Literary text, cinematic "edition": adaptation, textual authority, and the filming of Tropic of Cancer.
Rather than viewing novels and films as antithetical, one might profitably consider adaptations in the same manner that a textual scholar might approach two editions of Moby-Dick or King Lear. In this way, one may recognize that, in the words of semiotician N. Katherine Hayles, "if the text is stored accurately on a second storage medium, the text remains the same though the signs for it are different" (2003, 266; author's emphasis). Instead of expecting identical signs for the novel and the film, and, thus, generally being disappointed in the film, critics who heed Hayles's argument may focus less on the variant "signs" and more on whether the cinematic "edition" of a literary text fulfills its intended goal. In testing the possibility of cinematic editions, one must seek out a novel that relies less on exterior action than it does on interior description and development, for such texts are most often those that disappoint reader expectations. Joseph Strick's controversial adaptation of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer provides just such an example, as Miller's novel relies exclusively on an idiosyncratic first-person narrator whose brocaded verbal flights subvert traditional notions of plot and attempt to reflect the process of artistic awakening. A fleeting action, a single word, a brief image--all of these might prompt the narrator to launch into an extended and subjective description that explains more about the narrator than it does about the object itself. Tropic of Cancer, dependent as it is on effusive language and interior growth rather than on action, is precisely the type of text whose adaptation so often leads to bitter dissatisfaction and will thus prove a challenging case for any re-examination of cinematic adaptation.
Recent theorists of film adaptation, such as Imelda Whelehan and Brian McFarlane, observe that dismissive comments about a given film's failure to interpret its literary "source" represent the bulk of studies that compare films to their original novels. Robert Stam, moreover, notes that most of the writers couch their comparisons in pointedly self-righteous terms: "The language of criticism dealing with the film adaptation of novels has been profoundly moralistic, awash in terms such as infidelity, betrayal, deformation, violation, vulgarization, and desecration, each accusation carrying its specific charge of outraged negativity" (2000, 54; my emphasis). As textual critic Philip Gaskell points out in his analysis of Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, however, a performance-based text is "never sacrosanct" (1985, 175). Gaskell notes that a play passes through three textual stages, the script (the manuscript presented to the director), the performance text (the words spoken by the actors), and the reading text (the published version) (162). Gaskell particularly locates tremendous variance within the second stage, where input from the writer, director, producers, actors, and audience creates a malleable text that varies from performance to performance. As a performance-based medium, film, too, changes its shooting script liberally before committing to a "final" version, and the advent of the DVD "director's cut" problematizes even this commitment somewhat, for the theater text may differ substantially from those experienced by the home audience. (2) An adaptation of a novel, however, undercuts Gaskell's paradigm, for the third-stage "reading text" appears before the first-stage script. In the case of a popular adaptation, moreover, the text is "always already" known. (3) The "transparent" textual shifts of the rehearsal (no matter how fiercely contested behind the scenes), therefore, seem hardly possible when a significant percentage of the audience possesses a knowledge of the "reading text" in advance. To cite but one infamous example, Demi Moore's steamy Hester Prynne is thus judged against Hawthorne's more demure--and sacrosanct--version. Additionally, screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart's dialogue and action-based plot must compete with Hawthorne's original language and psychological subtlety. In essence, the textual space normally afforded the collaborative performance is circumscribed by factions within the audience who assert the primacy of their experience of the reading text. The performance text of a film--drawn, ironically, from dozens of competing takes--lacks the perceived stability represented by the reading text. As prominent textual scholar D.C. Greetham remarks, "disconnections" common to the performative text--deletions/additions of characters, dialogue, subplots, and the like--"tend not to happen in [print] media, and especially when the utterances of those media are regarded as 'literature'" (1999, 36). In blurring the textual boundaries between print and film, adaptations must confront preconceived notions of authorship and improvisation. Greetham's "disconnections," inevitable in even the most "faithful" adaptations--"consensus" films (loosely defined as critically well-received adaptations) such as Merchant/Ivory's Howard's End, Lewis Milestone's Of Mice and Men, and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy--must pass muster with self-ordained guardians of authorial intent. Print culture thus trumps oral/visual culture, and within this hegemony few moviegoers who have read the novel prior to watching the film claim to have a satisfying cinematic experience: "the book was much better."
