Showing posts with label books vs. movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books vs. movies. Show all posts

15 January 2015

Cloudstreet

by Eve Fisher

We moved up to small town South Dakota 25 years ago.  There was one movie theater, that back then showed movies about 6 months to a year late.  (Things have improved.)  Back then you could rent videos - remember those?  and the main rental center was at a local liquor store.  Let's just say that the selection was limited.  We missed a lot.

But now, with Netflix, I can get almost anything I want.  I troll Netflix the way some people troll bars, looking for suitable pick-ups.  About the only thing I won't watch is anything with extreme gore.  (I have a sensitive stomach.)  And if the show is good enough, I'll read the book.

A classic example of this is Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton of Perth, Australia.  It's Australia's favorite novel, and the miniseries was produced by the Australian television station Showcase.  I rented the miniseries - 6 episodes - and we binge-watched it.

Two families, the Pickles and the Lambs spend over 20 years living in the same, large, ramshackle, haunted (more about that later) house.  They split it down the middle, and a good thing, because they are night and day to each other.  Sam Pickles is a gambler, his wife Dolly is the sexiest drunk God ever put on this earth; between the two of them there isn't much on the table or in the future for their kids.  The Lambs are industrious, but with Oriel as the matriarch, they have to be:  she runs a tight ship.  As her husband, Lester says, "People have always been a disappointment to her."  The Lambs find meaning in God's grace, the Pickles, in luck.  The Pickles' God is the "Shifty Shadow" of fate, and Sam is its high priest.  The Lambs' God is a maker of miracles, although they also trust to the spinning knife, because it's "always the miracles you don't need."  Like a talking pig.  Or a son (Fish Lamb, the narrator) who Oriel beats back into breath after drowning, but not much else, or so it seems.

The house at Cloudstreet is a character in itself.

Cloudstreet - the House
It moans, it breathes, it lives - it's "a continent of a house", trembling with life, past and present.  It's haunted by the ghosts of at least three stolen Aboriginal children, who were being "trained" by an eccentric woman to become nice white ladies at tea before their suicide.  Fish Lamb cries to it; Oriel Lamb runs from it, to the point where she sets up a tent in the back yard and sleeps out there for almost 20 years.  Add to all of the above magical realism, two resurrections, a plagiarist, a parrot that craps money, Lester's ice cream, Oriel and Dolly dancing for the dead, Quick Lamb glowing white hot as the sun from the inside, Fish Lamb leaping, a boat that sails on grass, and a bilocating dog... It's a miniseries worth seeing.

- BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SERIAL KILLER? - 

In Cloudstreet the novel, one of the darker plot lines is provided by the real life Nedlands Monster, Eric Edgar Cooke, who terrorized through Perth from 1959-1963.  He committed over 250 robberies, during which he killed 8 people, and tried to kill 14 others.  It's true that Cooke was a horribly, notoriously abused child, frequently hospitalized for head injuries.  He was born with a cleft palate and had many surgeries, which weren't entirely effective.  He joined the armed forces, but was discharged once they found out about his record of B&E, vandalism, and arson.  He married in 1953 and he and his wife had seven children.  Some time after 1957, after two years' imprisonment for stealing a car, he went on a killing spree, that was the most entirely random thing you can imagine. He shot people, strangled them, stabbed them with knives and/or scissors, ran them over with cars, and axed them.  Whatever worked.  Some he killed when they woke up while he was robbing their house in the middle of the night.  One he shot dead when they answered his knock at the door.  He was eventually caught, tried, convicted and hanged in 1964.

Sadly, before Cooke was convicted, two false convictions were made:
Beamish, Button, and
crusading journalist Estelle Blackburn
after Beamish's acquittal in 2005

  • Darryl Beamish, a deaf mute, was convicted in December, 1961, of murdering Jillian Macpherson Brewer, a Melbourne heiress.  Despite Cooke's confession in 1963, Beamish served 15 years.  (The Chief Justice of Western Australia refused to believe Cooke's confession because he was a "villainous unscrupulous liar.")  After Button was released, though, in 2005, Beamish was finally acquitted.
  • John Button was convicted of manslaughter in 1963 of the death of his girlfriend, Rosemary Anderson (one of Cooke's first hit and run victims).  Button's bad stutter led the police to believe that he was deliberately concealing his guilt, and they coerced a confession out of him.  Again, despite Cooke's confession later that year, Button's appeal was denied.  In fact, Button's appeals were continually denied until 2002, when the Court of Criminal Appeal finally quashed his conviction. Sadly, Ms. Anderson's family continued to believe that he was guilty, and when they finally accepted that he didn't run her down, they held him responsible for her death because he was her escort the night that it happened, and he should have seen her home safely.  Button is currently the head of the Western Australia Innocence Project.

