The Movies Seen the Book? Now Read the Movie

"The Day of the Locust is the Classics Illustrated version of a fine novel."

Bad books often make good movies. Peyton Place, for example, was a shabby little shocker that turned into a respectably entertaining melodrama on the screen. And while no one would ever confuse Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, with art, the two Godfather films come close to being masterworks.

But the fate of good books on the screen is sadder. There may be half-a-dozen movies that are worthy of the books on which they are based, but I can think of only two, the Russian War and Peace film of 1968, and the delicious Hollywood Pride and Prejudice of 1940 with Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, and a screenplay by Aldous Huxley. Some great books have been smothered by the reverence of the filmmakers, like John Huston’s ponderous Moby Dick or Richard Brooks’ interminable Lord Jim. Others have been merely travestied in their screen versions, like the Greta Garbo Anna Karenina or Martin Ritt’s foolish version of The Sound and the Fury.

More recently, there have been film versions of some of the classics of twentieth century literature that stuck so close to the letter of the work that the spirit, any spirit, was lost in the translation. I’m thinking particularly of Joseph Strick’s version of Joyce’s Ulysses, Ken Russell’s film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and Jack Clayton’s great bomb, The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately, we can now add to this list John Schlesinger’s new film of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

On paper it looked promising. West’s novel is probably the only distinguished work of fiction to be written about Hollywood. The times are ripe for a Hollywood-looks-at-itself movie, of which there have been few, the mordant Sunset Boulevard and the delectable Singin’ in the Rain being the only standouts. And director John Schlesinger has an impressive string of credits, including Darling, Midnight Cowboy, and the superb Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

But West’s style and characters have eluded Schlesinger and his script writer, Waldo Salt. Aside from his protagonist, Tod Hackett, who provides the central vision in the novel, West’s characters are grotesques, made credible by a narrative technique and a prose style which makes them seem like figures in a troubled dream. Like Dickens, West animates his grotesques by drawing attention to particular physical traits or mannerisms which become symbolic keys. Homer Simpson’s hands, for example, “demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water …. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.” The best Schlesinger can do with a detail like this is to shoot close-ups of Homer wringing his hands, details which suggest mere nervousness and anxiety rather than West’s nightmarish sense of an organism at odds with itself. Film is too hard-edged a medium for West’s characters, who need to live and move in settings provided by the reader’s own imagination and experience.

I’m aware that it’s hardly fair to criticize a work derived from another medium for not being the exact equivalent of the original. It would be foolish, for example, to criticize Verdi’s Otello for not being a precise operatic translation of Shakespeare’s Othello; both are supreme works in their respective media, but Verdi’s opera succeeds because it establishes its own musical-dramatic terms, which are sometimes those of Shakespeare’s play, but are consistently and coherently Verdian ones as well.

Coherence is precisely what SchleS-inger’s The Day of the Locust lacks. Where episodes have been added to the novel, such as the faith-healing sequence in which Geraldine Page plays an evangelist modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson, they don’t further plot or theme and in fact violate much of one’s sense of the characters involved in them. Some of the situations which West provides in the novel become overblown spectacle in the film, such as the collapse of the Waterloo set or the climactic riot at the premiere. In the novel these are incidents in a continuing narrative panorama; they are part of the work’s texture. But in the film they draw attention to themselves at the expense of lower-keyed, but equally important scenes. Instead of suggesting the apocalyptic cleansing that West apparently feels Hollywood deserves and will receive, they reduce the film to the level of the disaster epic.

So much attention has been given to detail in the film – the right set, the right location, the right casting – that it’s a pity that these details don’t fall into place in some significant way. Karen Black is the most impressive performer in the film; she gives her best performance since Five Easy Pieces as Faye Greener, the bit player who aspires to stardom. In both novel and film, Faye represents Hollywood sexuality: eternal promise, never fulfilled. Homer Simpson is the most poignant character in the novel, largely because West is able to internalize Homer’s timorous, yet ultimately deadly, isolation. As played by Donald Sutherland, however, he becomes merely a rather slow-witted bumpkin with latent homicidal tendencies. Sutherland fails to find a way to project what is within Homer, and Schlesinger’s only solution to the problem is to shoot Sutherland in brooding isolation with lots of mood-setting music.