While Dudley Andrew and other adaptation theorists tentatively offer alternatives to the explicit privileging of the written word over the cinematic experience, they do not suggest the possibility of considering a film adaptation as an "edition" or "version" of a text, a concept that would embrace McFarlane's distinction between the conceptual signifying system of the novel and the perceptive signification of film wherein a skilled auteur or, to continue the metaphor, editor, must negotiate the murky interstices between the two realms (1996, 26-27). Following the lead of Jerome J. McGann, contemporary textual scholars such as Greetham, Joseph Grigely, and Tim Hunt have problematized notions of the ideal text and the sanctity of authorial intentions. Noting an "ontological and proprietary gap ... between creator and creation," Greetham, for instance, observes that an "iterated, performed text [such as a film] can be woven and rewoven in a manner undreamed of by its creator" (1999, 30-31). (4) Greetham finds such malleability at "the core of textuality," for the repetition necessary to writing may be seen either as "constituting or corrupting an utterance" (34-35). Central to the theories of textual critics such as Greetham is a skepticism toward paradigms that bolster "romantic" notions of a solitary genius robbed of his or her textual authority by uncomprehending plebeians whose mundane commercial requirements damage a literary work at every turn. Peter L. Shillingsburg astutely remarks that "given the nature and duration of creativity and the duration of composition and revision, the author's intention itself is probably not one thing that can adequately be represented by a single or simple authenticated text" (1999, 35). (5) Anti-intentionalist approaches to textual criticism generally call for a more socially collaborative methodology that takes into account not only the author's manuscript and changes but the complex history of publication, reception, and ideological variation as well. All published works are, therefore, socially negotiated.
Such a view seems particularly well-suited to considerations of film adaptations, especially given the well-documented system of collaboration pervasive in the movie industry. Besides infusing the performance text with their particular vision/interpretation of the novel, directors such as Strick also supervise or directly manage the editing of hundreds of hours of footage, selecting "definitive" takes from among many alternatives. Writing about his experience on the Tropic of Cancer set, Miller describes the editing process:
I had never seen rushes before. I found it tedious and confusing to watch a few millimeters of film at a time done over and over again from every angle. I wondered ... how movie actors manage to repeat their performance again and again ... without going crazy. It seems preposterous to me that after a long, hard day's work, a picture advances only about two minutes of screen time a day.... But I had to admire the smooth, efficient way the director, Joseph Strick, managed things. (Miller 1970, 133)
Significant here, apart from issues of adaptation, is the polyphony involved, the voices and echoes of voices that editors must distinguish, interpret, and select. What befuddles Miller is for Gaskell the heart of the performative text: its "never finished" words (1985, 175). For an adaptation, film editing involves selection based on not simply objective criteria (e.g., continuity) but on subjective interpretations (superior aesthetic or ideological value) of subjective interpretations (choices made by actors, cinematographers, directors, etc.) of subjective interpretations (the screenwriter's shooting script) of a subjective act (writing a novel) filtered through a series of subjective lenses (publishing decisions, audience reception, etc.). This endlessly refracting subjectivity "dissipates," in Greetham's language, "[textual] authority" so "that it becomes a cacophony rather than a single voice" (1999, 197). Miller's manager-like director, therefore, is hardly autonomous for s/he must rely heavily on the performances of others. In this collaborative context, the "intention" of the writer metamorphoses into an unrecoverable trace, as numerous "editors" other than the author "lay hands upon [the] text to shape it in new ways" (Bryan 2002, 6). As textual scholar Gregory L. Ulmer observes, nonprint media inherently encourage the "destruction of selfhood as it has been constituted within the literate tradition" (2002, 245). The fragmented, social quality of cinematic performative texts thus reveals not a monolithic interplay between the director and the novelist but a web of connections that may be (could have been) pursued in endless variations. In this way, students of film adaptation might view Strick's Tropic of Cancer as an "instance" of Miller's novel, (6) one that, in the words of Greetham, attempts to "reconcile the socially dispersed intentions of a highly collaborative medium with the author-based structural cohesion of utterance that the concept of director as auteur demands," yet one that can never be definitive (1999, 198).
Before proceeding to a discussion of how this collaborative effort works in Tropic of Cancer, one must first answer a further question: how does a film edition differ from a print edition? With respect to print editions, even "corrupt" texts typically bear surface resemblance to more scholarly editions, whether those editions reflect intentionalist or anti-intentionalist paradigms of editing. The 1993 Library of America version of Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, therefore, might include a masturbation scene deleted from the first published edition, but all but the most contrary of textual scholars would recognize the two redactions as "being" Native Son and not two entirely different narratives. Debate, of course, rages over whether the "modern" edition ignores the novel's historical transmission and downplays the collaborative nature of publication, but few would argue that the new version in no way resembles the first. With respect to cinematic editions, however, no such detente is possible, and viewers frequently express rage over films that change the "original" source. As film theorist Ghislaine Geloin remarks, "In almost every case, the verdict is returned: 'It is not the novel'" (1988, 137; my emphasis). Ultimately, such visceral reactions may stem less from the nature of the changes than from their magnification. While an editor may, in fact, make hundreds of substantive alterations--as illustrated by Hans Walter Gabler's controversial 1985 edition of Ulysses (7)--to a print text, those changes are often embedded within large blocks of text wherein only modifications to accidentals (e.g., obvious typographical errors) have occurred. In this more diluted context, controversial decisions might upset textual intentionalists, but most casual, and even critical, readers would not be as likely to focus on a given change. In contrast, a cinematic edition's space limitations intensify even subtle variations. A screenplay of a novel may delete hundreds of pages of text, and the performance and editing processes may eliminate even more substantial scenes. The resultant film, which may also, for continuity, add characters, dialogue, or plot points, will thus offer its differences (and equivalencies) in more marked ways. With fewer instances of unmediated text, an audience need not pay close attention to perceive the filmic edition as a dramatic departure from a well known novel. Nevertheless, significant alterations do not automatically preclude a successful adaptation. Elia Kazan's 1951 version of A Street Car Named Desire, for instance, changes Tennessee Williams's ending, yet many critics regard it as a classic adaptation. (8) In addition, some films that maintain a tight--rarely if ever a scene-by-scene--relationship with their source narratives, as is the case with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, find themselves critiqued for lacking suspense or wonder. The successful cinematic edition of a novel, as opposed to a successful print edition, must, in the language of technology critics Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, "remediate" its inevitable alterations while at the same time "eras[ing] all traces of remediation" (1996, 313). The film must embrace its decisions and place them within a confident, seamless context that, while "not the novel," is both of the novel and able to stand alone as a work of art.
