NABOKV-L post 0011229, Wed, 16 Mar 2005 16:01:21 -0800

VN & film
EDNOTE. The two fundamental books on VN & film are Alfred Appel's _Nabokov's Dark Cinema_ and Barbara Wyllie's _Nabokov at the Movies_.

----- Original Message -----
From: willtato
To: D. Barton Johnson
Sent: Wednesday, March 16, 2005 1:34 PM
Subject: Fw: Fwd: Re: Robert Evans and ADA film project (circa 1969)

Some thoughts on cinema, drama and literature.

First, my own view:

It is wll known that Nabokov had a fabulous visual sense and was likely a keen appreciator of cinema, as Bryan Boyd has discussed. One scene in Pnin describes a Charlie Chaplin film with an obvious sense of delight. Laughter in the Dark comes to mind as a good example of VN's incorporating ideas gleaned from watching movies. Protagonist Albinus first meets the teenaged strumpet Margot, who will be his undoing, in a cinema where she works as an usher. The first movie scene he glimpses in the theater is that of a girl receding before a masked man with a gun - a kind of foreglimpse of the encounter near the end of the book when he will be seeking to murder her, though instead of wearing a mask Albinus will be blind. He has entered the cinema near the end of a film and has no interest in the dramatic sequence, not caring to watch "happenings which he could not understand since he had not yet seen their beginning". This is a very neat echoing of the technique used at the very opening of the book, where the whole story is told in a nutshell, and thus the reader (but of course not hapless Albinus) learns immediately what will happen at the end. A large part of the "moral" or "message" of the novel (to use terms which VN despised, I know) is the banality and ordinariness of the tragic occurrences that often ensue when older men undertake relations with women much younger - simple principles overlooked again and again by desparate, thrill seeking, aging males. Perhaps if Albinus paid attention to the "end" he would have avoided taking such disatrous action. In this same scene, the car accident that causes art lover Albinus' tragic blindness is also foreshadowed by a filmed scene of a car speeding on a harrowing cliffside road. Later, a description of Margot's withering humilation when she sees her first screen test shows a deft rendition of a camera's distortion of even her considerable charms.

I think many people, even respectable specialists in one or the other field, mistakenly apply the wrong criteria when evaluating and criticizing works in these very different but equally fascinating art forms. Most lay people will say, 95% or more of the time, "I enjoyed the book more than the movie." Often this is said in order to express the general view that literature is inherently superior to film. Also many people wish, at least in part, to show that they have the wherewithal to read books in the first place, and to read with some degree of imagination. So when they see a filmmaker's adaptation, they almost always will find some omission, distortion or complete deviation from the writer's intent. This is certainly not fair, and in my view shows a lack of understanding of cinematic art. Several examples exist to prove the superiority of a filmic version to its literary counterpart such as Unbearable Lightness of Being. Critic Pauline Kael shares my view that Kaufman's adaptation was superior to Kundera's novel. (Interestingly, Kundera himself approved mightily of Kaufman's film.)

Cinema, drama and literature certainly have some elements in common: plot, character, setting, visual effects, time - but they are used in very different ways, and should be, to maximize the potential each particular art form can embody in its own unique way.

Some other opinions from masters:

The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1998) wrote, "The truth of filmmaking cannot be the truth of the novel nor the truth of painting." - from Notes on Filmmaking, Paris, 1975.

Here are some quotes on the topic of literature versus film from Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut - two world class film makers, whose respective oeuvres should be considered on a par with VN's literary achievement:

Francois Truffaut:'s quite true that critics generally tend to assess a picture on the basis of its literary quality rather than its cinematic value. Your doubt account for your reluctance to adapt great literary works to the screen. Your own works include a great many adaptations, but mostly they are popular or light entertainment novels, which are so freely refashioned in your own manner that they ultimately become a Hitchcock creation. Many of your admirers would like to see you undertake the screen version of such a major classic as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, for instance.

Alfred Hitchcock: Well, I shall never do that precisely because Crime and Punishment is somebody else's achievement. There's been a lot of talk about how Hollywood directors have distorted literary masterpieces. I'll have no part of that! What I do is to read a story only once, and if i like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.

FT: I take it then that you'll never do a screen version of Crime and Punishment.

AH: Even if I did, it probably wouldn't be any good. In Dostoyevsky's novel there are many many words and all of them have a function.

FT: That's right. Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfection of form, its definitive form.

AH: Exactly, and to really convey that in cinematic terms, substituting the language of the camera for the written word, one would have to make a six to ten hour film. Otherwise, it won't be any good.

FT: I agree. Moreover, your particular style and the very nature of suspense require a constant play with the flux of time...

AH: The ability to shorten or lengthen time is a primary requirement in film-making. As you, know there is no relation whatever between real time and filmic time. A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve. As you know, a short story is rarely put down in the middle, and in this sense it resembles a film.

from Hitchcock/Truffaut, SImon and Shuster, English translation copyrighted 1984

[note: Bryan Boyd's comments on VN's manipulation of time in the short story Potato Elf is extremely interesting in this context. Potato Elf could, in my opinion, make a wonderful film]

Elsewhere, AH and FT share a laugh when one recounts a joke something akin to: "A couple of goats are grazing in a pile of junk, eating random pieces of discarded garbage. One begins to munch on an abandoned reel of film. When the other asks him how it tastes, he replies, "Not bad; but I preferred the book."

----- Original Message -----
From: "Donald B. Johnson" <>
Sent: Tuesday, March 15, 2005 6:43 PM
Subject: Fwd: Re: Robert Evans and ADA film project (circa 1969)

> Swifty Lazar, Nabokov's Hollywood agent -- or at least I think that's what he
> was -- told that story some years ago on Bob Costas' old TV show "Later." I
> think he and Evans were there together. Lazar's impression was the same,
> though, that it was a "book for intellectuals" that he couldn't imagine seeing
> as a movie.
> What does everyone else think?
> My idea of a model adaptation of a literary novel with an unusual structure is
> Philip Kaufman's film of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Do you think it's
> possible to put "Ada" or "Pale Fire" on film in a way that would satisfy not so
> much a mass audience but, say, a reasonably intelligent filmgoer who had not
> read the book? That's the true test.
> Rodney Welch
> -----Original Message-----
> From: "Donald B. Johnson" <>
> Sent: Mar 15, 2005 1:37 PM
> Subject: Robert Evans and ADA film project (circa 1969)
> One thing I have never seen mentioned on this email group is the
> discussion of 'Ada' in Robert Evan's autobiography "The Kid Stays In
> The Picture". According to the legendary producer, he flew overnight
> to Europe to read the final draft of 'Ada', with a view to purchasing
> the film rights. I seem to remember he claims to have read it all in
> one night and reluctantly passed on the opportunity to buy it as "it
> might have been a work of genius" but "I sure as hell couldn't
> understand it". He notes with pride that "to this day, they still
> can't figure out how to shoot the damn thing!".
> Heh. Anyway, I read The Kid Stays In The Picture a couple of years
> ago, so that's probably a highly inaccurate recollection.... a highly
> recommended autobiography though, especially as the people on this
> list are probably fans of "unreliable narrators"..... ;-)
> Andy
> ----- End forwarded message -----