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.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, 2009

  1. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Mazarin Stone” is a brief foray into the world of his famous detective Sherlock Holmes. This story, which takes place entirely within Holmes’ rooms at 221B Baker Street, is a concise example of Holmes’ classic style of deduction based on detailed observation and footwork (which is described, but not done, within this story). This particular story is mostly dialogue, but it sets up Holmes’ usual modus operandi quite neatly. The fact that the main suspect that Holmes is investigating for jewel theft shows up at 221B to speak to Holmes directly illustrates that in fact fame and flair are an inherent part of Doyle’s famous creation. Holmes’ place as a boy’s adventure character writ large – and grown up – is well established by the time Doyle writes this story, as demonstrated by the lack of exposition. The character and his associates are known and beloved quantities by this point.
  2. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes draws on many of Holmes’ original characteristics from Doyle’s stories and brings them to noisy Technicolor life on-screen. As Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. is a grown-up boys’ adventure hero with a ready wit and ready fists. So, for that matter, is Dr. Watson (Jude Law). Ritchie employs similar visual fight styles – slow motion, elaborate Foley work for high-impact sounds – as he has used in his other films featuring the criminal element in modern-day London. This 21st-century Holmes-inspired work (the screenplay is an original story) becomes, in Ritchie’s hands, a hyper-kinetic modern action film.
  3. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes is not a direct adaptation of any one Sherlock Holmes story, though it shares a few elements with “The Mazarin Stone.” It is a clear example of the differences between going back to Doyle’s original detective stories and the rafts of prior Hollywood versions of the iconic detective. Ritchie doesn’t employ any of the visual or verbal “shortcuts” that earlier film (and television) versions have taught the audience to expect – no deerstalker cap is worn, nary an “Elementary!” is uttered – when presented with the character of Sherlock Holmes. Since Holmes himself has been embraced by countless other creators of film, television, books, stories, video games in untold permutations, taking apart Ritchie’s Holmes on a few visual details is pointless and somewhat beside the point. The elaborate hugeness of the conspiracy – and the danger – in Ritchie’s film appears out of stride with Holmes’ usual M.O. of deduction based on small details, set out quite succinctly and clearly. Overall the feelings of adventure and discovery telegraphed to the audience in Ritchie’s film are in keeping with the spirit of Doyle’s works, but blown up largely and loudly for modern action-adventure audiences.
  4. io9 has an interesting piece on the failings of several modern Irene Adler characterizations, including Ritchie’s.
    The New Yorker examines several filmed versions of Sherlock Holmes (and comes down firmly on the side of Basil Rathbone).
    Word and Film’s take is that Doyle’s stories are inherently about imposing order on a chaotic and changing Victorian England. To this end, it supports Ritchie’s movie for their nearly “conservative” longing for the orderliness of the British Empire.
  5. The multi-tentacled beast of Ritchie’s overarching villainous plot stands just a bit too far outside the logic-based world of Doyle’s Holmes to succeed intellectually as an adaptation. However I would argue that emotionally, Ritchie’s film rings true to the sense of adventure present (or at least alluded to) in many of Doyle’s Holmes stories. The many implied supernatural causes for Lord Blackwood’s reign of terror in the film’s gritty London sit at cross-purposes from the earth-bound nature of Doyle’s mysteries. And though Lord Blackwood’s plot is ultimately revealed to be “earthly” after all, as a villain he still represented himself and his cause as ones supernaturally ordained. As “The Stone of Mazurin” shows, Doyle’s Holmes is more comfortable in the down-to-earth details of cab rides and hiding places, though he indulges in a few secret passages! It’s that sense of play evinced in “The Stone of Mazurin” via the waxwork Holmes in the window, the cunning use of secret passageways, and his joke of planting the missing jewel on Lord Cantlemere at the end – that sense of play is what Ritchie gets correct with Sherlock Holmes. The partnership between Holmes and Watson is friendly and even-handed, and the jokes they make fall right in line with Doyle’s joke-making detective. Even in a brief tale set essentially in a single room, like “The Tale of Mazurin,” it is possible to see the fun, adventurous spirit inside Doyle’s Holmes that Ritchie punches up and exploits for his action-adventure tale.

Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, 2004

  1. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice deals with the intense marriage politics surrounding a certain class of British citizens in the 18th century, and specifically the misunderstandings and miscommunications between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Setting aside the intricate social structures of the time, at its heart Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of misdirection. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are shown to have intense pride in their own societal station and their initial impressions of the other, and those initial impressions lead to the prejudicial feelings that hinder them from honestly acknowledging each other’s true character. After labyrinthine meetings, correspondences, he-saids and she-saids, and the machinations of other family members, Elizabeth and Darcy are finally able to confess their honest feelings for one another.
  2. Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice is a spirited re-imagining of the basic plot structure of Austen’s original work, drawn in broad brush strokes that play up the emotions of the story rather than the intricate interpersonal machinations. With these broader strokes, the subtle themes are sacrificed for a faster paced plot that suits a mainstream cinematic production. The misdirection is still in place, slightly more ham-handledly executed. The exuberant color palette underlies the emotions as well as the upbeat soundtrack, which can lead to a definite feeling that each plot point is being “telegraphed” somewhat resoundingly.
  3. Chadha’s decision to introduce full Bollywood-style musical dance production numbers in Bride and Prejudice played up the playful, comedic aspects while sacrificing most of the subtlety. The color palettes were gorgeously arrayed to enhance emotional reactions to the characters and situations, even outside the settings of India – for instance, the bright-blue-robed full gospel choir on a California beach with strong sunset colors as well. The underlying relationships between characters, however, often felt merely sketched in. Austen’s work is a precise work of satire; Chadha’s feels a bit like vaudeville.
  4. This Film3 interview with Chadha has some interesting observations on racism and prejudice underlying her work.
    This feminist film review highlights a few interesting emotional points about the way the interactions between Lalita and Darcy never actually appear to make progress once their love is (too soon) established.
    In this piece for the Jane Austen Society of North America, I found a fascinating discussion on the father-daughter relationship in Bride and Prejudice. Part of the cultural aspects of Chadha’s adaptation that are easily overlooked are the way the family model in India plays into the importance of this particular relationship in Austen’s work.
    And lastly…a little (tongue-in-cheek) speculation about what might have happened if Jane Austen took her manuscript to a writing workshop.
  5. Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice walks a line between broad comedy and sometimes-painful farce in its translation of a subtle class- and culture-based work to a famously jangling, less-subtle format. The gorgeous sets, music, and dancing introduce Indian (“Bollywood”) film culture without taking a serious look at true Indian culture in the twenty-first century. Discussion Darcy’s family’s possible acquisition of a hotel in Goa, Lalita is angered by the idea of turning India into a sanitized version of itself, a “theme park” for wealthy visitors. Chadha selected the story of Pride and Prejudice to be “[s]omething familiar so that people wouldn’t get freaked out by all the Bollywood stuff” as a way of introducing Bollywood Indian film culture to a multi-national audience. By focusing on this particular aspect of Indian culture in a work with such familiar background material, it serves to illustrate the broad differences in the differing forms. The painful caricature present in some of the characters seems to diminish Indian culture even by celebrating one of its best-beloved (and highly successful) art forms.

Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 2005

  1. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an inventive, confounding, elaborately discursive novel by Laurence Sterne that is ultimately about the magnificent discursiveness of what it is to be human. Hand in hand with this, it is about the frustrating process of trying to capture such a broad experience in the form of a novel, which ultimately leads to the work standing as a statement about …writing a novel. Tristram, our nominal protagonist, does not even get to the point of being born until several volumes into the novel. Instead the varied stories about his parents, neighbors, other relatives – memorably Uncle Toby – clergy, townsfolk, et al illustrate how each human’s story is inseparable from the stories of the others whose lives they touch.
  2. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an inventive, hilarious, discursive film directed by Michael Winterbottom. The film stands as a monument to some of humanity’s greater follies, such as filmmaking itself. As a film about making a film (a literary adaptation of Sterne’s novel), it stands both as a strike against overgrown human ego, and as praise of the depth and richness of humanity despite the follies of ego. Steve, the actor set to play Tristram, juggles work, petty differences with his co-star, his romantic relationship with the mother of his child, his flirtation with a production assistant on the film, interviews with tabloid journalists, film funders, writers, and producers. Most of all, though, Steve is a portrait of the fight inside every human – between his better self,  his nobler instincts, and his baser, self-serving ego.
  3. Many critical responses to, and reviews of, A Cock and Bull Story make large of the fact that Sterne’s novel is said to be “unfilmable.” It’s true that simply setting down each set-piece within Tristram Shandy would make for an overwhelming seasons-long series, not a mere film, but Winterbottom makes the decisive move of simply taking on the spirit of the novel. With the inclusion of a few of the novel’s high point set-pieces, the source material is gracefully acknowledged and set as the backdrop for the unique perspectives that film affords. The decision to pull back out of the “story” of filming the novel and show the audience the workings of the crew, sound and lighting equipment, etc. is thoughtfully made during Tristram’s birth-scene. What is delayed to comic effect in the novel is also delayed in the movie, but the difference shows the sort of play Winterbottom is affecting. Pulling the audience into the framing-story of the movie set during the birth sequence piles up the folly of trying to separate human lives with the folly of trying to film a novel about the folly of trying to separate human lives. When the overlapping frames in the movie begin piling up, Winterbottom creates a true sense of enthusiasm and delight even in the most folly-filled of human activities.
  4. This scholarly paper hangs most of A Cock and Bull Story on the Steve Coogan character as the focal point for the “progressive and digressive story line.”
    Interview magazine spoke to Michael Winterbottom about his follow-up movie with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, The Trip, and touched on ideas about A Cock and Bull Story and literary adaptations in general.
    The Guardian’s book section did an in-depth piece on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman upon the release of A Cock and Bull Story. While noting the limitations of the film in portraying the “delicious, facetious erudition of the novel” it ultimately found much to celebrate in the film and the long-lasting appeal of Tristram Shandy.
  5.  The comedy within Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story lays within individual human egos, but the warm flip-side of humanity is shown in smaller moments of human interaction. The character writ most largely in the film is Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan as almost-himself), an often boorish and self-centered man. In his constant battles for more screen-time (height, importance…) than Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby, Steve illustrates strong egotistical urges. He seeks a larger and larger role, and in the memorable and hilarious dream sequence, his character encased in the giant “womb” is literally reduced to the size of a child. The laughter of his co-stars in the dream sequence echoes the laughter of the audience to see this man-child held up so. There is a warm light of humanity in Winterbottom’s film, however, that raises up hope even for the egotistical Steve Coogan. Significantly, the two characters in the film who most clearly demonstrate familiarity with the source novel for Tristram Shandy are Jennie and Jenny, the film-savvy production assistant and Steve’s girlfriend, respectively. Jennie is able to insert her knowledge not only of Sterne’s novel but of critical responses to same, to ground the production (and sometimes Steve himself) from flying off into ridiculous “Hollywoodized” flights of fancy. And Jenny, right before the aforementioned dream sequence, calmly explains the Widow Wadman sequence to Steve as she lies in bed. Without the grounding – in reality, in humanity – provided by these two characters, the ones making the movie-within-the-movie might appear as little more than walking ego-gratification.

Julie Taymor’s Adaptation of The Tempest, 2010

  1. The Tempest, generally regarded to be William Shakespeare’s final play, involves a great deal of magic and a number of mystical interventions into the lives of its characters. Its classification as a “Romance” (as opposed to a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play) belies the fact that much more is going on outside the featured romantic connection between Ferdinand and Miranda. There is little conflict or plot energy driven by that relationship. The primary themes are of power and reconciliation, as powerful sorcerer Prospero exerts power over time and the elements to evince a reconciliation between himself, his daughter, and his estranged brother Antonio. To a certain degree Prospero also negotiates a reconciliation between himself and the native inhabitants of the island where the action takes place.
  2. In Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest, the primary themes listed above are kept intact. With the use of digital effects, jump cuts, and the addition of a somewhat cacophonous soundtrack, Taymor’s film illustrates the magical and mystical elements brought to bear on the lives of the characters. Her choice of filming location, the volcanic island of Lanai in Hawaii, also supports the surreality of some of the film’s action sequences. Quick scene changes between storm and calm, a tropical shore, a desert plain, and an unearthly landscape of volcanic rock illustrate the changing forces brought to bear on the characters sometimes more than the digital effects.
  3. The most obvious – and most advertised – change made in this adaptation is Taymor’s decision to cast Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera, changing the principle actor and mover from male to female. Overall the adaptation outside this change hews very closely to the original text of the play and to its themes. Adapting The Tempest to film in the 21st century places a host of tools in the hands of the director that frees her choose highly literal illustrations of activities from the text that would not be possible on stage. Consider the titular storm, wrought stirringly (and loudly) in Taymor’s adaptation. The opening image of a castle besieged by storm, in tight view, pulls back to show it is a mere sand castle in the hand of a young woman – Miranda, daughter of Prospera – and then jump cuts to the ship in the storm. Two different views of the storm, on hugely differing scales, would be nearly impossible on the stage. The images conferred by the sense of scale, surreal setting on a volcanic island, and the use of digital effects are sometimes tasked with carrying too much of the weight of the changes being wrought, ultimately, by human actors.
  4. * Vahideh Malekpour’s scholarly paper “Prospero Becomes Prospera: The End of the Patriarchy in The Tempest offers some critical insight into feminist thought on the character of Miranda and themes of female power even before the gender-switch in Taymor’s film.
    * Monica Krysa’s paper “From Prospero to Prospera: Female Empowerment in Taymor’s The Tempest has a few useful notes on witchcraft and female power in Shakespeare’s era.
    This was useful as a brief snapshot of feminist film theory.
    This is a nice overview of themes focusing on the mother-daughter relationship created by the gender change to Prospera.
    * Ultimately this article presented some of the more compelling statements about feminist perspective in Taymor’s The Tempest, as perceived by both actor and audience. It touches on some of the changes in the Prospera-Ariel relationship that would have been fascinating to explore more deeply.
  5. In her treatment of The Tempest, Julie Taymor begins an intriguing conversation by casting Helen Mirren as Prospera, the prime mover of all the play’s action, but fails to conclude that conversation. By her own acknowledgement, she cast Mirren with a question in mind – does changing this character’s gender change the play? – and then does not appear to spend sufficient time addressing that. There are language changes, most notably the addition of a reference to women being burned as witches for similar offenses at the time when Prospera was deposed as the rightful Duke of Milan. Taymor also chooses to preserve much of the gendered language – Duke, Ariel’s use of the term “master” – which has a potent effect coming from Mirren’s commanding performance. However, for the changes that are made textually, others lines that sound puzzling after Prospera’s gender-switch are left in place. When Miranda is given to Ferdinand, the transactional language and language of ownership is retained: “Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased take my daughter” (IV, i). With such a fundamental decision as to change the gender of such a role of power, Taymor opens a conversation that does not conclude satisfactorily in the “purchase” of her daughter.