December 27, 2012
Several high school students my wife and I know had the same assignment from a high school teacher: Get one saying each from people they knew. All three decided to ask my wife and me.
Since they all had the same teacher, they couldn't very well show up with the same sayings from us. Yet we couldn't play favorites among the three.
No doubt about it. My wife and I would have to come up with three separate sayings each.
The trouble with sayings is that even if you're a witty person, as my wife is, and even if you write for a living, as I do, creating characters who sometimes say clever things, it's very hard to come up with something pithy and quotable on demand.
I remember my friend Robert Stoddard's all-purpose quotation from college days: "He who shall, so shall he who." Yet even though this epigram is equally applicable to all situations, we didn't feel we should rely on his creativity.
Then it dawned on me. Practically everything that people say is quotable, if you say it portentously enough. In fact, the very next thing my wife said seemed to me a perfect demonstration of that fact:
"I'm going to make some oatmeal. Oatmeal makes the world a better place."
Engrave that in stone. Or at least stick it to the fridge.
Then I remembered her oft-repeated maxim: "Avocado makes any food better." (She stands by this even when I offer counter-suggestions. "Ice cream?" "Yummm." "Mustard?" "Not a food.")
My own ideas sound contrived by comparison with her epigrams. "Since you're not listening, does it matter whether I tell the truth?" (I like that one, but since it's a question I'm not sure it qualifies as a maxim.)
"Subscribing to a magazine you don't read doesn't make you smarter."
"I've been young and I've been old. Young is better, but only old people know how much."
"If you sing loud enough, the melody is whatever note you're singing." (This is the guiding maxim of extremists everywhere.)
And here's the maxim that I'd love to say to President Obama: "If you don't know what to do, don't insist on getting your way."
But it really all comes down to: "I'm going to make some oatmeal. Oatmeal makes the world a better place."
Watching Peter Jackson make a joke out of Tolkien's magnificent Lord of the Rings and of Tolkien's amusing but much slighter The Hobbit may lead some people to think that great works of literature are inevitably trashed when converted to film form.
But that is not true. Peter Jackson's mistakes all came from a combination of hubris, reliance on false formulas from screenwriting classes, and, with The Hobbit, the greed of financiers who wanted to stretch a one-movie story into three films.
Jane Austen was every bit the genius that Tolkien was. Like Tolkien, she took the existing literary conventions of her time and reinvented them into something new and transformative. Like Tolkien, she changed everything that came after.
And, like Tolkien, her individual works remain masterworks that can be read and understood without professorial intervention.
Translating a story from fiction to the screen is hard, and it has taken several tries with many of Austen's novels to get them right. Fortunately, the BBC recognizes the necessity of making more than one attempt, and the results have been quite stunning.
One thing is obvious: It is very hard to make a Jane Austen story work well within the two hours of a feature film. It takes time to develop relationships and societies, and you can't tell a Jane Austen story without doing that.
In my opinion, the only perfect feature-film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel has been Emma Thompson's script of Sense and Sensibility.
Others have been good – there's a decent feature-length Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Keira Knightley) and a very credible Persuasion (starring Amanda Root).
Otherwise, however, the successful screen adaptations have been at miniseries length.
Everybody knows that the best Pride and Prejudice is the Colin Firth miniseries. But it isn't the only one, and isn't even the best Jane Austen miniseries.
On Dec. 16, Jane Austen's birthday, some Austen-loving friends joined us to celebrate the day by rewatching the BBC miniseries of Emma, written by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O'Hanlon.
I can only marvel at the way this writer and director, joined by an astonishingly good cast, understood Austen's brilliant material and brought it to life with a depth and completeness that, if anything, improved on the original.
Now that we've seen more of Jonny Lee Miller in the series Elementary, it makes his achievement as Mr. Knightley in Emma all the more wonderful – because both performances are so brilliant and so different from each other.
Romola Garai, perfect in the title role, makes Gwyneth Paltrow's pathetic misunderstanding of the character all the more reprehensible – because Paltrow's mistakes were entirely her own, and not caused by the script or the underlying material.
Most important, however, is the way that Sandy Welch filled in elements that were implied but not fully developed in Austen's novel. The father, instead of merely being annoying, is treated with love and compassion; we agree that Emma cannot leave him.
We also see the tragic dilemma underlying Emma's life; that she does not belong to herself. Yet she manages to find joy and cheerfulness in her dilemma. She is young and imperfect and sometimes causes harm. But she maintains a close friendship with the one person who speaks truth to her. And, together, they find a road out of the lonely life that fate had designed for her.
Every step of the way, we are shown that lonely life by the apposite character, Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig), also trapped in a life devoted to the care of an aging parent. Like Emma, Miss Bates retains a commitment to uncomplaining good cheer in the midst of her loneliness and sacrifice; the fact that Emma never understands her similarity to Miss Bates does not prevent the filmmakers – and us – from experiencing it.
The BBC Emma is a gorgeous example of using one medium to shine a bright light of understanding on a story first told in a different one. It can be done; it has been done; and each work, the book and the film, is elevated by having experienced the other.
Peter Jackson, in adapting Tolkien, treated story elements he did not understand with such contempt that future generations will watch his story changes with stunned outrage (as some of us do now). And the self-indulgent three-feature version of The Hobbit will be regarded as a sad joke.
As the cost of computer effects drops and the quality improves, it will not be such a massive undertaking to reenvision and remake Lord of the Rings in the future.
Just as the miserable Gwyneth Paltrow Emma was later put to shame by the brilliant BBC Emma of 2009, so also there will someday be films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in which scriptwriters who actually understand the story they're working with bring Tolkien's story to fruition on the screen....continued on page 2