When you’re a cineaste and a bookworm, the announcement that a favorite novel is going to be adapted for the silver screen tends to generate a combination of excitement and dread. We all know that film is a different medium from prose, and must be judged by different aesthetic standards. We understand that a 700-page novel needs compression and telescoping if the tale is to be told in something like two hours’ worth of footage. Moments that we love will invariably be lost; it comes with the territory. What are often harder to take are the insertions, which all too often seem more like directorial self-indulgence than adaptations to suit a more visual, visceral medium. Worst of all is when the director seems to miss the novel’s point entirely.
When Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings movies – a more faithful screen adaptation than most – fans of the books could easily forgive him for skipping over Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Wights. We didn’t blink when he gave Glorfindel’s big scene to Arwen; goodness knows that Tolkien didn’t afford his few female characters enough chances to shine. But many of us were befuddled by Jackson’s decision to turn Boromir’s nobler brother Faramir into a baddie who betrays Frodo. That was an example of a change that parted ways too egregiously from the spirit of the books. What it added to the already-conflict-laden story is difficult to identify.
When there’s a lot of plot to squeeze in, the complex villains and flawed heroes we love are often sacrificed in favor of Manichean battles of pure good versus pure evil. And that’s a big chunk – though certainly not the only one – of what went awry with Akiva Goldsman’s current adaptation of Mark Helprin’s much-loved, gorgeously written novel Winter’s Tale.
Even if you haven’t read Winter’s Tale since it first came out in 1983 and are a little fuzzy on the details, you’ll likely be most surprised to discover that the movie version has the Devil in it, played by a bored-looking Will Smith, or that Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, in his excessive mode), the gang boss who pursues the hero for many decades, is his demonic lieutenant. Yes, it’s bizarre; yes, it’s unnecessary. A magical realism novel spanning two centuries in which the improbable is the norm, Winter’s Tale is weird enough without being turned into a battleground of minions representing Heaven and Hell. And Pearly is crazy, impulsively violent and scary enough an adversary without the diabolical mandate. It’s a bad decision that typifies the director’s approach of turning the lyrical themes of the book into moral and sentimental shorthand that plays to the least common denominator among the moviegoing public.
But Goldsman – allegedly a big fan of the book – makes way bigger mistakes than that one; it’s just the easiest to describe. Going back to what I said about missing a novel’s point entirely: Winter’s Tale the movie is about 95 percent the love story of how the burglar/artisan Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) falls for the dying heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) in 1916, then comes back unchanged and unaged in contemporary times to save a dying child in Beverly’s name. The romance is beautifully realized onscreen, and Farrell and Brown Findlay evoke believable chemistry together.
But that’s not what Winter’s Tale the book is about, at its core. Yes, there’s that through-line of the doomed romance, and it’s undeniably a love story. But Helprin’s love object is, resoundingly, New York: the City, and the Hudson Valley as well. And that aspect of the novel – the quality that made it feel so profoundly cinematic – is precisely what gets lost onscreen. Gone are the rhapsodic descriptions of magical places; the roiling cloud wall that divides the City from its surroundings; the savage-but-cheerful tribal society of the Baymen; the bejeweled, sky-spanning bridges; the ingenious steampunk engines that thrum in the City’s depths like the pulse of a great sleeping animal; the festive temporary settlements that appear on the surface of the Hudson whenever it freezes, the hellish tenements of Five Points.
Athansor, Peter Lake’s horse who can leap so far that it might as well be flying, is in, but he’s given cheesy CGI wings. Hardesty Marratta and his magical golden salver – the MacGuffin that’s needed for New York to achieve its Golden Age at the turn of the millennium – are entirely out. So are Reverend Mootfowl and Jackson Mead, the visionary engineers who are supposed to play a key role in the City’s apotheosis. And the preternaturally feisty character of Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly) is a shadow of her former self; you won’t witness any epic skating expedition down the Hudson here.
Nor will you recognize the Lake of the Coheeries, site of the Penn clan’s country retreat. In the book it’s a body of water apparently the size of Lake Champlain, hidden somewhere amongst the Catskills; in the movie it’s just a waterfront mansion surrounded by gardens that are sprayed with very fake-looking artificial snow. The filmmakers took on a project that demanded a gigantic budget to pull off all the epic-scale magical effects and settings needed to evoke the feel of the novel, and then, it seems, spent it all on sparkly horsefeathers.
In sum, people who never read Winter’s Tale will be baffled by the movie; people who are easily pleased by fluffy, tragic romance may enjoy it. But those who loved the novel will be greatly disappointed. Maybe someone else with a broader vision (and deeper pockets) will take this project on again sometime in the future – hopefully before the next millennium.