The Ice Storm
novel: Rick Moody, 1994
film: James Schamus, Rick Moody, and Ang Lee, 1997
#11, 1997 Skandies

As I once mentioned, back in junior high my reading teacher once showed our class a video that compared 19th-century fiction to its 20th-century counterpart by illustrating each with a little film clip. The 19th-century segment was an action extravanganza with a huge sailing ship foundering in a violent squall, with cannons hurtling across the deck and everything. The 20th-century segment was about a woman sitting on a park bench having a personal epiphany. The Ice Storm falls more into the latter category than the former. The first scene of the book begins with a man sitting in a bed reminiscing as he waits for his mistress to return. He does so for nineteen pages before he finally gets out of bed to go look for her. ICE STOOOOORM!!

"ICE STOOOOORM!!" being what the guys sitting behind me cheered after every scene when I saw this in the theater back in '97. I think the title led them to expect an action movie and when it turned out not to be they figured they might as well pretend. A troubled teenage girl rides her bike down the main drag of her small town; her mother gazes after her wistfully; the guys behind me pump their fists like they've just seen the Death Star explode. ICE STOOOOORM!!

Compared to the book, of course, it is an action movie. In the movie the character mentioned above is shown sitting in bed for only twenty seconds before he gets up to go explore the house. And the reason I decided both to reread and rewatch The Ice Storm is that, having now adapted something of my own for the screen, I wanted to revisit how exactly these guys went about trying to translate something as unfilmable as The Ice Storm often is.

The premise of the story is that it's Thanksgiving weekend, 1973, and the sexual revolution has made it to the upper-crust suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut. The locals are trying really hard to show how liberated they are, but it's just desperate overcompensation on the part of people who are actually quite repressed as (sigh) symbolized by the ice that encases the town. One of the things that struck me when I first read the book back in the '90s was the way it really hammers home the 1973-ness of everything. Characters will often have their 1973-specific attire noted. The kids play with 1973-specific toys and eat 1973-specific candy; the adults read books that in 1973 were hot off the presses; they all gather around the television to watch 1973-specific shows bracketed by newsbreaks delivering the latest news from 1973. What's interesting about this is that prose writers have to make a special effort to do this sort of thing. It's a serial medium. If you want to talk about a character's haircut then that's the only thing you get to talk about for the duration of the description. And most of the time a character's haircut isn't worth the reader's undivided attention for more than a moment — and, really, how vivid a picture can you provide in text, anyway? So usually the haircut gets maybe a single passing mention, if that. Compare this to film, which conveys information in parallel, with massive bandwidth. Watch a movie from 1973 and you're staring at that 1973 hair and those 1973 clothes every time the characters are on screen, even if the era is completely unimportant to the story. Film does accidentally what Moody can only accomplish by ostentatiously harping on wardrobe and pop culture — and film does it better. But because we're used to this flood of information from movies, it registers less. The book screams 1973 at you from every page. The movie... well, it looks like a movie that happens to be set in 1973. Sure, you've got ponchos and ascots and courduroy blazers and gigantic '70s glasses, but it's still not nearly as focused on its era as, say, Boogie Nights.

Of course, the book isn't entirely about era either. In the afterword, Moody says it's about "the mysterious adventure of consciousness," which he claims "is the province of language," since only language "can describe the actual experience of consciousness, because it can record sensory data and the experience and intepretation of this sensual material." This strikes me as pretty far off the mark. Language, it seems to me, is pretty fuckin' poor at conveying raw sensory data — a glance at a photo communicates a likeness better than a thousand pages of textual description, and language's ability to capture sound and smell and taste is cruder still. I generally only think in language when I'm trying to figure out how to communicate something to other people; otherwise it tends to be pure sensorium and emotion — be it direct, recollected, or imagined — and the abstraction of pattern. Now, where interpretation is concerned, Moody has more of a case. Language is good at comparison and summary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel leans heavily on comparison and summary. The narrator is simile-happy ("the sheer white drapes in the guest room were limp as the bangs of a sad schoolgirl") and loooooves to articulate people's motivations: "Because the town was as barren as a rock face. Because her family was chilly and sad. It had come over her that fast. That's why she did it. Or if love existed, it was buried so far down in work and politeness that its meager nectar could never be pumped to the surface. ICE STOOOOORM!!"

Okay, that last sentence wasn't in the original but it might as well have been. Seriously, did Moody think we wouldn't get the metaphor if he didn't come out and explain it? "Her family was chilly and sad." Criminy. What ever happened to "show, don't tell" (Pattern 7)? Let us infer the freezing of the water from the struggles of the fish.

One of the advantages of film as a medium is that since it can only show, it forces the filmmakers to take a more indirect approach (unless they resort to voiceover, as happens a couple of times in this one). The movie equivalent of the "chilly and sad" bit above is a scene in which the character listens to her parents arguing in the next room with a look on her face that the filmmakers just have to hope tells the story. The ability to write scenes that hinge on a subtle facial expression or a catch in the voice is a wonderful luxury of screenwriting, and it's one of the key ways that Schamus, Lee, and company deal with the unfilmable portions of The Ice Storm. I've really missed that ability as I've been working on turning my screenplay into a novel. What I definitely haven't missed is the typical film's reliance on the functional vignette, on vivid display throughout this adaptation. That is, in place of the book's unfilmable streams of consciousness that establish the characters and relationships before the plot gets underway, the first 47 minutes of the movie present a bunch of little moments, most of which aren't drawn from the book at all, that attempt to accomplish the same thing. You can really see the gears working. "Teenage girl's parents awkwardly attempt to connect with her! 15 seconds! Go!" "Teenage boy's crush on rich girl! 30 seconds!" "Three seconds: mother abandons domesticity!" "Ten seconds — ICE STOOOOORM!!" It's one of the things I like least about film.

Moody says in the afterword that one of the things he likes least about film is that "cinema renders depictions of community, people in collision, not depictions of individual consciousness." There's something about that phrase "depictions of individual consciousness" that sets off alarm bells for me... I'm interested in how different people's minds work, of course, but I'm deathly allergic to wodge‑of-consciousness texts (e.g., Malone Dies) and to the extent that The Ice Storm was one of those I didn't enjoy it. My feelings are much the same toward "atmospheric" tone-poem movies (e.g., the ones I write perfunctory pans of and thereby give Colin Marshall ideas of what might be good to rent), and to the extent that The Ice Storm film wasn't one of those I think the proper response is gratitude, not lamentation. What I most liked about The Ice Storm, and what had the most influence on me back in the day, is that it's a chronologically grounded narrative (Pattern 24); it recognizes that a given consciousness, which feels so very individual, has striking commonalities with those that spring from the same time and place. We're all shaped by what has come before us, all those people in collision. We are, in short, loci of history.

Return to the Calendar page! ICE STOOOOORM!!