I've alluded to my fascination with the subject of movie adaptations before. Whether it's book-to-screen, stage-to-screen, even video game-to-screen, the very nature of trying to take a premise or story from one medium and successfully translate it to another is one of the most difficult hurdles in filmmaking, and the fact of the matter is, most people don't do it very well. I find the problem to be a misconception with the idea of being "faithful" to the source material. Too many people get confused between remaining "faithful" and being "literal" -- two completely different ideas. Chris Columbus, for example, has managed to thoroughly mangle two Harry Potters and one Rent in large part due to being quite "literal" but managing to miss the majority of what made any of those original works interesting and soulful in the least.
But actually, this preamble is a subject for another post. As I've mentioned in the past, I've done a lot of work on adaptation. In a "Film & Literature" class at NYU some years ago, we were required to write two major papers: the first involved reading a novel before seeing its movie offspring and the second was based on doing the reverse. I've always had a preference for the former: generally if a movie is coming out and it's based on a book which I'm interested in reading, I'll hold-off seeing the movie until after finishing the book. This has often led to me completely missing the theatrical release of certain films. (I've become more lenient with my little rule this year due to a few different circumstances.) Personally, I've always found that a well-made movie can still enchant and surprise me even if I have read the script but the same is not necessarily true if I've seen another person's visual interpretation of the source material before creating my own literary-induced world in my head. I think this is somewhat normal: at the most basic level, once you've seen (or even heard about) a known actor playing a certain role, you start to picture that person while reading the book and you lose a little something of the interactive magic inherently created from simply reading.
And then came Steve Martin's "Shopgirl". I bought the book a while ago but hadn't read it. The movie came out to mixed and unenthusiastic reviews, but I've always been a fan of Martin and I also love Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman. Besides, I always like to see everything anyway. So when a friend suggested we go see it during the coming weekend, I figured I better get cracking on the novel. Or rather, the novella, since thanks to its roughly 130 page length, that's how it has most often been described. I didn't get very far into those 130 pages, however, before I found myself disliking it immensely.
I don't hate too many books. Maybe it's because I don't read enough or maybe as critical as I am about film, theater and television, I'm less so about literature. I don't think every piece of writing as as great as every other piece, but I can instantly recall only a few books I've ever read that made me feel the way I did after walking out of White Man's Burden or Buffalo '66 -- like I've actually had prescious time ripped away from my soul that I desperately want back. I'm also really bad about not finishing something I don't like, whether it's a film a book or even a magazine article. So needless to say, I read all of "Shopgirl," and disliked the vast majority of my time doing so. The two biggest problems were Martin's prose and the way he established the characters. His writing had this uncomfortable formality to it often straining to be sardonic. I might have enjoyed it more had he been reading it to me in a book-on-tape because I could recognize some of the style from how he would often perform as the super-arrogant blowhard in his stand-up act years ago. But on the page, it was annoying. More importantly, however, Martin reviles all his characters, with the possible exception of Mirabelle, the shopgirl of the title. But even in Mirabelle's case, while he places her on this pedestal of beauty, intelligence and some twisted-form of virtue, he pities her. She may be the closest thing to a woman of perfection in Martin's world, but she's still so fucked up and, until the end, has trouble getting her life together that he just feels sorry for her.
So walking into Shopgirl the movie, I wasn't expecting much. I was more curious about how they would handle the narrative which in the novella is told via a disembodied third person narrator. It didn't take long to see that not only had Martin made numerous changes to the screenplay, but the majority of the issues I had with the book were quite simply missing from the film. Don't get me wrong: I didn't love the movie either, but I was reasonably caught-up in it, the performances were all top-notch (especially Schwartzman who was obviously provided with and then helped develop a much more interesting, and funny, character on screen than what was on the page). In fact, when the movie was over, my first reaction was one completely new to me even after decades of reading books and seeing movies: I wished I had seen the film first. Some of Anand Tucker's direction was a little bit heavy-handed and overdone -- he really loves the sweeping camera moves with an overabundance of moody instrumental music -- but overall, I wonder if the film he and Martin crafted would have been even more satisfying if I didn't come to it with the baggage of a novella and characters I sort of despised.
At their hearts, both the book and film are about the same thing: a person (or rather, three people, even) dealing with loneliness, looking for love and striving for self-acceptance, but the difference lies in a fundamental change in approach to the material, and the end result is a more positive, while still completely human, one. It's almost as if the book was a psychiatry patient, and once it went on anti-depressants, it turned into the movie. All the same issues were there, but it's just slightly healthier.
If one scene characterizes the difference between book and film, I'd say it's when Martin's Ray Porter tells Dane's Mirabelle that he slept with another woman. They had always supposedly had an open relationship, but both book and film (in different but individually appropriate ways) clearly show how that may not have meant the same thing to each of them. In the film, the slightly more sympathetic and emotional Ray writes a note, and in the scene we discover Mirabelle crying hysterically on her bed having just read it with Ray sitting right next to her. The note ends with Ray writing that he's telling her this because she has the right to know. (I don't actually remember the line: it's either, "You have the right to know," or "You deserve to know.")
This is a completely different situation however than what's presented in the novel in which during their conversation about remaining open, Mirabelle tells Ray that if he ever sleeps with somebody else, she wants to know. And although he tells her in the exact same manner -- in writing as he sits next to her -- and she has a similar reaction, the last line is different, stating that the only reason he's telling her is because she asked him to. The difference is one in motivation. In the book, Ray is supposed to be utterly oblivious to her feelings even as he has some indescribable attachment (and even love) for her. He thinks he's just doing what she asked and there's no reason for her to get upset. But in the film, Ray actually has some sort of feelings, even if they're conflicted ones, and it's because he cares for Mirabelle (even if he's not sure exactly how or why) that he decides she has any rights in this relationship at all. It means more. It's easier to identify with both of them and the entire situation. Yet Ray doesn't suddenly become any sort of saint, and it's still clear that while he felt guilty and obligated to be forthcoming with her, he still doesn't necessarily think he did anything wrong. In his own mind, his guilt actually stems from the fact that being with this other woman simply wasn't as enjoyable as being with Mirabelle.
Shopgirl is still a somewhat dreary movie with a slightly too tidy almost-Hollywood ending, and I do think my dislike for the book actually helped me enjoy the film more. I wouldn't flat out recommend Shopgirl, although again, Schwartzman's performance is quite funny and entertaining, but for a somewhat dark romantic dramedy, I've certainly seen worse. Moreover, for maybe the first time ever, Shopgirl proves that sometimes, a watching a film can be better for you than reading.