Bright Lights Film Journal

Ghidorah Attacks! Modern Narrative’s Three-Headed Monster

“The concept of pure art — pure poetry, pure painting, and so on — is not entirely without meaning; but it refers to an aesthetic reality as difficult to define as it is to combat. In any case, even if a certain mixing of the arts remains possible, like the mixing of genres, it does not necessarily follow that they are all fortunate mixtures. There are fruitful cross-breedings which add to the qualities derived from the parents; there are attractive but barren hybrids and there are likewise hideous combinations that bring forth nothing but chimeras.”

~ André Bazin, “In Defense of Mixed Cinema” (1952)

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

As a graduate student who studied the novel, I took great pleasure in proclaiming the genre’s death. Of course, academics generally prefer studying sedate archaeological relics. But like all human beings, I’m also bound to torture, and even kill, the things I love because doing so has the potential to make me master of that which has mastery over me. Violent resistance to tyranny, even in its softer forms, is fundamental to the human experience, it seems. And so it was for me, with the novel, back then.

Lacking any cultural capital whatsoever, I naively fantasized about writing an essay I’d publish simultaneously in the NYRB, LRB, and the L.A. Times. Channeling some sort of opium-crazed Symbolist poet, I imagined it beginning:

When I walk into Barnes & Noble, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a giant necropolis — a reeking mausoleum dedicated to the great art form of the 19th century — that wouldn’t be worth the trip if it didn’t sell CDs, coffee, and especially movies.

A pretentious argument, too clever by half, would follow, encouraging people, like a blood-crazed Italian Futurist, to let the old novel rot and endorsing the mechanical flicker as the narrative genre of the future. But just as the mechanized killing of WWI revealed the jejune flaws of Futurism, and thereby shut it up for good, I too found myself illuminated and my opinions altered by a certain event.

I think my silly idea that film had somehow displaced the novel had its origins in a misreading of the “Photography, Film, and the Novel” section of Michael McKeon’s Theory of the Novel and an over-eager, simultaneous inhalation of Walter Benjamin’s (right) famous essays “The Storyteller” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” After my initial exposure to these, I became convinced that the title “Great Narrative Genre” had passed from novel to film, just as the novel had once received it from the epic poem, and that film would preside over the death of the novel, just as the novel had watched the epic poem more or less fade into history. While Benjamin’s Marxism all but ensures he’d advocate this type of transposition, rereading McKeon one day I realized I’d substantially misunderstood his take on the subject. With a cartoonish slap to my forehead, it dawned on me that Benjamin’s seductive ruminations, my own liberal leanings, and my id’s excitement at the prospect of raining merciless salvos on my great love had all caused me to project overtones of displacement onto the history of narrative generally and, more specifically, McKenon’s suggestion that we can conceive of “film as a radical extension of the novel.” But really, this isn’t what McKeon or any number of other film, novel, and narrative theorists mean at all. Instead, they most likely use extension in a more strictly denotative way, that is, to suggest film adds to and expands the genre boundaries of the novel.

Mercifully enlightened by this point of view, I’m immensely grateful that my little essay combusted in the planning stages and that, like the terrible Ghidorah looming over Japan, this essay emerged from its piss-fuming ashes.

It seems natural, however lamentable, that my mind would give Benjamin’s legion of words dominion over McKeon’s elegantly effective handful. I can forgive myself for this. Coming to such a wrongheaded conclusion, though, also means I temporarily took leave of my Bakhtin: something I’m rather ashamed of having done. An intellectual superhero, the old Russian reminds us in “Epic and the Novel” that mapping the novel’s perimeter is more or less a fool’s errand and that while the genre may change forms and gobble up other genres, The Novel, true to its adjectival origins, remains just that. (And as someone who famously used the only remaining pages from a lost manuscript to roll cigarettes, one can say with some certainty that comrade Bakhtin practiced a form of the textual versatility he preached!) Therefore, like a royal courtier bowing before a new monarch, even if we are of the opinion that the novel has somehow died or been dislodged, we can’t really bid it adieu with any more finality than, “The novel is dead. Long live the novel.” What the genre is and what the genre isn’t, what defines it and what we exclude from such definitions, when it began and when it will merge with the infinite — these are all questions contemporary genre studies wrestle with and questions individuals and interpretive communities must ultimately answer for themselves.

