Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lolita

The second time around

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What’s something you wish could be remade or redone but is maybe too iconic or otherwise singular for anyone to actually take on the risk?”

When you look at a chronological list of any artist’s works, the first item can be both less and more than meets the eye. A first novel or movie—to take just two art forms—is always biographically interesting, but it’s also subject to particular pressures that can limit how well it expresses the creator’s personality. It’s the product of comparative youth, so it often suffers from rawness and inexperience, and it enters the world under unfavorable circumstances. For an unproven quantity from an unknown name, the tension between personal expression and the realities of the marketplace can seem especially stark. An aspiring novelist may write a book he hopes he can sell; a filmmaker usually starts with a small project that has a chance at being financed; and both may be drawn to genres that have traditionally been open to new talent. Hence the many directors who got their start in horror, exploitation, and even borderline porn. Francis Ford Coppola’s apprenticeship is a case in point. Before Dementia 13, which he made under the auspices of Roger Corman, he’d directed skin flicks like Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and it took years of kicking around before he landed on The Godfather, which I’m sure he, and the rest of us, would prefer to see as his real debut.

Any early work, then, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (This doesn’t even account for the fact that what looks like a debut may turn out that way almost by accident. The Icon Thief wasn’t the first novel I attempted or even finished, but it was the first one published, and it set a pattern for my career that I didn’t entirely anticipate.) But there’s also a real sense that an artist’s freshman efforts may be the most characteristic works he or she will ever produce. When you’re writing a novel or making a movie for the first time, you aren’t necessarily thinking in terms of a filmography that will stretch over fifty years: it seems like enough of a miracle to get this one story out into the world. As a result, if you’re at all rational, you’ll invest that effort into something that matters to you. This could be your only shot, so you may as well spend it on an idea that counts. Later, as you grow older, you often move past those early interests and obsessions, but they’ll always carry an emotional charge that isn’t there in the works you tackled in your maturity, or after you had all the resources you needed. And when you look back, you may find yourself haunted by the divide between your ambitions and the means—internal and otherwise—available to you at the time.

The Fury

That’s why I’m always a little surprised that more artists don’t go back to revisit their own early work with an eye to doing a better job. Sometimes, of course, the last thing you want is to return to an old project: doing it even once can be enough to drain you of all enthusiasm. But it happens. In fiction, the revised versions of novels like The Magus, The Sot-Weed Factor, and The Stand represent a writer’s attempt to get it right the second time. You could see the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Joss Whedon’s remake of his own original screenplay in the form that it deserved. In film, directors as different as Ozu, DeMille, Hitchcock, and Haneke have gone back to redo their earlier work with bigger stars, larger budgets, or simply a more sophisticated sense of what the story could be. (My own favorite example is probably Evil Dead 2, which is less a sequel than a remake in a style closer to Sam Raimi’s intentions.) And of course, the director’s cut, which has turned into a gimmick to sell movies on video or to restore deleted scenes that should have remained unseen, began as a way for filmmakers to make another pass on the same material. Close Encounters, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, and Ashes of Time have all been revised, and even if you prefer the older versions, it’s always fascinating to see a director rethink the choices he initially made.

That said, this impulse has its dark side: George Lucas has every right to tinker with the Star Wars movies, but not to withdraw the originals from circulation. But it’s an idea that deserves to happen more often. Hollywood loves remakes, but they’d be infinitely more interesting if they represented the original director’s renewed engagement with his own material. I’d love to have seen Kubrick—rather than Adrian Lyne—revisit Lolita in a more permissive decade, for instance, and to take a modern example almost at random, I’d much rather see Brian DePalma go back to one of his earlier flawed movies, like The Fury or even Dressed to Kill, rather than try to recapture the same magic with diminishing returns. And the prospect of David Fincher doing an Alien movie now would be considerably more enticing than what he actually managed to do with it twenty years ago. (On a somewhat different level, I’ve always thought that The X-Files, which strained repeatedly to find new stories in its later years, should have gone back to remake some of its more forgettable episodes from the first season with better visual effects and a fresh approach.) Most artists, obviously, prefer to strike out in new directions, and such projects would carry the implication that they were only repeating themselves. But if the movies are going to repeat old ideas anyway, they might as well let their creators take another shot.

The adaptation game

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Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?

