Make me into a Movie!

A murderer from German literature stalks a path from page to screen.

by Chris Docker

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer
Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume was published in 1985. Selling over 15 million copies worldwide, it tells the story of a Grenouille, who has a greatly heightened sense of smell and a correspondingly atrophied sense of morality. His quest for the perfect scent or essence (including the essence of femme) soon leads him to murder.

Perfume was long considered unfilmable. After years of avoidance and dissembling (including co-writing a film, Rossini, which caricatured the process of adapting a novel to cinema), Süskind eventually sold the rights to Munich-based film producer Bernd Eichinger (The Name of the Rose). Whether or not it is a successful adaptation will be left for audiences and fans to judge.

Will people say, “Oh, the book was better”? Will it inspire them to buy the book? Or will it be judged purely on its own merits? The process of adapting a novel is a complex road, full of pitfalls. What are the ingredients of a successful adaptation? Why do some adaptations work and others flop?

Why Adapt?

Given the plethora of good screenplays, one might ask why adapt at all? Reasons vary from satisfying fans of the book (building on a ready audience) to simple commercial interests (capitalising on an outstanding story). The immediacy and effortlessness of cinema offer the plot in just two hours – appealing to many who don’t spend much time with their head in a book. Ultimately, a different artistic medium may even take the written word to a new level or shed new light on an already dazzling idea.

Different Mediums – Novel and Film.

While some novels, especially those based on action pieces, easily translate into film, many require adaptation in a fuller sense of the word. Great novels are attractive to filmmakers, but often their greatness springs from non-replicable properties of the written medium. When we read a book, we take ideas from the page, internalise them, and make them into images in our own minds that we can relate to. A film could be said to work the opposite way: it offers images from which we then form concepts and ideas. A film audience passively observes in a strict time frame. We perceive the film and have to quickly attach significance to what we see. A novelist, on the other hand, can often explain a significance in some detail; will discourse, for instance, on ‘the nature of a rose’ until we can see, feel, sense, and smell the rose in our imagination.

There are many cross-overs of course. Novels can give purely physical-visual descriptions (that, like action, translate relatively easily to screen), and cinema can penetrate the inner life of characters to bring out emotional and intellectual depth. Where a novel tells us something, a film shows us. Some actors are adept at ‘interiorisation’ – expressing their inner world with minimal dialogue and without reliance on voiceovers. Consider Julianne Moore, in films like The Hours, Safe, or Far from Heaven – we continue to construct her character in our own thoughts and only occasionally do we get confirmation of what she is really feeling to confirm our picture of her inner world.

In adapting a novel that is not purely action-based, a screenwriter has to almost get inside the original author’s head, to find the ideas behind the novel and re-express them not in words but in images. This is important even with a robustly ‘visual’ novel. In a very loose adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola retained the same type of strong images (such as a dramatic river journey) and the same moral themes (a descent into barbarism) which had made the novel so powerful, putting them in his film Apocalypse Now. Yet similarly in the fairly exact adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, this intertextual film (about Virginia Woolf) maintains its focus on seemingly insignificant day-to-day events that, true to Woolf’s original concept, turn out to be dramatically life-changing. Cunningham suggests “When you see the movie, look for little unifying gestures that are common to all three stories, not just flowers and cooking but more subtle bits of business. Everyone cracks an egg. Everyone loses a shoe. It is just this sort of invisible stitching on which narrative stands.”

The ‘invisible stitching’ exists in a realm beyond the surface story of a film or book. In some cases it is a mythology. In Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, although reasonably faithful to the text, re-creates an awe-inspiring visual mythology of Middle Earth to match the extensive literary creations of Tolkien. This ‘visual mythology’ enables the viewer to suspend disbelief and become absorbed. Similarly, Merchant-Ivory, in their acclaimed period pieces, build a believable visual backdrop within which to adapt tales of EM Forster. Believability always trumps authenticity – The King and I and Memoirs of a Geisha were criticised for unrealistic depictions of Thailand and Japan respectively, but were accepted by audiences unattuned to the finer period points of those countries.

