The Dreamers (2003) was the best film from Bernardo Bertolucci for some time. After years of making high-class tat like Stealing Beauty (a sort of prototype Mamma Mia!, only with Liv Tyler’s breasts occupying the space where Benny and Bjorn’s songs would eventually go), he finally came up with something that recaptured the genuine eroticism of Last Tango In Paris and the sense of purpose of The Last Emperor.
The Dreamers told the story of a young American staying in Paris with a pair of cinephile siblings, a brother and sister caught up in a near-incestuous relationship, and getting caught up in their private games, as the riots of May 1968 occur without their noticing. It’s a very intense, sexy film indeed. I mean, you can see everything.
The script is by film critic and novelist Gilbert Adair, who adapted his own novel, The Holy Innocents (1988). He also reworked this novel (which he was unhappy with and bravely fended off offers of film adaptations for some years) to coincide with the release of the movie. It is this reworked version, now also called The Dreamers, what I have read and done a review of here.
The basic concept is brilliant, but I have to say it shines through much more in its film incarnation. The problem is that stylistically Adair is quite a showy writer, and draws attention away from the story he’s trying to tell with needless flourishes that aren’t really that clever anyway. When you’ve got naked incestuous cinema-obsessives wandering around a Parisian apartment in your novel, you really don’t need lines like ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness as a swimming pool may be located next-door to a church.’ The film, on the other hand, is all situation, as all good films should be, and much more powerful for it.
Again, Bunuel’s claim that only bad books can be made into good films comes to mind here. Not that The Dreamers is a bad book so much, just that it doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with its being a book at all. It tries too hard to be a novel, or at least feel like one, and is all the less of a novel for it.
Indeed, it is this very awkwardness in novels those that act as source material for the best film adaptations often share. Good books can be made into good films, but they are usually good in a solid, dependable way, rather than being truly excellent. A film like A Room With A View may win Oscars, but how many people now enjoy it purely as a film? It’s a beautiful illustration of a great novel, but ultimately still an illustration.Vertigo Psycho, The Godfather and Jaws, on the other hand are, to varying degrees, based on decent but minor books, and are major, wholly filmic, achievements.
Towards the end, the novel actually gets the upper hand on the movie, as the characters descend into levels of squalor the film doesn’t show (to its detriment, I feel) before breaking out of their isolation and descending into the riots. The move to the outside is more convincing here, although ultimately I still don’t buy it. The three of them are ultimately voyeurs, their own private games the closest they can believably get to engaging with the world. They may watch the riots from the window as a spectacle, but they would never join in with them. Then they would wait for the film version, and admire the director’s technique, before going back home to the impenetrable isolation of their own company.
EDIT: I’ve done some thinking about the difference between novels and films, and have come to the conclusion that while good novels explore character by putting them in a situation, good films explore a situation via the characters within it. This is why genre fiction novels so rarely achieve absolute greatness, because they are ultimately more about situation than character, and thus don’t play to the strengths of the medium. The best films, however, often are genre pictures, for the same reason.
I can’t think of any exceptions to this, and I’m not interested in hearing any, because I like my rule and don’t want it to not be true. So if you know any, just say them to yourself quietly, so I can’t hear. Thank you.