Friday, December 16, 2011


I have a shelf in my bedroom, a "floating" shelf that's screwed into the wall, with room for only a few books. I've had it in some version of my bedroom for a long time, and in every incarnation it's had the same little group of books on it. Holes, Alias Grace, Rebecca, The Light of Evening, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (UK edition). Several others. They're the books that remain important to me year after year, that changed my life the first time I read them and minutely change my life again every time I reread them, that make me stay up too late to read them, that make me feel like the ocean has crashed gloriously on my head when I'm through. Right now I'm in the living room and there's a bookshelf to my left with books that have applied for admission: Travel Light, Fun Home, The Autograph Man, The Brief History of the Dead. But it's a very selective shelf, and I haven't felt right about adding anyone to it in many a moon.

One of the books on that shelf is Bag of Bones, by Stephen King. I was astonished when I was finished reading that book, because it's the only really literary book I think King has written (to date; I haven't read his JFK book), and it's still the book that I think is his best. (Aside from the Dark Tower, I've read all but his two or three most recent.) When I found out a few years ago that the movie rights for it had been sold, I was disappointed, but unsurprised; King properties are likely always going to be sold to Hollywood. But I hoped it would sit in development eternally. For various reasons, I was pretty sure Bag of Bones wouldn't translate to the screen.

Its rhythm is slow, and matched to grief in the way it turns back on itself over and over during the first third, which would just seem mistaken and boring in a film. It has intricate plotting, much more so than any other book of his I can think of, that is too subtle and word-based to move to a more fleeting visual medium. It has its own talismanic sort of language, lots of repetition like wards against evil, and that gets tiresome to listen to when it doesn't to read. It also has a very strong interiority, with the protagonist's thoughts and feelings and imaginings more central to the plot than any real activities he engages in (I think). It's hard to do that interiority in a movie and make it convincing, especially since the majority of adaptations of King's work have been so regrettable.

Yet A&E took it on, and made it into a miniseries (two episodes, three hours), and put it on the air last weekend, and I DVRed it and, last night, watched it. I stayed up too late to do so, and I really should've just put the remote down and gone to bed, because it stank. It was lazy and unsubtle and rushed and unfocused and bad. It made the writer's life look exactly as uninteresting as it is, only with bewildering yelling in the face of writer's block; it stuffed exposition into its cracks like mortar; it changed details that--I'm not saying this in a fanboy kind of way, just in a practical way, I swear--should not have been changed. I'm not laying blame on anybody except the screenwriter and the people who thought it would be a good idea to adapt this book to a motion picture. The cast acquitted themselves as well as could be expected and the direction was...not so terrible. But sheesh, you guys, some books shouldn't be movies. I say that as a better student of film than I ever was or ever will be a student of literature.

All it did was make me want to read the book again, to recapture that ocean-crash feeling and the intimacy I had felt with these characters and this situation, which the adaptation totally failed to replicate. So I went upstairs and I did just that, I took the book off my special shelf and I read all my favorite parts. When I was done, it was two in the morning, and I briefly entertained the idea of staying up all night to read the thing cover to cover. (It's that good of a book, y'all.) I didn't, but I was so relieved that the adaptation hadn't spoiled anything for me. I still heard Mike Noonan's voice the same way I always had (not through Pierce Brosnan), and I still found Sara Tidwell to be too much a phenomenon to really imagine what her voice sounded like. I still thought it was a spooky, wonderful ghost story, way more than a horror story, I still marveled at the literariness of the thing being tumbled through Stephen King's declaratory, up-front, it's-just-you-and-me,-babe style and at how well that combination worked, and I still felt a jolt of unfairness like electrocution at certain aspects of the ending. Like Casablanca, it can't end any other way, but like Casablanca, OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. She can't get on the plane. Maybe this time around it'll end differently. Right? Right? Life can't be that unfair?...FUCK.

That's the stuff I'm looking for out of my books. That's what those books on my little shelf have in common. Whether it's FUCK YES or FUCK NO, it's that frisson that keeps me awake at night that I seek, the thing that makes me read the last sentence over again and say OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. I can't believe you've made me feel what I just felt.

As a postscript, one of the most disappointing books I ever read was Lisey's Story. I haven't gone back and read it again since I read it originally, and I'm a serial rereader, especially of King. I expected Lisey to follow on where Bag of Bones left off, literarily at least, and instead it just seemed like a weird mess. I was less compelled, by a factor of about a thousand, by Lisey than I was by Mike Noonan (ironic, since I'm female), and it was one of his [many] books that I think could have used a more ruthless editor. I expected it to be as intimate and as complex as Bones, and I felt it was anything but--it just seemed to rattle on and on without any sense of structure. If I'd read Lisey with lower expectations, or before I'd read Bones, I might have liked it, and if I tried it again now I might like it. But I remember thinking "this is Stephen King's seventh wave?" Just shows that we all have myopia about our own work.

On that note, I wrote 5,000 words yesterday, those two chapters I was whining about, and after honing today I think I'm ready to create a proof of the whole thing. I've already got one reader, a person I trust greatly whose imminent jet lag is a gift to me and a curse to him. Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh.


Tiffany said...

I pretty much avoid any made-for-TV movie or miniseries adaptation of a book for just the feeling of disappointment you describe. Sometimes it seems that they just barely keep the setting of the book, the names of the characters, and maybe a few lines of original dialogue, then just slapdash their way through production in order to just get something out there. Invariably they're all crappy. I'm getting a T-shirt that says "The book is better." I say it so many times it would be handy to just, you know, point to my boobies.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I can think of plenty of movies that did the book right.

Okay, not plenty, but I can think of one: The Portrait of a Lady. Granted, that was Jane Campion...and Nicole Kidman...and Barbara Hershey...and John Malkovich...arright, you got me.

I guess I'd just put in a carat and "usually" between "is" and "better" on your t-shirt.

Tiffany said...

Yes, but it was a *movie* movie, right? Not a made-for-TV? Some of those get it right. Bigger budget, I guess, and a bigger pull for decent actors.

Katharine Coldiron said...

OK, I thought of a few! They're mostly made by the BBC, though: Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Hitchhiker's Guide...still, they do exist. And the Dune adaptation by the Sci-Fi channel was actually pretty good.