Saturday, December 5, 2009
Welcome back to "Watching the Watchers," a series wherein I pick bones with several professional critics in a large, celestially empty room. I'm sure they're quaking. Nevertheless, I enjoy discussing art and criticism, and the professional criticism on The Road presents me with a unique opportunity: an award-winning book everyone's read spawning a film everyone knows had a troubled production. How will critics react? Come back after the break!
Turns out, you're not allowed to critique a film adaptation without mentioning ad nauseam how much you loved the book. I'll bet there are even critics out there who think Puzo made the definitive Godfather.
Oops. I'm trying to be detached and academic. On with the evidence. I've selected snippets exclusively from pans (though nearly every rave is similarly preoccupied with the novel and its author instead of the film on the screen) wherein critics discuss the film in relation to the novel, grouped in four sections:
1. Ty Burr (Boston Globe) and Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper) feel the film is too sentimental relative to the novel. Burr: “In adapting this harsh, unyielding book for the screen, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall pull their punches the slightest degree and thus too much.” Sam Adams sighs, “There may be no cinematic equivalent to the stark obscurity of Cormac McCarthy’s prose.” Having read the book, he discerns, “Joe Penhall’s script pounces on the book’s scraps of sentimentality,” and his knowledge of the source material gives him the authority to announce “the movie is too often merely grim when it should be frightening, flatly dour instead of morally anguished.”
2. Ann Hornaday (Washington Post) and David Edelstein (New York Magazine) fault the source material for the film's failings. Hornaday argues that McCarthy is prone to extreme emotions: “He loves to put his characters -- and by extension, the audience -- in situations of unbearable suffering, to see if they're worthy of his exacting ethical standards.” Edelstein isn’t a big fan of McCarthy either, snarking about his invocation of God in the novel and the strange motivation of the Wife. He continues: “McCarthy will never get over the end of the Age of Good Men (which never existed, but don’t tell him that).”
3. Jake Coyle (AP) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) find the film fails to capture what was ineffably special about the novel. Coyle says, “Though the film mostly strives to stay close to the book, it fails to translate its essence and somehow feels more dreary than it should.” He adds that we don’t feel the bond between the Man and Son, “shown by McCarthy in spare dialogue.” Meanwhile, Turan says, “What we've been given is no more than a reasonable facsimile, an honorable attempt at filming an unfilmable book.” (No comment on Todd McCarthy's claim that The Road “reads extremely cinematically.”)
4. Finally, J. Hoberman (The Village Voice) describes in admirable detail what was special about McCarthy's style in the novel, which was not apparent in the film. "One can either embrace McCarthy's laconic tone or ignore it--Hillcoat does neither." He concludes, "Perhaps only a visionary genius like Andrei Tarkovsky or a heedless schlockmeister like Michael Bay could have handled the book's combination of visceral terror and mystical reflection.”
Which leads me to the obvious question: Is it kosher for criticism to fault a film for failing to be the novel? In less loaded terms, must a film adaptation reflect its source material, and should criticism account for the source?
A piece of film criticism should critique the film. Whether the film delivers the same experience as its source is irrelevant. The source was made by its own artist for its own purpose, and the subsequent film was made by separate artists for its own separate purpose.
In this case, The Road's excessive sentimentality is not a flaw just because it's a divergence from the novel. Nor is the film's failure to capture Cormac McCarthy's style, nor is the film's failure to capture what was special about the book. None of these are drawbacks in and of themselves. In each case, the onus is on the critic to elaborate what about these ostensible problems contradicts the film's purposes. Which will be a problem for critics like Kyle Smith (New York Post) who saw no purpose.
Again, I yield that there are real-world concerns at play, and newspaper film reviews are not pure arts criticism. The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, and readers are going to be familiar with it, and many of them will expect their local critics to convey how faithful the film is in their reviews. I get it.
I also feel that a certain amount of novel discussion can help lend context to the review. But critics ought to know that the novel is purely tangential to the film criticism.
Of course, the approaches of Ann Hornaday and David Edelstein, snark notwithstanding, comport with true criticism. Which is to say theirs is an argument I can logically follow: the novel is problematic for x reasons, and the film is fairly faithful to the novel, so the film is problematic for approximately x reasons.
And in case it needs spelling out, I'm not attacking anything but these excerpts, which are non-critical in the purest sense. I have no opinions on any of these critics, I've rarely read anything else by them, and I found some of these reviews thought-provoking (hint: not Stephen Whitty's).
It's just that I expect criticism from my criticism.