Friday, September 18, 2009

Notes on Beckett and Film Adaptations

Over the last several months, I've been very slowly making my way through the Beckett on Film series. Slowly because, frankly, the films are, on the whole, disappointing. They are too cinematic. They too often miss the point. They treat Beckett's plays as content to be filmed. The accompanying documentary is terrible, borderline unwatchable, primarily because the producers boast about being given the chance to make Beckett accessible. Given the Beckett estate's famous stinginess on allowing productions to move forward, I'm rather surprised this project was given the green light.

There are some highlights. Thankfully, one of the best is Waiting for Godot. Based on my reading of the play and my take on Beckett, it seems to me that, some fancy camera work aside, this production does ok by the play. We enjoyed it, anyway. Another is Ohio Impromptu, starring Jeremy Irons. I also felt that Not I, with Julianne Moore, was not bad. I still have yet to watch Endgame, Happy Days, or Play, among others.

Most recently, I watched Krapp's Last Tape, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring John Hurt, and it is, I think, symptomatic of the series' problems. This happens to be the only Beckett play that I've actually seen produced on stage, in a wonderful performance at Johns Hopkins by John Astin. To save some time, I'm going to quote what I said about this play and the performance in a post from last year. I wrote:
Krapp is an old man, alone. He spends part of the time listening to tapes he recorded at an earlier age. He was alone then too. We learn of paths not taken. There are, perhaps, regrets, though at the same time, he wouldn't undo what he's done, so he says. In the discussion after the play, one audience member in particular seemed fixated on the idea that Beckett didn't seem capable of "happiness". But there's happiness and then there's happiness. Krapp is alone, but he is alive. He has his pleasures. He delights in the word "viduity", as [Marina] Warner points out [in the Times Literary Supplement], but earlier he lingers on the word "spool"--theatrically savoring, to himself, the sound of "ooool"--and he enjoys his bananas, taking pleasure in their shape, color, smell. As Warner puts it:
For not everything is fizzling out, and wind is not mere wind, at least not quite, or otherwise we would not feel the tragicomic involvement that Beckett inspires. There is something to the fizzle itself.
Krapp the old man marvels at the ideas held by his younger self, grand plans that didn't come to fruition, blithe talk on tape about a lost love being for the best, when it's certain details of that lost love the older man seems to linger on, at least during the play.

Ok, so that's a rough outline of the "content". In the play, the stage features only a desk, with two drawers facing the audience, behind which Krapp sits at a chair, when he's not fumbling through his keys, or opening the drawers to extract bananas or a spool of tape, or leaving the stage to get the reel-to-reel player, or a drink, etc. Very minimal. Krapp himself is wearing nothing remarkable, except for a pair of insane white boots. Astin's performance was restrained, subtle.

In Egoyan's film, the same things happen, yet it's completely wrong. Why? Well, for one thing, no white boots! You can't even see Krapp's whole body! But more importantly, there's a too muchness to it that overwhelms, defeating the material. This is one of the basic problems with film adaptations in the first place: the need to fill in the blanks. Set designers appear to have been allowed to roam free and do whatever the fuck they wanted. The set is simply overflowing with crap. Papers everywhere, shelving, piles of boxes, tapes, remnants of a disheveled life. And when Krapp walks around front of the desk to open the drawers, the camera moves in, over his shoulder, so that we can see what else might be in them. To top it all off, Hurt's performance is way too emotive. When, for example, Krapp expresses some dismay about his life choices, Hurt plays it like he's doing a tortured Hamlet. He is not doing Hamlet.

I come back to this basic question: Why does someone decide to make a film adaptation? In a post about adaptations of Michael Chabon's novels, IOZ suggests that "adaptation is better accomplished by someone who appreciates a work than someone who loves it so much that he wants to improve it". I would argue further (in line with arguments I've made in the past on this topic), that appreciation should include a sense that there's some reason why the book or play being adapted existed in the form it did, particularly in the case of a writer such as Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote poems, stories, novels, uncategorizable prose pieces, and plays, and he was rather famously interested in the problems with the forms in which he wrote. To simply film a Beckett play as if it were any old story lying around, as if it were in need of elaboration, is to fundamentally betray the play. Why did he write plays? Why is Krapp's Last Tape a play? Why does he have a play called Play? A film called Film? Why do his plays clearly not take the form for granted? I'm not going to venture answers to these questions here, but they are the kinds of questions that it seems to me are in play when problems of adaptation arise. It seems to me that the decision to adapt one of Beckett's plays for film should center on how the formal problems addressed in the play itself can be similarly addressed in a filmic context. If questions are being asked of the play format, can analagous questions be asked of film? If not, then why make a film?


Rhys Tranter said...

I enjoyed the Beckett on Film production of Waiting for Godot, too: I think the performances and the set design are both wonderful. I have similar reservations about Krapp's Last Tape, and you seem to have hit the nail on the head.

I think you might enjoy Happy Days, despite the literal approach they took to the setting; and I love the atmosphere of the Endgame production.

Great post.

Edmond Caldwell said...

I agree that the quality was uneven, although I appreciated being able to see even disappointing versions of plays I might never have the opportunity to see on stage. Some individual appraisals:

I'm with Rhys on Happy Days - just a superb performance anchoring it.

I found Julianne Moore's mouth way too pretty for Not I, the blinding white teeth a distraction, her voice probably too posh as well...

Catastrophe (with Pinter!) and What Where were enjoyable, although I can't say I was blown away.

Ohio Impromptu was alright but I thought Jeremy Irons' performance, although understated, was still too 'emotive', too wistful in a sentimental way. I saw a production onstage once which, while modest, was performed in a somewhat more "automatic" or monotone or mechanical way that in the end I found much more powerful. I also thought there was too much emoting in general throughout the plays (Hurt was too frothy in Krapp, etc)...

Play: Loved it - the high point for me. Sure, the late Anthony Minghella tarted up the setting with that endless vista of countless urns, but his direction to the actors was truly Beckettian - staccato, unemotive, "dead" delivery of the lines - and the performances were note perfect.

Richard said...

Thanks guys. I'm looking forward to Happy Days and Play, now, especially.

Edmond, I agree with you about Moore in Not I. I thought it was not bad, as I said, but I see your point. Another commenter pointed out, aptly I think, that in this version, we see Moore in full, sit down on stage, before we focus on her mouth only. Which has the effect of making sure we know it's Julianne Moore, famous beautiful actress, which is in itself contrary to the spirit of the thing, it being just a mouth.

And I appreciate your point, too, Edmond, about being able to see even disappointing versions of plays we're likely never to see. This was why I was excited about seeing these films, and in the end, it is nice to be able to see them. Still, the presiding spirit over too many of them strikes me as problematic, for the reasons given.