I am an introspective young man and some of my favorite books are bildungsromane about introspective young men. Two such books are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I’ve always thought they were unfilmable. Both books have received the big-screen treatment recently.
Norwegian Wood the film was released in late 2010. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about that film here, because it’s such a disappointment. Nothing happens, and then nothing happens, and then I turned off the film. I didn’t have to see whole 133 minutes of plodding to get a feel for it. I know what happens next, which is to say: nothing.
I managed to sit through the entirety of On the Road (2012), because there’s a little bit more of an external plot for the filmmakers to hang on to, but it’s just like I’d always thought: these books simply can’t be faithfully adapted to film.
I’d never seen a film with Kristen Stewart in it. I now understand the meme where 25 identical Kristen Stewart faces represent 25 different emotions. I think the overarching expression she was going for in this one was “seductive,” but I don’t know. Could as well have been “repulsive,” or “gloomy” or “content.” Not that one can’t deliver a magnetic performance with only one expression. I was absolutely captivated by Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris (1972)—also a film where nothing much happens on the surface—despite the fact that all she does in that film is stare emptily into space or cry. But Kristen Stewart is not an otherworldly Soviet space beauty.
The obvious and obviously correct criticism of either film is that they are merely a summary of their respective books—neither adding anything of their own nor capturing the spirit of the original. But the more interesting question is exactly what it is they’re missing, and whether this something is bound to literature or if it can be transferred to film.
There are, of course, many relevant differences between Kerouac’s Beat novel, taking place only years post WWII in America, and Murakami’s novel, which takes place during the student protests of the late 1960s and the Vietnam war, but in Japan. On the Road is an extremely thinly veiled autobiography, while Norwegian Wood probably takes its themes and sensibilities from the author, but not the actual plot. What unites them is the sensibility of the narrator and protagonist, who in both novels is a bookish, introverted young man who is curious about life, desirous of it, wanting to experience things more fully and completely, but somehow held back by forces integral to their personality and to their past. And one of the things that the books do, but the films cannot, is to capture the exhilaration such a man feels upon meeting someone who embodies all that they want to be, and when this person accepts them and invites them along for the ride.
On the Road is a novel about the relationship between Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and all the other characters are simply extras. From the first page, Kerouac, as Sal Paradise, drags us along enthusiastically explaining to us how he first met Dean, as he chooses to call Cassady’s literary alter ego, and about his expectations and hopes for the future now that such a force of life has entered his life. It’s almost embarrassing how much I like this book because of the way I identify with it. It feels somehow dirty, as if literary worth should be determined on the basis of more abstract values, as if it’s forbidden for serious literary appraisal to base itself on the same principles, frankly, as teenage girls gushing about Twilight, viz., emotional identification.
Norwegian Wood, on the other hand, is about Toru Watanabe’s relationships with two women: Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend—a friend who committed suicide the year before the main story begins—and Midori, whom he meets while at university in Tokyo. Naoko is troubled, silent, introverted; Midori is outgoing, bubbly, spontaneous. Naoko is Toru’s tie with the past, while Midori is a possible future. Thus the tension in On the Road, between Sal’s introverted nature and the extraverted Dean, between the silent and the loud, between action and inaction, is present here as well, but externalized: Toru’s choice between Naoko and Midori is also a choice about how to align his personality.
There are many other things that could be said about these two books, and about their respective film adaptations. I’m being intentionally reductionistic in focusing on this one aspect, but I do so because it is an aspect that feels particularly relevant right now, in this particular moment for this particular writer, and if there is anything interesting I can say about this topic, that is the angle I must take.
I don’t know what either director intended to say or do with their films. I’m sure that whatever it was, it missed something important about the original source material. I’m not quite sure what that important thing is, but I’m going to suggest, because it seems like an interesting possibility, that it is this very conflict or tension: between introversion and extraversion, between depression and mania. I recently wrote that I’d rather go out as a supernova than as a black hole, that I envy the bipolar their mania. What is it Sal says at the start of On the Road? “
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles…" This is what Sal Paradise encounters in Dean Moriarty, and to a lesser extent, because I am stretching a bit here—this theme is a more important part of On the Road than of Norwegian Wood, although I insist that it applies to both—it is what Toru Watanabe encounters in Midori.
And what both films fail to convey is just how exhilarating, how fantastic, how gripping and exciting and downright ecstatic this is. How a character such as Sal, or such as Toru, or like Jack or Haruki or even myself, reacts to this. How one who is at one end of the personality scale but aspires to the other reacts when the other side comes bursting into their life exploding across the sky like spiders bringing more colors and sounds and sights and life than he has ever seen and says, “You’re welcome to come along for the ride.” That is the rush I get from reading On the Road, and to a lesser extent, it is the rush Toru gets from meeting Midori.
But the films don’t do this. They don’t show it, they tell. Of course, on film, telling is showing, but showing me a picture of someone ecstatic is not the same as making me ecstatic; seeing a journey on film is not the same as being taken on a journey. The books take us along for that ride but the films cannot.
On the Road can’t be adapted faithfully to film. A less faithful film that didn’t try to be a period piece or to adapt scenes from the novel could have been more emotionally faithful. I am sure Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be pleased with the film.
It is because the films fail to take us along for that initial rush that the subsequent character development also falls flat and the films fail as a whole. (Well, Norwegian Wood failed for me before it even got to the character development, since I turned it off halfway through—as such, this is idle essayistic speculation, and not a legitimate review of that film, but for what it’s worth the reviewers who were forced to watch the whole thing appear to agree with me.)
The two narrators choose opposite approaches to resolving the tension between up and down, introspection and extraversion. Sal hops along the road with Dean for a while, and in the process, he manages to push himself a ways towards the other end of the personality spectrum, though he never travels far. In the end, however, Dean abandons Sal with dysentery in Mexico, and when they meet again, Sal, having realized the flaws and incompatibilities inherent in their relationship, basically bids Dean adieu. In Norwegian Wood, Toru pursues Naoko, and so basically goes in the other direction relative to Sal, but Naoko abandons him in a more permanent way: she commits suicide. Thus he is forced back to Midori, to the other end of the spectrum. We never learn just what she answers when he returns to her, basically the second choice.
But though they go along different paths, both protagonists end up somewhere in the same vicinity, having pushed far in one direction and then been pulled back in the other.
In the books, the reader follows along this journey. Because we are allowed to feel, if fainter, as if by proxy, Sal’s exhilaration with Dean and all that Dean represents, his eventual choice to abandon him and the lifestyle is made more poignant. And because we are allowed to feel along with Toru the comfort that comes with his slow, meandering, introspective relationship with Naoko, because we are allowed to feel the false safety of staying in your comfort zone along with him, it feels more poignant when life pulls him in the other direction. Both novels end bittersweetly in a way that depends on the emotional investment of the reader. You can’t manufacture that in a film by putting “Bittersweet Symphony” on the soundtrack. (Neither film does, but you get my point.)Feb 5, 2013