As a critic, I’m constantly faced with the question of how much I should know about a film before seeing it — will advance research interfere with my judgment, or will it enhance it? If a movie is based on a book, am I better off having read it so that I can assess whether the filmmakers do it justice, or will the images in my head make it more difficult to judge the film on its own merits? (Bearing in mind that, unless it’s the latest Harry Potter movie, most of the audience won’t know or care much about the book.)
A couple of months ago, I wrote about Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker, adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn, and, though I found it somewhat smirky and coy, overall I was impressed with its depiction of adolescent angst and particularly Tilda Swinton’s quiet brilliance as a mother torn between her own neediness and her maternal responsibilities. David Edelstein, a very gifted critic, hated the movie, calling it “a miracle of maladaptation.” Of course, he’d read the book and I hadn’t.
I have read Myla Goldberg’s thoughtful but sometimes excessive novel Bee Season, and it’s too late to do anything about it now. Thus I know that the film, while it has many good things in it, is at best a dimwitted third cousin to the book. Goldberg’s novel explores the lives of the Naumann family, four desperate, lonely seekers of transcendence in a Philadelphia suburb, not an area noted for its opportunities for transcendence. They’re looking for the same thing that a lot of people are, in their various ways: a sense of purpose, a connection with something greater than themselves. In dealing with this tricky, nonstandard subject matter and channeling her characters’ overwrought psyches, Goldberg’s writing can get a bit purple, but she never shortchanges the characters or the reader. There are no easy answers, no tidy resolutions; each finds something like what he was looking for, but it’s never what he expected.
Reading the novel, you might picture John Turturro as Saul Naumann, or maybe an older Adrien Brody, but no reasonable person would conjure up twinkly old Richard Gere. For his obsessive-compulsive klepto wife Miriam, you might think of an attractive, middle-aged actress who’s good at playing frazzled, high-strung women, say Amy Irving or Debra Winger, but never the preternaturally gorgeous and undeniably French Juliette Binoche. And as their pathetically dorky, perennially bullied 16-year-old son Aaron, Jay Baruchel would be ideal, or perhaps Jesse Eisenberg; certainly no reader imagines an Aaron like the eerily, androgynously beautiful Max Minghella (if the recent mini-renaissance in sword-and-sandal epics continues, though, he’d make an excellent boy pharaoh).
This is what’s known as “creative casting,” and it’s the sort of metamorphosis that a smart, idiosyncratic novel like Bee Season usually has to undergo when it’s made into a film. The book’s awkward, unlovely characters must be made ridiculously glamorous and, though their Jewishness remains (since there’s really no way around it) they must be played by Gentiles. (Gere is Irish-American and, famously, Buddhist, Binoche is, of course, French and attended Catholic schools, and Minghella is the son of Italian/Scottish director Anthony Minghella and choreographer Carolyn Choa, a native of Hong Kong. And no, future posters of indignant comments, I do not think that every part must be played by an actor of the same ethnic or religious background as the character, but I am troubled by the pervasive Anglicization of ethnic characters. Given the casting of this film and other recent de-Semitized films like In Her Shoes, you’d think there were no Jewish actors left in Hollywood. This seems unlikely.) We can only thank Yahweh that the filmmakers detected a resemblance to Binoche in newcomer Flora Cross and thus chose her over the gifted but overexposed Dakota Fanning for the role of Eliza Naumann. (Cross may or may not be Jewish, but she fits the character far better than the blonde pixie Fanning.)
Though the casting is frustrating, it’s not what sinks the film. Indeed the actors are generally quite effective. Gere actually dials down the charming twinkles and brings out the hard stubbornness of Saul, the selfishness and arrogance that he almost manages to pass off as devoted parenting. The filmmakers play up Gere’s flaws rather than his charms; when he smiles what you notice isn’t his dimples or those twinkly eyes; it’s his crooked left front tooth. La Binoche, too, downplays her glamour and digs deeply into Miriam’s fractured psyche. She’s magnificent in the scenes approaching the climax, completely detached and unemotional yet laying bare the whirring gears of Miriam’s mind.
The film’s real problem is that the physical makeover of the Naumanns is only the most obvious change; the screenplay, by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (Jake and Maggie’s mom, and the writer of Running on Empty and Losing Isaiah), gives them an emotional, psychological, and spiritual makeover as well, making them all less desperate, less isolated, less self-contained. She planes down their rough edges, removing or softening the family’s internal conflicts, sometimes ditching the characters’ motivations entirely, sometimes simplifying them so that they can be grasped even by the kind of morons who would never pay to see a movie like this. She has kept most of the book’s plot, but she’s traded Goldberg’s complex theme about the search for a higher power for a more prosaic one of her own: the conflict between the independence of the individual and the interdependence of family. This isn’t necessarily a bad or unworthy theme, but it lacks the scope and resonance of Goldberg’s. Perhaps Foner Gyllenhaal’s worst sin, though, is her reliance on the most threadbare cliches. Really, in 2005, do we need our protagonists to take their life lessons from wise black cleaning women?
