Since cinema’s formative years, the literati have looked at this fledgling art form with suspicion and a distinct lack of warmth, you might say like a parent sizing up an unwanted child. Photochemical narratology owes much to the novel, not materially you understand, but formally: one typically attempting to tell the same kinds of stories as the other, albeit with less scope.
We’re frequently told that any attempt by filmmakers to synthesise the imagination and replicate the nuance and breadth of meaning distilled from the written word is doomed, because no director, no matter how gifted, can touch that potential. This is received wisdom.
Film has its constraints of course, many being cultural rather than material, after all there’s nothing to stop you from watching a film that runs for twenty hours, you’re just not accustomed to it, but I’d dare to suggest that the real problem in translating a novel to screen is, well, literal mindedness. Film is not an inferior art form, it’s different, and the best attempts at adaptation not only understand this, but embrace it.
The trick, as Lynne Ramsay demonstrates with aplomb, and in full command of the material, is to replicate the psychological effect of the author’s work while retaining its depth. Her adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin does this so effectively that the truncated narrative, filleted of extraneous characters and incident, reordered and refined for the screen, delivers something akin to a concentrated version of the story. Better yet, it’s a rich and intense piece of cinema that does what Lionel Shriver’s sentences cannot – making an impact that’s immediate and discombobulating; a sensual assault.
Ramsey uses every trick in the cinematic arsenal to provide the same sense of disorientation, discomfort and dread imbibed by Tilda Swinton’s Eva. There’s no on screen violence but Ramsay primes you for it using two techniques largely forgotten in Hollywood, intellectual montage and, in keeping with the film’s Freudian credentials, free association. The latter includes a virtuoso reimagining of Un Chien Andalou’s infamous eye slice; a scene in which Kevin, accused by his mother of destroying his sister’s eye with draining fluid, first peels, then lolls a lychee around his mouth, before crushing it between his teeth. On the page the inference, and indeed the symbolism is clear enough, but on screen the image has an altogether more urgent, more distressing effect. You haven’t just seen that eye being destroyed, you’ve felt it.Pages: 1 2