The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner, 1929

Wikipedia says: "While many first-time readers report Benjy's section as being difficult to understand, these same readers often find Quentin's section to be near impossible." Yeah, no kidding. I didn't have nearly the time or energy it would take to decipher this. I was also surprised to read that this "has become part of standard high school and university curricula around the United States." University, sure, but high school? If I'd had to read this in high school I think my brain would have collapsed like an underdone soufflé. Just as it does when I try to figure out how the hell I would teach it to a bunch of sixteen-year-olds. Or why I would want to — were I to someday become a regular English teacher, it seems to me that my primary goal ought to be helping the students become more discerning interpreters of the sorts of texts they are actually going to be seeking out in the future, which for very few of them would include this sort of esoteric formal experiment. And, uh, doesn't a lot of this book revolve around various characters' reactions to the sight of a little girl's dirty underpants? How am I supposed to teach that without getting lynched by the school board?

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1988

This book, by contrast, would be absolutely ideal for a high school class. I went through it with a teacher's eye and on virtually every page was something I could easily spin a 45-minute discussion out of. This would include literary technique (unreliable narration, iceberg characterization, strategic deployment of backstory, etc.), historical context (which would probably take up a disproportionate amount of class time, since I tend to view literature to a great extent as a lens through which to view history), theme (emotional repression and the cultural encouragement thereof, false consciousness and "professionalism," the Nuremberg Defense, etc.), even a few linguistic topics (such as the startling reappearance of the second person near the end of the book and the complicity it attempts to establish). Seriously, I think I could spin this book out for over a month and not repeat talking points.

I have complained frequently enough about my diminishing brainpower in these articles that people have emailed me to tell me to knock it off, so here's a change of pace: in grad school I was supposed to lead a discussion about this book, and after finishing it this time around, I looked at my old notes to see what they said. They were terrible! In '96 I flagged a tiny fraction of the moments that struck me as noteworthy in '09, and my exegeses were handwavey and generally feeble. I would be an incomparably better grad student today than I was then, even had I been more dedicated (because I really did try in this particular seminar). However, there'd be no point in going back because I have even less interest in teaching college students now than I did then. July will mark fifteen years of experience working with students on both the high school and grad level and the idea of teaching a tenth-grade honors class is an order of magnitude more appealing than that of presenting the same material to English 298 §3.

The Remains of the Day
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kazuo Ishiguro, and James Ivory, 1993

Roger Ebert said that he thought Ishiguro's novel "almost unfilmable" until he saw the '93 cinematic adaptation. Would Ebert, then, argue that this movie is simply the result of "filming the novel"? I remember that when this movie was in theaters, one of the Bay Area weeklies noted that the novel was almost entirely an exercise in voice — an overstatement, but yes, much of the experience of reading the book is a matter of reading what Stevens has to say about a topic and then figuring out what he's misunderstood, what he understands subconsciously but has to deny to keep from falling apart, what he knows perfectly well but is hiding from the reader, and everything else that constitutes unreliable narration. So it's easy to see how someone might read the book and ask, "Remove all that, and what remains?"

But as one hand taketh away, the other giveth, and the film version of The Remains of the Day succeeds in precisely those areas where the book is weakest. The book doesn't really do a great job of evoking the nature of the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton; we read the transcripts of their bickering sessions, and gather that Stevens is acting like the proverbial schoolboy of the time dipping his crush's pigtails in the inkwell, but this knowledge is abstract. The film provides the facial expressions, vocal inflections, and body language that make these encounters work. Similarly, simply telling us that the two characters meet for cocoa, as the book does, does nothing to convey the atmosphere of these meetings, which the movie accomplishes in a few seconds. Several times the book pulls the same trick of hinting at Stevens's true feelings by having other characters comment upon his facial expression out of the blue; in the movie we can see it for ourselves and don't need the gimmick. And by the same token we can see Stevens's moments of realization on his face without having him narrate them for us. One of these moments of realization serves as the climax of the movie, when Stevens finally listens to what Lord Darlington's godson is telling him and it sinks in that the employer he has dedicated his entire life to serving is nothing more than a stooge of a genocidal monster. Interestingly, this is basically the opposite of the climax of the book, in which Stevens remains deluded about Darlington and, in a moment striated by multiple layers of irony, revels in a moment of personal triumph. So to what extent can the filmmakers be said to have "filmed the novel," having directly contradicted the author in this manner?

One school of thought argues that you can never really film a novel, that the demands of the different media require remaking every narrative choice and that in the process you wind up with a different entity altogether. And in fact I used to subscribe to this line of argument. When interviewers would ask me why I'd done Photopia as interactive fiction rather than as a short story, I'd scoff that you don't come up with an idea and then decide whether it'd be best rendered as a novel or an oil painting or a Cossack dance. The idea develops within the medium and the resulting text can't be divorced from it. But of course then the irony gods weighed in and decided that I would spend the end of the '00s translating Photopia into a movie and the movie into a book. So now I guess I would argue that different stories are rooted in particular media to different degrees. Something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which doesn't really do anything uniquely suited to prose, loses nothing in the transition to the screen; Photopia, which was really about the audience investment an interactive medium allows, needed to be completely reimagined for other media, and the results are basically unrecognizable. (Of the seven main characters in the movie and book, five don't appear in the IF version.) The Remains of the Day lies about halfway in between. We recognize the repressed butler, the missed connection with the housekeeper, the rush toward a collision with the wrong side of history, but the unreliable narration and some of the existential themes have been swapped out for cinema's very different modes of expression and reduced capacity to develop one's command and knowledge of the English language.

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