Saul, a cantor in the novel, has been made a professor of theology at Berkeley in order to more easily facilitate the exposition about Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that translates as “repairing the world.” This concept, a central tenet of Kabbalah, offers a key insight into Miriam’s mental disorder; she’s possessed by the notion that, like the vessels that were unable to contain God’s divine light, she is a broken thing and thus must locate and reunite her own missing pieces. In the book, her plight is both a pitiable pathology and a metaphor for the more universal desire to feel complete but, since in movies all mental illnesses must have a clearly defined proximate cause, Foner Gyllenhaal’s screenplay simplifies and Freudianizes Miriam’s psychosis. In flashbacks, we see her parents’ sudden accidental death and watch her father’s glasses breaking over and over. These glasses, we understand, are the symbol, indeed the source, of the brokenness she feels she must repair (never mind that, in the book, Miriam’s disorder left her even less attached to her parents than to her husband and children). Her consuming obsession with spiritual wholeness is reduced to little more than the desire to put Humpty Dumpty back together.
Aaron fares even worse: in the book a seeker for deeper metaphysical truth who abandons his father’s fervent Judaism when he comes to see it as hollow ritual, the movie reduces him to a typical angsty, horny teenager. His religious ambivalence isn’t explored — we never even see the family in synagogue — so when he visits a Catholic church it seems no more than a whim, and his interest in joining a sect of Hare Krishnas seems motivated partly out of a desire to spite Saul and partly because Chali, who introduces him to the cult, has morphed from a questing older-brother figure into a flirty blonde bombshell (Kate Bosworth). Anyone who hasn’t read the book would mistake his quest for transcendence through religion for a simple desire to slip underneath her orange toga.
The film’s setting has been moved to Oakland, California, presumably because the directorial team, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose last film was The Deep End, require a large body of water handy to lend atmosphere. The directors have considerable visual gifts, but their execution can be a little heavy-handed, as in the beautifully filmed but too obvious opening sequence, in which a giant letter “A” floats above the bay suspended from a helicopter before coming to rest in the “PORT OF OAKL_ND” sign. Many elements of the film that would otherwise work don’t because of McGehee and Siegel’s need to italicize every telling detail for us; when a character begins having an emotional breakdown on one side of the screen, they think they have to zoom in on his face instead of letting us notice his pain for ourselves.
Fortunately, the one element of the story that McGehee and Siegel get almost completely right is that of Eliza, the Naumann’s spelling-bee-champion daughter. In her film debut, Flora Cross has a heartbreaking sweetness and the open, unself-conscious quality of the best child actors. She personifies the Eliza of Goldberg’s book, both wise woman and painfully vulnerable little girl, full of self-doubt and self-blame but possessed of rare sensitivity and spiritual gifts. The film is at its best when it’s communicating Eliza’s state of mind, especially when she’s spelling and the letters of her words come to her like butterflies alighting on a leaf, or dust motes coalescing before a sunny window. The film employs a variety of computer-animated effects to convey Eliza’s mental process, each of them beautifully and ingeniously realized and no two the same.
The filmmakers also add some resonance by making Miriam a scientist rather than a lawyer; the sight of fidgety protozoa through a microscope connects nicely with her treasured visions through her childhood kaleidoscope. Binoche brings off the character convincingly, but the film makes her too pedestrian; her kleptomania seems like a more progressed case of Joan Allen’s shoplifting in The Ice Storm: embarrassing, aberrant, but ultimately harmless behavior. The real drama of Miriam’s story is downplayed, and it’s too bad; if the filmmakers had invested it with the same magic realism they did Eliza’s, it might have worked.
For those who haven’t read the book, Miriam’s story may be satisfactory; the whole movie may. There seemed to be mixed reactions among the crowd I saw the movie with, and my partner, who hadn’t read the novel, loved the film, admiring the performances and particularly the visuals. These are undeniable strengths, and McGehee and Siegel show growth; Bee Season coheres better than The Deep End and has a through-line that is clear and cogent. But handsome images and good acting aren’t enough to compensate for the richness lost in the process of adaptation. Those seeking transcendence here will surely be disappointed.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()