If all editions represent a fusion of the subjective ideals of their authors, editors, and audiences, then one might profitably view Strick's Tropic of Cancer not as a bastardization or corporate sell-out, but as a unique reconstruction, neither more nor less "valid" than the variant second Obelisk edition of Tropic of Cancer, for one instance, or the first pirated Lotus Press edition, for another. (9) Using such a strategy, one could position Strick, who modestly declares that he prefers adaptations because "[he is] not a writer, [but] a director [who] knows [he] doesn't write well enough to do an original screenplay," as Miller's editor (qtd. in Bennett 2001). One might extend the analogy further and suggest that given the quantitative differences between films and novels, Strick, as he had done earlier with his celebrated film of James Joyce's Ulysses, decided to eschew strict adherence to a copy text and truly adapt the novel to the medium, much as an editor of a mass paperback version of Macbeth would pursue a different textual policy than a counterpart editing an annotated scholarly edition of the play. As Shillingsburg remarks, "the purpose of any edition determines what editorial principles will be followed" (1999, 2). (10) In Strick's case, the perceptive signifying system inherent to cinema dictated a collaborative notion of textual authority that treated Miller's words on the same par as those of screenwriter Betty Botley. (11) Strick attempts to preserve as much of Miller's language as possible, but he hardly follows the novel word-for-word or scene-by-scene, choosing instead to alter those parts of the book that would not translate well to the screen. Strick, moreover, consciously chose to emphasize the book's comedic elements:
In adapting a book for the screen it seems to me the most necessary task is to decide upon the main line you wish to set forth. In Tropic of Cancer I felt this had to be humor. It has always seemed to me a very funny book. I am sure others will find different elements more important. Certainly there is room for 100 adaptations of Tropic of Cancer just as we have hundreds of interpretations of Hamlet. (qtd. in Bennett 2001, 10)
Clearly, Strick subscribes to the belief that an adaptation should "capture" the dominant spirit of the novel. Just what that spirit constitutes, however, is slippery. Strick's observation that Tropic of Cancer might possess other "main lines" is certainly borne out in the criticism, with Ihab Hassan, for example, stressing the book's apocalyptic rhetoric while Caroline Blinder highlights Miller's ideological appropriation of surrealism and Jane Nelson discovers Jungian archetypes. Nevertheless, despite Strick's choice of a "main line," the differences in media preclude him from encompassing all of Miller's verbal humor. Situations might translate smoothly, but wordplay might seem stilted or impossible. McFarlane's distinction between cinematic "transference" and "adaptation" is valuable here. For McFarlane, transference refers to those elements of a book that require little in the way of change, while adaptation means that "novelistic elements must find quite different equivalences in the film medium" (1996, 13). Strick, as with all cinematic "editors," employs both transference and adaptation in his edition of Tropic of Cancer, for he adheres to what Shillingsburg deems the "basic assumption" of a textual editor: "that normally the end product of composition can be and should be one text that best represents the work of art" (1999, 13). The confluence of two signifying systems, however, ultimately results in what Hunt refers to as the "on-going exploration of the collision between the pre-textual and the textual, between the flux of the oral and the stability of the constructed object" (2002, 194).
