They are literature’s cold cases, the Missing and Presumed Dead. They are the unlucky novels and stories that inspired movies so successful that they eclipsed the originals almost completely. Some books weather a subsequent movie’s success. Gone With the Wind survives as a classic film and a classic novel. But how many people know that before it was a movie, Die Hard was a very good novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, or that Forrest Gump is based on the novel Forrest Gump?
Good fiction deserves a better fate. By way of a modest corrective, this series seeks out and showcases those obscured, forgotten novels and stories that gave their lives that movies might live, stories that were always at least as good as the well-known films they inspired and in more than a few instances, a lot better.
The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia is one of that surprisingly large number of great artists, ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson to Martin Scorsese, who survived prolonged illnesses as children. In Moravia’s case, he contracted tuberculosis of the bone when he was nine and spent five years in bed. That and fascism, he later said, were the two most formative influences on his life because they forced him to do things he might otherwise not have done. “It is what we are forced to do,” he observed, “that forms our character, not what we do of our own free will.”
Illness gave Moravia the time to become an obsessive reader and writer. Fascism made him the odd man out in his own country so long as Mussolini ruled Italy. (Intriguingly, fascism tore his own family down the middle: two cousins on his father’s side were murdered by the fascists, while an uncle on his mother’s side was a high-ranking party official.)
Reading this prolific author (he published more than 40 works of fiction before his death in 1990 at the age of 82) can be a slow grind. He is not especially lyrical or comic, and he always takes his time telling a story. Sometimes, in fact, he seems more like a scientist than a storyteller—interested in studying his characters as specimens in an effort to understand why they behave as they do. What ignites his narratives—what keeps you reading, in other words—is the concurrent and seemingly contradictory belief on the author’s part that some things about people simply cannot be explained. And yet, he seems to imply, we cannot and must not give up trying to understand.
There is something hypnotic about this combination, this sense of acute attention mixed with fatalism. His stories are never page-turners, but at the same time you keep turning the pages.
Or you would if you read Moravia, which apparently not many people do anymore. A few of his titles remain in print in English, but only a handful. Like all but the luckiest authors from abroad, he is not taught much in this country, even in translation. If his stories are enjoyed at all by the general public, it is through the films made from his novels, such as Two Women, for which Sophia Loren won the Academy Award for best actress, or Contempt, or The Conformist.
The irony is that almost everything good about most of these films can be traced back to the source—to Moravia. But most people don’t know that. They don’t know Contempt as a great work of fiction. They know it as a movie in which Brigitte Bardot spends a lot of time without her clothes on. In Moravia’s case, the movies have done their job too well: they have all but eclipsed his work, and that is truly unfortunate. Or at least bittersweet. You could not ask that the books or the movies should be better, but a little parity would be welcome.
Jean Luc Godard’s film version of Contempt is a visually thrilling and never tedious film about the disintegration of a relationship. In fact, moment by moment, it is far more exciting than the novel on which it is based. And yet Moravia’s version is infinitely superior.
In both stories a woman ceases to love her husband. In both cases she cannot or will not say why. But in the film, the wife (Brigitte Bardot), comes off as merely petulant, while the husband (Michel Piccoli), comes across as both angry and violent enough to drive anyone away. Moreover, the falling-out-of-love occurs in the space of one day in the film, whereas it takes weeks if not months in the novel.
The film, in other words, makes the fatal mistake of trying to find reasons for the wife’s diminished affections. The novel, in contrast, is the story of a man looking for answers in vain. His agony is palpable and ultimately tragic.
Godard’s film, ironically, succeeds where it has least to do with the source material. Opening with spoken credits (homage, I’m guessing, to Orson Welles’s spoken credits at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons), the film then allows the speaker to also introduce the film, first by quoting the film critic André Bazin: “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires,” then by adding, “Contempt is a story of that world.”
There is further, more outright homage in having the director in the movie about a movie played by the great Fritz Lang, who gets the film’s one truly funny line: announcing his dislike for Cinemascope, the wide-screen format that was then becoming popular, Lang says that it’s only good for filming “funerals—and snakes.”
In both versions, the husband is being hired by a producer to write a screenplay for a film version of The Odyssey. In the novel, he’s doing it strictly for the money from the get-go. He is debasing himself to give his wife the apartment she loves. But when the film introduces this motivation midway through, it just seems arbitrary.
It is understandable that Godard would want to make a movie about movie-making, but to do that he has to jettison one of the driving forces of the novel: the writer’s utter contempt for the genre.
Early in the novel, Moravia spends several pages deriding the screenwriter’s plight. In what amounts to an essay brusquely inserted into the narrative—clearly this is Moravia talking to us directly—he raises several of the same complaints about scriptwriting mentioned in his Paris Review interview: the screenwriter is always a collaborator, always a wage slave who must serve the director’s vision, always a hack, never a true artist.
Moravia’s screenwriter is a pitiable creature; Godard’s is not. In truth, the two versions are about different things: the novel, a sort of Bartleby the Scrivener about love and sex, concerns itself with life’s implacable mysteries, while the movie deals with the perils of illusion-making. But while the movie never ceases to entertain you, the book will haunt you.
But where the film version of Contempt suffers by comparison with its source material—indeed, the much cruder film ironically exalts and clarifies the superiority of the novel—the movie made from The Conformist does not.
Bernardo Bertolucci may have made the film of his life when he adapted Moravia to the screen. It is everything the novel isn’t: quick, lyrically beautiful, occasionally funny. And yet, novel and film, while they wildly diverge at certain points—in plot, point of view, and even sensibility—complement each other in wonderful ways.
Unlike the novel version of Contempt, which achieves much of its claustrophic constriction by staying inside the head of the protagonist, The Conformist manages to do much the same even with a third-person point of view. Mercello Clerici, the conformist of the title who so wants to be like other people that he becomes an enthusiastic fascist, is abhorrent. We shrink from him. Despite that, we also pity him. In book and film alike, Clerici may not be sympathetic, but he is always human. This is a man who would betray a man he once admired, who would cheat on his wife on their honeymoon, and yet he is never merely a monster. Neither Moravia nor Bertolucci will let us off that easily. We may not be Clerici but we see something in him that we recognize, something that makes us whisper, there but for luck or the grace of God or what you will go I. Remember, Moravia may have been a rabid anti-fascist, but his own uncle was one of Mussolini’s henchmen. So the author had to grow up grappling with the fact that even our loved ones can be despicable.
Moravia’s novels are superficially conventional, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in that order. But he insisted that he was not a realist or a naturalist. He compared himself to composers, and his stories, he said, were like pieces of music where characters were themes to be developed and redeveloped.
His readers would probably agree, for while the people in his books go about as real people do, eating, working, arguing, making love, they also move through plots that are more like dreams, or that have the reality of dreams, where we believe and doubt at the same time. Thus, while they are tragic, they are also mysterious. This is not dreamy, misty mystery, however. On the contrary, it is because Moravia has made his vision so precise, as though he were explaining everything. But the more he explains, the more precise he becomes, the greater the mystery. Bertolucci grasps this in a way that Godard does not, and if you want to see how a superb novel and a superb film tell the same story without, as it were, stepping on the toes of the other genre, The Conformist as novel and film are great places to start.
Other books and movies included in this series: