Monday, December 12, 2011

Flannery's "Something": On Adaptation

In his piece on John le Carré in the 12 December issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Lane is works up a comparison between the 1979 7-part BBC television adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the  2011 film version, which runs only 127 minutes. The film series he finds "purposeful, unbaffled, artfully composed..." some of the qualities contemporary viewer may like in their films, and certainly, we imagine, compressed for time: "As for the denouement," Lane writes, "we have had too little room, in so cramped a space, to spend time with Tinker, Tailor, and the others, and to scrutinized each man in turn...."  The BBC series, on the other hand, Lane found "bovine of pace, often ugly to behold, and content to meander along by byways that petered out into open country or led inexorably to dead ends, yet I was tensed and transfixed by every minute, like a worshipper at a familiar Mass whose mystery will never abate."

I'm thinking about time in art, and mystery as Lane uses it in that striking simile; he gets all Flannery O'Connor on me.  He doesn't mean "mystery" as in spy story enigma, but as spiritual principle, and he is content, even "tensed and transfixed" by the muddled, slow-moving series: it appeared to have immersed itself in roving, like a kid looking down as he walks, stopping here and there for a stray leaf. It took its time along the way. It took a lot of time; broadcast, as so many of those series were, in one hour increments over six weeks, is seems Dickensian now, archaic in the light of online streaming, and also, like Dickens, published in serial installments. People waited a week each time, for each bit to air, and enjoyed the hour.  It took attention, a quietude, a focus, and a riveting immersion of the self in the moment. If texting existed, say, you wouldn't watch the series and check your phone at the same time. It was not to be multi-tasked.

Another grand, gone-baby-gone concept, single-tasking: time, and focus, the desire to take one's time with one single activity, has gong the way of the land line. I'm not above it.  As I write this I am checking one email account for follow-ups from students, and checking another account for correspondence from a contributor to my journal.  I'm googling and listening to WGBH Classical.

But I know my mind does not work the same when I'm doing all these things at once as it does when I'm focused on reading a chapter in a book, watching a good film or a play, drafting and writing seriously, thinking seriously—you name it, any act that asks something of me, that requires—if not the same kind of devotion and attention asked for in a house of worship—something essential, a surrender of those multi-tasks, a surrender of myself to a single act. O'Connor writes "I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts." That "something" demands (and rewards) the reader's entrance into the mystery, an attendance, that can't be faked or attempted without a fullness of focus. Her something isn't a tale to be extracted down, a piece to be distilled to information, skimmed for facts. That something has to be taken full on; to paraphrase Frost on poetry: it's lost in the adaptation. "Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction," writes O'Connor. Yet the mind that focuses on one thing—the person who wishes to only do one thing at a time, to not be distracted, who'd rather not text while having a f2f conversation, who might rather not live on email—looks as wrongheaded as one who is swimming against a current. Going the wrong way, and you won't last long.

Now is not the place for me to wonder what the seriously Christian writer Flannery O'Connor would think of a secular Jew appropriating her ideas to make a comment on how Luddite-like notions of time and attention have been devalued so that we can sell phones.  On one level, in any case, she speaks to me.

I've been thinking about adaptations and the shades of its definitions. In one sense, adapting means "The process of modifying a thing so as to suit new conditions" (OED); in the case of multi-tasking with your smartphone, for example: you adjust to what's around you, to keep up with the environment, to survive. In the case of literary adaptations, for example, something like the BBC adaptation of le Carré, the OED offers a slightly different definition: "a form or copy, a reproduction of anything modified to suit new uses."

Works like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury can't be adapted well, no matter what, because what they offer is there in the experience of reading, lost in any kind of translations. (I could use the extraordinarily awful, so-awful-it's-wonderfully-bad adaptation of The Sound and the Fury to try to make my point here, but that wouldn't be fair.  The adaptation's terrible because it's terrible. For one thing, Quentin Compson, the brother who narrates the whole, incredible, second chapter of the book, doesn't exist in the film version. Oh, and *spoiler alert* in the most astonishing and jaw-droppingly horrible misunderstanding and rewriting of any novel anywhere, the Jason character kisses girl Quentin.)

Perhaps it doesn't exceed, in awfulness, the 1957 adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's short story 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own," which starred Gene Kelly, about which O'Connor wrote, "The best I can say for it is that it conceivably could have been worse. Just conceivably." Adaptation is tricky business, whether it's one artist adapting an artwork into another medium, or a human creature adjusting to new products and new ways of existing. It sounds old-timey to hope that reading remain one of those activities that requires single tasking, that there will always be novels and poetry and short stories and plays and essays that demand focus and time, and that will always dazzle that part of the brain and spirit, to make the reader feel as if showered by aurora borealis.

Nearly everyone multi-tasks.  It's been sold as a way to adapt (note the subconscious propaganda in our clichés of acceptance: "fast-paced society" and "dead tree media"). Maybe a little skepticism about that adaptation is good. And maybe single tasking,—so individual! so outside the crowd!—is the new trend, the avant-garde. Adaptation is not always better, or the best way to become a human—evolution doesn't always mean one's evolving in the right direction.  But then I remind myself that the act of writing and of reading are also adaptations. 

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