Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

I recently Netflixed the movie version of this and after watching the film was compelled to check out the book. After a recent discussion of books vs. the movie version, I thought it would be interesting to see how the adaptation differed from the source material.

The movie is better.

One reason I wanted to read the book was to get some more insight into the whole incest subplot--which is handled as some kind of Svengali seduction in the movie. The book depicts it much better than the film, but otherwise I thought the movie did a better job of conveying the story of a small town dealing with the tragic aftermath of a school bus accident. The book is divided into the narratives of four major characters, starting with the bus driver Dolores Driscoll; followed recent widower Billy Ansel who lost his twins in the accident; then Mitchell Stephens, the attorney who comes to town to organize a class lawsuit; then Nichole Burnett, a teenager who was paralyzed in the crash and finally the epilogue with Dolores Driscoll again.

(Warning: this book review contains SPOILERS for both the book AND the movie! If you haven't seen the movie or read the book and would like to, stop reading NOW!)

The narratives read sort of like depositions--except they are far more explicit and honest than actual depositions. I mean, how many eyewitnesses are going to testify about an accident saying, " the moment it occurred I was thinking about fucking Rita Walter." It's revelations such as this that give us insight into the characters. Egoyan's adaptation has to rely on showing us, rather than telling us. But Egoyan succeeds in giving the characters more depth and unique voices where Banks' characters aren't as delineated. Their voices tend to blend together and their dialogue is stiff and stilted. Such as this passage:

"Oh, I knew it, Billy," she told me after the accident, when finally we could speak of it to each other.
("When finally we could speak of it"? Who talks like that?!!!)
"I knew for the longest time, I knew that something terrible was coming down. When I heard the sirens and the alarm from the firehouse, nobody had to tell me that something terrible had happened, that something unimaginably awful had been visited on me and Wendell, and on you, too, and on the entire town. I knew it instantly, because I had known for months that it was coming. That was why all those months, all the time we were meeting each other, in fact,
(Oh yes, I always speak in parentheticals!)

...I was so unhappy and turbulent in my emotions."

("I was so unhappy and turbulent in my emotions"? WTF?!!!)

In addition to some stilted dialogue, there were several factual errors that really threw me for a loop. In Dolores' first narrative, she refers to Billy Ansel's children as identical twins. Mason and Jessica--one boy, one girl--are fraternal twins. The fact that one is male and the other female pretty much precludes the possibility of them being IDENTICAL. Later in the Billy Ansel chapter, he mentions that the twins are NOT identical. Well, of course they aren't. The fact that they are two different sexes pretty much rules that out! I can only surmise that some idiot editor somewhere completely missed this. Of course it would have been nice if Banks had done a bit of fact checking, but this is what editors and publishers do--they make sure the spelling and grammar is correct, clean up typos and check the freaking facts!

The most egregious factual error was another of the reasons that I had to read the book after watching the film. While viewing some of the DVD's extras, there was a Q&A with Egoyan that was preceded by Banks reading a portion of the novel. The selection he read was the story that Mitchell tells about his daughter Zoe, who suffers an allergic reaction from a spider bite at age two. During the reading, which I was only half focused on, I thought I heard Banks say the word "insulin." Having type one diabetes and needing to inject insulin on a daily basis, it made my ears prick up. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Banks would be using the word. I thought I must have misheard. And then I read the book and as part of Mitchell's phone conversation with the doctor, the doctor says to him:
"There is a good chance you can get her to me before her throat closes, and then we can control the swelling with insulin," he said.
You've got to be kidding me! No doctor--not even the lamebrains on Grey's Anatomy--would ever prescribe insulin to treat anaphylactic shock. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to regulate blood glucose levels. Inject insulin into a toddler with a functioning pancreas and you'd probably kill her. If not due to the fact that insulin does not REDUCE SWELLING or treat anaphylaxis, then due to the fact that a surge of insulin reducing blood glucose levels drastically could induce a coma and death. Epinephrine is the appropriate treatment for severe allergic reactions. A good writer could have easily researched this; a good editor should have caught and corrected it.

Anyway, it's shoddiness like that which takes me out of the story and reduces my enjoyment level. I did, however, appreciate how the filmmakers were able to take the novel and elevate it to another level. There were alterations, however, but they didn't detract from the story and in most cases were choices that added value:

1. In the book, Bear Otto is an outgoing, husky teenager. In the movie, he's a small, quiet, young boy.

2. In the book, a number of children survive the accident--including Nichole Burnett's two brothers. In the movie, Nichole is the only survivor (other than Dolores the bus driver) and she has no brothers. Nichole in the book is a popular, outgoing, cheerleader type. In the movie, (as portrayed by Sarah Polley), she's nurturing, dependable and artistic. In the movie, the "Nichole as sole survivor" is used thematically with the story of the Pied Piper and the one lame child left behind serving as a recurring element.

3. In the book, Mitchell Stephens is quite self-aware when it comes to his motivations in pursuing personal injury lawsuits. He knows that he's attempting to find some sort of justice for the loss of his own daughter. In the movie, the Ian Holm character tentatively stumbles upon that conclusion in an emotional scene with Billy Ansel. In the book, that same scene is an example of Stephens' manipulations.

4. In the movie, the story revolves around Mitchell Stephens. In the book, the point-of-view is spread out over four different characters.

5. In the movie, Nichole's motivation for lying about the accident is presented as altruistic--as a result of Billy Ansel's pleas to her parents to drop the lawsuit that is tearing apart the town. In the book, her motivation is mainly to punish her father for sexually abusing her and his continued exploitation of her via the lawsuit. It is also her way of regaining control over herself and her life. In the book, Billy Ansel views her actions as a heroic one that saved the town, but it was in fact completely premeditated and punitive. Her decision not only harms her father, but Dolores as well, as she puts the blame on the bus driver for speeding.

6. The film manages to activate what is essentially a series of interior narratives. It succeeds quite well. But the ending of the book has a very visual and active scene of a demolition derby at the town fair which both manages to evokes a sense of catharsis and completion that the film does not. One reason that the filmmakers did not use it was probably because it did not feature the character of Mitchell Stephens who they made their protagonist. Also, by not using the sequence, they leave the viewer with a sense of ambiguity and non-resolution. I was OK with that.

So like I said--I preferred the movie. I think it's interesting to compare written work to how they translate on screen. I think I'll post about book to film adaptations next...

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