None of this shows up in the miniseries, but in the book, after Rose Pickles (Sam and Dolly's oldest) marries Quick Lamb (Oriel and Lester's oldest), Quick becomes a police officer, one of many assigned to try to catch the Nedlands Monster.  You can see "the murderer" as a symbol of another way of life, or a way to add to the tension, or as another example of the haunting of the world, the way Cloudstreet is haunted:  take your pick.  But he's all over Part IX:  he even shows up at the Cloudstreet house at one point, (looking for who?) but is chased off by the talking pig while the Aboriginal (sporadic visitor and prophet) watches approvingly.  And his eventual capture is another turning of the "shifty shadow", this time to good luck.

I don't know why they cut Cooke out of the miniseries.  (It's still worth seeing, even without him.) Maybe they thought that no one in Australia wanted to see it.  And I know there's never enough time in a movie or miniseries for everything that's in the book.  But still.  The novel was published in 1991, the miniseries made in 2010, and I would swear that if it had been made in America, they'd have left that serial killer in.  Can you think of any American miniseries where the serial killer got left out?

26 November 2014

Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor

by David Edgerley Gates

Musings, perhaps, less than a coherent whole, but bear with me.

I was a big fan of LeCarre's from the get-go, with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, although I remember throwing the book across the room when I finished it. I later liked A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY a lot, because by then I was familiar with the turf, both physical and internal, but I didn't much care for THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and actually for similar reasons - I knew sources and methods, and I found the tradecraft in the book unconvincing. Then came TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, and SMILEY'S PEOPLE (collectively, the Quest for Karla), and next, my own personal favorite, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL. "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name."

LeCarre's been well-served, by and large, by movie and television adaptions.  THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, with Richard Burton and Oskar Werner, is bracing and intelligent. THE DEADLY AFFAIR (adapted from CALL FOR THE DEAD) is even better - James Mason as George Smiley, although the character's given a different name. LOOKING GLASS WAR? Well, okay, it's got Tony Hopkins, but I think it's a dud. LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the movie? Not a failure, by any means, just a little out of focus, and abbreviated, of necessity, with a 130-minute runtime. Which brings us to the two back-to-back triumphs, Alex Guinness playing Smiley in the BBC miniseries, first TINKER TAILOR and then SMILEY'S PEOPLE.

What did I think of the more recent feature version of TINKER TAILOR, with Gary Oldman? I have two contradictory reactions. If you didn't know the story, you'd get lost in the thickets. On the other hand, not knowing the story, you wouldn't realize what you're missing. Having read the book more than once, and seen Guinness more than once, I kept noticing holes in the plot - how did Smiley get from Point A to Point B, when they left out the roadmap? But again, if you came to the movie without preconceptions, it might slide right by, nothing in your peripheral vision. The biggest weakness of the Oldman feature isn't Oldman, of course: he's terrific. And the compression, eh, you can't do much about that. The real weakness is in the supporting characters, not the actors, but the parts they play.




Maybe it's comparing apples and oranges. Let's face it, if you give yourself two hours (the movie version), vice five (the BBC version), a lot of stuff is bound to fall by the wayside, but in the TV production, you get a very strong sense of Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, and each of them seem solid, probable suspects - each of them having something to hide, of course - not to mention what a snake Percy Alleline is. That's really what I missed most in the picture, not the careful chess game Smiley plays, but the feeling he's up against a real adversary, or several of them, conspiring.

Obviously, it's easy to take shots at a movie when you don't think it measures up to the book, and there's the obverse, that you can make a better picture out of a generic potboiler than you can from a more heavyweight source. They're two very different mediums, anyway. If you've ever tried to do a screen treatment (I've done a couple), you find out first thing that you're in a foreign country, the environment is at right angles to a novel or a short story. But in either case, it seems to me that it's about gaining the confidence of the audience - maybe with a movie, the audience is more passive than a reader is, if your ideal reader is engaged, but you can't let them slip through your fingers, either way. They surrender their trust, and you have a responsibility to play fair, and give as good as you got.


I'm not, in this sense, complaining. I respected the Gary Oldman picture of TINKER TAILOR - I just wasn't invested in it.  It's likely I was just too ready to find it wanting, compared to the longer Guinness version, which has a lot of room to breathe. And maybe that's the issue. It's the difference between total immersion and a quick, chilly dip in the pool. Both have their virtues. In the case of TINKER TAILOR (and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, as well), I think the stories are better served by a circular, more ambiguous method. It's a matter of pacing. Not the shortest distance between two points, or the most direct, but the long way around, a different rhythm, where time is elastic, and memory an unreliable witness.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com