstory than in the book, somehow she seemed much more fleshed-out in the movie, and I’m crediting that to Renee Zellweger’s performance. I preferred listening to the music Ruby’s father and Pangle played to reading about it. And Jude Law is very beautiful.

George (BtM) on the movie as a whole:
Minghella pushes a lot of Oscar-voter buttons: stars who look like stars (most people in the movie need a bath, Kidman looks like she just stepped out of the makeup trailer), a panoramic battle scene, a lot of English actors (to add the patina of class), an oblique sex scene (including a Kidman nipple, in danger of overexposure this season), Renée Zellweger doing the loveably crusty Walter Brennan role, and lots of lush photography.

Kerry Rush (MtB), on the experience of seeing the movie first:
I think since I saw the movie first I was able to enjoy each for what it was. I didn't have to constantly connect the two, which is often the case when you read a book first. You generally go into a movie based off a book and expect to see exactly what you imagined.  However, seeing the movie first prevented me from having to make that constant connection.

And on that note, my sincere thanks to Yedida, Gena Anderson, Pamela Mann, Beth Armitage, Nicole Fitzhugh, Rajivi, Brianna Brash-Nyberg, Jennifer Gigantino, George, Julie Saxton, Rachel Mindell, Katherine Harris, Wisco, Kerry Rush, Chad Cunningham, Christina Holdvogt and Alice Morgan. Their input made this experiment a real success.

Will it be back? This is a question for the future. Another Oscar season starts in a mere eight months, after all, undoubtedly bloated with adaptations vying for Oscar gold. (Four out of five Best Picture nominees this year are adaptations, after all.) Or we could travel into films past, explore the myriad of DVDs currently available.

Hey -- I could make everyone watch Bonfire of the Vanities.

I'm a sadist like that.