Complicating Strick's efforts was the presence of Miller himself, who served as the film's script "technical consultant." (12) Miller excitedly wrote to his friend Lawrence Durrell that he would receive "something like a thousand a week, plus fifty dollars a day, plus the trip" (Durrell and Miller 1988, 392). Seemingly, Miller treated his job like a paid vacation, yet he repeatedly expressed reservations at the very concept of filming Tropic of Cancer. Speaking with George Wickes, for instance, Miller argued, "I think it's almost impossible to make a film out of that book ... so much depends on the language" (1994, 12). Later, Miller told Durrell that "I pray it never gets done" (Durrell and Miller 1988, 408) and, more ominously, confided to Brassai that he was "increasingly convinced they're going to massacre my Cancer. What can be done? The author counts for nothing" (qtd. in Brassai 2002, 154). Indeed, long before Tropic of Cancer was even published in the United States, Miller, a cinema aficionado, presciently commented that he was "strenuously opposed to those who look upon the cinema as a medium to exploit the other arts or even synthesize them" (1939, 49), and he also predictably railed against the "pernicious influence of Hollywood" (1944, 40). Such reservations, to say the least, hinge heavily on the intentionalist paradigm (13) and are indicative of the challenges that Strick faced with his adaptation. Greetham suggests that such authorial qualms lead to a textual ambivalence that must form a middle ground between "a place inhabited only by a sole, creative author who unwillingly releases control to social transmission" and "a place constructed wholly out of social negotiations over transmission and reception" (1999, 63). As an editor, Strick must keep his author happy while still meeting the requirements of the medium and the comedic "main line." Despite his initial reservations--and despite the film's cool critical and popular reception--Miller publicly praised both Strick and the film, claiming that "the film has preserved both these aspects [the serious and comic] of the book" (1970, 201).
Notorious for its candid sexuality and picaresque "plot," Tropic of Cancer relies on a variety of stylistic modes filtered through a first-person narrative. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller sacrifices traditional plot and characterization for a lyrically organized record of his self-named narrator's spiritual and artistic awakening over approximately one and a half years of a sojourn in Paris and Dijon. Separating the book into fifteen unlabelled sections, Miller arranges the novel's various anecdotes idiosyncratically and punctuates them with dreams, diatribes, catalogues, reveries, and other conventions. As "Henry Miller" pursues prostitutes, square meals, and shelter, he attempts to become a writer, exorcise his personal demons, and deal with the imminent dissolution of his relationship with his wife, Mona. Simultaneously, the book's tone shifts dramatically--between, for example, comic and angry, lustful and erudite, secular and spiritual--a phenomenon that results in conflicting critical assessments of Miller's "dominant" mode.
Because of the novel's prominent censorship battles, public perception of Tropic of Cancer primarily focused on the sexual, but, as mentioned above, Strick's "main line" concerned comedy. Miller himself fails to note the film's lack of sexual emphasis, asserting to the photographer Brassai, "No castration, no modification. Bravo for him" (qtd. in Brassai 2002, 154). However, Screw publisher Al Goldstein laments, "[Rip] Torn ... continues to hide his cock from camera's hungry gaze" (1970, 19). As Goldstein colorfully observes, penises are conspicuously absent from the film of Tropic of Cancer. (14) Verbal equivalents like cock, of course, abound in the X-rated movie, but Rip Torn, James Callahan, and the other male actors in Tropic of Cancer fail to expose their genitals--or even their buttocks--to the camera. In fact, the actors rarely even bare their chests. Despite the sexual candor of his source text, Strick, in short, refrains from even approaching what later became the X-rated genre's notorious "money shot," although his apparent restraint does not prevent him from directing female cast members, such as Ellen Burstyn, to display full frontal nudity. (15) If Tropic of Cancer were simply a film preoccupied with sex, such visual emasculation might represent a patriarchal double standard, but it would hardly be exceptional for the period. In contrast to the film, the novel apostrophizes penises in its early pages and hardly shies away from male sexuality. While Strick's reimagining of the novel's sexual ethos is not the only substantial alteration that the director makes to his source narrative, it certainly constitutes the most visible one, for most theater goers--even those who had never read Tropic of Cancer--would have been familiar with the sensational publicity and important legal precedents surrounding the book's sixty-plus obscenity trials (Hutchinson 1968, 91). For those conversant with the novel, however, the omission of graphic sexuality would quite possibly have resulted in the type of negative comparison voiced by film critic Don Druker: "Strick manages to make Miller's life actually boring" (2002).
In Strick's defense, however, American censorship laws prevented him from pursuing the more frankly sexual approach of Jens Jorgen Thorsen's 1970 adaptation of Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy, a film that contains far more graphic sexual scenes than any presented in the film of Tropic of Cancer and that does not shy away from male nudity. (16) Strick's dilemma, then, concerns how to represent sexuality without running afoul of the censors yet simultaneously avoiding the type of euphemistic approach to sex that Miller's novel rebels against--e.g., cutaways to a flushed-faced, but fully clothed, woman with her hair astray or waves crashing along a beach. Strick's editorial decision is to stress Miller's earthy depictions of sex through humor rather than explicit representation. In the novel, Miller contrasts his friend Van Norden's mechanical, business-like sexuality ("He doesn't feel anything") to "Henry Miller's" free-and-easy approach (1934, 149). For the latter, sex is neither a mystery nor a grim enterprise but instead a natural appetite that should be enjoyed without guilt. In his film, Strick also juxtaposes passionless sexual encounters--such as when a prostitute rushes Henry to premature ejaculation via a faux passion that commences with "hurry up and get undressed" and ends with hyperbolic and hypocritical moans of passion--with joyous, enthusiastic lovemaking, such as the film's early scenes between Henry and Mona or a later scene in which Elsa plays the piano after having sex with Henry. In both instances, Strick emphasizes the comedic element, for in the former case Henry laughingly discovers that Mona is crawling with vermin, while in the latter Henry and Elsa surprise the apartment's owner, Boris, as he is showing a prim potential renter around the place. Others, such as Germaine, Tania, and Llona, are praised for their fervid sexuality, while some characters, such as Ginette and the "princess," are depicted as cruel, the latter reporting to Henry's amorous friend Fillmore, "Did I tell you that I had the clap?" Thus, while not primarily focusing on Miller's novelistic use of sex, the editor Strick does manage to maintain its thematic importance while still appeasing his censors.
