Reading reviews for Neil LaBute’s film adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Possession the other day got my wild, anti-literary side all riled up. Possession is hard-core librarian porn. It has two love stories, one love letter, and is itself a love letter to curling up with a good book. Some of us don’t curl, though. Some of us look at a novel and blanche. It’s big, expensive, and, most frighteningly it’s dead!
The thing that agitates me the most is that both LaBute and his screenwriter David Henry Hwang are playwrights primarily. Playwrights can’t write for the dead; they write for living, breathing audiences. But they’re being lured by the lich-like power of the literary establishment. Byatt writes a novel, LaBute and Hwang bow reverently to the text. Even Tom Stoppard rips off the idea and makes it take place in his backyard.
The impression that I get from the reviews I read is that LaBute and Hwang give just enough dramatic energy to make Possession work as a film, but not so much that it overshadows the novel. “That’s good, boys; don’t rock the boat. Literature comes first, drama a distant second. You’d still be performing bowdlerized Shakespeare if we didn’t go in and try to restore the reputation of this great sonnet-writer and sometime-playwright.”
At least when Hwang is updating Richard Rodgers, giving us a transgendered Sister Maria and a Captain Von Trapp played by John Lithgow, the pressure’s off. Theatre comes off the page, living and dying every night for years, decades, centuries. Rodgers will die tonight and live tomorrow no matter how horrible a job Hwang does for him, but if he messes up the film sarcophagus of A.S. Byatt, he’s in big trouble. Novels are the great pyramids of art, built for the dead by the back-breaking labor of the living, filled with treasures only enjoyable after you’ve had all your organs sucked out and stuffed in jars. Maybe LaBute and company want to help build the tomb, but I hope they remember not to wall themselves in.