There are times when you just want to get in your car, drive down to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, buy out the entire inventory, stop at Home Depot to buy a shovel, drive back up into the Mojave Desert and bury every single book in a big hole in the desert so Hollywood can’t taint any more of them by producing adaptations made by filmmakers who simply don’t get it.
Well, that’s a bit harsh. Dozens and dozens of fine novels have been turned into fine movies, in which the filmmakers either followed the book’s plot and tone with uncanny accuracy (The Fellowship of the Ring, to use a recent example) or found fascinating new directions and meanings in an already existing text (The English Patient, or Danny Boyle’s unjustly panned The Beach, for instance).
But too often, filmmakers either miss the book’s appeal entirely, or they believe that what made the book so good won’t translate to the screen. In the case of The Shipping News, director Lasse HallstrÃ¶m’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s sublime Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the book’s overwhelmingly bleak and piercing themes of loss, despair and futility seem to have been deemed too ... well, bleak and piercing for a film with big Hollywood stars that’s expected to play in big theaters to wide audiences.
The resulting film captures the palpable, omnipresent cold of its Newfoundland setting, but it’s also a microwaved, reheated version of the book’s story. The problems start with the casting of Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, Proulx’s “loaf of a man” who has failed at marriage, careers and pretty much everything else, due partly to a chilling upbringing we glimpse in the film’s first scene. These days, Quoyle is being beaten down by his estranged wife Petal (Cate Blanchett, very entertaining).
He’s going nowhere in upstate New York when his father dies and his aunt (Judi Dench) convinces him to move back to the ancestral family home in Newfoundland. He gets a gig writing for the tiny local newspaper, which employs the requisite Ragtag Band of Wise Small-Town Misfits (Scott Glenn, Rhys Ifans, Pete Postlethwaite and Gordon Pinset among them), familiar to anybody who’s seen Northern Exposure. Improbably, Quoyle also finds love with Wavey (Julianne Moore). She has a slow son who’s befriended by Quoyle’s daughter, and you can almost feel the plot strands being tied together in a big bow knot.
In the novel, Quoyle was a fat, ponderous guy with a huge chin. Spacey, who won’t be on the cover of Tiger Beat any time soon, still is much too normal to embody the odd physical type that defines Proulx’s character. Every one of Quoyle’s interactions in the novel was defined by his fundamental feeling that he was physically out of place in the world. Spacey, replacing his wise-guy swagger with blank stares, only looks as if he’s trying to decide where to eat lunch in a province with very few choices.
Those who haven’t read the book will simply see a melancholy movie populated by lively actors doing their best to mute their natural instincts to entertain us. The pervading chill and unpredictable weather are accurately captured by HallstrÃ¶m and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, but the film’s darker plot twists don’t carry the appropriate weight, particularly given the unfailingly redemptive direction of the script’s entire second half. Add Christopher Young’s annoying, pan-flute-saturated score, and there are far too many simplistic distractions from the book’s clear artistic vision.
There’s still plenty of Newfoundland grimness to go around, even after the Hollywood sheen is applied—but we should expect more than photographic precision when filmmakers clean up a novel that needed a little less polish.