January 24th, 2004
Adapting Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” is an act of futility. Trying to fit its meandrous story into a few hours of cinema without an overpowering sense of loss and dissipation is like driving a car through a door and expecting it to not tear down the walls around it.
Franzen’s big, bad, ambitious novel, which reads like a family drama by Wolfe, is somewhat like the modern-day “Moby-Dick”: you’re supposed to have read it, and if you haven’t, you lie and say you did. The book, which reveals the tale of the dysfunctional Lambert clan, is at times painfully beautiful and insightful, at times staggeringly pretentious, and manages to make the family’s story represent America in the ‘90s.
Its adaptation, by David Hare (“The Hours,” “The Blue Room”), a veteran screenwriter, director and playwright, is a translation by subtraction. Hare, displaying not even an ounce of understanding for the original work, melts down Franzen’s plot, hacks at large sections of it, keeps the basic spine, and presents a work as hollow, emotionless and impersonal as the book was vibrant, involving and vigorous.
In the simplest possible terms, “The Corrections” was about three unhappy kids and two unhappy parents. But it was, of course, about so much more than that. Besides distilling the feeling that was in the air during the boom ‘90s years here in the States, the book also dug deep into each of its characters -- with sidetracks about railroad companies, neurobiology, Lithuania -- until they were each a living, breathing person. Until the point where they stopped being an author’s creation and instead felt like someone you knew. And all with a sharp sense of humor and irony that never left the book, not even in its most serious circumstances. It was this dense, important Great American Novel, full of ribald high jinks, brimming with ideas, stop-offs in the bizarre (two things you don’t normally read in Oprah selections: a talking turd and a man making love to a couch), and even past all its flaws, even past the times when Franzen was massaging his ego, you definitely felt you had something special in your hands.
You can’t blame Hare for failing. Almost anyone would. You can blame him for how he failed. This is a phoned-in work. This is typing and not writing. This is a lazy attempt that doesn’t even try to make something meaningful of itself. What an adaptation like this becomes is one of those kids’ games, where you’re shown a picture and have to find the hidden items. You squint your eyes and stare, locating what you recognize. Alfred, Enid, Denise, Chip and Gary are all still around. Alfred is suffering from Parkinson’s. Enid is still quite the miserable, passive-aggressive woman she was in the book (and still trying to get everyone together for “one last Christmas”). Denise is a chef on the rise and still has an affair with a husband and a wife and wrecks their marriage. Chip still has his tryst with his student, gets fired from his college, tries to write a screenplay and ends up in Lithuania. Gary still has the same depression and awful homelife with his odious wife and their three kids. All the stuff you can skim from the surface of the novel is here. But in its present form, without Franzen’s language and probing prose, without the deeper meanings there, it is nothing higher than any drama you can catch on TV.
Hare seems to think his job was to squeeze as much of Franzen’s plot into his 160 pages as he could. But by packing everything in, uncouthly and heedlessly, the stacked-together elements lose any significance. And in the worst cases, they become ridiculous. Hare skips Denise’s first lesbian relationship and her marriage to an older guy, and then shows her getting shocked in one of those sexual epiphanies by Robin, her new boss’s wife, and Hare makes it appear as though the straight Denise simply got turned on by Robin and that’s why she pursues her. And then, though it makes little sense, but has to be there because it was this way in the book, Denise goes after Brian, her boss and Robin’s husband. When you take two hundred pages and boil them down to four scenes, things stop being logical. Hare ends up artlessly sticking gobs of information in his characters’ mouths. To make people understand what’s going on, and to do his work of fleshing out the characters, he has everyone explaining who everyone is.
Reading this adaptation of “The Corrections” had me as depressed as Gary and Alfred. A script has never gotten me so down in my life. Maybe it was the intense, four-day experience I had with the novel. Maybe it’s that a lot of “The Corrections” cuts close to the bone for me. But mostly it was a feeling of despair. Here’s this terrific piece of literature and the man adapting it has no idea who these people are or what the story symbolizes. Anyone, even a first-time writer, could have delivered a script as good or better than this one. It feels like such a waste. It feels like Hare wrote this with the thought in his mind that the script would never get made.