There was a time in my life when I took it as an article of faith that if I wanted to see a movie based on a novel, I had to read the book first. When I was working as a film critic in college, this policy made sense—I wanted my reviews to seem reasonably informed—so I devoured the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary mere days before seeing their adaptations in theaters. Later, I tackled the original material out of a vague sense of guilt or obligation, as I did with Watchmen, a comparison that did Zack Snyder’s movie version no favors. In almost every instance, though, it meant that I watched the resulting film through a kind of double exposure, constantly comparing the events on screen with their equivalents, or lack thereof, on the page. It’s how I imagine fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games regard the adaptations of their own favorite properties, the quality of which is often judged by how faithfully they follow their sources. And it wasn’t until recently that I gave up on the idea of trying to read every book before seeing the movie, in part because I have less free time, but also because my attitudes toward the issue have changed, hopefully for the better.

In fact, I’d like to propose a general rule: the priority of one version of a story over another is a fact, not a value judgment. This apples to remakes and homages as much as to more straightforward adaptations. After enough time has passed, the various approaches that different artists take to the same underlying narrative cease to feel like points on a timeline, and more like elements of a shared constellation of ideas. I saw The Silence of the Lambs long before reading Thomas Harris’s original novels, later added Manhunter to the mix, and have been having a hell of a good time going back to the books with the cast of Hannibal in mind. I don’t know how I’d feel about these characters and stories if I’d read each book as it came out and watched the adaptations later, but I’d like to think that I’d have ended up in more or less the same place, with each element sustaining and enriching every other. The same is true of a movie like L.A. Confidential, which is less a faithful translation of the book into film than a rearrangement of the pieces that James Ellroy provided, an “alternate life,” as the author himself puts it, for the men and women he had imagined. Would I feel the same way if I’d read the book first? Maybe—but only if enough time had passed to allow me to regard the movie in its own right.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, I’ve come to think that out of all the ways of experiencing works of art with a common origin, the best option is to absorb them all, but to leave sufficient space between each encounter. I watched Infernal Affairs long before The Departed, but the earlier movie had faded almost entirely when I saw the remake, and now I find that I can switch back and forth between the two films in full appreciation of each one’s strengths. (The Departed is less a remake than an expansion of the tightly focused original: its bones are startlingly similar, but fleshed out with an hour’s worth of digressions and elaborations, all of which I love.) Occasionally, of course, the memory of one version is so strong that its alternate incarnations can’t compete, and this doesn’t always work to the benefit of the original. A few years ago, I tried to read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the first time, and I found that I just couldn’t finish it: Coppola’s movie is remarkably faithful, while elevating the material in almost every way, to the point where the novel itself seems oddly superfluous. This isn’t the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which I’m reading again now for maybe the tenth time with undiminished delight, but it’s a reminder of how unpredictable the relationship between the source and its adaptation can be.

And in retrospect, I’m grateful that I experienced certain works of art without any knowledge of the originals. I’ve enjoyed movies as different as The Name of the Rose and Lolita largely because I didn’t have a point of reference: the former because I didn’t know how much I was missing, the latter because I realized only later how much it owed to the book. And if you have the patience, it can be rewarding to delay the moment of comparison for as long as possible. I’ve loved Eyes Wide Shut ever since its initial release, fifteen years ago, when I saw it twice in a single day. A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and I was struck by the extent to which Kubrick’s movie is nearly a point-for-point adaptation. (The only real interpolation is the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, who looms in the memory like a significant figure, even though he only appears in a couple of scenes.) Kubrick was famously secretive about his movie’s plot, and having read the novel, I can see why: faithful or not, he wanted it to be seen free of expectations—although I have a hunch that the film might have been received a little more warmly if viewers had been given a chance to acclimate themselves to its origins. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Stories have to rise or fall on their own terms, and when it comes to evaluating how well a movie works, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Writing in hotel rooms

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Vladimir Nabokov

I got back yesterday from my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles, where I spent four nights with my wife and daughter at the excellent Omni Hotel. Along with a mountain of baby gear, I somewhat optimistically brought a few pages of notes for my novel, thinking that I’d have a chance to do a little work in my spare moments. Not surprisingly, that’s not how it worked out: staying in a hotel with a toddler presents enough of a challenge without trying to write at the same time. (We ended up stashing Beatrix’s travel crib in the bathroom, where she slept happily for most of the trip, much to the relief of her exhausted parents.) I felt a touch of regret at this, since I’ve always enjoyed working in hotels. Most recently, I vividly remember spending much of a trip to Las Vegas in my hotel room at Mandelay Bay, scribbling notes and trying frantically to think of a new title for my third novel, which my publisher had asked me to change. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and it was only while browsing at an airport bookstore on the way home that I finally hit upon the pleasing but relatively meaningless title Eternal Empire—although I still prefer The Scythian.

