Adaptation Paper: Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox


  1. Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 1970

    Written early in Dahl’s “second career” as a writer of children’s literature, Fantastic Mr. Fox is generally considered one of his more minor works compared to well-known tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. Writing in “Children’s Literature Association Quarterly,” Adrienne Kertzer says “scholarly attention has tended to concentrate upon other Dahl works, possibly because they are regarded as more subversive and/or controversial.”

    It’s true that on the surface there seems to be little that is subversive or controversial in this slender volume – approximately 80 pages of text and full of Quentin Blake’s sprawling illustrations. The story introduces Mr. Fox and his wife Mrs. Fox, who have four Small Foxes who, while charmingly capitalized, are never named. The Fox family are at least assigned titles; other animal characters are given no such honor (Badger, Rabbit, Mole). Mr. Fox goes about his fox business, which is presented matter-of-factly: “Every evening as soon as it got dark, Mr. Fox would say to Mrs. Fox, ‘Well my darling, what shall it be this time? A plump chicken from Boggis? A duck or a goose from Bunce? Or a nice turkey from Bean?’ And when Mrs. Fox had told him what she wanted, Mr. Fox would creep down into the valley in the darkness of the night and help himself.” Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are also not afforded the honor of titles; they are the mean and nasty farmers who are the villains of the tale and considered “horrible crooks” by the local children. As Mr. Fox goes about his stated business, it of course alarms and upsets the farmers, who take up a single-minded mission: to destroy Mr. Fox at all costs. Mr. Fox, despite starting the trouble to begin with, winds up saving the day and being declared “fantastic!” repeatedly by Mrs. Fox – and the other local animals agree, as they celebrate the emptying of the greedy farmers’ stores while the farmers themselves were too bent on vengeance to notice.

    Regardless of the fact it was not the same level of commercial success as other of Dahl’s works from around the same time, Fantastic Mr. Fox is still well-known and quite well loved by many. It is never given a distinct geographic setting but there is a pervasive and understated English-ness to the whole thing, from the somewhat fussy formal dress of the Fox family to the oh-so-British determined-ness of the farmers (quite to their own detriment; the book ends on them sitting, perpetually, outside the Fox family hole while all the animals feast on their stolen stores). The cunning animals outwit the mean farmers at every turn, and the fable comes out in a way pleasing to children and adults as well.

  2. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009

    One of the many people loving Dahl’s book was, by all accounts including his own, Wes Anderson. Born a year before it was published, Anderson has fond memories of the book. In his extensive “New Yorker” piece on Anderson, Richard Brody writes “Roald Dahl’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is the first book that Anderson remembers owning. (Owen Wilson told me that he was still talking about Dahl in college.)” And years after college, Anderson chose to make Fantastic Mr. Fox the first novel he adapted for film (he wrote or co-wrote all his prior movies himself).

    No matter how much Wes Anderson may love Dahl’s original work, there was no question it would need to be expanded to be made into a feature film. Kertzer discusses “the text’s literal expansion in that Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s script treats Dahl’s short story as the middle chapter of a three-chapter plot.” Brody expands on this observation, “[t]hey amplified the characters’ relationships, as well as their conflicts, invented new characters, and gave names, identities, and backstories to the characters who, in the book, are merely sketched in action. The result is not just a longer narrative but also an expanded emotional spectrum.”

    Expanded story and emotional spectrum are joined by the painstaking artistry of stop-motion animation. Anderson has gained a reputation over the years as a somewhat painstaking director himself, and a number of commenters expressed no surprise whatsoever that he chose stop-motion technique for his first animated work. Writing in “New Review of Film and Television Studies,” Tom Dorey observes “One of the most prominent American filmmakers of his generation, Anderson’s films show an increasingly tight control over the cinematic worlds he creates for his characters to populate and over the characters themselves; in this regard, his auteur signature becomes increasingly more visible from film to film.”

    The expressive, solid reality of the puppets used in stop-motion animation brought delightful personification to the expanded cast of Anderson’s film. The Fox family is altered slightly, Mr. and Mrs. Fox have only one child, a son who is actually given a name (Ash), and they play host to their visiting nephew Kristofferson while his father recovers from double pneumonia. Badger is now Mr. Fox’s lawyer, advising him on the real-estate market, and Mr. Fox has a new best friend, Kylie, a simple and sweet-minded opossum who joins Mr. Fox on his raiding adventures despite not always understanding what he’s getting into (“Before we go any farther, from now on can you give me some kind of signal once in a while just so that I know any of this is getting through to you?”). There is a fun diversion and plot-point regarding Mr. Fox’s athletic prowess at a fictional game called “whack-bat” (explained by Owen Wilson as Coach Skip in a hilarious scene), and perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Fox is greatly expanded as a character and personality (she is also given a name – Felicity, a tribute to Dahl’s second wife).

    While the basic plot does not change – clever animals outwit nasty farmers – the added personalities, complexities, and adventures add up to something quite a bit more than Dahl set out in his slender volume. No longer just about the greed of mean farmers, family relationships come to the forefront and can even be said to overshadow the threats posed by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. If the movie arguably changes the focus of the book, what does that say about the success of the adaptation?

  3. The Adaptation

    Wes Anderson has been linked with a “New Sincerity” movement in film-making, characterized by filmmakers creating worlds and characters that they sincerely wish well for – as opposed to ironic detachment, cynically placing characters in a situation and feeling “above” them. Dorey writes, “What better confirmation of his continued cinematic manifestations of sincerity than revisiting a favoured childhood text with a nostalgic, handmade form of movie-making that has been long eclipsed by other forms of animation, obviously distinct from the hyperrealistic computer-generated images of the Pixar and DreamWorks animation studios that dominate the contemporary box office?”

    There is no doubt Anderson’s love for Dahl’s work is front and center in his film. The opening shot is entirely silent, and displays text from the book (“Boggis and Bunce and Bean / One fat / One short / One lean” etc.) before the soundtrack begins and the shot changes to an animated hand holding …a library copy of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. The colors chosen for the shots echo the colors of the book and the colors remain a vivid reminder of the beloved basis for the film throughout.

    Kertzer’s essay, however, argues that Anderson “protests too much” – that he makes almost too strong an argument for fidelity to Dahl’s work when in fact he works some changes on the original that are fairly profound. Presenting her own research that there is often a “ferocious” response when it comes to children’s literature particularly when it comes to the fidelity of literary adaptations, she makes an interesting observation about her own response to Anderson’s film: “Not only has the film prompted my return to Dahl, including books that I had never read simply because Anderson’s affection for Dahl’s fiction and his decade-long determination to make the film made me wonder what I had been missing, but it has also driven me from an initial indifference to whether the film is faithful to Dahl to a curiosity about the obsession with fidelity operative within both the discourse of the film and its subsequent marketing.”

    There are an elaborate series of marketing videos available on YouTube (search for “fantastic mr fox behind the scenes” or see also link below) that were released prior to the release of the film to pique audience interest. In the very first video we learn that Wes Anderson actually had video taken of himself performing nearly every action that Mr. Fox makes in the film, to show the animators the precise motions – even facial expressions – he had in mind. There is also brief footage of George Clooney being filmed doing this. Considering the time and attention this must have taken, again, it is impossible to argue against Anderson’s devotion to the material.

    By the very act of choosing to take a book so well-loved by him and changing it so profoundly – where in Dahl’s original is there room for Mrs. Fox to say “I love you too, but I never should have married you”? – Anderson had to be conscious that his own artistic creation would then have the potential to change others’ perceptions of Dahl’s work. By adding so much to the original, there were always going to be people who had never read the Dahl book who went to it and said, “This? This is it?” (Full disclosure: I had never read the book before this class, and that reaction was mine.) But as Kertzer notes of herself – the film prompted her to revisit Dahl, even his other works.

    The act of creation is an act of inspiration. Wes Anderson, so inspired by Roald Dahl’s book that he wouldn’t shut up about it to his college roommate, brought out this film when he was forty years old. Although the book is not much more than the small stiff wire model holding up all the delightful clay of Anderson’s creation, it is arguably one of the most successful adaptations we have seen in the course of this class. Every tiny line and detail was created purely out of love of the story and the joy of imagination making it anew. Rather than parroting the creation of another, it opens up a broad response to “adaptation” that encompasses something beyond mere fidelity.