Jackson has suggested that there are three approaches to adaptation: i) focussing on the book merely as inspiration; ii) copying the text as closely as possible; and iii) staying faithful to the spirit, or Zeitgeist, of the text, yet allowing artistic license in expressing it. Apocalypse Now uses Conrad as inspiration; the early Harry Potter films were close copies (but mainly aimed at fans); and Jackson’s trilogy would probably fall into the third category. Many film adaptations end up as clumsy literal renditions of the book on film with scant regard for the characteristics of either medium. While sometimes satisfying cult followers, they fail artistically as they embody neither the strengths intrinsic to literature nor those of cinema.

The Challenges of Adapting Perfume

Perfume is the story of a very unusual person, but also has two major elements setting it apart. Firstly the non-visual crux of the plot (based on scent) and secondly the perverse moral make-up of the chief protagonist. Grenouille tackles his perfumer’s quest with an almost spiritual devotion, but refuses to let mere details of the life and death of his subjects stand in the way. The film simplifies any moral disparity, making him a villain, and eschewing complex analogies that might have been possible with the political or religious purges of the time. The question of portraying an unrepresented sense (smell) through the visual medium of cinema is more problematic. In the novel, Süskind gets us to think about olfactory sensations; we recall how different smells bring about memories or produce other sensations. Ultimately, Süskind links up our ability to smell – and for others to smell us – as an intrinsic part of our humanity.

A not dissimilar dilemma was confronted by director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs in adapting Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat. Getting audiences to think about their tastebuds is as difficult as getting them to envisage smells. Chocolat focuses primarily on a single taste – that of chocolate – and so is able to bring in associated sensations – the look and texture, the context in which we enjoy chocolate, and the romantic and idyllic connotations it can bring. Surrounded by so many reminders, we buy into it; but the film’s clever simile with the seductiveness of forbidden love as a complementary theme means the audience is never force-fed.

Films depicting drug use have similarly (with varying degrees of success) depicted the non-visual sensations of drug-induced highs through the visual mythology of drug cultures and concomitant experiences. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for instance, is a fairly ‘faithful’ adaptation of Thompson’s book, but feels uneven in its delivery. Requiem for a Dream, on the other hand, convincingly portrays the underlying motives that lead to addiction and sweeps us into a world where inventive cinematography also seems to replicate, in some way, the drug experience.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer frequently uses visual and auditory overload to try to convey a sense of smell. Colours of the flowers or the fishmarket are accentuated and often shown in close-up, together with overpowering background music, to suggest the assault on Grenouille’s nose. Grenouille’s body language often resembles that of a dog, nose in air and sniffing audibly. These are rather crude devices, one might argue, to convey to audiences the rarefied sense of smell. We observe Grenouille as possessing super-human powers of olfaction rather than interiorising and imagining the scents that he experiences. This creates something of a contradiction in the mind of the viewer: we are supposed to focus on scents but are instead being forced to focus on sights and sounds. The dilemma creates a tension that threatens to shatter our make-believe world. Visual ‘mythology’ gives us little respite: the idea that we are in an eighteenth-century Paris is sorely tested by the over-used convention of Cockney accents for the lower classes and refined Oxbridge ones for the nobility. A frequent voiceover uses the narrative (literary) device of telling us what is happening rather than relying on more cinematic mechanisms. Remarkably, these shortcomings do not completely detract from what is a fine story propelled at a breakneck pace and entertaining in its own way. It is also the first attempt at a very difficult theme and perhaps paves the way for more nuanced efforts at a future date.

The transition from book to screen is beset with difficulties almost in proportion to the greatness of the original work, but the popularity and demand for great literature in the cinema will ensure a steady supply of book-to-screen films. The results will serve different audiences. Cinephiles will decry comparisons with the original, and booklovers will invite them (usually at the expense of the film). “I may be the only living American novelist,” writes Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Cunningham, “who is entirely happy with what Hollywood has done to his novel.” The road for many other transitions may run less smoothly.

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