Writers, of course, have frequently used hotel rooms as places of work. Nabokov spent much of his itinerant life—and his summertime pursuit of butterflies—moving from one hotel to the next, spending his last fifteen years at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. One particular stay, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, evidently served as a catalyst for the plot of Lolita, in which a pivotal scene takes place at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. (Thomas Mann, a writer for whom Nabokov had little respect, derived similar inspiration from his own hotel visits.) Maya Angelou rented a hotel room by the month in her hometown, where she worked every morning, lying across the bed, the sheets of which she insisted remain unchanged for the duration of her stay. Describing her routine to The Paris Review, Angelou gets close to the heart of why hotels are so conducive to certain kinds of creative thought:

I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.

Maya Angelou

There’s a sense in which a hotel room occupies a unique place in the spectrum of the writer’s routine. Many authors can’t write away from a particular room or desk, to the point where some construct special writing shacks. Others prefer a particular lunch counter or restaurant, like The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who had his favorite booth installed in his house after the coffee shop went out of business. And a select few take pride in being able to work anywhere. A hotel room represents a kind of compromise between these extremes. All hotel rooms are essentially the same, while remaining subtly different, so they provide a neutral setting for undistracted work while avoiding the boredom or monotony of the same unchanging space. Even now, when few of us write letters on hotel stationery, a writing desk and chair are still among the few standard furnishings of even the most modest of motel rooms. We may not get a chance to use the desk—I don’t think I even sat down at mine at the Omni for the four nights I spent there—but without it, the room would seem subliminally incomplete.

And there’s something fictive about a hotel room, which exists, like a short story, as a sort of simulacrum of real life. Nobody’s real house can or should look like this, although there are certainly people who spend much of their lives shaping their surroundings in imitation of what they’ve seen in hotels, from the towels to the robes to the sheets, just as many of us end up deriving our ideas about life from the books or movies we’ve experienced. Nabokov hints at this in a letter to Katharine and E.B. White, with a wonderful play on words that seems unintentional, although with Nabokov you never know: “I have no illusions about hotels in this hemisphere; they are for conventions, not for the individual.” By “conventions,” Nabokov means the gatherings of the “thousand tight salesmen” who descend on Lolita at the halfway point of the novel, but I’d prefer to focus on its alternate meaning. A hotel life is a conventional life, built up from a stranger’s idea of comfort or convenience, a vacant stage that we fill with our presences for a night or two. It’s a blank page. So it’s no surprise that those two areas of emptiness—and possibility—go together so well.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

“I can’t take much more of this…”

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"You're saying that the Rosicrucians had something to do with this?"

(Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here.)

It’s always a little dangerous to ask a writer where he gets his ideas. In the afterword to Lolita, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov writes:

As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

I’ve always loved this story, which sticks in the mind because it initially seems so inexplicable, and later seems so right. There’s also the fact that the entire anecdote may have been a typically Nabokovian invention: no trace of the original article, or ape, has ever been found. My own suspicion is that the story is designed to deflect attention from the novel’s more sensational elements to the more impressive, and fiendishly difficult, task that the author had set for himself—the detailed, alluring, empathetic rendering of the sorry figure of Humbert. Yet part of me also wants to believe that the ape, or the story, was real, if only because it serves to illustrate how far a novel can depart from its earliest germ of inspiration.

The Icon Thief, for instance, is a complicated novel encompassing Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Russian mafia, as well as much else, but its true beginnings lie in the story of a peculiar double suicide in the New York art world. Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake were young, intelligent, and attractive, and both had achieved great success in their fields: Duncan had parlayed an acclaimed computer game and animated short into a studio development deal, while Blake had collaborated with such artists as Beck and Paul Thomas Anderson, doing design work for Sea Change and Punch-Drunk Love. Both had been frustrated by their experiences in Hollywood, however, and after they returned to New York, their friends reported that they had grown increasingly paranoid, convinced that they were being targeted by a conspiracy of Scientologists. One evening, Blake came back home to find that Duncan had killed herself with an overdose of pills and alcohol; the following week, he took a train to Rockaway Beach and drowned himself in the ocean. (I’ve written out most of these details from memory, but you can find full accounts here and here.)

"I can't take much more of this..."

At first glance, this might not have much to do with novel I ended up writing, but when I first encountered the story, it crystallized a previously shapeless mass of ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time. I wanted to write about the art world, and also about paranoia, and the story of Duncan and Blake united both themes in a single tragedy. My own characters would be imaginary, of course: Maddy isn’t Teresa Duncan, although she’s based in part on similar people I knew in New York, and Ethan doesn’t have much in common with Jeremy Blake, aside from his intelligence and youth. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a novel about a folie à deux, a kind of shared delusion, that would be imbedded in the story so deeply that the reader wouldn’t sense it was imaginary—if I’ve done my work properly—until the end of the book. My characters would see plots and conspiracies at work in their own lives, never realizing that the stories they were telling were a way of making sense of their personal disappointments. And although much of the story remained unclear, I knew how at least one thread would end: Ethan, I was convinced, would walk into the sea.

