Direct your reading:
Globe and Oscar fever raises questions about interpretation
by Rob Neufeld
Last Tuesday at Pack Library’s re-opening ceremony, Ed Sheary named the children’s area after John Bridges, a library legend, who attended; and the in-library bookstore after another history-shaping stalwart, Mary Parker.
Bridges, among his many achievements, had pioneered “Read a Book, See a Movie” programs at the old Pack Library in what is now the Asheville Art Museum. I call up the spirit of that early program, knowing that it lives in informal conversations and in organized book groups today, such as the Book to Movie Club at Henderson County Library.
The Coen brothers determined to make a film more true to the book than the 1969 version with John Wayne. The result, now in theatres, is a strong contender for Academy Awards on Feb. 27. As true as it is, it is less true than the original novel by Charles Portis.
It’s time to read and “go to the movies” in books.
Partly true grit
The first thing you notice when you read “True Grit” after watching the movie is the obvious: a lot of details have been cut out. The movie has taken a lifelike experience and turned it into a brilliant comic opera. If you really want to know about post-Civil War Dardenelle, Arkansas, you’ve got to seek the text.
In the book, Mattie Ross, the headstrong fourteen-year-old narrator who travels to Fort Smith to retrieve and avenge her murdered father, is escorted by a former slave, Yarnell Poindexter. Yarnell’s history comes to light: a free African American in Missouri, he’d been kidnapped and enslaved in Arkansas. After the Civil War, he became a businessman and friend of Mattie’s dad.
West central Arkansas, a generation after the Civil War, was an interesting place. Mattie’s father had fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Republican “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker was trying to snuff out outlaws before they fled to Indian Territory, not yet given statehood as Oklahoma.
A good new book about this region, by the way, is Mark K. Christ’s “Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State” (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2010). With the Civil War Sesquicentennial coming up, it’s a recommendation for additional reading.
The Coen movie also makes the book viewer-friendly. When criminals hang, they all die instantly, no thrashing. Portis’ villain, Tom Chaney, the mean drunk who killed Mr. Ross, comes across, in the Coens’ casting, as a no-goodnik who looks more like Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou” than Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”
Many segments in the movie deliver Portis’ dialogue word-for-word, and capture a wonderful western rhetoric; but Portis’ pastoral poetry is left out.
“In my memory’s eye,” Mattie recalls about her father in the novel, “I can still see him mounted up there on Judy in his brown woolen coat and black Sunday hat and the both of them, man and beast, blowing little clouds of steam on that frosty morn.”
Here’s another book-and-two-movies of current interest: “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Movies based on James Cain’s novel starred John Garfield and Lana Turner in 1946; and Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in 1981.
More recently, it and two other Cain novels—“Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce”—were enshrined as classics in Alfred A. Knopf’s “Everyman’s Library” collection.
Westerns as well tough guy stories are back.
An early harbinger was author David Madden, now a Black Mountain resident. In 1968, when he had just started his tenure as Writer-in-Residence at Louisiana State University, he published, as editor, “Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties.”
“The tough guy novel,” he wrote in the introduction, “shows us not only how we were, but how we always have been, and now are.” He called Cain “the twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled school.”
He persuaded Joyce Carol Oates to do the chapter on Cain. Oates kept hitting Cain with double-edged swords.
“David Madden argues,” Oates wrote, “that Cain’s main interest is technique, and certainly the deliberately sordid stories are triumphs of a kind of technique,” but, “it is only when we are asked to believe in the hero’s sudden integrity that the craftsmanship fails.”
Oates doesn’t like Cain’s fantasy, but she has to agree with Madden that many people do.
So now we have to judge “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which Oates considered Cain’s best, on two levels—as great fairy tale and as a great work of literature. Great literature has to be honest and expansive; great fairy tales have to be powerful, which requires literary talent.
In some ways, the hero of “Postman”—Frank Chambers, a drifter who falls in love with a businessman’s wife and plots with her to murder her husband—is like Mattie Ross. He cherishes sentimental things yet assumes the role of someone who sometimes has to do dirty work.
Stripped down, he’s also someone who is, to use a problematic term, “animalistic.” In the novel, the first time that Frank and the romance-starved wife, Cora, are alone together, she asks him to bite her during a kiss, and he draws blood.
When it comes to blood weddings, Cain has got great dance music. It plays when Frank and Cora suspect each other as well as when they clutch. It plays when Frank tries to outfox cops and D.A.s; and when fate deals unbelievably bad hands.
The false parts of “Postman”—the lack of psychology and the lack of any equilibrium—puts a brave face on an American sickness. The sickness—a loner’s survivalist mentality, including a Wild West attachment to gun violence—increases in times of drift.
The movie versions of “Postman” gloss over the falseness of the myth more than does the book. The book seems more honest because, in it, Cora is young—about twenty—and Frank is a bum. Sorry, Jessica, you’re twelve years too old; and John, you’re too natty.
So, we go to the book, and we call it a classic because it reflects us and we can reflect on it. We do not worry about political correctness.
NAME THAT FILM
Nominate the best movies based on books; and comment. Also, see about upcoming book discussions in the region.