Apart from negotiating the differences between representing sexuality verbally and cinematically, Strick's edition of Tropic of Cancer faces several other textual issues, including voice, "plot," and non-sexual content. Apart from its treatment of sexual taboos, Tropic of Cancer's greatest impact on the literary community involved its exuberant first-person voice. In Tropic of Cancer, Miller--whose first forays into the novel, Moloch, or This Gentile World and Crazy Cock (both published posthumously), employ a stilted third-person perspective that borrows heavily from such European luminaries as Hamsun, Dostoevski, and Strindberg--ostensibly collapses the boundaries between his life and the life of his protagonist, Henry Miller. Miller, however, avoids a simple chronological recitation of his exploits by choosing to fragment and distort that experience and ultimately making digressions normative rather than exceptional. Ranging widely in tone and subject matter, Tropic of Cancer represents a Whitmanesque raconteur enraptured as much by life's squalor as with its nobility. Besides using an inordinate number of fragment sentences, Miller also fuses a highly charged poetic vocabulary with his descriptions of prosaic incidents. Miller's voice also serves to aggrandize Henry at the expense of the book's other characters, who frequently seem caricaturized. An editor such as Strick would no doubt find such conventions, given their linguistic basis, both difficult to transfer directly and essential to retain, for the book's aesthetic achievement would be greatly diminished without its hyper-confident voice.
Nevertheless, as Gabriel Miller and McFarlane, among others, point out, film necessarily objectifies its referents, thus obliterating the distinction between first- and third-person perspectives found in fiction. (17) In short, Strick would need to edit the novel to meet the requirements of its new format, even if such a phenomenon resulted in what Grigely labels the "transgressive process" of editing with its "manifestations of violence" upon the art in question (2002, 71). The most obvious way that Strick seeks to maintain Miller's narrative voice is through the use of voiceover. (18) In several instances, Torn recites lengthy passages from the novel while images flash upon the screen. In this way, Strick seems to preserve the Henry Miller character as the film's focal point, even though Torn is visually objectified along with the actors who play Boris, Carl, Tania, Mona, and the other supporting figures. As McFarlane observes, however, voiceovers can play only a limited role in creating the appearance of a first-person perspective: "by virtual necessity, it [voice-over] cannot be more than intermittent as distinct from the continuing nature of the novelistic first-person narrator" (1996, 16). Indeed, only a dozen or so voice-overs occur in the 87-minute film. Additionally, John Simon notes that in the film the lyric passages from Cancer occasionally undercut the "sense" of the original and produce an unintentionally comic effect, as when Torn sleeps in a dingy, unadorned room, while the voice-over brags about fornicating with the delectable Tania (qtd. in "Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer 6). (19) Interestingly, Strick himself felt that the voiceovers "stopped the action cold" (Dearborn 1991, 296).
Strick does not rely on voice-over alone, though, and attempts to reflect the novel's sense of voice via other purely cinematic methods. Ulmer observes that media such as film demand a "destruction of selfhood as it has been constituted within the literate tradition" (2002, 245), and Greetham notes that the "ontological comfort [that stems] from [the] desire to be in direct communication with the vehicle of text production [i.e., the writer!]" is entirely "illusory" (1999, 33). In locating a referent for Tropic of Cancer's linguistic singularities, therefore, Strick reconstructs the text and draws parallels between Miller's use of fragments and the process of frame editing. Eschewing the technique of invisible editing, which splices frames in an unobtrusive way, Strick emphasizes his transitions in a relatively self-reflexive manner that is similar to the book. While in the novel Henry Miller states that he has "moved the typewriter into the next room where [he] can see [himself] as [he] writes," in the film Torn's self-consciousness manifests itself through quick cuts or non-sequential frames that call attention to the process of editing itself (Miller 1934, 5). For instance, a scene wherein Yvette tells Henry that Ginette is a whore immediately cuts to another image of Henry, Elsa, and Boris without offering Henry's response to Yvette's information. In another scene, Strick compresses a recurrent theme in the novel via a quick collage of images of Henry having meals with various acquaintances. By calling attention to the editing process in such scenes, Strick thus attempts to convey Henry's consciousness without resorting to obvious close ups or reaction shots. Strick further adapts the novel's voice through his use of sound. During the scene, discussed above, in which Torn fleeces a prostitute who has rushed him, for example, Strick includes the sound of a taxi meter, which echoes the disdain evident in the novel's voice. Another scene employs the use of monkey sounds, which reflect the comic overtones of Carl's references to Borneo. A third device that Strick uses is montage, which allows him to substitute a visual equivalent for Miller's lyrical flights. The montages add depth to the film's imagery and provide a visual counterpart to the found poetry of the novel. (20) In one such sequence, for instance, Strick dissolves from Parisian architecture to a marching band and then juxtaposes scenes of street life with a cathedral before cutting to a military drill and a crowded boulevard. Simultaneously, Torn reads a diverse passage from Tropic of Cancer that rhapsodizes about Paris. Certainly, Strick's choices parallel those of an editor who must, as Shillingsburg points out, "inconclusively recover" Miller's meaning "through critical interpretation" (1999, 34-35).