As interested parties since Aristotle have known, such questions also complicate our ability to taxonomize any genre, let alone the wildly interactive, 21st-century phyla of kingdom narrative. But we dedicated literary and celluloid Linnaeans continue delusively separating the specimens of our analysis, and the products of our labor, into exclusive categories nevertheless, even as the lines separating the genre identities of novels and films have broken down in remarkable and daresay unprecedented ways. Of course, novels and films are both narrative forms and have, as a result, an essential consanguinity regardless of their distinctive structural elements and unique codes of inherent information. But I would suggest an even more intimate connection has developed between the two, a bond that makes these structures and codes functionally irrelevant in the 21st century. So like a sebaceous carnival caller drawing back a curtain and inviting his audience to gasp at the circus’ prize freak, I suggest we have a three-headed narrative monster in our midst: one that’s part novel, part film, and part intermediary screenplay; one that has become, and will likely continue to serve as, the dominant narrative genre of our time. And I invite one and all to step right up and marvel at this strange and unusual anomaly, this mutant oddity, this aberration.

I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, you won’t believe your eyes!

It’s alive!

While most people wouldn’t have any trouble distinguishing a performance art “happening” from a Verdi opera, it would nevertheless be decidedly Platonic to suggest genre taxonomy is airtight. As such, doing so has been decidedly out of fashion since at least the Enlightenment. Thinkers from that time on have outlined different theories of genre interactivity, subjectivity, and mutability, including the late Jacques Derrida, who argues in “The Law of Genre” that texts participate in rather than belong to certain genres, and UVa’s Ralph Cohen, who argues in “History and Genre” that genres are open categories that change and decline for historical reasons. Moreover, poets like Baudelaire and novelists like Hermann Broch gave us “prose poems” and “lyrical novels,” respectively: compounds that obfuscate what it means to be a member of either constituent class. My cretinous idea that film would, and likely already had, displaced the novel operated around the earlier, Platonic concept of genre integrity: a fallacy that also drives carpal-tunnel book-types like myself and mole-eyed film-folk to segregate their novels and films into functionally exclusive genre classes. This line of thinking not only assumes (a) the credible existence of genre exclusivity and (b) the more or less absolute integrity of each genre’s individual province. Like a Texas Baptist, it also discounts the possibility of evolution. Who’s to say, after all, that Paradise Lost isn’t just a versified proto-novel or that Forrest Gump (above) isn’t just a jazzed-up oral narrative? Moreover, readers consistently interpret novels like Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as modern lyrical epics rendered in a poetic, subjective style of prose called “free indirect discourse.” Therefore, even though it’s hardly uncommon for narrative genres to overlap and evolve, I would argue the contemporary relationship that has evolved between film and the novel is rather unique. Partnered and antagonistic, fused and disjoined — the monstrous, three-headed narrative genre formed by the novel, screenplay, and film operates and exists despite the constituent genres’ chronological and temporal differences and the dissimilarity of the mechanical processes by which they operate in the world.

Acutely sensitive to this illogical partnership between novel and film, the extremist constituency of the textual interest group often discusses the modern connections between textual novels and motion picture films with dramatic lamentations. Tapping into the old text-smart, graphic-stupid opposition all too common in the Occident, they lament both the dumbing down of culture generally and, more specifically, the brutalization of “their” novels by “uncaring” filmmakers guilty only of the abridgment necessitated by “their” genre. Such arguments amount to little more than hot air, though, as even the most marmish librarians, Romance-novel-obsessed mothers, Hollywood-wary preachers, and dedicated English majors like to turn Ludovico patient and “viddy the old films now and again.” And when filmmakers like Merchant Ivory Productions turn one of their beloved novels, “classic” or otherwise, into a film, woe be unto the plebes who dare cut in line at the box office. Perhaps nothing illustrates this ironic hypocrisy better than the Harry Potter phenomenon of the past decade. In grand Hebraic tradition, notorious critics of visual culture routinely praise J. K. Rowling’s books, widely crediting them with “getting kids to read again.” But as anyone could have anticipated, the currency-ejaculating popularity of this novel series proved irresistible to Hellenic film producers. And, in due course, the books were turned into an ongoing sequence of wildly successful films that has been rabidly consumed by readers of the books.

