Don Marshall, a regional novelist and also director of the International Cinema program at BYU, button-holed me at the Utah Arts Council the other day and gave a "conflicting opinion" about my recent Critic's Journal on William Kennedy and his novel/movie "Ironweed."I'd said that Kennedy was a marvelous novelist but not a very compelling storyteller. I went on to say that Kennedy forgets who his audience is and "Ironweed" the film ends up trapped between art and entertainment.
I also told Don Marshall to send me his rebuttal and I'd run it.
Here it is:
I was stunned by Jerry Johnston's recent article, "Novelist Kennedy Fails Miserably as a Screenwriter," condemning William Kennedy's adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Ironweed" into a film. I had read and greatly admired the novel a few years ago and had consequently felt some uneasiness about the upcoming movie version from the moment I heard that Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep had been cast to play the leads.
Streep and Nicholson, I felt, would be grossly miscast too young, too trim, too good looking and too well-known in the roles of Kennedy's over-the-hill down-and-outers roaming the streets of Albany, New York, during the Depression era. And though it seemed a good thing that Kennedy himself had been signed on to adapt his own novel to the screen, I feared that he might be forced to make some unfortunate changes to tailor his material to these two box office superstars.
What a pleasant surprise then, when the movie was released last month, to find Streep and Nicholson not only overwhelmingly right for the parts but as good as we've ever seen them and probably even better. And the second revelation, for me, was Kennedy's script an adaptation so utterly faithful to the original that it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck as I re-read the book and then went to see the film a second time.
For Johnston, the film fails because Kennedy, as a screenwriter, "forgot to worry about pace and plot" and neglected to make his screenplay "build toward a climax." He cites examples of screenplays that work like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Princess Bride." If "Ironweed" were a European art film, he concedes, it would be fine, but "in America, where films are made and sold as entertainment," the "moviegoer in the front row" is going to end up "being bored . . . and . . . telling his friends to stay away."
Johnston is right for many moviegoers. But for many others among us, he's dead wrong. We may not be in the majority, but we're there in America as well as elsewhere going to films in hopes of finding something more than mere entertainment. Popular fare like "Raiders" and "Princess Bride," in fact, are not even entertaining to all filmgoers. It's in lightweight flicks like these that I find myself most often looking at my watch and trying to find a different way to endure sitting to the end.
There is such a thing as the American art film (films like "Trip to Bountiful," "Glass Menagerie" and "The Dead") and there is such a thing as an American audience who longs to be challenged, enlightened, moved and irrevocably "changed" by film in addition to being entertained.
In what to me is an absolutely masterful adaptation, William Kennedy and his director Hector Babenco (who gave us the very original "Kiss of the Spider Woman") have maintained beautifully the tone of the original. Depressing yes but so is the book and each has not only a major sequence (Francis Phelan's visit to the family and home he had abandoned some 20 years earlier) but also a brilliant touch at the end that redeems the
gloom. "Ironweed" (the film) is certainly not "Princess Bride" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" but neither was the book. The translation from literature to film was, for me, about as flawless as it could possibly be and I applaud the artists involved who didn't, for once, let thoughts of box-office appeal and pleasing the masses get in the way of creating a real masterpiece.
Bestsellers by Harold Robbins, Stephen King, or Danielle Steele might easily translate into blockbuster movies, and I have no doubt there will always be a mass-audience there to flock to them. But those of us who don't read them also don't even think of searching them out on the screen. I want the same kind of insight, the same kind of illuminating and transforming experience, in film that I get in the best literature.
Kennedy's "Ironweed" became, for me, not only one of the most interesting and memorable novels I've read in a long time, but also one of my own personal "Top 10 Films" of all time.