From the Page to the Screen: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie adaptations of famous books are a fraught subject for us English majors. We're programmed to automatically assume that "the book is always better," and often, we look down on adaptations for no other reason than the presupposition that literature is somehow inherently better than film.

While I definitely have some snobbery when it comes to certain movie adaptations of my favorite books (I refuse to watch the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice), in general, I'm pretty accepting of movie adaptations. I understand that changes have to be made; there's simply no way to cram 300+ pages of information into a 90+ minute movie. I may not like these changes, but I'm usually OK with them as long as, fundamentally, the film is trying to capture the heart and message of the book. What I am not OK with is changing the spirit of the book.

Case in point: Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.



I am completely mesmerized by Foer's novel. I love the three distinct narrative voices - nine-year-old Oskar Schell and his paternal grandparents - and how they each share a unique piece of the story. I love the way in which Foer interweaves the story of the Dresden bombing with his reflections on 9/11, forcing us to contend with difficult questions about national tragedy. I love that, more than any one event, this book is about loss, grief, and trying to navigate impossible situations and emotions. And I love the new and distinctly literary techniques that Foer uses to create the narrative, from pictures and blank pages to lines of type laid over one another.

When I first heard about the film adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I was apprehensive. It's not a particularly plot-driven book. It's episodic in nature, and it's more about situations and emotions than events and plot, and I didn't think it would translate to film very well. But Jordan really wanted to see it, so I obliged.

I think my biggest issue with the movie is the fact that it almost completely eradicates the story of the Dresden bombing. If I remember correctly, there is exactly one reference to Germany during World War II in the film. The Dresden bombing and fallout after it is the primary focus of the grandparents' sections, which means that the film essentially cuts out two-thirds of the book. The grandmother is reduced to a non-character, and the filmmakers had to combine the grandfather's character with that of another elderly gentleman to give him a meaningful role.

I also disliked the portrayal of Oskar in the film. I adored him in the book and fondly remember him as one of the most successful and compelling child narrators in literary history. You get such a clear sense of who he is and how he operates, and his way of perceiving the world is so fully realized. That just isn't there in the movie. It's harder to tell what drives him, and his character seems almost one-dimensional. He's also more charming in the book, even if he's still very rough around the edges. In the movie, he tends to come off as just plain ornery. 

The movie is also more heavy handed, whereas the book is about subtly and the significance of the little things. For instance, you sense the presence of Oskar's father everywhere in the book, but he isn't a fully realized character. The movie, by comparison, makes him much more real. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that there's no way to convey the book's nuance and subtly in film. You have to be direct, which makes the final product less elegant.

In the end, sometimes movie adaptations fail if for no other reason than the fact that film and literature are two different artistic mediums and they can't always accomplish the same things. Sometimes the written word is just more successful than film is when it comes to telling a particular story and vice versa. That said, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the most meaningful and compelling novels I've read, a truly masterful work of art. While I'd recommend passing on the film, I think it is well worth your time to check out the book.

Have you read or seen Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? What are you thoughts on the book and/or the movie?

9 comments:

  1. I haven't seen or read it, but now I really want to read it. It drives me batty that screenwriters have so much excellent content but can't make a decent movie without changing it all.

    In my experience, the book is always better with only two exceptions: "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman and "Up In The Air." Really didn't like either book, but loved the movies.

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    1. While I really love the "Stardust" book, and miss some of the bits that didn't make it in the movie, some of the tings they changed and added were just amazing! In particular I really love Dinero's Captain Shakespeare, and the voodoo doll sword fight is one of my favorite cinematic sword fights of all time (right up there with The Princess Bride).

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    2. Oh yes, I love Captain Shakespeare! If he wasn't in the book, I'm certainly glad that they added him. :)

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  2. Oh yes, you should definitely read it! It is so good, but it will have you crying your eyes out. At least, it made me cry a ton. But I love books that pull you in like that and make you care so much. :)

    And I totally agree about screenwriters - so often, it's like, "Why the heck did you do that?" Though there are definitely those rare gems where they get something right or, even less likely, actually make a movie that is better than the book. I know the author of "Fight Club" is insistent that the movie's ending (which is different from the book) is actually better. I guess if you've got the author on your side, then any changes you make are OK!

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  3. There are some books that just shouldn't be adapted. Especially books that do interesting things that can really only be captured in print. Whether that is a technique unique to the printed page, like the part where the text reprints over itself, or the fact that with books you can take a better look into the thoughts of various characters. It is so sad that the movie vastly marginalizes the grandparent and their story.

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    1. So, so, SO true! Why aren't people like us in charge of determining what books can and can't be adapted into film? Hollywood needs people like us giving them the side glance when they try to adapt things that, as you say, just shouldn't be adapted.

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  4. I'm mildly ashamed of the fact that I have never read the book Pride and Prejudice and yet the very film that you refuse to watch is one of my favorite movies. I feel compelled to go read the book now...

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    1. Haha, don't feel ashamed! It's not a terrible movie by any means - I'm just too in love with the book to appreciate a movie that deviates so much from it! Hehe. Plus, my heart belongs to the BBC adaptation with Colin Firth. That film is marvelous - have you seen it? I highly recommend it!

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    2. I haven't seen it, I will try to find it. I recently watched Downton Abbey (no idea if it was adapted from novels or not) and it is marvelous. So I'm in the mood for more British film.

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