The bookish set need not worry too much, though. While the monstrous partnership between contemporary novels and films isn’t likely to cease any time soon, it doesn’t represent an outright fusion of the genres, nor does it threaten to extinguish or displace the novel as I once believed. As I suggest, other genres do rather effortlessly melt into one another, forming delicious melanges. Writing a prose poem, for example, can be as simple as dropping rhyme, adding narrative, and increasing the objectivity of the voice. Likewise, lyricizing a novel mostly involves dolling up the narration, adding a few extra metaphors, and spiking the subjective flavor of the characters. Films and novels, though, do not compliment as effortlessly or as logically. In fact, rather immovable realities separate textual novels and motion picture films and make them as ultimately incongruous as a zoophilic rustic and the ovine object of his desire. But like that rustic, narrative creators, businesspeople, and consumers seem to desperately want the two to come together. And like mad scientists, our desire to create this hodgepodge narrative mass has forced a grotesque and distorted match and succeeded only in creating a mutually affective relationship between constituents that hasn’t, and likely cannot and will not, lead to full fusion or displacement. Fleshy bits of each genre’s individual identity remain on the semi-coagulated whole. And unlike prose poems and lyrical novels, the novel-film genre compound doesn’t represent a congruous, harmonious synthesization at all. Instead, it defies taxonomy, refuses to fully amalgamate the traits of its constituent narrative forms, and even necessitated the birth of the mutant screenplay to bridge the divide between novel and film. Our wild desire, therefore, has given birth to a three-headed genre monster that looms unchallenged over contemporary narrative production and consumption.

Unlike previous centuries when one genre more or less dominated kingdom narrative — e.g., the novel in the nineteenth century and the mystery play in Medieval Europe — I would argue that the preeminent genre of modern narrative is neither film nor the novel operating independently of one another. Instead, I would argue it’s this three-headed genre compound. Like Ghidorah and Cerberus, fused into one body but with three distinctively snapping heads, no matter what fundamental differences exist between text and graphic, novel and film, it seems more and more inappropriate to discuss novels and films outside the context of one another. Indeed, whatever membrane(s) might have plausibly segregated these two particular narrative genres began to erode as soon as film emerged in the latter years of the 19th century. In fact, I’d put the origins of this coming-together no later than the early 1900s.

In 1915, D. W. Griffith directed an infamous movie version of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman he called The Birth of a Nation. In 1922, F. W. Murnau made a uniquely Teutonic, unauthorized film version of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula titled Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. And in 1924, the great proto-auteur Erich von Stroheim gave the world its ultimate director’s cut: a 16+ hour long, word-for-word cinematic adaptation of Frank Norris’s McTeague entitled Greed. Such early films helped established the adaptation imperative that lies at the heart of the novel-screenplay-film genre compound; and by 1968, it was so firmly entrenched in narrative culture that Alistair MacLean found himself writing the novel and screenplay versions of Where Eagles Dare more or less simultaneously! (Marguerite Duras, of course, did similar things with India Song and Destroy, She Said.)

Without the development and enthusiastic adoption of this imperative by filmmakers and, eventually, novelists, it’s hard to see why novels and films wouldn’t have pursued more parallel paths. As Henry James’ cruel theatre study illustrates, novels and plays, the precursor of film, rarely intersect. Nevertheless, as I suggest, nearly all genres interact from time to time, and the same is true of even more disparate discourses. Ivan Albright painted a real-life Picture of Dorian Gray; Rimbaud wrote his color-based “Sonnet des voyelles”; and Debussy long planned, though never finished, more than thirty minutes of an operatic treatment of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.” But while such instances of crossover do commonly occur, the relationships formed by the constituents don’t often fundamentally undermine the core sense of what it means to be a poem, an opera, a novel, a painting, etc. Neither do these various artistic forms enter into relationships often enough that the adaptation of one by another seems natural and self-evident (however absurd this is).

