Vital Signs

Fictions Into Film

"I saw that book." Are we likely to hear this more and more from the next generation? A reviewer recently described a book by Joan Didion as "a novel that doesn't have to be filmed to make you feel you're watching it, not reading it."

Television adaptations of fiction are notoriously common these days, and the results are not always B movies. But box office success seems to depend on exposing the hidden lives of various characters we had once believed to be stable. Take the cleverly filled-out case of Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave, or the recent Great Expectations. The problem is complicated when the subject includes both the writer and his works. The film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, for example, depicts a Hollywood hack at his worst and invites the viewer to peer directly into Fitzgerald's own life.

In major fiction, the yeasty chaos of creation has taken place, once and for all. The pundits of postmodern philosophy—Lacan, Derrida, Stanley Fish—may help us find fleeting cultural power in film, but such brilliance as we see in something as orderly as Citizen Kane owes to the use of a mechanical process. That process dates. Printed books may possess enduring craft, in their own right. And that right, affirmed in a famous essay by T.S. Eliot, suggests that true creation comes out of a tradition.

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