The barbarians have arrived

Why do filmmakers adapt novels to film? Simply because some novels are famous and therefore a “hot property”, meaning the film has a head start in terms of publicity and public recognition? Because there is a powerful storyline, ready-made, waiting only to be adapted to another medium? But that’s the point: it’s another medium.

Novels are made of language and movies are made of pictures. The less mental life there is in a novel, the more likely it is to adapt well. Novels can take us into a character’s mind; movies have to be content with registering what happens on an actor’s face, implying thought or feeling.

It is an old truism that few good novels adapt well to film, and JM Coetzee’s Disgrace would seem very hard to adapt. Director Steve Jacobs (not to be confused with the South African author of the same name who now, like Coetzee, lives in Australia) told me he thought the novel “cinematic”, but I know of at least one director who declined to make a film of the book because it was uncinematic.

The truth is that Jacobs has compensated for the uncinematic qualities of the book, largely by using the Western Cape as a stand-in for the Eastern Cape of the novel (though it’s still pretending to be the Eastern Cape). Jacobs wanted a good-looking landscape instead of the often dreary Eastern Cape, and he wanted to give the story an “epic quality” that, arguably, goes against the grain of the novel. The heroism implied by the epic form is entirely absent from the novel. David Lurie, the protagonist, doesn’t even qualify as an anti-hero.

I don’t usually hang around after screenings, but after seeing Disgrace I did. I wanted to hear what others thought. I was sort of in two minds, on the fence if you like; my fellow critics were largely scornful of the film and the places where it becomes inauthentic. Authenticity is, after all, important in realism, and some I spoke to later found the film as a whole, with its non-South African accents, “embarrassing”.

I don’t think it’s as bad as that. It’s solidly made, with a decent grip on the storyline. John Malkovich plays David Lurie, a disgraced Capetonian academic who, having lost his job, flees to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape. There they are the victims of a violent attack, from which they find it hard to recover, though each takes a different route to some kind of acceptance. The novel, I’d say, is about different kinds of loss; the only way to make it bearable is to transmute loss into renunciation. It’s a bleak and devastating novel, made readable by Coetzee’s narrative skill and the flinty elegance of his prose.

I thought Jessica Haines, as Lucy, the best thing in the movie. Perhaps that’s just a desire for authenticity, but she felt real to me. Eriq Ebouaney, as her fellow farmer and perhaps antagonist over the ownership of the land, did not: he comes across as rather mysterious or unrealised, perhaps because the actor hasn’t found a way into the part, or because the script doesn’t give him the right things to do. Anoinette Engel as Melanie, the student David Lurie bullies into bed, is rather blank, possibly for the same reasons. On the other hand, Fiona Press as Bev Shaw, who accepts David Lurie’s help at her animal shelter, felt right.

And so we come to Malkovich. It’s a commonplace to say one either likes him or one doesn’t, and certainly that will have an impact on how you take the film. Me, I think he’s best when he’s being funny, as in Burn After Reading. In Disgrace, though, he’s being serious. Very serious.

Okay, he’s a professor of literature who feels superannuated and alienated by change (something the film doesn’t really explore, though it’s the all-important intellectual context), and he gets himself into a pickle when he beds a student. He’s arrogant and unrepentant. Later, he will suffer. Seriously. But from Malkovich we get little sense of what Lurie, at least, would like to see as his Byronic side. Like Ben Kingsley in Elegy, another lustful professor, Malkovich is very hard to believe as any kind of sensualist, let alone a defiant romantic.

Mostly, though, it’s just the way he acts. He seems a catalogue of mannerisms, each doubtless carefully calculated to portray the character — or are they inadvertent? He seems to aim for precision of speech, as befits a man of words, but perhaps he’s just struggling with the accent. (He does reasonably well, I think, but maybe it was still a struggle.) And what’s with those odd breaks and pauses of rhythm? It’s like he’s not a native English speaker and has had to learn his lines phonetically.

For me, beyond Malkovich’s speech and behaviour, what I found most off-putting in Disgrace was his Homer Simpson mouth. Should a live-action film ever be made of The Simpsons, Malkovich must play that dastardly dad — if he can muster the idiotic glee of the man. He probably can’t: he’s too intelligent, too contained.

You sense a lot is going on inside him, you just can’t always decipher what it is. In Disgrace, I found his performance mesmerising — for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps that unbalanced my sense of the film, but it will too for anyone who doesn’t get Malkovich in such a role.

In the end, the film seems to reduce the book, which is probably inevitable — even if it tries, at the same time, to inflate some of it to epic proportions. Some scenes (the attack, for one) I thought well executed, but a lot of it is simply flat. The film of Disgrace gives us the story, but doesn’t get inside it.

Also read Fallen from grace

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