THEY TURNED WHAT INTO A MOVIE?
Written by Jenny Orosel
Some stories were just written to be adapted for the screen. You can totally see the action as it’s going on, the characters are so real in your mind you can already see the faces of the actors playing them. The pacing is perfect for your three-act movie structure.
These are not those stories.
Instead, the tales I’ll be looking at this month are hardly typical stories. One is a tiny tale of barely three pages discussing that which cannot be seen. Two of them don’t even have your traditional beginning/middle/end. And yet people took a look at these works and said, “Yep, we can make a movie out of that.” And, to varying degrees of success, they did.
H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Unnamable” is about three pages long and consists mostly of two guys sitting around discussing whether or not anything in the world can truly be indescribable. In the end, the disbeliever of the two encounters a beast of some kind that terrifies him. When pressed he states that it truly was “unnamable”. To do a literal translation, it would be about ten minutes, have a tiny budget, and be rather boring in a My Dinner With Andre sort of way. However, in 1988 a first time director decided The Unnamable needed to be a feature length movie.
There is very little of the original story left. Granted, the movie starts out with college students discussing whether or not anything in the world is totally indescribable. One mentions there were tales told of an indescribable monster living in this old abandoned house…that they just happen to be sitting in front of. Two of the three friends go back to campus while the third goes into the house to explore. Bad things happen. Later on, more college kids go into the house. More bad things happen. All because of this indescribable, unnamable monster. And yes, we see that which was indescribable. And that is the biggest problem with this movie. Once you build up expectations of the monster that much it becomes damn near impossible for any special effects to live up to them, let alone the cheap level of effects used here.
And The Unnamable was done rather cheaply. Wooden acting aside, if I hadn’t read the original story I might have had fun with his little flick. It was made with the low-budget enthusiasm of many other movies of the 80s. But I just could not get over the fact it was named after the story, stated in the opening credits that it was based on the story. Between showing the indescribable and the transformation of a conversation story to a typical slasher flick, I just couldn’t accept it.
The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard seems like it would be more difficult to adapt than “The Unnamable.” The book, published in 1970, is made up of many interconnected short stories, each themselves separated into miniature segments. The main character’s name changes from Travis to Talbot to Talbert to other names. There is no clear beginning or end, or any plot in the normal sense. The book is about that main character and his descent into madness caused by media overload, images of assassination and the Vietnam war perverting his mind so much that sex and violence become interchangeable.
Like the adaptation of The Unnamable, the movie version of The Atrocity Exhibition was made by a first time director, and so far, the only time director. Like the book, the movie is made up of short fragments. Our hero, Travis Talbert, is either a doctor instructing his students on the fringes of psychiatry or is a patient himself. We cannot be sure, just as we cannot be sure if some of the things he sees are products of his insane mind, or true products of an insane world. Like the book, there isn’t much of a beginning or end, but more of a segment of Talbert’s life. Not all of the stories are included, and some like “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Regan” are alluded to rather than addressed directly. However, it does capture a surprising amount of the book and definitely captures the unique mood. The one bit of distraction is the pop culture references. The filmmaker did a great job giving The Atrocity Exhibition a timeless feel, yet he kept the same references from the novel. When alluding to the Vietnam War, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Regan, Elizabeth Taylor and John F. Kennedy, those references speak to the specific time and place that the book was created in. Here, it distracts from the timeless feel.
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. falls somewhere between “The Unnamable” and The Atrocity Exhibition. It’s not your standard novel but a collection of surreal short stories about life in Brooklyn during the 1950s and just how hopeless most of it is. There is no one main character, no discernable beginning or end. But it is certainly more linear and more along the lines of traditional story format than Ballard’s book. Unlike the other adaptations, this time it was directed by seasoned German director Uli Edel, known for directing the equally upbeat film, Christianne F.
He weaves the stories together into intertwining lives during an exceptionally tense few days in Brooklyn in the mid 50s. The local factory union is on strike, and the few men not involved in that factory make their way by hustling. Harry, the shop steward, is wrestling with his homosexuality without even knowing what it’s called. Local prostitute Tralala finds a man who truly cares about her, but she’s traded in flesh so long that she cannot understand non-physical feelings. Tommy and Donna are accidental parents trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Meanwhile, both the union and factory are creating a stepladder of violence, each one-upping the other. Life is hard in summertime Brooklyn and there doesn’t seem to be an escape.
Last Exit to Brooklyn is a beautifully made movie. The performances are so spot-on they’re heartbreaking. The soundtrack is fitting but so subtle that you don’t notice it until after you already feel it. The only complaint I have about it isn’t really a complaint; more like something I feel I should warn viewers of—this is not an easy movie to sit through. If you’ve read the book, it doesn’t go quite as dark. Barely, but not quite. I’ve heard complaints about that, and I’m okay with how Edel ‘lightened’ the mood. To me it was as dark as I could handle before I would shut down completely.
There are a number of ways to address an unfilmable story. You can take the original story and spin it off into outer space. You can take it as literal as your budget and technology will allow. Or you can find a middle ground in between. Just remember that these books have a loyal cult following for a reason and, if you alienate the fans, you might not be able to lure non fans to see it.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
The Unnamable has yet to see a DVD printing in the US. The American VHS will run you ten dollars and up. There was a European release—a double feature with its sequel (for all the unanswered questions, I guess) that is currently out of print and will run you at least forty dollars.
The Atrocity Exhibition is available in a PAL format disc (region coded for Europe and Australia) for about 20 dollars. It has yet to see any sort of American release.
Last Exit to Brooklyn was only available in the US on VHS. However, it is scheduled for a US DVD and Blu-Ray release in mid October.