Back in the days when you taped movies onto video cassettes, I was recording “Anna Karenina” to watch another time, when I turned on the television — thinking the film was over and the credits would be running past — and I could not unsee the last few seconds of the story on the screen.
Generally, I try to read the book first. But this results in quite a backlog of viewing, because I have 7,267 books on my TBR list. (Oops, that’s 7,268: I’ve added one while I was drafting this post.)
And, now, so many years later, it’s hard to make time for Notes on a Scandal or Felicia’s Journey, when Brooklyn and The Ninth Life of Lewis Drax are wriggling more insistently upon the shelf.
So, I’m pleased when my reading and my viewing effortlessly collide. At least, when it seems effortless.
The opening image of a young Julia Child from behind, a girl in jeans and roller skates, stirring something in a bowl (it might be eggs, because there are two whole ones on the table next to her and another one on the floor and cracked) is playful and pleasing.
But it was the words on the page which pulled me in: “You are cordially invited to this tale for all ages about a child named Julia. While the story contains no true knowledge of (the real) Julia Child and should be taken with a grain of salt and perhaps even a generous pat of butter, we hope that you will find something here to savor. It you discover, as we have, that some stories taste best when shared with others, then all the better. Bon appétit.”
It reminded me that I had a copy of “Julie and Julia” to watch (written and directed by Nora Ephron), which was based on two books: Julia Child’s autobiography about her years living in France and Julie Powell’s chronicle of cooking the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which began as a blog project.
Wasn’t it interesting to find that so many people, who enjoyed putting a pencil to paper as much as they enjoyed putting fork to mouth, were inspired by this woman; even when they clearly state that they didn’t know much about her, they have been inspired by the mere idea of her.
Another kind of inspiration can be found in dogged survival tales, whether set on tropical islands or faraway planets. Andy Weir’s The Martian is nothing like Daniel Defoe stylistically speaking, but I found the same fundamental appeal in the methodical recounting of one person’s efforts to endure in unfamiliar territory.
Weir’s style is perhaps necessarily cool. Mark Watney is a scientist, and he is not accustomed to keeping a Julia-Cameron-style journal but a logbook. And because he is not using sea shells to gather morning dew, but using high-tech equipment to manage an atmosphere which does not support human life, there are a lot of calculations.
His decisions are made based on chemical and botanical statistics, not on having observed a set of tracks left in sand on a beach. Readers who don’t share his expertise might well find their eyes sliding across the pages of explanations and explorations.
Not having read Andy Weir previously, I don’t know whether the prose in The Martian is unrefined because it suits his narrator or because it comes naturally to the author. (Either way, there is a parallel story introduced to add another dimension for those readers not entirely enamoured with the Watney-verse, although its tone is similar.)
Regardless, the appeal lies in the overarching story, not in the language or structure. Like Hugh Howey and G.R.R. Martin, Andy Weir spins a web which invites readers to cozy in for a tale by the fire, one which offers a dramatic plot fuelled by a devotion to character.
““I’m not talking about faith in God, I’m talking about faith in Mark Watney. Look at all the shit Mars has thrown at him, and he’s still alive. He’ll survive this. I don’t know how, but he will. He’s a clever son of a bitch.””
Mark Watney is irrefutably the core of both book and film, but the cinematography adds another layer to the story. There are extensive cinematic representations of scenes which are non-existant in the book (in which the event or its aftermath is described in a few, cold summary-style sentences in his log).
There is also something mesmerizing about the visualization of some of the extremes inherent in the story; it’s one thing to imagine Mark Watney reducing his daily calorie count severely, another thing to watch Matt Damon’s frame visibly shrinking.
The film offers additional potential in terms of fleshing out subplots, too; even a single scene about a secondary character adds many dimensions to the complex of relationships orbiting the story (but it really is all about Mark Watney, even so).
For non-science-y folks, the imagery of the equipment/shelters discussed in Weir’s novel is very helpful, and the planet’s landscape and expanse are clearly articulated in the narrative but the prose style is heavy with details and tech-speak, so Mark Watney’s existence feels thick and heavy on Mars on the page, tiny and insignificant on the screen.
There were many instances in which I preferred the film version from a storytelling perspective, but ultimately I think the two works complement each other well. The novel is solid with pacing and main narrator, while the film secures those elements but also offers new perspectives on setting and more fully realizes minor characters.
Although seemingly separated by a substantial swath of time and space, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy (1996) is a frontier tale too.
It is, in fact, the third novel in Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy, followed by The Last Crossing (2002) and A Good Man (2011).
Both were acclaimed widely, but The Englishman’s Boy was nominated for both The Giller Prize and the IMPAC Award, and it was made into a film starring Nicholas Campbell and Katharine Isabelle.
That’s the next film in my finally-done-reading-ready-to-watch project.
Are the stories on your pages and screens crossing paths these days?