Works Cited

“Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox
Adrienne Kertzer
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
2011 (requires UniversityID login)

“Fantastic Mr. Filmmaker: paratexts and the positioning of Wes Anderson as Roald Dahl’s cinematic heir”
Ted Dorey
New Review of Film and Television Studies

“Songs of Innocence & Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, and the Post-Boomer”
Michael Sicinski
Cinema Scope
No date given; issue CS41

“Wild, Wild Wes”
Richard Brody
The New Yorker
Nov. 2, 2009

Additional material: “Behind the Scenes: Fantastic Mr. Fox”
series of promotional videos
Nov., 2009

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, 2009

photo courtesy
photo courtesy
  1. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was published in 1986-1987 as twelve monthly comic installments, each one a chapter or “Episode.” Set in an alternate reality “modern day” of the mid-1980s, the themes of this elaborately complex work are primarily humanity’s increasing sense of powerlessness in a changing, threatening world, the relationship humanity has with history, time, memory, and nostalgia, and a powerful twinned sense of fear and wonder at what humanity has wrought.  The innovative graphic novel style incorporates text and drawings and also a comic-within-a-comic story and, at the end of each installment/chapter, excerpts from the memoir of one of the characters and case notes from Rorschach’s psychiatrist. Harping upon the still-prevalent Cold War fears of the time, Watchmen used a complex story medium to address complex, modern fears and concerns.
  2. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is set in alternate-history 1985 as well, and its foremost theme is also fear. However, by placing oil companies up there with nuclear threats, it expresses fears for humanity that are less “of our own devising.” There is still a threat of nuclear destruction – prevalent even in alternate-history 1985 – but there is also a looming threat of environmental destruction as well. The film is concerned with power as well, examining who wields it and who does not, and how it is expressed in physical power. This is an intensely kinetic, loud, violent film, in keeping with director Snyder’s apparent preferred style. The colors are bright and vivid, and the shots are often carefully framed to suggest the comic book origin of the story.
  3. Zack Snyder’s visually pleasing homage to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ deeply original work is clearly reverently done. Pains are taken to preserve many visual details and character details from the graphic novel, though of course some things must be cut for length. There are plot changes which strike at the heart of longtime fans (full disclosure: I am one, having first read Watchmen in 1988 when it was published in its compendium form), perhaps foremost the ending. The tonal change is probably unavoidable, as the palpable sense of fear for humanity in 1986 was simply not the same as it was in 2009. Due to its violent nature, cataclysmic ending, and New York City setting, its meaning is inevitably given new shades in a post-9/11 world. The chaotic, frenetic style of the action sequences, shot in a high-contrast vivid “comic” color palette, also result in tonal changes from the original work. While clearly made with deep respect, the adaptation gets sloppy in a way that the precisely ordered panel work of the original would never suggest.
  4. “Watch: Patton Oswalt & Patrick Wilson Talk Zack Snyder’s ‘Slavish’ Adaptation of ‘Watchmen'”, Jan. 14, 2015
    Noted geek raconteur Patton Oswalt discusses Watchmen with Patrick Wilson in response to an audience question at a public event.

    “Zack Snyder made Watchmen ‘to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world'”, Mar. 3, 2014
    Some newer sources are popping up on the movie adaptation because of some (possibly unwise?) words uttered about the storied history of the Watchmen project in an interview with Snyder.

    “From Frank Miller to Zack Snyder, and Return: Contemporary Superhero Comics and Post-classical Hollywood”, Aug. 2013
    Academic paper on narrative structure in comic book movies, addressing both superhero movies and non-superhero movies. Makes the valid and interesting point that Watchmen is not truly a superhero comic structure, in that it is more about the shortcomings of the heroes themselves than any particular outside villain.

    “Watchmen’s long journey from page to screen”, Apr. 22, 2014
    A history of the arduous process of getting Watchmen turned into a movie, and why it took 23 years.

  5. By virtue of the fact that the film was made in the 21st century but retained the original alternate-history-1980s setting, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has a changed relationship with human perceptions of history and nostalgia that are notes of importance in the Moore/Gibbons original. In the very opening scene of the film, the death of The Comedian, we do get a brief glimpse of what could have been – on the television that Edward Blake is watching when his door is smashed in, Nat King Cole can be heard singing “Unforgettable” as part of a TV ad for “Nostalgia” perfume, which is produced and marketed by Veidt Enterprises. In the book, there are constant cues dropped about reverence for the past..until the ending, when Veidt begins to change worldwide marketing (Veidt Enterprises is a very large concern) to reflect a forward-looking attitude. Moore and Gibbons’ work was produced in the same time frame that it conveys, alternate history or no. Snyder’s work exists quite emphatically in a post-9/11 world, as most notably illustrated during The Comedian’s funeral scene, where the fog-enshrouded Twin Towers hover over everything like the ghosts they now are. That is how they will be perceived by nearly every audience member, especially at the time of the film’s release in 2009. This conscious decision by Snyder grounds the film very firmly in a 21st century mindframe, which has repercussions on the characters and their ideas about time and history (and, yes, nostalgia) that simply do not get updated. Snyder’s nearly slavish devotion to the look of the original work seems to mean that some ideological alignment is lost in the translation.

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009

photo credit from someone's Pinterest page!
photo credit from someone’s Pinterest page!
  1. Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is a biting children’s fable about noble animal life and evil human farmers. With Dahl’s characteristic themes of mean adults being outwitted, outshone, or out-interesting-ed by younger, smaller creatures (often children; this time, foxes!), the story is loads of fun while also showcasing a sweet family tale with Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their four Small Foxes. “Outwitting” is probably the most important part of the above list, as Mr. Fox thinks of helpful solutions for the problem of the mean farmers waiting to shoot him – and his whole family helps to execute them. This short work showcases Dahl’s concise, colorful style.
  2. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox opens the door wider, so that all manner of small animals may outwit and outshine the mean farmers. The themes also become more broad and encompass a world of different things…and differences. Foxes and beavers and opossums and weasels and other small mammals celebrate their differences, and their various strengths. The theme of family is expanded upon as well, as the Fox family is given their own names and personalities – Mrs. Fox is Felicity, an accomplished landscape painter, and their son (only one!) is Ash, a boy who dreams big but never seems to be quite what his father might expect him to be. They are joined by their cousin Kristofferson, who is a gifted athlete and all-around centered young kit. Anderson’s film is done with rich, textured stop-motion animation (accomplished by painstakingly moving actual puppets and re-shooting them for each frame of action) in a warm palette of greens, browns, and golds that lends a sense of physical texture and reality to this world of talking (often hilarious) animals.
  3. If ever a movie was an excellent argument for a successful adaptation to be most true to the spirit, not the letter, of the original work, Fantastic Mr. Fox may well be that movie. The original work is a slender book, not a full novel-length work as some of Roald Dahl’s other popular stories (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda) are. It is essentially a brief fable, on the folly of the farmers and the cleverness of the animals. There are also larger themes hinted at, chiefly the destruction of the animals’ woodland home by the heavy machinery of the farmers. In Anderson’s hands, however – and the hands of the many animators and photographers who brought the tale to life – Mr. Fox and his friends and family grow larger and more memorable. By adding characters and changing a few family dynamics, Anderson adds some of his own touches – many of his movies feature strange, strained family relationships, so the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash fits right in. The larger scope of the film is inviting to broad audiences, of adults and children alike, and is very much updated to appeal to 21st-century kids (and adults) in the same way that Dahl’s original work appealed to mid-20th-century kids (and adults). A more literal adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox would most easily be accomplished with a brief half-hour of traditional drawn animation…and would not contain at all the same vibrancy and spirit that Anderson puts in his creation, full of the fun and winks to the audience that Dahl’s original is.
  4. “Fantastic Mr. Fox: This Roald Dahl Adaptation Gets It Somewhat Right”, Mar. 18, 2010
    As its title suggests, this article is not the most ringing endorsement of the film, but it takes an approach I found in several sources: contrasting this film’s success with that of the Spike Jonze adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, also made in 2009. This piece, like many, land firmly on the side of FMF being the stronger work.

    “The character of Fantastic Mr. Fox in Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is uncomfortably aware of the weirdness of his own anthropomorphic self”, Sept. 2014
    This Reddit thread didn’t really take off, which is a shame because it could have been an interesting discussion, but it’s fascinating to see the way fans take to the internet to discuss these ideas across so many varying platforms.

    “Museum of the Moving Image: Great Adaptations”, May 2011
    This is the flyer for a film series advertised by and shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, where FMF was one of the featured films.

