Thursday, November 26, 2009

More Montalbano: Good writing in novels and on TV

I've commented caustically about television crime shows, and Declan Burke has commented even more caustically on a highly successful agent's pronouncement that "Good writing is the last thing, and we can work with authors on that."

In a comment to Burke's post, John McFetridge notes that
"Sure, the movies still make money, but almost every prize-winner, almost every movie for grown-ups, almost every movie with real people and not cartoons or cartoonish stories is based on a novel filled with 'good writing' because it turns out that's the part you can't 'work with,' so you have to buy it somewhere else.The 'original screenplay' movies are for kids – cartoons or slapstick comedy, action and horror."
That's why I'm happy to be reminded that, given a good novel to work with, an intelligent screenwriter can adapt the material to the demands of a different medium and come up with something not quite identical to the original but true to its spirit. Call it good screenwriting, if you like.

The subject here is The Shape of Water, both Andrea Camilleri's novel and its adaptation for Italian television's Il commissario Montalbano series. The novel opens with two desultory trash collectors in an open-air brothel called "the Pasture" or La Mánnara. Camilleri then offers a pointed, funny social history of the Pasture, introduces the family of one of the collectors (the family will play a role later), and has the two workers make a pair of important discoveries and a critical phone call.

The TV film, on the other hand, opens with a prostitute witnessing the crime that gave rise to the action described above, and that was a good move on the filmmakers' part. Camilleri's opening is one of slow, leisurely, at times very funny discovery, and someone made the wise decision that such an opening would be difficult to translate to the screen.

Elsewhere, the filmmakers combine two minor characters into one and change her nationality. They also cut out a comic sexual/romantic subplot and work gracefully around the cut. Again, it's hard to argue with the decisions. The filmmakers knew their material, they knew the media of books and television, and they knew what each could do best.

Finally, I hope no one will accuse me of Communistic tendencies if I quote with approval and amusement Camilleri's description of the Pasture:
"Most of the meat came from the former Eastern Bloc countries, now free at last of the Communist yoke which, as everyone knows, had denied all personal, human dignity; now, between the Pasture's bushes and sandy shore, come nightfall, that reconquered dignity shone again in all its magnificence."
© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Loren Eaton said...


(Sorry, had to get that out of my system.)

I am absolutely shocked that an agent would see excellent style as an afterthought. Burke hits it on the proverbial head when he says, "A good writer is not simply a flesh-and-blood computer into which we feed ‘plot’ and ‘character’ and then print off the results." Amen and amen.

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

A crackerjack post from Dec, a superb comment from John, and they and you, Peter, have hit a lot of nails right on the noggin here. I'm a bit shocked by the Darley Anderson piece, I must say, but Dec and John have dealt finely with that load of cobblers. And I must say I think you are entirely right about adaptations -- I just wish it happened that way more often, for I find most television and film adaptations of novels shoddy. Thanks for a fine post.

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I won't jump wholeheartedly into the fray because I lack the context to do so. (I haven't even read all of Darley Anderson's comments, just the ones Declan quoted.) I suggested in a comment on Declan's post that Anderson may have meant something like "It doesn't matter how finely crafted your sentences are if you can't tell a story."

An author I respect and whose writing is quite good as well as original said that an author's work has to be commercial. Stick that in an article, and it could sound as if he was saying, "Write for the market." His own work makes it more likely, however, that he really was stating the truism that a published author's goal is to sell books -- not quite the same thing as "Write for the market."

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I think Declan suggested that plot and character are part of good writing; it makes no sense to separate them. If he did not so suggest, I will. That's one reason I often refer to a given author as a good prose stylist rather than a good writer (thought these authors are usually good writers, too). Substitute "good prose style" for "good writing," and Darley Anderson has the beginnings of an argument.

Keep in mind, too, that my newspaper career has taught me sobering lessons about the value of "good writing."

And I agree with you about John's comment. Writers ought to post it by their keyboards and in their notebooks.

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re adaptations, I've noticed with interest the sorts of changes screen adaptations will make to popular fiction. Usually this amounts to cuts. The movie version of Alan Moore's Watchmen may not have been a classic, but the filmmakers made some small but clever choices about handling subplots in Moore's sprawling story.

But the Montalbano adaptations are the most intelligent I can remember. It's possible, though, that I'm more sensitive to the filmmakers' changes because I love the books so well. It's a good thing for the filmmakers that they seem to have done a good job. If not, they'd have heard from me.

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Simona said...

Camilleri started his career in theater and he also worked as screenwriter for TV. His participation in the screenplays is, I think, one of the reasons the movies are so good. We also talked about the casting and I would add the beauty of the places where the movies were filmed.

November 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew that Camilleri had worked in theater and film. I see that he has a screenwriting credit for The Shape of Water. So it would make sense if he knew what would work on screen and what would have to be changed.

I especially like la Fornace Penna as the setting for La Mánnara.

November 27, 2009  

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