Posted by: Gregoryno6 | September 28, 2014

From page to screen: three recent translations.

Under The Skin was based on the book of the same name by Michel Faber.

I knew naught of Mr Faber or his writing until the movie showed at Revelation. I was sufficiently intrigued that I tracked down the book. It centres on a female ET (played by Scarlett Johanssen) who drives around Scotland picking up men. Her people have set up an abbatoir on a farm  – they harvest Homo sapiens for the dinner tables back home, you see. (“Is man good? No – he’s DELICIOUS!”) The book is not a great read. At times it seems driven more by word count than by ideas. The alien – in the book her name is Isserley, in the movie neither she nor anyone else are given names – has a strategy for selecting her prey.  It’s not an especially complicated procedure but the book leads the reader through it several times, to the point of becoming tedious. The scriptwriters, gods be praised, opted for a minimalist approach. There are large stretches of the movie where not a word is said. Precisely how the ETs came to discover the third planet and its tasty bipeds is not explained. But if they’d been open about their intentions we’d never have to build another jail. Rather than stick with the familiar processing plant described in the book the film goes its own way and presents something truly alien. Scarlett, having enticed her prey into her van, takes them to a derelict house. She undresses slowly as she walks across what appears to be a floor of black glass – the men follow, but for them… Sink indexed And what happens beneath that skin really is off the planet. Mica Levi’s eerie soundtrack is the perfect complement to the visuals. The movie falters when Scarlett goes into Pinocchio mode and runs away to live as a real human being. She wanders alone through huge empty landscapes and has encounters with male humans kind and cruel and then The End. This is the complete opposite of the book’s direction; Isserley, having kept her fellows at a distance since arriving on Earth, decides she wants be one of the team. Under The Skin in both incarnations has something, to be sure, but it doesn’t quite have enough. And the movie is hurt badly by a scene that leaves a baby abandoned on a beach. This isn’t taken from the book and has no obvious point beyond demonstrating the cold-hearted inhumanity of the visitors.  A subtle touch would have been more effective. JesseJesse Roman Polanski came within a hair’s breadth of filming Dostoyevsky’s short story The Double in 1996. His star, John Travolta, pulled out just days before shooting was set to begin and the project subsequently collapsed. Does Richard Ayoade’s film about the uncertain office cog and his suave doppelganger itself qualify as a doppelganger? As another character said in another literary adaptation, a case can be made.

This film follows its source more closely than Under The Skin. Jesse Eisenberg is Simon James, nervous and socially inept. He fancies Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) but lacks courage. He visits her, tongue-tied, in the copying room; he lurks in corners on her way home, and watches her at night through his telescope. Enter the Double: James Simon, brash, confident, popular with the boss and a real hit with the ladies. Simon and James are friends at first, but fear and envy soon manifest. Simon wants James gone. But James anticipates his moves, and he’s always ready with a countermove. Dopplegangers are right bastards that way. The world depicted here doesn’t see a lot of sunlight. Simon’s workplace is long and dark; he’s surrounded by much older men who communicate mostly by glares. Although the tiny offices resemble train carriages, there’s a sense that Simon is going nowhere. This train is stuck at the end of the line. Comparisons to Brazil and The Zero Theorem are inevitable. They flatter rather then demean: The Double is a movie that Terry Gilliam might have delivered, if he could turn down the craziness just a few notches. The casting cannot be faulted, although something has to be said about Mia Wasikowska’s accent. It seems to wander right across the Anglosphere, shifting location in mid-sentence at times. Technically, likewise, the film is very well done. What was known as ‘trick photography’ in the pre-Star Wars era has advanced to the point where an actor playing multiple roles is free to move anywhere in the frame. It’s still slightly magical to splitscreen-era me.

Boris Vian, 1920-1959.

Boris Vian, 1920-1959.

Adaptations carry extra hazard for the film maker in the shape of the book’s fans. Potentially they offer a head start in the placing of bums on seats. But as Mr Burroughs pointed out, there are two types of publicity: favourable and otherwise. Show me a reader who doesn’t like the movie version and I’ll show you a deep well of otherwise. The feelings and opinions of the book’s author are generally not considered. It’s taken more or less for granted that the author will be unhappy whatever sort of film is born from his writing. There is the possibility that the adaptation will prove lethal to the writer – but this has happened, to date, only once. French novelist/poet/musician Boris Vian was initially a collaborator in the screen version of his daring novel J’irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes (I Spit On Your Graves), but found himself more and more at odds with his partners. Eventually he quit, and asked that his name be removed from the credits. Already unhappy, therefore, Vian accepted an invitation to a screening. After watching just a few minutes he leapt to his feet and shouted ‘These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!’ Vian had suffered since childhood from a weak heart. Shortly after his outburst he collapsed, and was dead on arrival at hospital. Michel Gondry’s rendition of L’écume Des Jours would not have been so deleterious to M. Vian’s health.

L’écume has been released in Australia on DVD under the title Mood Indigo. Stanley Chapman’s 1967 translation has been reissued under the same title – which is not the title Chapman used; he Anglicised Vian’s title as Froth On The Daydream. Mood Indigo was the title used by John Sturrock when he produced a translation for the US market a few years after Chapman. (There has since been a third translation by Brian Harper for Tam Tam Books.) Combining this one’s translation and that one’s title seems very Vianesque – and by now, with this depth of detail, you may have deduced that I am a Vian fan. I’m also a fan of the movie. No need to let fly with the otherwise here.

Chloe and Colin. Poor kids - after this, it's all downhill.

Chloe and Colin. Poor kids – after this, it’s all downhill.

Gondry’s skewed creativity is a match for Vian’s (watch how he solves Rubik’s Cube). But he doesn’t make the text into a pedestal for his own cleverness. There are tweaks, but mostly small and of a visual nature. The full course of Vian’s story is put onto the screen: yearning, courtship and loss. Vian, mostly overlooked during his life, is now a national treasure of sorts – and Paris isn’t Hollywood. Sticking a happy ending on L’écume Des Jours would have had millions of French leaping out of their seats shouting ‘My ass!’ And who could blame them? Not Boris Vian, that’s for sure.



  1. This was a super-enjoyable read! Also a really cool idea – please do more!

    • Thank you! Not many of the books I read are made into films, but I’ll see what I can find.

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