Here’s Looking at You, Emma Bovary

We began our Monday morning at the Wheeler Centre with a bit of a giggle, after stumbling on a very funny website that brings literary characters to (startlingly) real life.

The creator of The Composites has gone through some of literature’s most beloved books – and run passages describing their characters through police composite sketch software. The results are very different from Hollywood imaginings of the same characters.

Flaubert described Emma Bovary thus:

She was pale all over, white as a sheet; the skin of her nose was drawn at the nostrils, her eyes looked at you vaguely. After discovering three grey hairs on her temples, she talked much of her old age…Her eyelids seemed chiseled expressly for her long amorous looks in which the pupil disappeared, while a strong inspiration expanded her delicate nostrils and raised the fleshy corner of her lips, shaded in the light by a little black down.

Here is Emma Bovary, as imagined by The Composites:

And here she is, as imagined by Hollywood in 1949 (played by Jennifer Jones):

And by the BBC in 2000 (played by Frances O’Connor):

This clever little exercise by The Composites is a bit of fun, but it’s also a stark illustration of the issues that can arise in translating the world of the page – which leaves gaps for the reader’s imagination – to the visual realm.

Ordinary people?

What’s a more faithful translation: the strict adherence to details that results in the eerie police sketches of The Composites, or those of film and television makers? The latter tend to present unusually attractive versions of even the most ordinary characters – using props such as messy hair, sloppy cardigans, glasses or unflattering make-up to signal that they’re supposed to be ordinary mortals.

Sandra Bullock (with Tom Hanks) in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Glasses, messy hair and minimal make-up make her 'ordinary'.

Sandra Bullock (with Tom Hanks) in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Glasses, messy hair and minimal make-up make her 'ordinary'.

So, a literary character made flesh is almost always more glamorous than the version on the page. But then again, Emma Bovary is an attractive, charismatic woman – not reflected at all in the strangely empty composite sketch, but captured in the screen versions. It’s the essence of the character rather than their physical description that’s most important, surely?

Controversial casting

One of the most controversial literary casting decisions of recent times was that to cast British-Nigerian actor Sophie Okonedo as Aisha in The Slap. This meant her character’s background was changed from Indian to Mauritian. Some fans of the book protested, but author Christos Tsiolkas was unbothered. What mattered for Tsiolkas, said producer Robert Connolly, was that ‘Aisha regards herself as an outsider to mainstream Australia, a common bond that links her to Hector and his close-knit Greek family’. And she did a brilliantly job of capturing ‘Aisha’. Carbon-copy looks had little to do with it.

As The Slap writer Kris Myrska told the Wheeler Centre, translation from literature (or real life) to the screen often has nothing to do with upping the glamour quotient – decisions can be made for practical reasons, like how difficult a scene is to shoot. Also a writer on The King, the telemovie about the life of Graeme Kennedy, Myrska said complaints made about the ‘accuracy’ of that show included that Kennedy was depicted drinking brown spirits, when he preferred white. Why? ‘Clear fluid reads as water on the screen, while brown liquid says booze.’

Jonah Hill as Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta) in Moneyball

Jonah Hill as Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta) in Moneyball

In Moneyball, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, similar casting decisions were made for practical reasons. Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, whose real-life counterpart, Paul DePodesta, asked to have his name changed for the movie. The real-life DePodesta looks nothing like the chubby, child-like Hill; he’s lean and handsome. And far from being an Ivy League baseball outsider (like Hill’s character), he started his career as an advance scout for the Cleveland Indians. But the script – and the casting decision – made changes to amp up the dramatic contrast with Brad Pitt’s golden boy Billy Beane. ‘I was jarred by it when I first heard it, and then I thought, “My god, it could be brilliant,”’ Michael Lewis told Hollywood Reporter. ‘[Jonah Hill] is physically so unlike everybody else in this environment that it has a metaphoric power and it works brilliantly. His performance is spectacular.’

Paul DePodesta

Paul DePodesta

When too true falls flat

Sometimes it’s the other way round. What works on the page doesn’t ring true when translated too faithfully to the screen. Reviewing Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the New Yorker recently, David Denby made just this point. He called the film, about a bright 11-year-old boy coping with his father’s 9/11 death in his own eccentric fashion, ‘an example of what happens when an author’s fluent literary conceits give way to the sight of all-too-human people moving and talking in the real-world spaces of a movie’:

‘Onscreen … the sound of a hyper-articulate boy talking semi-nonsense becomes very hard to take … Embodied, Oskar is a pain. After a while, we find ourselves thinking not of grief but of entitled kids who have been praised for every bright remark they’ve ever made.’

Of course, not everyone agrees with Denby – the film is nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Oscars race. Six of nine nominees in the category are literary adaptations.

And it’s been suggested recently that, in the wake of The Slap’s success, more screen adaptations could provide a much-needed boost to Australian books.

It seems that, for all its issues, the relationship between page and screen is more popular than ever.

Related posts