Sunday, November 4, 2012

Can the Figurative be Enacted?

Emily Eakin’s latest post to NYRBlog, “Cloud Atlas’s Theory of Everything,” may tell you more about Cloud Atlas (the novel, the film, and probably the mystical philosophy of Ken Wilber) than you may ever need to know. However, her punch line may go a long way towards clarifying the challenge of taking a highly literary text and turning it into a movie. She takes, as her point of departure, one of the characters from David Mitchell’s novel, Luisa Rey, and discloses how her name pays homage to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a connection with a variety of implications for both style and content.

She then develops her punch line as a riff on Wilder’s book:
In that novel, a lonely society matron veers between despair that “the world had no plan in it” and a flicker of belief in what Wilder eloquently terms “the great Perhaps.” Belief in the great Perhaps suffuses Cloud Atlas the novel; the misstep of Cloud Atlas the film is to try to turn Perhaps into Certainty.
This is an elegant form of closure; but, like many good conclusions, it raises more questions than it answers, most of which go beyond the scope of any specific film adaptation of any specific novel. There have, after all, been at least two adaptations of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, both of which do justice to the plot line and fumble because the impact of the novel comes from far more than the plot.

Ultimately, the Wilder novel is a philosophical tract made palatable through not only narrative but also the capacity to make its argument through figurative, rather than literal, language. A major element of Eakin’s account involves Mitchell’s facility in working in the figurative domain, through which his novel emerges as a powerful text. Thus the most important question raised by Eakin’s punch line is whether any movie can be primarily figurative.

Yes, it is true that Alfred Hitchcock unsettled François Truffaut by demonstrating that the camera can lie; and, for all we know, he learned that trick from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, the figurative use of language is not about truth and lies. It would be better to say that it is about the difference between denotation and connotation. The real question is whether or not cinematic language can connote or whether it is limited to exploiting ambiguities and paradoxes of denotation. I would be willing to consider that, when opera works, connotation may be communicated through music beyond the setting of text; but an opera score is a far cry from a movie soundtrack. Thus, if there is any critical element of a novel that goes beyond the plot line, there is probably a good chance that it will get lost by even the best of film adaptations.

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