    “Songs of Innocence and Experience: Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson and the Post-Boomer”, from issue 41, no date given
    This in-depth analysis from Cinema Scope again contrasts Jonze and Anderson, specifically by focusing on their 2009 adaptations of beloved children’s literature, Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, respectively. The conclusion here is also that FMF is the superior film, but the argument is made (and well-supported) that WtWTA is the more radical of the two films.

  5. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson demonstrates a level of artistic freedom that is in direct contrast with what we saw in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. By taking the original text and adding so much to it, including his own thematic quirks and traits (and those of his co-writer, Noah Baumbach), Anderson makes his film almost in defiance of those who would decry the differences between his work and the beloved book of their childhood. This is no criticism of the Potter film, which was made in a very different manner for quite different reasons, but it allows for pleasing reflection of the real sense of discovery inherent in film adaptations. “Why do this?” is a question every writer and/or director who proposes a literary adaptation must answer. Is it to pay homage to a book? To give a new view of a known reality? To open up a story to a broader audience who might not otherwise be exposed to it? Anderson’s answer to that question lives inside this adaptation itself. Anderson is known as an auteur and has won many awards for his original screenplays. Fantastic Mr. Fox is the first film that he ever directed from someone else’s story, and he has stated that the book was tremendously important to him when he was young. Anderson’s adaptation, by its expansiveness and the personalization within it, demonstrates the way this director holds up adaptation as a way to add to the world of a beloved story and to share it with a broader audience.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

photo courtesy
photo courtesy
  1. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third of seven novels about Potter, the young wizard who is raised not knowing his magical background until he is ten years old, when he is summoned to Hogwarts School to learn with other witches and wizards. The overall themes are coming-of-age, the importance of friends and chosen family, and the triumph of good over evil. In the third book of the series, Harry is turning thirteen at the start, and the tone of the series begins to change over from “children’s adventure” to take up some of the more serious themes of betrayal and trust and how they begin to outline the story of Harry’s parents’ “chosen family” and their untimely death. The biggest narrative action in PoA is a reveal of the way Harry’s parents were killed when he was just an infant, and the human actors who brought about that betrayal. Voldemort, the villain of the series, does indeed kill Harry’s parents, but in this book it is revealed that he did not act without human assistance, the ultimate betrayal within any family, chosen or blood. While there are still lively and comedic interludes about Harry and his friends (his own chosen family – he truly has no other kind) growing up and going to school, this third novel in the series starts showing some of the true threat facing Harry and the wizarding world.
  2. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showcases a number of challenges to the director over and above portraying the growing sense of real foreboding in the universe of this film series. The director must work with a large number of actors chosen by another director, he must film on sets built for another director, he must work with some pre-existing (and already-well-beloved) musical cues, and perhaps most dauntingly he must take over the reins of the hugely lucrative film series based on the most successful book series of all time and deliver a film that changes the entire tone of the series. Cuarón takes on these challenges with aplomb, taking the familiar sets of Hogwarts (and other locales such as the Leaky Cauldron and the Dursleys’ home) and infusing them with a new level of menace. The menace in the third film is human, unique to that point in the Potter film series. It appears to be housed within Sirius Black, but when he is shown to be not only misunderstood for his role in the murder of the Potters but also in  his role in their – and Harry’s – lives, it plays up the theme of the harm of betrayal. Cuarón’s lighting and colors are more muted than in both earlier films (each directed by Chris Columbus), which underscore the menace of the dark prison guard Dementors and give a gravity to the increasingly real-feeling dangers faced by Harry. Harry must face them with his friends, his own chosen family, and by building on those established relationships Cuarón begins to set up the striking parallels between Harry and his own parents that will continue throughout the series.
  3. Cuarón’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban faced some truly outsized expectations, and met them all with aplomb and usually with sure-handed success. Working within a highly unique situation, the director needed to frame the next chapter in a hugely popular work of fiction…before the ending of that fiction was written. While it is true that in movie three he could not reasonably be expected to carry any responsibility for movie seven (or eight…), he did need to work under extreme scrutiny from a fanbase versed front-to-back in Harry Potter minutiae. As the books got longer (PoA was longer than either of the first two books in the series), the time constraint of a film became a greater challenge. Fans wanted to see every favorite detail on screen, but Cuarón needed to make a film that advanced the plot and upheld the spirit of the work without taking four or more hours to do so. He also had to add in the first truly human peril, betrayal, anger, and mistrust in the series – the themes were growing up along with the main characters. With his darkened palette, maturing young actors, and new tones worked into John Williams’ beautiful score, the director managed to walk a very fine line indeed.
  4. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (film)”, no date on page
    The Harry Potter wikia site is one of many obsessively detailed fan sites that is dedicated to all things Potter. This entry includes a helpful, highly detailed list of differences between the book and the film.

    “The Five Worst Book-to-Film Adaptations”, Feb. 16, 2013
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the top of this list, though the author concedes that he loves the movie as “a stand-alone film” and his most vehement quibble seems to be with the appearance of the werewolf…

    Search history for “prisoner of azkaban movie” at The Leaky Cauldron, various dates
    To showcase further overwhelmingly robust curated fansites, The Leaky Cauldron is where Robyn Joffe’s essay (already included as part of our class readings) also appears…along with hundreds of other articles about the movie.

    Video Game: Harry Potter, various dates
    Part of consideration on this adaptation (the whole series of adaptations) from the start was the way the franchise would play out in other media. The video game industry is hugely profitable, moreso than Hollywood in recent years, and this tertiary level of adaptation of Rowling’s works would have been involved in the earliest talks on the movie, at least in boardrooms. This in-depth clearinghouse of information covers the video game versions of each Potter film.

    “Grade 4 Class Adapts ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ Into Their Own Movie!”, Jun. 25, 2015
    A very recent item from MuggleNet, which claims it is “The #1 Harry Potter site.” It has a long history, like The Leaky Cauldron, as a home for Harry Potter fans. This tale of a classroom of kids in Calgary, Alberta who chose to make a movie instead of doing a regular book report goes to show the enduring visual nature of these books and the long shadows cast by their “original” movie versions as well!

    “CFP: Harry Potter on the Page and on the Screen: Adaptation/Reception/Transformation”, Jul. 13, 2014
    This call for papers (deadline long past, alas) shows one of many online forums for scholarship based on “fandom” activities – around Harry Potter and many other “fandom” worlds.

    (Point of interest: the course abstract for this course as it was presented in Summer 2014 is on page 4 of a Google search for “prisoner of azkaban adaptation”)

  5. One of the greatest achievements of J.K. Rowling’s book series became one of the biggest burdens for the film series of Columbus, Cuarón, Newell, and Yates and most of all the screenwriter for seven of the eight films, Steve Kloves – they were not really just adapting books. They were adapting a cultural phenomenon. The first two films did receive some criticism for being almost “too literal” in trying to keep all the details from the books on-screen, and in both the assigned readings and other research on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban there was outcry over even small details that Alfonso Cuarón (and Kloves) left out. The books and film series straddled the turn-of-the-century, and from the release of the first film adaptation in 2001 it was clear that the new century posed whole new challenges for communicating with an audience via film. Since her book series was not complete when the movies began to film, Rowling consulted on each film so as to help preserve the most key plot points. In the face of overwhelming public scrutiny, this guidance must have been invaluable. With the 21st-century problems of discussion boards, leaked scripts and stills winding up online, online invective hurled over every tiny decision, Alfonso Cuarón took a bold leap with the third film – and also bore some of the heaviest burden of scrutiny to that point in the series. The success of the third Harry Potter film – both financially and critically – is in itself a huge testimony to the degree of work that Cuarón faced in this project.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, 2006

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy
  1. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly speaks with dark humor and paranoia about the nature of the society we live in, the nature of the reality we live in, and how unknowable those are. Written in 1977 and set in 1994, Dick’s work describes an American landscape where surveillance is a given, and a huge percentage of the population is addicted to Substance D, a plant-derived drug which has no “casual” users. Seeming to prefigure the “Just Say ‘No’” Reagan years ahead, and to already glimpse their darker side, the characters in A Scanner Darkly move through various “stoner studies” of their own minds as they question their own reality. No character does this more than Bob Arctor, AKA “Officer Fred,” a Möbius strip of a man who is a narc posing as a stoner who is assigned to surveillance duty on himself. As Bob/Fred succumbs more and more to the effects of Substance D, readers must face how little they know of the book’s reality as it is filtered through these altered consciousnesses.
  2. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly uses rotoscoping animation to suffuse the performances of well-known actors with a sense of shifting reality/unreality. It also enhances the hallucinatory nature of some sequences. Linklater’s film also takes a humorous, paranoid look at a highly surveilled society, which takes on a heightened significance in its post-9/11 setting. Rather than tie it to a specific year, Linklater’s film is set “seven years from now,” but it was made in 2006 so any point “seven years later” from a given viewer will be in (at the very least) the 21st century. The animation heightens the sense of the unknown/unknowable both in the “real world” and in that inhabited by Substance D users. The use of technology – such as the “scramble suit” and the hologram-replay machine that is a part of the suite of surveillance cameras – also enhances the audience’s sense that the film’s “real world” is also slightly alien and unknowable.
  3. Linklater’s adaptation of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is highly successful visually and thematically. By showing a vivid, colorful world inside the society of Substance D users, there is a certain indictment of years of a failed “war on drugs” that in fact did result in people being “punished entirely too much for what they did.” Along with the post-9/11 perspective on surveillance culture in America, the themes that Dick addressed in 1977 resound in a whole new way in the 21st century. The visual animated effect of the scramble suit is striking and illuminating. When Bob/Fred can no longer discern himself, he says “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself.” This sense of the unknowable pervades both book and film, and the film translates it well. There is sensible use of voice-over to cue the audience to Bob/Fred’s deteriorating sense of reality. And the long, meandering “stoner conversations” with the residents of Bob’s house provide another sort of thematic narration on their own, as the paranoid ramblings of some residents veer closer to the truth than they might ever suspect.
  4. “Richard Linklater”, Jun. 14, 2006

    The AV Club’s interview with Richard Linklater just before taking A Scanner Darkly to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

    “Looking back at Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly”, Oct. 29, 2014

    A fond and interesting revisiting of the film from late last year, it is interesting to examine the ways in which paranoia and the surveillance culture in U.S. society have only become more and more prevalent.

    “How animation stabilizes A Scanner Darkly’s shifting reality”, Nov. 18, 2014

    This particular article focuses narrowly on the rotoscoping animation technique employed by Linklater and Bob Sabiston and how it enhances the many varied realities of Dick’s story.

    “The Religious Experience of Phillip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17”, no date

    This Philip K. Dick fansite has put up scans of Crumb’s work on this graphic novel “adaptation” of some of Dick’s writings about his religious or mystic visions.

  5. Considering that the title comes from Christian scripture (St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”), there is very little direct reference to theological thought in Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. Linklater worked closely with Dick’s estate to make the film and his adaptation shows a great depth of knowledge of and interest in Dick’s work, so it must be inferred that this decision was made consciously. Obviously in an adaptation some things “must go” – but it does a disservice to the story, ultimately, to leave out these reflections. The story is about the nature of reality and how we perceive it. Linklater chose to play up this examination as reflected in society (drug use, drug treatment, trust and mistrust in a surveillance state), not in personal or theological reflection. It is interesting to examine the one place where he brings in a direct reference to God. At the end, when Donna (…who is Audrey…who we just discovered has been Officer Hank, Fred’s boss, all along…) is speaking to her fellow agent-for-change Mike, they are discussing whether Bob has a chance in hell of finding anything out about New Path while “undercover” (and half-braindead) in their treatment center. Mike says to Audrey, “I believe God’s M.O. is to transmute evil into good and if He’s active here, he’s doing that now. Although our eyes can’t perceive it. The whole process is hidden beneath the surface of our reality. It will only be revealed later.” That is a direct call to the quote referenced by the work’s title, and underlies what may well be Dick’s insight into what he wants his work to accomplish. There is much at work in the world and reality that we cannot perceive, and as Dick came to believe later in his life, all of that is not only from God, but is God. To show characters with three layers of identity discussing things “hidden beneath the surface of our reality” and yet not to have brought in more various theological underpinnings throughout the film may have saved some time, but mostly removed one of the work’s own many important layers.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, 2007

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy
  1. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is an examination of change, a reflection on the unknowable. McCarthy’s sparse style fits the American desert southwest perfectly, and his characters are as dry and terse as sagebrush. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell directly addresses the book’s readership in italicized reflections scattered throughout the work, and from the beginning McCarthy has Bell’s voice speak to his themes. “They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I dont know what them eyes was the windows to and I guess I’d as soon not know.” Bell is speaking of a teenage boy he arrested for the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, a boy that Bell arrested, testified against, and saw die in the gas chamber. The unknowable misdeed there is nothing compared to the killer Anton Chigurh that Bell pursues in No Country for Old Men. Bell is faced with so much he does not, cannot know, with so much change, that he makes a conscious decision to walk away from it all. At the same time Chigurh himself is a walking reflection on the unknowable. He has his own code, his own internal logic behind each person he kills (and he kills a lot of people). There is no “internal” dialogue from Chigurh the way there is from Bell, all McCarthy gives the reader is his actions and his own sparse explanations for same. Chigurh’s actions speak more directly to change, and how little humans can affect it (or so he believes).
  2. Joel and Ethan Coen’s highly acclaimed adaptation of No Country for Old Men is most focused on the middle ground. If Sheriff Bell is observing in Chigurh’s relentless killing spree a change he does not understand; if Chigurh himself acts as an unknowable agent of that change reflecting only his own inner logic; if these observations represent the larger themes at work in the film, why then do the Coens choose to spend the most screen time with Llewelyn Moss, a pinball between the other two characters? The film’s most striking device is its near-silent soundtrack. Without continual music cues in place to elicit specific audience reactions, the audience must take each step in stride with the focal character, which is usually Moss. He bumps up against Sheriff Bell, who is struggling with a shifting reality he can’t understand. Bell is so focused on the alarming, hugely criminal activities of Chigurh that Moss is a mere footnote to him, someone caught up in the larger picture of what is happening in the world. Moss bumps up against Chigurh and without soothing musical cues, it is violent in every aspect of the word. It is bloody and it is noisy and it is relentless. Moss finally breaks, literally, against the immovable wall of Chigurh, and since the Coens choose to kill Moss offscreen, it happens – as so much of the movie does – in silence.
  3. In appearance, tone, and voice, the Coen’s No Country for Old Men is a highly successful adaptation of McCarthy’s novel. Though some “Coen-esque” humorous touches are added (the dog chasing Moss in the creek, for example, or the conversation Chigurh has with the gas station owner whose life is spared by a coin toss), they seem to be in a similar enough vein to McCarthy’s language not to detract from the overall story. In the Coen’s tale, the choice to follow Llewelyn Moss is how the directors and writers choose to show the change that Bell is so concerned with, and also how they choose to show the unknowable as embodied in Chigurh. Bell’s internal narration from the book is changed mostly to conversation in the film (though some voice-over is used), which allows the Coens to inject Bell’s observations on change (and how little he understands it) in a more naturalistic way. It can be argued that greater use of “intrusive” narration would pepper more of Bell’s character throughout the film, something which is done better in the book. Still, it allows the audience to hear Bell’s remarks and observe Moss’s ongoing actions, sometimes simultaneously. Moss interacts with Chigurh as a true unknown. He believes that he can out-think the criminal, perhaps with his hunter’s mind, but to out-think someone you must have an understanding of how they think. Chigurh moves to his own unknowable rhythm, though it is arguably knowable to him. The film’s near-silent soundtrack, as noted above, serves to highlight the two personalities that Moss moves between, though arguably it does a disservice to Bell by spending more time with Chigurh.
  4. No Country for Old Men shooting script,, draft dated Nov. 28, 2005
    It is an invaluable resource that PDF copies of shooting scripts for the Coen brothers’ movies are available online, even if it is dangerous. (Too easy to get sucked into other scripts while you’re there trying to focus on one in particular!)“Best of the Decade #17: No Country for Old Men”, Dec. 10, 2009
    This retrospective article makes an excellent case for the adaptation working so well because the book fits comfortably into known Coen brothers tropes – the strange behavior of criminals, violence, dark humor.

    “No Country for Old Men vs. No Country for Old Men”, Feb. 19, 2015
    Dealing directly with the effectiveness of the adaptation, this article spends some time examining Llewelyn’s time with the young hitchhiker character in the book. The character is cut in the film adaptation, shortened into a woman Llewelyn meets poolside – and then both are found dead, implying the possibility that Llewelyn and the woman were involved in some way. In the book, the relationship with the hitchhiker is not left ambiguous – they do not become sexually involved despite the hitchhiker’s attempts. As I developed a critical observation centering on the avoidance of overly-simplistic morality, I found this particular adaptation choice provided valuable insight.

