Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”


Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”


When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”


When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.

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