It’s not enough, then, to brush off the contemporary novel-film relationship with a terse, “All genres and discourses interact,” because while they do, these other examples of genre interplay seem more like lender-borrower relationships than incorporating ones. Even more importantly, they lack the sort of rabid adaptation imperative that drives the assimilative intercourse characterizing the relationship between modern novels and films. Indeed, the singular belief that novels and films must interact — imperatively, consistently — frames the relationship as a sort of adaptation tango whose colgada and ganchos blur the very lines separating the genres, their profound mechanical, formal, and experiential differences be damned!

Nearly a century after the productions of Griffith, Murnau, and Stroheim initiated this awkward though indefatigable dance, novels and films have more or less totally overlapped into a developmental continuum and siamese partnership every bit as uncanny and bizarre as it is functional (and uncanny and bizarre precisely because it is so functional). The Golden Bowl, The Great Gatsby, Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Dune, The Da Vinci Code — these are but a few famous examples of an astoundingly long list of novels that have been adapted into (in)famous films. (Wikipedia breaks this list into two sprawling web pages. See “List of film remakes.”) Moreover, in the heyday of the studio system, Hollywood engaged famous novelists like William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald as literary sorcerers, charging them with turning novels into screenplays that could then be turned into films by directors. Though this practice has changed substantially — directors and professional screenwriters usually produce scripts nowadays, and novelists and playwrights infrequently adapt their own work let alone the work of others — presently, in the early twenty-first century, the practice of translating novels into films is more than commonplace. It’s institutionalized, expected, and routine.

Movie rights are often negotiated simultaneously with or as part of publishing contracts for, or in anticipation of, blockbuster sequels, sophomore attempts by writers such as Charles Frazier, and late-career masterworks by writers like Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth. And while films are frequently made without novelistic precedent, every bestseller is virtually guaranteed to be made into a movie. This has effectively repositioned the creative writing graduates pouring out of English departments as R&D laborers and market testers for their film school contemporaries. Appropriating Edward Albee, literary “Abmaphids” and “Abmafays” create the narratives that, upon being proven in the marketplace, are adapted into movies by film Abmafays lucky enough to have found professional positions in their industry (and eager to ensure theses positions continue by cashing in on the fruitful forays of said novelists). While members of the former category might resent this characterization, it would be difficult to argue against it. And even the most traditionally minded novelist would have to admit his/her position in the marketplace has radically changed when compared to that of his/her predecessors of a century and a half ago precisely because of the contemporary relationship that exists between the publishing industry and Hollywood. But lest I portray literary types as nicely paid but underappreciated laborers, there seems to be no higher compliment or validation a novel and its creator can receive than adaptation by a major motion picture studio. If lucky enough to have been thusly anointed, a writer will invariably feature the fact prominently on his/her personal website and tout it in the relevant press. And as if this weren’t enough recognition, writer and publisher routinely recreate, and perhaps downgrade, adapted novels into something resembling advertising placards. They re-release texts that have been cinematized with movie poster covers and prominent badges that scream, “Now a Major Motion Picture!” Such practices can’t help but make novels seem less like the comparatively self-contained, self-sufficient genre of old and more like cinematic zygotes that are sold less as literary objects and more as buzz generators for motion pictures.

In this way, modern novels essentially serve as the first treatments in a linear narrative procession that leads directly to the telos of the silver screen. But it works both ways. Successful movies are routinely “novelized,” that is, sent backward along the more commonly trod continuum to the bookshelf. More than just an effort to cash in on a successful flickering narrative, this practice might seem decadent, extraneous, and even silly if it didn’t reveal the degree to which producers, writers, and publishers have apparently begun thinking of novels and movies as fundamentally paired objects. It’s one thing, after all, to parlay the paltry millions generated by a best-selling novel into tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. This is just good American business sense. But recreating contemporary films into novels, when the receipts and audience numbers of the former dwarf those of even the most popular novel, seems grounded in some imperative other than business. To me, the phenomenon suggests that even modern movies have a sense of incompleteness without novelized versions of themselves. The (un)conscious imperative must be satisfied, it seems, and the three-headed narrative monster must be recreated, its uncontested rule in the culture and marketplace reinforced again and again whether one proceeds from page to screen or screen to page.