    “Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats, first published in 1928
    “That is no country for old men.” – first line of Yeats’ poem that is the inspiration for the title, does not actually appear in the novel or the film.

  5. Inside the intensity of the vast silences of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, outside all the philosophical talk from Sheriff Bell and Anton Chigurh, and easily forgotten in the face of looming “big questions” (what change is coming? Will it be well or ill? Can we know? Can we affect it?) is the simple fact that Llewelyn Moss seals his fate by feeling both greed AND guilt. His character exists to give lie to simplistic moral duality. With hunter’s precision, Moss dissects the crime scene he stumbles upon in the desert and interpolates the existence of the last man, finds that man, and takes the money. A “victimless” crime…or it would be, save for the lone man dying in his truck, begging for water. It is that man – and his own decision not to shut the door against the “lobos” he insists don’t exist – that keeps Moss awake at night. The gesture seems absurd, filling a water jug for a man who almost surely died hours before, but Moss does it anyway. His wife awakens when he gets the water and asks what he’s doing. Moss replies, “I’m fixin to do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways.” He knows it’s a fool’s errand to return, but he does. It is this combination of acts – without the act of greed, the act born of guilt would become unnecessary – that dooms Moss. That is what puts him in Chigurh’s path most directly; it is also what puts him in Bell’s. As Bell examines the swath of chaos left in Chigurh’s wake, it reminds him of the worst criminals he’s ever seen and he marvels at the changes that are happening beyond his ken that could spawn such a monster. As Chigurh moves on his self-perceived implacable course (“For things at a common destination there is a common path.”), he acts as an unknowable agent of change who can move only on his fated path (“I have only one way to live. It doesnt allow for special cases.”). But the Coens take the audience primarily on Moss’ journey, and Moss’ journey lives on the horns of two acts: one of greed and one of guilt. Is Moss being punished for his act of greed? Sheriff Bell, the longtime lawman ostensibly on the side of justice, does not see it that way. After discovering Moss’ body he tells Sheriff Roscoe, “ I used to think I could at least some way put things right. I don’t feel that way no more.” Is Moss being punished for his act born of guilt, what should have been an act of mercy? Not in Chigurh’s eyes. Moss simply wound up in Chigurh’s path, and he has “only one way to live.” Moss may exist between two stereotypical symbols of “good and evil” – the sheriff and the killer – but his tale gives lie to a simplistic duality.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor, 2003

  1. Harvey Pekar’s long-ongoing graphic novel series American Splendor concerns itself with what appear to be purely ordinary things. Writing about himself, with different artists providing illustrations, means that the most important common theme across all the works is Harvey Pekar himself. At first it would seem to imply the series is simply about The Everyman, a sort of stand-in for humanity at large. But by “casting” himself and other people in his real life, Pekar does more than that across American Splendor’s long run. He shows that one man is not actually a concept, not “The Everyman,” but in fact is a unique and original and fascinating being. Each of us is the hero of our own story – any of us could star in our own comic and it would not be a repeat of American Splendor. Each of us has many truths to relay, not in grand sweeping statements, but in our “ordinary” day to day reality.
  2. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s innovative film American Splendor takes an approach that stands apart from the typical Hollywood “bio-pic.” They play with “comic” conventions – word/thought bubbles, credits done in comic style, boxed-in shots – in ways that are not entirely new in film, but they pair it with a documentary sensibility that makes it stand out. In perhaps their most illuminating move, they use the real Harvey Pekar to narrate the movie, and feature interview pieces with him along the way, as well as having actor Paul Giamatti play Pekar for the actual story of Pekar’s life. Though really, it’s the story of Pekar’s art Though really, ultimately, those are the same thing. Harvey Pekar is a man whose existence is entirely expressed through – and was dependent upon – his art. Having him available for commentary on his own story, and thus smashing standard narrative conventions, makes for a memorable film about a singular life in art.
  3. Harvey Pekar published American Splendor across thirty years of his life. With so much material to work from, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who wrote and directed; writing credits are also given to Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner) made the wise decision to focus only on a few key representative stories. They worked closely with Pekar and Brabner, realizing that by selecting which stories to put forward they were in control of the “character” of Harvey Pekar as the film audience would perceive him. As Springer Berman says in an interview with Bette Gordon for Bomb Magazine, “Harvey didn’t want to do some idealized version of himself.” Anytime a biography is put to film such decisions must be made, of course, but the inseparability of Pekar from his comic “self” made for a unique wrinkle in this adaptation. By taking a documentary sensibility to their work – interview segments with Pekar, Brabner, and other real people behind the characters, shot very much in a less realistic way than the narrative portions – they were able to capture the unique sense of Pekar and his own self-created world and art. It is not always a pretty picture, but it has a clear sense of Pekar’s own vision of how he wants to be presented.
  4. “The Pekar Project” and associated Twitter feed,, last updated Jul. 12, 2011One of Pekar’s last projects before his passing, “The Pekar Project” was a collaboration (naturally) to produce a weekly webcomic. Pekar tended to avoid the internet and computers in general, but worked with a team of artists to put new work there weekly.

    “Harvey Pekar Dies; Authored ‘American Splendor'”, July 12, 2010

    NPR’s Neda Ulaby filed this report on Pekar’s passing in 2010, mentioning the movie of American Splendor favorably.

    “Harvey Pekar” audio interview with Elvis Mitchell, Jul. 6, 2011 (rebroadcast of 2003 interview)

    Distinguished critic Mitchell speaks with Pekar on his life and work and the movie made of the same.

    “Narrativity, Purpose, and Visible Adaptation in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003)”, 2013

    Matthew Bolton’s critical essay forwards the theory that Springer Berman and Pulcini mitigated the difficulties of adapting work without strong narrative force in large part by making their own work of adaptation appear front and center. “In other words, Berman and Pulcini turn the opposition between cinematic narrative propulsion and Pekar’s open-ended episodes to their aesthetic advantage, using this friction between strong and weak narrativity as an invitation for audiences to consider just what kind of story a life is, anyway.”

  5. Viewed from the perspective of our current culture of social media and self-created news, Harvey Pekar’s world inside American Splendor seems not that unusual, at first blush. However, there is a purposefulness in Pekar’s varying layers of self-portrayal that distinguishes it. In Chris Campion’s interview with Pekar for Sabotage Times the parallel is drawn between Pekar in American Splendor and Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Mere weeks ago on Bloomsday (June 16), social media filled with reflections of Dublin and other cities’ celebrations (#Bloomsday and #Bloomsday2015). However, these social media reflections seem to point out where the difference lies between Bloom and Pekar and the current culture of self-curation: self-consciousness. In Pekar’s 2008 interview with Walrus Comix, he says “Nahh. I don’t think I’ve done anything to be ashamed of. I mean, I’ve got a lot of faults, which I will readily admit, but I’ve never murdered anybody, I’ve never robbed anybody or anything like that. That’s serious shit. But being cheap, I’ll cop to that. OK, I’m cheap, there are worse things. Who doesn’t have faults?” Pekar’s unique self-presentation, as reflected fairly accurately across his own American Splendor books and Stringer Berman and Pulcini’s film of the same name, is less self-conscious and more truly full than most self-curated social media feeds. It is telling that there are no “official” Pekar presences on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram (though there is a hardcore punk band out of Cleveland called “Harvey Pekar”). WIthin the film, there is an added layer of curation of course – Springer Berman and Pulcini are collaborating on a work that is already collaboration, adapting a work that is already a sort of adaptation (Pekar’s words to artists’ renderings). Pekar’s writing renders himself in the truest form he can muster; the public face of Pekar is always seen through the lens of others’ perceptions – illustrators and movie directors alike. In the end, this truly draws American Splendor as not mere social media self-consciousness but as art created from life with purpose.american-splendor-2

Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002

  1. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is a deep look at a fascinating character, John Laroche, and also at Orlean’s own desire to understand where his deep passions come from. She draws parallels to Laroche’s home in Florida, examining her own time spent there on vacations in childhood, describing Florida itself as a sort of bizarre hothouse that grows strange beings who may not thrive – or survive – anywhere else. Ultimately Orlean’s work begins to drill down into the relationship between these two states: thriving and surviving. Laroche is fascinated by mutation; Orlean brings this up while addressing his own “mutation” – mutability, changeability, his own changing passions that arrive fully-formed and all-encompassing, and depart just as fully when he is done with them. What makes John Laroche survive, and what makes him thrive? What makes any of us do so?
  2. Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, from Charlie (and Donald!) Kaufman’s script, wants to ask some very big questions: where do art and passions come from? What do we gain by adaptation (film and personal)? How much are we influenced by the ideas and input of others? How, after all, does art survive…and how does it thrive? It doesn’t really answer a single one of those questions, but it certainly has a powerful conversation-starting potential. From the striking, almost uncomfortable beginning, Jonze’s visual and Kaufman’s  verbal cues let the audience know that this is no ordinary movie. For several minutes at the beginning, there is simply a black screen (echoes of Tristram Shandy), with nervous stream-of-consciousness voiceover from a character we soon learn is “Charlie Kaufman,” played by Nicholas Cage, who both is and is not the actual author of the film. The questions start early in this film, such as “What is even happening?” Yet the rapid pace and inventive camera work and plot structure reward questioning, even as the questions pile up too quickly to answer, leaving the audience caught up in the experience of asking.
  3. The black screen at the beginning of Adaptation is not the only thing the movie has in common with Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Both films take an “unfilmable” book and distill the spirit of it without attempting a direct transfer from book to film. In his New Yorker review, David Denby writes, “‘Let it exist!’ Charlie shouts, in celebration of the book’s special tone.” The tone, the meandering thought-paths, the characters…these are the most endearing, enduring parts of Orlean’s book. To adapt tone, Kaufman and Jonze do near-alchemical work to create their own frenzied, close-examined, often absurd tone for the film. Critical response to this film varies widely on whether they succeeded; the transparency of the effort (the struggles behind literary adaptation) is notable regardless. Ultimately the film, especially focusing on the relationship between Charlie and Donald Kaufman, is memorable in the way Orlean’s work is memorable: as a meditation on the difference between surviving and thriving.
  4. “regarding: Adaptation” Ongoing/2002-2003
    This portion of Susan Orlean’s website is managed by Jason Kottke, who designed Orlean’s main website as well. It is a treasure trove of reactions (Kottke’s and, sometimes, Orlean’s) to news about the film version.

    “Spike Jonze, Nicholas Cage, and Charlie Kaufman”, Dec. 4, 2002
    This interview with director, star, and writer is illuminating towards the creative process behind getting the film made, with some interesting words towards getting it promoted, as well.

    Adaptation and the Art of Survival”, May 2007
    Sergio Rizzo’s analysis of Adaptation takes a fascinating look at the current studio “environment” and how the Darwinian definition of evolution and adaptation play into the ultimate ends of the film, making the argument that ultimately it is only Charlie Kaufman himself who truly thrives in this environment. Interesting parallels to the current film distribution technology environment when paired with observations about marketing in the AV Club interview listed above, as well.

    “Why a Remake of Slaughterhouse-Five Could Be Worthwhile”, Aug. 11, 2014
    My inclusion of this article is mainly wishful thinking: the latest news I can find on this project is that Kaufman has “written a draft” of an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and that Guillermo del Toro is very interested in directing Kaufman’s script. The article has some notable things to say about the difficulty of literary adaptation, but mainly this is here for wish-fulfillment purposes!

  5. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation takes Susan Orlean’s key examination in The Orchid Thief – what does it mean to thrive? – and applies it to the act of creating art as personified by Charlie Kaufman himself. In the film, Chris Cooper as John Laroche says, “Adaptation’s a profound process. It means you figure out how to thrive in the world” to Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean. Orlean tries to dig down to the root of Laroche’s passions with an eye to understanding her own, and Kaufman parallels her search by digging down to Orlean’s passions (somewhat literally, in the explosive “Hollywood ending” of the film) with an eye to understanding his own. By the end of the film, with Donald Kaufman and John Laroche both dead and Susan Orlean more or less ruined/forgotten/abandoned, Charlie Kaufman’s tale of “thriving” holds himself up as the survivor, the thriver, the one who wins through the harrowing adaptation process itself. The fact of the existence of the movie, the thing we the audience are watching, Kaufman’s creative act is validated and upheld: Orlean’s book still survives. His film survives. His act of adaptation – and Adaptation – personifies how the creation of art is one way humanity can thrive.


Film Treatment: Stephen King’s “The Breathing Method,” 1982

  • Concept

    In 1935, countless young women traveled to New York City to pursue their dreams. A few of them may even have achieved them. One woman, Sandra Stansfield, wound up needing to alter her dream significantly. The way she achieved her new goal is unforgettable…and breathtaking.Sandra arrives on a bus from Kansas, but is no starry-eyed dreamer. Sandra has goals and Sandra has plans to accomplish those goals. She finds work, she lets a room, she takes acting classes, she pounds pavement. She is a woman of singular determination.

    “Homesickness is a real sickness – the ache of the uprooted plant.” Despite her steel will, Sandra is plagued with homesickness, and goes out with a young man from her acting class a few times. When she learns she is pregnant, he tells her he will “do the decent thing” – then packs his bags and skips town.

    Sandra is not cowed. She finds a doctor who will treat an unmarried pregnant woman, a doctor who is fact kind to her. Dr. McCarron and his nurse Ella Davidson are both accepting of her, though it takes Nurse Davidson a visit or two to think of her as more than “that chippie.”

    We watch Sandra work until nearly the fifth month of her pregnancy, at the perfume counter of a department store. She is fired for her condition, she is kicked out of her boarding house – things that would be almost unthinkable to us today. She finds a home to live in with the help of “cheap magic” – an old wedding ring she buys for $2 at a pawn shop. She concocts a tragic story of a dead husband and voilá, she is transformed from a shameless hussy to an object of pity. It is but slight improvement. But Sandra is determined to have her baby.

    Dr. McCarron is ahead of his time, and teaches Sandra his “breathing method” – which we now know as the Lamaze Method for natural birth. At the time, sedation was standard procedure for pregnancies, but once Sandra learns that she can control and command her body’s responses with careful thought and specific forms of breathing, she practices as though she were training for the Olympics. She eats properly. She reads novels and newspapers to her blind landlady. She prepares to be a single mother in 1935.

    Sandra Stansfield goes into labor on Christmas Eve, as a snowstorm is rapidly changing over to sleet. The streets of New York City are covered in ice. Sandra, breathing the way she was taught, summons a cab earlier than her labor requires, thinking of how long it will take to travel across the city in the poor weather. Her cab driver is a young man, nervous, helping her every step, anxious behind the wheel. As they arrive at the hospital, Dr. McCarron has just arrived. He has expected Sandra will already be admitted and waiting for him, but the cab ride was too long and her labor progressed too quickly. As they approach the hospital, the cab driver spots a hole in traffic and guns the engine to leap forward, nervous, wanting nothing more than to be done with this ride and to have this woman not have her baby in his cab. But an ambulance is coming out at the same time, and there is an accident. A spectacular, horrific collision. Sandra Stansfield is thrown from the cab as Dr. McCarron and a few other hospital workers look on. He runs to her, desperate to do what he can to help, to move her inside to the emergency room. He can see her body tensing with the contractions of deep labor. He can also see her head rolling into the gutter.

    Sandra Stansfield’s body still breathes.

  • Characters

    Sandra Stansfield is a very “modern” woman for 1935. She has no personal issue with being alone and nothing to prove. When faced with her pregnancy, she does not wring her hands or break down – totally valid reactions – but takes the steps needed to do the best she can for herself and her child. We are on Sandra’s side from the onset. Her history is bland and typical, her personality is not. She has always been goal-oriented. She came to New York and found employment and saved money and took acting classes, instead of going to Hollywood to wait to be “discovered.” She has been in the city for four years by the time we meet her. She is thrifty and good with money. Sandra is a woman in control until the bitter end, and beyond.Dr. Emlyn McCarron is a thoughtful, happily married man. A veteran of the First World War, his interest in Sandra Stansfield is driven solely by professional and interpersonal affinity. There is no romantic element between them. McCarron’s practice is only six years old in 1935, so he is a young man, hale, hearty, and with an interest in obstetrics but not specializing in it. He becomes a friend and mentor to Sandra.

    Nurse Ella Davidson is older, more matronly, smart as a whip – smart enough to quickly see that simply lumping Sandra into a category of “trollop” is a grave mistake. She comes to respect and admire Sandra as much as Dr. McCarron does…especially when she sees how promptly and completely Sandra pays her medical bills.

