Thursday, March 12, 2009

Make a Movie of ...

Booking Through Thursday asks this question:
What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers? Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?
I'm always interested in people's thoughts on this because I love books and I love movies. But so seldom do good books become good movies.
Here's my answer. Are you sitting down?  Really. You should sit down.  Here it is ... The Biographer's Tale, by AS Byatt. 
Stop laughing.  I have my reasons.
If you want to know why, click "More".  If not, just leave your own ideas in the comments.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I'm a huge fan of AS Byatt.  But The Biographer's Tale is my least favorite Byatt novel and I found it almost unreadable in certain respects.  So it might strike some of you as funny that I think it could be made into a film.  But I do. I've thought so ever since about a week after the first (and only) time I read the novel and was caught up in thinking about how the novel just didn't work.  When suddenly I thought, but it would work as a movie.  I just never thought I'd get the chance to tell anyone this idea.

For those of you who haven't read it, I can't recommend that you do.  But I'll give you a brief synopsis.   Phineas G. Nanson is a graduate student who tires of academic life and is uninterested in completing his dissertation.  He is tired of post-structural literary studies and wants "facts".  His advisor recommends that he instead write a biography of an obscure writer who only wrote biographies: Scholes Destry-Scholes.  Nanson attempts to research Scholes'  life but, in the end, discovers very little about Scholes, certainly not enough to write a biography.   To support himself as he conducts his tedious research he becomes employed at a travel agency that helps people plan special fantasy trips.  In the course of the story he also becomes lovers with two women, a Scandinavian bee taxonimist and a radiologist.  In the end he is not able to finish the biography but he does become a fiction writer.

Not the most exciting plot in the world.  Those immersed in academia might find parts of it amusing; others might be bored. But the plot is not necessarily the reason that it didn't work as a novel.  The problem with this novel was that Byatt forces the reader to go through every bit of tiresome, pointless research that Nanson goes through. 

When Nanson finds that Scholes had begun work on three biographies, we are forced to read the excerpts of these biographies that he has found.  All right, perhaps this was not pointless from the point of view of the reader because the fictional biographies are of real life persons (Carl Linneaus, Francis Galton and Henrik Ibsen) and we the reader figure out that Scholes inserted a bit of ... fantasy into his biographies.   But although not pointless, they take up a great deal of the book and interrupt the narrative (and while Byatt is making statements in this novel about narrative it is still annoying).  Each of these three real life people were involved in the science (or art?) of classification.  And classification plays a big role in this novel.

Nanson also discovers a huge collection of notecards on which Scholes kept notes. As Nanson slowly works through them he tries to classify them and fails.    As a reader we try to impose a narrative on them and fail - there is no rhyme or reason to the order of the cards and the quotes on them are not identified so it is impossible to tell what was a quote versus what was an original thought of Scholes'.  This notecard examination goes on for quite some time and is the main reason that I found the novel almost unreadable. 

So why on earth would I think this would make a good film?  Because if you cut out those sections of the novel in which the reader must read what Nanson reads (not the idea behind these sections but the actual fact of having to read them), the story of Phineas Nanson is actually ... a tale.  A fairy tale, even.  And one that lends itself to a visual medium.

Byatt loves to create tales and she often inserts them into her novels.  She did it in Possession and in Babel Tower.  She also wrote a small book of tales.   And I'm usually bored by them.  But this entire novel is a fairy tale and it works if the reader can get past all the research she is forcing us to do. 

Here are the details that I left out of my synopsis.  Phineas G. Nanson is a "little person".  Not really a dwarf.  "Small but perfectly formed."  Maybe like a hobbit but without the furry feet.   He is given advice by Professor Goode - a Merlin or Gandalf like person.  The two women with whom he becomes involved are like opposite twins of myth - one a bee taxonimist, all outdoors and golden.  The other a radiologist, all indoors and silver.  There is a mysterious stranger who lurks at the Travel Agency and is threatening in some vague way (his name is Bossey) all of which leads up to an "encounter".   The Travel Agency itself is one of those magical places that inhabit British children's literature - Phineas "just notices" it on the street one day.  He realizes that he needs a job and it just sort of appears.  A plain building with a magical interior . 

The particular reason I think this would work in film is because as the story moves forward his life become more colorful - literally.  (In the novel his writing becomes more interesting too). And it would work so much better if you could actually see the color and the other visuals.  The story opens in shades of brown and gray (London, the interior of a classroom) and ends in a field of bright flowers.    In between he moves between a gray existence (reading all those damn notecards) to color (the Travel Agency).   I can picture an Amelie like colorization technique as different objects become colorized until by the end his whole world is color.  And all the parts that were boring to read?  We could see what he sees as he reads them - as they become more fantastical.  A sort of movie of the mind showing us that what were supposed to be solid documentaries about great men became works of fiction.

I think it could work.  

The most amazing thing to me is that the whole fairy tale thing was not even noticeable to me through most of the novel.  Thank god.  If it had been blatant I would have given up early on.  I don't like fairy tales.  But it was done so subtly that I didn't even realize it until late in the novel when Phineas gets into an argument with the very likeable but slightly naughty gay owners of the Travel Agency and the word "fairies" is flung around.  Gasp.   Of course I assumed it was just a slur thrown against two gay men.  Until a few pages later when it dawned on me that they were not only gay they were exactly like fairies.  Real fairies (well, you know what I mean).   Think Tinkerbell.  She is essentially good but unreliable.  She grants wishes but they might not turn out as you expect.  She has a temper and gets jealous.  She can be mischievous.  And that's what the Travel Agency owners are like. They have made Phineas' life better by employing him but they are also ... difficult.  And it was at that moment that I put the whole thing together and realized that Phineas was living in a fairy story although he thought he was living another genre of narrative altogether.  And once he released himself into fiction his life became happier.

Now can't you just see a filmmaker wrapping his arms around that concept? 

Oh, and by the way, I never thought I would ever blog about The Biographer's Tale.