It is not a set of shadows cast out from a set of words (On novelization of cinema)


film adaptations of novels are extraordinarily common, running the gamut from the chick-lit mundane to dark, broody films based on dark, broody novels.  Historically, the root of the gesture was in prestige pics, where the use of a known Important Book as support structure/basis for your film was a sure-fire way to get it treated as a respectable piece of art, and one with which audiences were familiar enough to get a bit of extra comfort (they know what's coming), imaginative fleshing out (they get to see what Heathcliff really looks like), or stake-claiming (see esp. the contemporary version, the sweaty-palmed and gleeful diatribes of fanboys and fangirls because if you look at Issue #324, Iron Man obviously never modified his suit that way).  As such, they can retain the double sense: just cashing in (off mass reading phenomena or on smaller, niche audiences who will surely see their prized thing come to screen, done correctly or not) or making something of quality, an insistence that there are Important Books and they deserve to heralded as such by using them as source material for what hopes so badly to be an Important Film.

"novelizations" of films are far less common, although for certain franchises (read: Star Wars and Star Trek), they flourish out into whole other territories, fleshing out details and galaxies that had no place in the films.  But in general, the films that get novelized, without necessarily using the novel as a springboard to new terrains of fandom, are genre films of the bigger budget variety (esp. action and sci-fi, with a bit of horror),

and they are shitty films of the bigger budget variety (see image immediately above), designed for an audience dumb enough to really dig it in moving picture form and perversely committed enough to dig into it in turgid, cliched prose form.

I call bullshit.

For the basic implication of this dynamic is that while films can be quite wonderful, deep, original, moving, inventive, provocative, and et cetera on and on, those films we label as such are seen as having nothing to offer beyond themselves.  No moves of thought to be worked differently, no tropes to be transposed, nothing to be gained from ekphrasis.  This is, ultimately, a consequence of the fact that Isou was wrong about the tyranny and dominance of the image in cinema.  It is the script, the dialogue, the plotting, all that could be written down without being ekphrastic, that is the real mark of quality.  Sure, some films are heralded as being relatively plotless celebrations of the visual.  Poets may latch on, but more in the sense of riffing off of the film, smuggling away a shot, or stripping away its connective tissue to draw forth a set of discontinuous instances.  (See here Elizabeth Willis' Turnereseque.)  Not of adapting it, not with the understanding that adaptation never means a dislocation without loss and gain.  Because a film is not a novel and not a poem, any attempt to do so - with a real fidelity, with trying to actually nail it - will necessarily brings about a strangeness.  The deep strangeness of genre film, where the injunction make that same film that made all that money without making that same film impels modes of fuck-up, of deviation, of a stirring, slippery, obscure political theory, and of getting finally something very right that do not happen if the injunction was make any film you want.

At best, the good films - not the "good films" of Oscars, but things that actually mean a damn to us -  are treated with the flat mystique of elevation that equally degrades the novel: well, this movie already does a good job both with the text side of things, it is a well-written set of moving images and sound, and it already gives us the exact curve of her back near when it swoops out to her ass, it already described the falling near-straight arc of a bullet, it already told us just what sound the glass underfoot made beneath the stomping soles, so why bother trying to write it out, why bother using words to make a reader imagine what is already available to be known without the task of imagination?  As though the point of films was to make unavoidably clear to you exactly how something is and the point of novels is to provide the evocations that will allow you to do the bit of imaginative work to envision exactly how something is.

It's telling that even the novelizations that do happen, "hack" as they may be, blatantly money-grubbing in such a way to make unavoidable what is the case anywhere anyway, are not novelizations of films.  They are novelizations of screenplays, "based on the screenplay by...", such that the collective apparatus (including director, cinematographer, editor, actors, everyone and everything marked the film) is shoved aside.  As in, Let's get back to the text, to the skeleton, to what really matters, to what really gives form to matter, shape to the patterns of light reflected off matter out there in a world that is not a set of words.

But cinema is not an animated screenplay, it is not a set of shadows cast out from a set of words, it is not a unthought leech on what already exists to be snatched, it is not a small furry thing that is adequate to itself and cannot be more than it is.  It is a bristling contradiction, it is overdetermined and sad and cannibal.  It is pastel and morose, and it is wretch, retching, and grinning.

It is not enough on its own, but not because it needs legitimacy from elsewhere, be it a theorist to explain its mechanisms or a novel to give it lungs and chords.  It is not enough on its on own because it is too much for that, to sit and wait.  

And so:

Start novelizing films.  Not franchises and screenplays.  Start adapting films that are thought to be "too good" to be derivative on the back of.  Stop leaving them alone.  Pick at them, mime them, and make them over, not as re-makes, not as the same plus bullet time, not "inspired by".  Make them again in words, knowing that it will not work out and that will be better.

Write novelizations of:

Solaris, not based on the Lem, but on the Tarkovsky.  Write that melancholy slab.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  Do not create a plot or psychological interiority.

The Sword of Doom.  It will break off mid-sentence.

Il Mercenario.  Let Curly be written as if written by Jim Thompson.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.  Refuse to read the screenplay, add infection, chainsaws, or kung fu.

Dog Star Man.  This should be printed on a small run, with pages that are stained and torn.

L'Atalante.  This cannot be written, but it is this that I will write.

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