    Mrs. Kelly is Sandra’s supervisor at the department store. She does not understand this young woman and lives very much in a world where “proper” young women do not behave in the manner which Sandra has so obviously behaved. She is married with teenage sons, and is scandalized when she learns of Sandra’s condition, saying “I had you to dinner…with my sons!” She is judgemental and small-minded about those around her.

    Mrs. Gibbs is the blind woman that Sandra boards with after her initial landlady kicks her out. She has only heard Sandra’s “tragic young widow” story at all, so doesn’t really know her true self. But she is kindly and friendly and welcoming also. Sandra doesn’t have many friends in the city, but these few allies keep her going. Her own iron will keeps her on track.

  • Themes

    “The Breathing Method,” as King wrote it, is actually a set-piece placed within the frame of a mysterious “gentlemen’s club” where eerie stories are exchanged. It’s a good frame, it reads well and King revisits the club in a few other short stories. However, as an engraving over the fireplace in that story reminds us: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.”King’s strong suit is characters and that is true in “The Breathing Method.” He writes strong women, although he is usually more skilled with the ones set in less modern times – such as 1935.

    This story is about the things in life we can control…and the things we can’t. Sandra returns again and again to the “cheap magic” of her pawn shop wedding ring. When she shows it to Dr. McCarron, she says “I am no longer a little roundheels strumpet, and my child is no longer a bastard.” She hates doing this, hates the deception, but America in 1935 is not yet a place where people can be honest about many things. About desire. About action. About things you can control and can’t control.

    The story is also about the change in women’s lives between then and now. Though there is still too much we struggle with, there is a powerful exercise in reminding ourselves where we have come from, and what generations before us needed to do to get us here. Sandra Stansfield is no activist. But she was born into an America where women could not yet vote, and her child will grow through some of the biggest decades of change for women in the history of Western civilization.

  • Locations

    New York City, 1935. The key locations in the text are Harriet White Memorial Hospital, set very close to Madison Square Garden right in the middle of Manhattan. McCarron’s office is a single-physician practice so should be easily set comfortably in a small brownstone in a photogenic neighborhood. Sandra Stansfield lives in a “respectable boarding house” in an unspecified neighborhood as well, but after her “delicate condition” is noticed she is kicked out, and she takes a room from Mrs. Gibbs in a small place in Greenwich Village.Harriet White Memorial Hospital is described as resembling “a great gray prison.” There is a courtyard in front where ambulances and cars may pull in to drop off patients, a great paved expanse describing a semicircle. In the center, on a heavy marble pedestal, is a great gray carved statue of Harriet White – who is Dr. McCarron’s father’s first wife. Carved into this pedestal is a quote from Cato, “There is no comfort without pain; thus we define salvation through suffering.”

    McCarron’s office is small and homey and comfortable, kept that way by the efficient Nurse Davidson. A waiting room painted in a comforting, muted colors with chairs that are comfortable but not invitingly so. Nurse Davidson’s desk is of a heavy, dark wood and there will be great wooden cabinets behind her. Dr. McCarron will have a comfortable office with similar chairs to the waiting room on the other side of his large professional desk. There will be an examination room with bland artwork, white walls, and the usual array of somewhat disturbing jars, boxes, and cabinets with very small drawers.

    Sandra’s homes are both just rooms for let. She lives in New York for four years before we meet her so she will have a few pieces that travel with her, such as a mirror for her vanity, a chair, perhaps a small writing desk. She will not own elaborate furniture or any luxury items – she is far too practical and smart with her money to waste it on such things.

    The department store where Sandra works is not specified in the text; picking a legendary location like Loeser’s in Brooklyn gives us a nice setting for the first part of Sandra’s story.

  • Action Scene

    It is a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in Greenwich Village, 1935. There is snow on the ground but it is sleeting now, the slush getting covered in a thick layer of ice. It is 6:30 p.m., dark outside, Christmas lights glinting here and there, reflected back in ice over and over. A cab pulls up in front of a narrow three-story brownstone where a young woman is waiting. She is obviously pregnant. The cabbie helps her down the slippery steps and into the cab. As he drives he hears strange noises from the backseat – not wailing cries of pain but strangely audible breathing, deep, long breaths. The traffic is terrible. The baby is coming and the cab cannot seem to make time. He has to get from the Village to the Flatiron District, to the hospital near Madison Square Garden, and it shouldn’t take this long, it never takes this long… Three blocks away from the courtyard entrance to Harriet White Memorial Hospital, there is a break in traffic. Spotting his chance, the young driver speeds up to dart through the gap and cut up to the hospital, the cab shooting forward but the wheels spinning too much, too fast on the ice. He holds the cab under the barest control and is turning into the courtyard when he sees an ambulance heading down the emergency room ramp and towards the same entryway. The cab driver and the ambulance driver both stomp on their brakes, panicked, but of course it is far too late. The cab begins to slide around sideways as it skids into the courtyard. The ambulance fishtails wildly and its rear end slams into the heavy marble pedestal supporting the statue of Harriet White. The back doors fly open and a gurney – mercifully unoccupied – rattles out into the courtyard. Several people are standing near the hospital doors, and when the ambulance strikes the statue a young woman who is walking toward the hospital doors lets out a scream, slips on the ice, and falls to the ground, her purse skittering away from her. The cab is continuing to swing around and after its impact, the ambulance bounces heavily away from the statue and smashes into the cab broadside. The cab starts to spin wildly and slams crunchingly, deafeningly, violently into the statue pedestal. The speed of the cab and the force of the impact are enough to practically tear the car in two. As onlookers scream and stare – one of them the doctor who is there to attend the pregnant woman – the passenger in the backseat of the cab, the young pregnant woman who had been making such strange breathing noises, is thrown through the right rear window like a ragdoll. The doctor has recognized his patient in the speeding cab has already started to run towards the accident, slipping and sliding. As he approaches the body, his foot strikes an object that skitters away like the purse of the woman who has just slipped on the sidewalk moments before. The doctor arrives at his patient’s body splayed on the ice in the courtyard, noticing that something about the body seems very wrong just an instant before he realizes that the object he has unthinkingly kicked away is his patient’s severed head. The body before him is still taking the harsh, measured breaths he has taught her. His Breathing Method.
  • Dialogue Scene

    May I show you something I bought with my severance pay, Dr. McCarron?
    Yes, if you like.
    [removes small box from her purse]
    I bought it at a pawnshop for two dollars. And it’s the only time during this whole nightmare that I’ve felt ashamed and dirty. Isn’t that strange? [opens box and removes a plain gold wedding ring]
    I don’t think…
    ’ll do what’s necessary. I’m staying in what Mrs. Kelly would undoubtedly call “a respectable boarding house.” My landlady has been kind and friendly…but Mrs. Kelly was kind and friendly, too. I think she may ask me to leave at any time now, and I suspect that if I say anything about the rent-balance due me, or the damage deposit I paid when I moved in, she’ll laugh in my face.
    My dear young woman, that would be quite illegal. There are courts and lawyers to help you answer such…
    The courts are men’s clubs and not apt to go out of their way to befriend a woman in my position. Perhaps I could get my money back, perhaps not. Either way, the expense and the trouble and the…the unpleasantness…hardly seem worth the forty-seven dollars or so. I had no business mentioning it to you in the first place. It hasn’t happened yet, and maybe it won’t. But in any case, I intend to be practical from now on. I’ve got my eye on a place down in the Village, just in case. It’s on the third floor, but it’s clean, and it’s five dollars a month cheaper than where I’m staying now. I wore this when the landlady showed me the room. [she puts the ring on the third finger of her left hand] There! Now I’m Mrs. Stansfield. My husband was a truck-driver who was killed on the Pittsburgh-New York run. Very sad. But I am no longer a little roundheels strumpet, and my child is no longer a bastard.

  • Pitch

    In 1982, Stephen King published a book of four novellas, Different Seasons. Three of these novellas have been filmed, with varying degrees of success. Apt Pupil (1998), Stand By Me (1986), and The Shawshank Redemption (1998) run the gamut from “disappointing” to “one of the most beloved movies of all time.” It’s quite a run from one collection. What of that fourth novella…that fourth season? What of “The Breathing Method”?There was a time when a movie based on a work by Stephen King was the very opposite of a prestige piece. There was a time when movies based on works by Stephen King were, in fact, laughable embarrassments. But when you look at Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption, you see some of the best of King’s strengths: unforgettable characters, powerful situations, memorable images.