Finally, the contemporary relationship between novels and films isn’t just “external,” or business based, as it were. It can be structural and formal as well since the narratives represented by each genre often blur, interact, and conceptually overlap to the point that novel versions and film versions of a given story coalesce into a sort of cubist super-genre. Where the integral genre lines of a given narrative begin and where they end; what the audience considers legitimate and illegitimate characters, dialogue, narration and plot points; the mental record one makes of a given story with novel, film, and perhaps screenplay versions rattling around in his/her head — modern narratives that exist in novel, screenplay, and film forms can’t help but become rather conceptually distorted and exponentially complicated. Of course, most people do not read screenplays — which can themselves differ profoundly from the finished films for which they serve as narrative scaffolding — and simply deal with the cognitive dissonance created by competing film and novel versions of a given narrative by opining, “The movie wasn’t as good as the book.” This response, though, is just a dodge for those who want to relieve their anxiety and get on with their lives. Unrepentant, die-hard narrative junkies like myself who refuse to take the easy out — and who eagerly consume screenplays to better chart the beguiling course of narrative alchemy — can’t really discuss a given narrative that exists in novel, screenplay, and film versions in terms of constituent genre. Instead, the monstrous distortions of a disharmoniously unified, three-headed genre seizes our minds, each of this monster’s heads contributing its own roar to the overwhelming cacophony of its existence. In this way, the novel-screenplay-film genre compound facilitates and even encourages the narratives represented by its elemental genres to outgrow their limitations and come together in a distorted whole that defies traditional genre characterization.

A Clockwork Orange gives us a concrete example of this phenomenon.

In his 1962 novel, Anthony Burgess does not give protagonist Alex a last name. However, Alex does often ascribe certain epithets to himself. For example, when seducing “two young ptitsas” into having a freaky three-way with him in a record shop, Alex refers to himself as “Alexander the Large”: “I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas. This time they thought nothing fun and stopped creeching with high mirth, and had to submit to the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large . . .”

In his masterful 1971 film version of Clockwork, critics think Stanley Kubrick used this line as the basis for Alex’s surname “de Large” which the protagonist uses toward the end of the first act. Interestingly, Burgess didn’t resist this creative emendation, as so many writers would (resenting everything the filmmaker does with his/her work save the check that it generates). Rather, Burgess embraced Kubrick’s contribution to the emerging Clockwork super-genre and began referring to his most famous character as “Alex de Large” in post-1971 statements he made about the novel. At present, even readers of and professional critics interested in the novel routinely do likewise, even though the surname “de Large” doesn’t occur in the novel.

As such, every time a contemporary novelist sits down and thinks, upon beginning to write, “Golly, I sure hope they make this into a movie” (a thought that would have been as inconceivable to Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Henry Fielding as it is common today); every time that same novelist sits down to write a novel and turns it into a screenplay instead (or vice versa as Cormac McCarthy did with Cities of the Plain); every time a screenwriter turns an unproduced script into a novel; and every time a director or producer scours the bestseller list in the West Coast-edition New York Times to find something out of which s/he can make a movie — every time such instances occur, novels, films, and their screenplay binding agent continue sloughing off whatever individual identities they might have once had, and instead, become something else entirely: a monstrous, three-headed genre that refuses, and in fact most likely cannot, resolve into a single whole. Such blatant incongruity, though, doesn’t keep us from forcing the surprisingly functional match, nor does it keep our gruesome Ghidorah from efficaciously lumbering around the marketplace or the agora of ideas. Belching its hot spew into the future, leaving a wake of crumbled genre identities behind it, our monster does, however, represent a sort of prophetic fulfillment of the ancient and enduring suspicions we’ve always had about the instability of genre identity, especially as concerns sweet mother narrative. Keeping with this tradition, modern narrative’s three-headed monster challenges what it means to create and consume narrative in the twenty-first century and, retrospectively, what it’s always meant to separate one genre from another. And even as storytellers and story consumers move all around it, more or less unaware of the fire singeing our hair and the dominant place we’ve given our Ghidorah, we have to face the fact that a terrible beauty has been born.