Needless to say, that isn’t how it turned out, and in particular, Ethan’s ultimate fate—which I’ll be discussing in a few weeks—ended up being very different from what I’d envisioned. All the same, you can see signs of the original conception throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 40, which gave me more trouble than any other scene in the entire novel. It’s here that Ethan lays out his paranoia in stark terms, connecting the Rosicrucians not only to the events of the story so far, but to everything from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Black Dahlia murder. This chapter was originally much longer, with a lot of additional detail, and even in its final form, it walks a fine line: Ethan has to be paranoid enough to make his final break with Maddy believable, but not so much that the reader concludes that it’s a complete fantasy. (Remember, my goal isn’t to make the reader believe that Ethan’s theory is objectively true, but true within the context of the story, which presents itself as a conspiracy novel, with all the conventions that the genre implies.) I’d like to think that it works, but it’s hard for me to get enough distance from it to be sure. In any case, it has the intended effect, and Maddy leaves Ethan’s apartment in a fury. She’s never going to see him again…

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

A few thoughts on chapters

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Little, Big by John Crowley

When you think about it, there’s really no reason that a novel needs to have chapters. Early constraints on the size of printed reading material, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets, meant that the first extended narratives were naturally divided into smaller units, like the books of the Iliad, and the conventions of oral storytelling lend themselves to longer works that are essentially collections of shorter pieces, from The Thousand and One Nights to The Canterbury Tales. A novel that tells a single story, even from multiple points of view, doesn’t necessarily need to be divided at all, unless, as in Proust’s case, the story can’t fit comfortably within a single volume. Yet with a handful of exceptions—often, oddly enough, in novels by Irish authors—every novel consists of a number of chapters. And while it’s tempting to think of chapters as a courtesy to the reader, who otherwise might be daunted by plunging into an unbroken block of text, it’s also worth asking a few simple questions about how they work.

Basically, a chapter is a unit of narrative that advances the story while also looking ahead to the next big development. This makes it fundamentally different from a scene, although many novels rightly stick to one scene per chapter. A scene, in itself, can accomplish a lot of things—establish character, convey information, set a mood—and it can often be read as a self-contained set piece. A chapter, by contrast, gains meaning from its role in the novel’s overall structure, and in particular from how it points the way forward. In its final shape, it looks both ways, by influencing the reader’s sense of what has happened so far and where the story is going, which often requires more than one scene. Chapters, in short, are about anticipation. And this gives us a useful clue about the proper placement of chapter breaks, which should ideally fall at the exact moment when the reader is given something to anticipate. Nabokov, for instance, places his chapter breaks in Lolita with the precision of a thriller:

I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and still holding the receiver, I pushed open the door and said:

“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”

But there was no Charlotte in the living room.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

All of this is fairly abstract, but it hints at some practical rules for how chapters should be constructed. The fact that a chapter hinges on anticipation implies that it should break off slightly before its moment of resolution—hence the tip, which I’ve shared elsewhere, that if an extended sequence in a novel isn’t flowing smoothly, the author should try cutting the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. A lot of writers, including myself, feel the need to tie a bow on the end of every scene, and we’ll often approach our first draft with a few extra paragraphs at the beginning and end as we ramp ourselves into the story and ease our way out of it. This can be useful in a rough draft, when we’re imagining the scene for the first time, but in the rewrite, this introductory and concluding material can usually be cut with profit. The first draft of a chapter tends to be written as if it were meant to be read on its own, but it never is: it’s part of a larger structure, and when we leave only the middle, it’s easier to join the pieces. Here’s Nabokov again:

She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I swung onto the highway.

“Why can’t I call my mother if I want to?”

“Because,” I answered, “your mother is dead.”

Still, a chapter represents a break in the action, as well as a pause in the reader’s attention, and the physical fact of that page of white space makes demands of its own. To make the transition easier, I try to start every chapter by clearly indicating the lead character—an important consideration in novels like mine, which jump frequently from one point of view to another—and grounding it in a clear objective and situation. In practice, this means postponing other kinds of information until later. For instance, chapters that start with an extended passage of description, or even just a line or two to sketch out the setting, tend to break the flow. It’s usually better, instead, to open on dialogue or a tight focus on a particular character’s actions, and then pull back to set the scene, much as a television show will often come back from commercial on a closeup, then cut away to a wide shot that indicates the overall setting. Chapter breaks are a lot like cuts in a movie, and like film editors, who have their own set of similar rules, novelists should strive to make the transitions as invisible as possible, so that nothing but the story remains.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2013 at 8:49 am

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