    Why hasn’t anyone adapted “The Breathing Method” yet? The framing narrative in the novella is awkward for film, and unnecessary unless one aims to make a series of films about the strange, possibly otherworldly, gentlemen’s club where odd tales are told. But Sandra’s tale is compelling, engaging, breathtaking…and tragic.

    No two ways about it: Sandra dies at the end. Her headless corpse breathes as McCarron delivers her baby in the snow, and he hears her last whispered words…escaping from the lips of her severed head several feet away.

    It’s a special effects parlor trick and not much more unless we are awfully damn invested in Sandra Stansfield. And with a script from a skilled writer in the hands of a skilled director we will be invested indeed. We will watch her work and plan and make her way. We’ll watch her make connections and make mistakes and when the father of her child leaves her, she will not collapse in a weeping heap but will make her way, again, ever forward.

    The story shows us that Sandra’s child, a boy, lives a successful happy life – through the lens of Dr. McCarron’s discreet later observations. The movie can end happily even though Sandra’s life does not. But Sandra is not just a martyr to the life of her child – there are more than enough movies telling that story. She is a determined march into the future. She is an unsentimental (not unloving), unwavering look into a future America where more and more of us can choose our own way, our own path, decide where we are going and get there.

    A movie adapted from King will get King fans – fans of his books AND his movies. A movie with its origin in the same space as Shawshank and Stand By Me will get attention from movie fans in general. (There’s a lot of people out there who still don’t know that Shawshank is a King work!) A movie where there are plenty of roles for women – that “passes the Bechdel test” – is still far too rare a thing and is going to bring people in…some people will come for that reason alone.

    A strong cast, mostly intimate sets with a few cityscapes, a terrifying, pulse-pounding action sequence at the heart, an otherworldly (downright creepy) act of courage – no movie can be all things to all people. But this movie can be scary for people who “don’t like horror,” woman-centered without feeling like “a chick flick,” it can be political in a remote-in-time way that doesn’t court current controversy, and it can be a feast for a strong cast. Put “The Breathing Method” in the right hands…and people will walk away breathless.

  • Photo Appendix
    New York Hospital and the East River, 1935. Photo Credit:
    New York Hospital and the East River, 1935. Photo Credit:
    Photo of Dr. Samuel Huntington's office, photo credit Huntington Historical Society:'s_doctors.htm
    Photo of Dr. Samuel Huntington’s office, photo credit Huntington Historical Society:’s_doctors.htm
    Avenue C in Greenwich Village, circa 1926. Photo credit: NYC Historical Archives via The Atlantic
    Avenue C in Greenwich Village, circa 1926. Photo credit: NYC Historical Archives via The Atlantic
    Children play outside a tenement building, 1935. Photo credit: Museum of the City of New York
    Children play outside a tenement building, 1935. Photo credit: Museum of the City of New York

    Loeser's Department store in Brooklyn circa 1941. Photo credit: Brooklyn Visual Heritage
    Loeser’s Department store in Brooklyn circa 1941. Photo credit: Brooklyn Visual Heritage

Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, 2002


  1. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a work of stream-of-consciousness writing that echoes and pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It ties together storylines from 1923 (Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, which would be published in 1925), from 1941 (Woolf at the end of her life), from 1951 (Laura Brown, an unhappily married post-WWII housewife), and from the 1990s (Clarissa Vaughn, a book publisher). The lives of these three women echo each other in ways that outline the themes Cunningham focuses on: the function of art in life, the function of the past in the present, and what the function of regret might ultimately be. The book begins with Woolf committing suicide, as she did on March 28, 1941. Her suicide note to her husband, heartbreakingly beautiful, is included. Art, life, the past, and regret are all caught up in this brief note. The quick jump to Clarissa Vaughn’s modern-day love affair with the city of New York feels somewhat jarring at first, but quickly Cunningham begins to build in observations about life, art, regret, love. Even in this brief excerpt at the start of the novel, the audience is invited into a complicated conversation about decisions and their consequences.
  2. Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, with screenplay by David Hare based on Cunningham’s novel, is a beautiful meditation on the lives of three women and how they affect one another, directly and indirectly. Woolf, Brown, and Vaughn are brought to remarkable life by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, respectively. The script is strong and the film is beautifully shot and seamlessly edited to weave the three narratives together, with visual thematic elements uniting the women (cracking eggs, buying flowers, shutting off alarm clocks) – but none of this would have had as great an impact without the performances given by these talented actors. The interwoven past and present are viewed in real time in the film, echoing the theme of past-in-present, and Daldry skillfully shows the impact art has on life by his repeated visual cues and by the presence of Mrs. Dalloway – her name, the published book, the manuscript – in all the storylines spanning most of the 20th century.
  3. Daldry’s The Hours is a skilled and ultimately successful adaptation of Cunningham’s novel. The three main storylines are interwoven so well that the audience never gives thought to what an effort that represents. As noted above, the cast is the deepest strength of this movie however. Not just the leads, but the supporting cast are uniformly strong, and read almost like a “who’s who” of early-21st-century Hollywood. Casting so many familiar names is a strategy that ultimately works for Daldry, as the audience gets caught up in the pleasure of seeing these professionals work together in-the-moment. It can be argued that this eases the audience – like the proverbial spoonful of sugar – into some of the more difficult themes of the film, such as the “rightness” of decisions with harsh consequences (suicide, family abandonment) and the deep scars that regret can leave in one’s life (Clarissa’s seeming inability to move beyond her love affair with Richard more than half her life ago). Whatever the casting strategy was ultimately meant to accomplish, it makes for an engrossing and engaging film-viewing experience.
  4. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Dec. 2002
    Salon’s extended take on the film (and to some degree Cunningham’s novel) has a lot that is interesting to say about the pedigree of the film and most especially the casting in the three main female roles.

    “The Hidden Misogynies of Queering “light”: the case of The Hours”, 2004
    Speaking to queer theory, this essay primarily concerns itself with some failings of Cunningham’s novel, though it also praises Daldry’s film for correcting some of them.

    “Virginia Woolf cannot be held responsible” World Socialist Web Site, Jan. 2003
    Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, was well-known as a Fabian socialist and publisher, and Virginia Woolf often wrote critical social commentary. The World Socialist Web Site hates Daldry’s The Hours for ignoring these facts, and excoriates the film broadly for being “[…]a privileged layer scrutinizing and being scrutinized.”Posts tagged “The Hours” on Ongoing
    Not always specific to the film, but Tumblr is a great (and messy) repository of images and reactions.

    “The Hours: Stephen Daldry and Nicole Kidman” Video interview, Special Broadcast Services, Australia, Feb. 2003
    This brief interview was illuminating for insight into Kidman’s “becoming” Virginia Woolf for the role and for Daldry’s words about what the film means, for him. He states it is about the difficult choices people need to make “in order to live.”

  5. There are certain Hollywood movies released every year – usually late in the year – that are considered Oscar contenders before they are even in front of audience. It can be argued that by casting a wide range of “Oscar-friendly” well-known actors in The Hours, Stephen Daldry is explicitly using the comfort of the known to make some of the difficult themes in his film more palatable. In his interview with Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia, Stephen Daldry notes that his film – and the book on which it is based – are about the “hard choices” that people have to make in order to live. And it is true that suicide and family abandonment are harsh decisions, moments of total abdication of societal responsibility. In the face of past regrets, current troubles, and the power of art to move audiences in positive and negative directions, Daldry’s known and beloved cast are drawn into conversation with the audience. There is the text of the film – the dialogue, the music, the images on the screen – and there is the paratext – the perceived frame in which the audience views the images. The paratext includes cues coming from the environment where the movie is seen (a megaplex? an arthouse? a couch in front of a TV with Netflix streaming?) and the fact that audiences see actors over and over again to the point of feeling a relationship with the actor that informs each character that actor portrays. When a movie-goer sees a cast list like one for The Hours, there are assumptions that can be made. Meryl Streep herself is enough of a cultural signifier for “quality cinema” that she is referenced (along with Vanessa Redgrave) in Cunningham’s novel, and is compared to an angel who stops in on earth only briefly before she “resumed her place in the ether.” Casting choices inform audience perception, and review after review of The Hours gushes about the performances in the film. By wrapping up suicide, the ravages of AIDS, a lifetime of romantic regrets, the abandonment of a family including a newborn infant …all inside a package full of an “Oscar-worthy” cast, Stephen Daldry’s film adds a new layer of meaning to Michael Cunningham’s novel by giving it the “angelic” touch of Hollywood pedigree.