William Atherton’s Tod Hackett is the film’s normative figure, the one whose perspective on events the viewer must rely on. Like the screenwriter played by William Holden in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, he’s a nice-but-not-too-nice guy victimized by Hollywood’s false glamor. But where the Holden character gives a center to Sunset Boulevard, Atherton’s Tod merely seems to stumble through the film. In the novel, the final riot-cataclysm is the fulfillment of Tod’s prophetic vision of “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Tod’s vision is only hinted at in the film by the mural-collage which forms on the wall of his apartment, and though the film’s climax is harrowing, it seems merely to happen by accident, rather than to emerge inevitably.

I suspect that the major trouble with The Day of the Locust is that John Schlesinger has no real feeling for Hollywood in the Thirties. He knows, to be sure, what to think about it, for West’s novel has already told him that. But his strongest films to date have been those in which a strong directoral feeling for the characters as human beings has been evident. In Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which is, I think, one of the finest films of the past decade, the characters emerge as human beings, not as mere symbolic entities. Among other things, it’s the only film I know in which homosexuality is treated as a fact of life, not as a problem to be solved or a cause to be upheld. Darling and Midnight Cowboy were similarly moving in their exploration of character. In fact, Schlesinger’s only conspicuous failure before The Day of the Locust was another adaptation of a major novel, Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. In that film, too, Schlesinger seemed unable to create characters rather than merely to reproduce his sense of how they are defined in their literary source.

The Day of the Locust was kicked around from director to director for about twenty years before it was finally filmed. One wonders what sort of film it might have been if it had been given to a director less conscious of its literary origins, more directly attuned to what Hollywood once was. For the very making of The Day of the Locust suggests that the Hollywood depicted in the film no longer exists. Some critics eager to praise the film have recognized this fact, and rushed to assert that the Hollywood of the Thirties is only a metaphor for the whole world in the Seventies. Statements like that are mere rhetoric; they won’t stand up under argumentation. I’m afraid the best that can be said for Schlesin-ger’s film is that it’s the Classics Illustrated version of a fine novel, satisfying only to people who have read the book but forgotten most of it.

D-Rated Movies

David Brudnoy

(All films listed are in current run; most are expected to be in Dallas, though some may not be distributed here immediately.)

Breakout: There’s this perfectly dreadful jail down Mexico way, and this perfectly innocent chap (Robert Duvall) is rottin’ in it, courtesy of his wicked uncle (John Huston) and, for no apparent reason, the CIA; so his highstrung little wife (Jill Ireland) just racks her brain for a solution. Eureka! Charles Bronson to the rescue – mustache, muscles, patented sneer, and, for a change, a helicopter do the trick. Breakout breaks down in about the second reel, and thereafter is an unintended comedy. Which breaks the spell.

Cornbread, Earl and Me: Nice people and rotten people come in all colors, and we meet a neatly balanced sampling of both in this well-meaning and occasionally moving tale of a young black basketball star mistakenly killed by the cops. Combread (Keith Wilkes) is the neighborhood hero, Earl is no good in a pinch, and the “me” of the title is the little Negro lad with a sense of values transcending those of the local sleazes. Rosalind Cash as Mama and Moses Gunn as a fine lawyer add some well-rehearsed histrionics, mainly superfluous, to this morality tale-cum-race consciousness flick.

Jaws: A fish story, for those with cast-iron stomachs, about the one that nearly got away. Grand Guignol has nothing on this one for sheer gore, and it is wonderfully scary too. Roy Scheider plays the Man of Reason – in this case, improbably, a resort town police chief – who senses danger ahead of the rest; Richard Dreyfuss mugs delightfully through a dream role as a rich hippy icthyologist seeking the big one; and Robert Shaw reincarnates Captain Ahab, the obsessed shark-chaser who gets more than he bargains for. Splendidly contrived hokum, and it should do terrible things to the summer resort industry. A grade-A chiller.

The Happy Hooker: A house, sure enough, isn’t always a home, not when presided over by Xaviera Hollander, here in the appealing guise of Lynn Redgrave. Nor is a tell-all book much improved on screen by taking out all the action and replacing it with tepid kinkiness and three dirty words and a lot of fizzled gags. Jean-Pierre Au-mont is embarrassing (and probably was rather embarrassed) playing Xaviera’s first introduction to hookery, and everyone else, except Redgrave, is horrid. Call her madam, if you must, but don’t go calling for any fun, excitement, or skill.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Gad-zooks! The British loonies currently syndicated on American public TV are at it in a feature-length, partly-animated film that starts hilariously and wears down to a precious few yucks. The knights of Arthur’s Camelot are a sorry lot, the blood and guts spill easily, but here and there a scene is uproarious, as when the bards accompanying Sir Robin sing first of his bravery and then just as blithely serenade the world with tales of his cowardice; and when, for want of horses, Arthur and Company gallop themselves to the accompaniment of servants clopping coconuts together in a horse hoof rhythm.

Nashville: Robert Altman’s two and a half hour distillation of eight hours of film set in the Athens of the South, containing 24 lead characters and two major stories intertwining in a shocking climax. The actors wrote their own music and lyrics, improvised much of their dialogue, and carry a deceptively simple tale of country music greats and would-be-greats, and the second theme, of a new party candidate’s appearance in town, to heights of sophistication. Among the actors who shine here as never before, count Henry Gibson as king of the Opry, Lily Tomlin as a good mother and gospel singer lusting after a rock stud; Keith Carradine as the stud; and Ronee Blakley as the queen of country music. America, no less, comes alive in this tremendous movie, after which the American cinema will never be the same. It is a masterpiece.

Once Is Not Enough: As dreadful as the book, with all the stylized “love” interest of that other recent great dud, Earthquake. Incest, gigoloism, lesbianism, sex your ordinary way, unintended vulgarity. Atrociously earnest and dumb. See Kirk Douglas’s dimple, see George Hamilton suck in his tummy and pretend to be 29 (!), see Melina Mercouri and Alexis Smith smooching, see Gary Conway flex, see the usually hilarious Brenda Vaccaro try desperately to rescue this unmitigated disaster, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

The Return of the Pink Panther: Inspector Clouseau is back, the same bumbling incompetent ninny of the original Panther film a decade ago. Peter Sellers is in top form in his finest film in years. A merry romp of sight gags, sound gags, pratfalls, slapstick, sophisticated farce and gentle tease, all perfectly timed by Sellers and his splendid supporting cast. It is elegant, witty, good clean fun.

Shark’s Treasure: Cornel Wilde sucking in his stomach and hutching it up as a deepsea diver going after – what other than? – sunken gold treasure. Way too many nasty sharks; and almost as many nasty Mexican convicts (and one fruity Yankee lad) get in the way, but somehow the good guys make it through, laughing as the sun sets and the movie patron wonders where his three bucks went, and why.

Silent Night, Evil Night: Oh my, there is a brutal fellow going around killing young ladies and their sorority house mother, and it is spooky as all get out. For once in this age of rip-offs of the old horror flicks, a triumph. Lots of chills, eerie performances by Keir Dullea as an easily rattled pianist, Olivia Hussey as his girl friend, and enough terrifying scenes to make Hitchcock’s Psycho seem like Bambi in comparison. Recommended for guys who want to inspire hugs from their girls in the theater: no one would want to see this alone.

The Wild Party: Look, ma, Raquel Welchcan act, sort of! She plays the put-upon girlfriend of hasbeen film comedian Jolly Grimm(James Coco), a fellow trying desperately tomake a comeback. Handsome Mr. Sword (PerryKing) gets in the way, Jolly’s comeback comedyflops, and it all turns into the nastiest orgy inHollywood. Wild Party contains some specialmoments but on balance it flops too.


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