Miller's experimental narrative form provides Strick with an equally imposing challenge. By filtering memories, dreams, and fantasies through an anecdotal matrix, Miller blurs his narrative treatment of time, which allows him to depict a persona that stands both in and apart from the historical continuum. Miller's narrative radically interrupts itself by breaking off one story to pursue another, launching into lyrical reveries, discoursing with jeremiad-like fury on society's foibles, employing Whitmanesque catalogues, recording sexual experiences, or philosophizing on any number of issues. Tropic of Cancer draws a great deal of its narrative power not from extended sexual scenes or meandering action sequences but from a radically digressive form that juxtaposes an excursion on the obscene with an analysis of Matisse's use of color or a fantasy concerning the Eiffel Tower bubbling with champagne. In commenting on his narrative technique in Tropic of Cancer, Miller observes that "the facts and events of life are for me only the starting points on the way towards the discovery of truth. I am trying to get at the inner pattern of events" (1941, 53). Consequently, his novel has no plot per se, a phenomenon much commented on during Tropic of Cancer's obscenity trials. Rather, a loosely related series of anecdotes mirrors Henry Miller's burgeoning artistic output. Drawing on stream-of-consciousness, surrealist, and Dadaist analogues, among others, Miller labeled his experiment "spiral form" (1941, 54).
As an editor/director, Strick desired to produce a film that bore at least some resemblance to Miller's novel, but was certainly under both financial and social pressure to create a picture that audiences could consume readily. Mass American (adult) audiences--to whom the film was marketed in such venues as Playboy and Adam Film World--have been conditioned since Hollywood's earliest days to expect a tangible plot, a fact noted by McFarlane. Strick's company, Paramount, moreover, was not interested in making a so-called art-house film, as evidenced by Tropic of Cancer's multimillion-dollar budget and pre-release publicity that viewed the novel less as a work of literature than as "the most vital promotional tool" (Paramount 1970). (21) The convergence of social conditions and Strick's sensitivity to Miller's art led the director to a number of decisions regarding the ostensible formlessness of Tropic of Cancer. As Grigely notes, potential conflict can arise from the problem of "competing authority," and he ponders, "who owns identity?" (2002, 79). In answering the question of who owns a text's identity--author, director, screenwriter, studio, the "culture," etc.--Strick could have, of course, simply followed the novel's digressive pattern, but in so doing would certainly have risked alienating casual movie-goers who may have heard of Miller's notorious book without having read it. Instead of transferring Miller's spiral form directly, however, Strick chose to emphasize a handful of the book's more substantial anecdotes and weave them into a relatively linear plot. In so doing, Strick fabricated dialogue for "Henry Miller's" wife, Mona, as well as rearranged the original order of anecdotes such as Miller's sojourn in Dijon and his affair with Tania. Additionally, Strick deleted numerous other anecdotes including passages dealing with Van Norden and Boris. Such decisions would seemingly confirm the worst fears of those who critique adaptations in terms of betrayal and faithlessness, a type represented by Tom Jawetz, who writes that "Strick's adaptation ... strays too far from the original form" (1995). Andre Bazin, though, derides such a position, commenting that "faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence in meaning of the forms" (2000, 20; my emphasis). Following Bazin's line of reasoning, one may recognize that Strick's strategy offers a subjective rendering of Miller's notion of spiral form, for while it outwardly conforms to chronological expectations its refusal to privilege Tropic of Cancer's own temporal schema pursues the book's own "inner pattern."