Hare fails in the large sense, and also in small ways, too. There are times when the characters clearly step outside themselves and lose connection to who they’re supposed to be. The subtlest and yet most gigantic sign of this has to be after the scene where Denise is trying to help the afflicted, incontinent Alfred with his exercises. Denise worships her father, and when his bladder lets loose while she’s with him, she is embarrassed for both of them. In the book she leaves the room and says that Alfred wet the bed. In the script Hare feels the need to change the line to “He’s pissed himself.” It may sound like nothing, but this exemplifies how little Hare gets who these people are. There’s no way Denise would further embarrass Alfred by saying this. Saying he wet the bed is mitigating things. Using the softest euphemism she can think of. Saying he’s pissed himself is angry. If things weren’t bad enough, Hare doesn’t even bother, with his dialogue annexations, to make his characters talk like people speak in America. He couldn’t even do that. (Which just proves he’s clearly the right guy for this project, no?) Two different characters use the word “spoilt.” Two different people! Sorry, but no one in America says “spoilt.” They say “spoiled.” So when an American professor says all these young kids are spoilt, it leaves you no other recourse than to hang your head and sigh. And then to have another character use the same word shows that no one is speaking their own language, with their own inflections and cadences, but that they’re all nothing but the screenwriter’s mouthpiece. Later someone uses “shan’t.” You have to ask yourself: when’s the last time you heard someone say “I shan’t see you”? I’m guessing never. Are you starting to see the problem here? Are you starting to get just how little interest Hare had in this project? The guy didn’t even bother to erase such obvious inaccuracies as Americans saying “spoilt” and “shan’t”! So is it any surprise that Gary, robbing the idea of all import, later announces that Alfred has a gun and is planning on shooting himself? Or that it’s impossible to understand who Enid is, despite that everyone tries to spell out her annoying, obsessive faults? Or that Chip’s story is a lot less compelling when you find out absolutely nothing about him, and don’t hear about his complex, nearly fearful relationship with his father, even though he’s told, outright, that he’s the favorite son (a revelation the Chip in the book might have been knocked back a step by)?
Things need to be cut and reshaped in adaptations. And it’s not surprising to find that the experimental procedure that might help Alfred’s Parkinson’s disease, a drama about one of his patents, his history with the railroad, and his delusions of attacking turds, were all cut. But you have to wonder why Hare would chop out the hilarious scene where Chip, who has little money and wanders into an overpriced market, shoves a fish down his pants to steal it. And with everything else packed in, why take away the most heart-rending moment in the book? When Denise finds out Alfred prematurely quit his job, which set them back financially, for her. Because while she was working in signals she had an affair with a coworker, who came to Alfred, saying he’d expose this if he wasn’t moved with the rest of the team as the company merged. Not to risk Denise embarrassment, Alfred quit his job and never mentioned it to her. It is an awful, awful moment for Denise, the only person in the book who is truly sympathetic. We don’t get this shattering moment, but you do hear Denise clumsily vocalize Franzen’s testament that with Alfred “love isn’t a matter of approaching; it’s a matter of keeping away.” Needless to say, this doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch.
The bottom line is this: as hard as it might be, as great as the work is, as much as you want to see it come to life, sometimes books should remain books. Sometimes letting a book exist as a book is the best gift you can give it. With sprawling tales rendering a time and place, and with lengths and depths unmatched by any movie, novels like “The Corrections,” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Freedomland,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “A Man in Full” should stay as words on a page. To turn them into movies is to cripple a favorite child.
Without hearing their thoughts, the characters in “The Corrections” are compacted into irritating fools. While some scenes, lifted straight from the book, still cause a chuckle, overall this grotesque chip-away of an outstanding novel feels like nothing much at all -- shallow folks dancing through unconnected behavior. With 160 pages at his disposal, Hare does nothing to translate the emotional resonance of the book. You never get to know anyone. You never even get close to what’s going inside these people’s minds. And since the main characters are left unknown, it goes without saying that Gary’s kids and wife, Robin and Brian, Chip’s girlfriend and cohort, and everyone else in the story is shortchanged as well. Hare lays out Franzen’s plot in chronological order and hides behind the book’s substance and hopes enough people have read it to pick up on what’s supposed to be affecting us.
Uninspiring and at times bizarrely neophyte-like, this adaptation of “The Corrections” makes the case that Hollywood and literature need not always join hands.
My rating: D
This undated draft was written by David Hare. The screenplay is based on the novel by Jonathan Franzen.