A final aspect of Strick's adaptation that warrants consideration concerns Miller's own unique blend of explicit sexual content and artistic musings. In a prescient essay on the eventual reception of his work, Miller remarks that most readers of Tropic of Cancer would gravitate toward its sexual content, either to glorify it or deplore it, and ignore the self-examination at the core of his project (1941). Tropic of Cancer hardly posits sex as the primary goal of Henry's quest, as even a cursory examination of the character Van Norden suggests. Although Henry revels in his biological urges--a phenomenon embodied, for instance, in his paean to Tania's genitalia--he is never reduced to a mere compendium of those desires. Lust is but one facet of Henry's existence, and the novel devotes lengthy passages to considerations of capitalism, aesthetics, food, philosophy, and, above all, writing and "artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song" (1934, 258). The novel certainly records several extended and graphic carnal encounters, but Miller merges many of his sexual references with non-sexual content:
And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces.... Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker. Somber, spectral trees, their trunks pale as cigar ash. A silence supreme and altogether European. (Miller 1934, 6; ellipsis in original)
In this passage, Miller juxtaposes blunt sexuality with a somnolent scene reminiscent of Matisse's Promenade among the Olive Trees. The violent, raw sexual boasting yields to a surreal silence and a heightened awareness. Desire melts into art. Contemplation of the obscene also allows Miller to find beauty in wretchedness, as when he declares, "Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair" (170). Here, Miller intermingles sexual description with both apocalyptic foreboding and the notion that artists may rise deliriously above the fray. Ultimately, Tropic of Cancer recounts not a mere grocery list of sexual conquests but the birth of a writer. The Parisian subculture in which the narrator circulates functions more as a catalyst for Miller's literary outpourings than as an end unto itself. Consequently, the book depicts several examples of both failed and successful artists, as well as numerous depictions of Henry either writing or else discoursing on the writing process.
The tremendous attention surrounding the lifting of the decades-old ban on the novel, however, skewed perceptions about the novel and reduced it for many into a scurrilous, near-pornographic book obsessed not with writing but with sex. Such notoriety, no doubt, both spurred sales of Tropic of Cancer and added to the film's prerelease publicity. (22) The general movie patron, in other words, would expect the film version of Tropic of Cancer to be heavily erotic, if not prurient. For Strick, such bias could prove problematic, particularly with regard to his relationship with Paramount. Had Strick highlighted the novel's metafictional qualities, thereby reducing the sexual content, the effect might have devastated the film's popular appeal: many audience members would have been gravely disappointed by lengthy portrayals of the writer's craft, whether lyrical or otherwise. On the other hand, Strick's decision to elide virtually all non-sexual content from his film invites critics to once again level charges of--ironically--bowdlerization. While Strick does eliminate most of the novel's non-sexual anecdotes, diatribes, and reveries--apart from a few voiceovers--his insertion of incongruous frames silently echoes the book's discussion of aesthetics. For example, Strick intercuts a fantasy of Mona having an affair with images of Parisian architecture. Another such instance involves a scene in which a voiceover describes a prostitute, Germaine, while the background, lighting, and camera angles produce an attractive effect. Yet another scene juxtaposes an image of Torn writing in a notebook with another in which he seduces an attractive musician. In these scenes and others, Strick manages a subtle nod to the book's non-sexual content without resorting to scenes of Torn talking to himself about writing or art, images that might appear turgid and pretentious to film patrons used to a linear, action-based plot. One might interpret the absence of graphic scenes of copulation mentioned earlier, moreover, as Strick's attempt to undercut his audience's exaggerated notions of the book's sexual emphasis. In this light, one might consider the film's patent lack of open eroticism a manifestation of Strick's artistic perception of Tropic of Cancer rather than as an act of self-censorship. If one views Strick as resisting facile, media-driven readings of Tropic of Cancer as a quasi-pornographic novel (as his statement above concerning humor suggests), then his treatment of the book's sexuality presents itself less as an act of prudery than as a shrewd editorial compromise regarding a well "known" text.
Considering adaptations such as Strick's Tropic of Cancer as editions provides at least a partial solution to the conundrum over how to judge the success of a given film. While some critics heavily privilege the source novel and others treat the film as a distinct entity, neither group satisfactorily acknowledges both the social expectations about adaptations and the differences in media convention. In the former instance, critics ignore the peculiarities of cinematic art and fail to acknowledge the impossibility of transferring certain (linguistic) properties to the screen, while the latter group downplays the inevitable social resonance adapted films have with their source novels. By approaching such films as editions, critics strike a balance between the juridical posture that an adaptation's worth is based solely on its ability to reflect a novel's so-called essence and the disingenuous position that books and movies are so different that issues of adaptation should be disregarded completely. As with any edition, a film edition should, in fact, offer a recognizable version of the historical text. Had Strick decided, for example, to delete the Henry Miller character from his film, few plausible explanations could be tendered in his defense. However, just as editors of books, in an effort to produce an edition, may decide to conflate multiple manuscript and published versions of a single text, so too may a film director manipulate an author's words in an effort to produce an ideal cinematic occasion. Obviously, as Shillingsburg points out, every so-called definitive edition ultimately represents the subjective interpretation of its editor, for even hypertexts are subject to arrangement. In the case of Tropic of Cancer, Strick certainly does not "capture" or "epitomize" Miller's novel, but no matter what the medium, no editor ever truly utters the last word.
(1) An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Modern Language Association's 2002 convention. The author wishes to thank Amy M. Flaxman, Roger Jackson, Karl Orend, Kenneth Womack, and College Literature's anonymous reviewers for their astute suggestions for revision.
(2) DVDs present an interesting textual environment, not only because multiple versions may exist, but because the menu feature allows users the ability to create a "customized" text by viewing a scene multiple times, watching scenes out of sequence, freezing a single frame, etc. Additionally, while many releases clearly indicate post-theatrical changes (announcing, for example, a director's cut or an unrated version), some DVDs are silently altered, as in the case of George Lucas's first three Star Wars films, which were "enhanced" for their 1997 theatrical re-releases by CGI technology unavailable to Lucas in the late 70s and early 80s. Lucas changed the films yet again when he released them as a box set. Despite protests from "purists," Lucas defended his changes through his spokesperson, Jim Ward: "It comes down to what [Lucas] has said constantly, which is that he very strongly believes in an artist's right to have his work presented in the way he wants it presented" ("Lucasfilm," 2004).
(3) Well-known plays, such as those by Shakespeare, certainly face severe scrutiny, however, and deviations from a perceived normative performance are excoriated on a par with "unfaithful" adaptations of novels.
(4) Shakespeare's plays, for example, have been performed in countless redactions, recently including versions that employed bilingual dialogue (Megan Owens' A Midsummer Night's Dream ), puppetry (Cheryl Cashman's The Tempest ), and nudity (Independent Edge Releasing's Live Nude Shakespeare ).
(5) In the case of Tropic of Cancer, Miller spent nearly three years writing and revising his manuscript, which ultimately reached nearly a thousand pages. During this time, he experienced a radical personal transformation. Personally, Miller was first geographically and then emotionally estranged from his wife, June, who remained in America while he stayed in Paris and struggled with profound poverty. Artistically, he synthesized such influences as Chagall, Matisse, Cendrars, Celine, Duhamel, Bunuel, Fraenkel, and others, ultimately infusing his literary voice with a more radically subjective quality.
(6) Miller preferred the term "autobiographical romance," and claimed in a letter to Edmund Wilson that he did not "write novels" because he is "the hero and the book is [himself]" (Wilson 1985, 709).
(7) See Robert Spoo, "Ulysses and the Ten Years War: A Survey of Missed Opportunities" (1997) for a history of Gabler's reception, particularly in the light of still unverified charges advanced by John Kidd.
(8) The studio pressured Kazan to strip the screenplay of its moral ambiguity and frank sexuality and to have Stella leave Stanley Kowalski as "punishment" for raping Blanche.
(9) Before its publication in the United States by Grove Press, Tropic of Cancer first appeared in 1934 with Jack Kahane's Obelisk Press (later Olympia Press) in Paris. Due to lax international copyright laws and the narrative's "obscene" content, at least eight pirated editions appeared in France, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, including two by the "Lotus Press" of Paris.
(10) Shillingsburg draws a distinction between commercial and scholarly purposes. In the former, the text is viewed less as an artifact to be protected or restored than as a product to be "rejuvenated" for a new audience (1999, 3).
(11) An earlier screenplay, by Bernard Wolfe, had been rejected as "weak" (Martin 1978, 471). Wolfe later sued the production corporation (Dearborn 1991, 287).
(12) Part of Miller's suspicion of the project stemmed from legal battles over the production. An original contract to serve as technical consultant was terminated on 31 December 1963 because "litigation may continue for an extended period, and development and production of the picture must be discontinued indefinitely" (unpublished contract 1963). Miller eventually received a reported 700,000 dollars from Paramount (Jenson 1970, 75).
(13) In these various statements, Miller disparages the collaborative nature of the Hollywood film. With remarks such as "the author counts for nothing," Miller suggests that adapters "massacre," rather than revise, novels, interjecting their own voice into the text in favor of the original author's. Miller thus expresses what John Bryant refers to as "anxiety over what an editor can and cannot do" (2002, 28) with a text and privileges his own intentions over the cultural revision involved in a group effort. As Bryant argues, adapters "must position themselves vis-a-vis the original text and hence presume in some way to 'speak for' the author; they speak, too, for themselves, and to and for new markets and/or different audiences" (110). Anti-intentionalists such as Bryant and Jerome McGann assume the author's intentions to be unrecoverable for an editor (and perhaps even for the writer him/herself) and that editors will invariably inject their own "intentions" into the text, even if they do not do so consciously.
(14) Latter-day reviewers rarely fail to point out that the film's sex scenes are tame by modern standards, but Goldstein was not alone among contemporary reviewers in noticing Tropic of Cancer's apparent sexual double standard. An anonymous review in Playboy typifies such comments: "little more than bushy feminine nudity is actually shown" (1970, 45).
(15) From the rating's inception in 1966, early X-rated films, while rarely commercially successful, generally avoided the stigma of pornography and were taken seriously as "adult" films. The apogee of such reception, of course, was the Academy Award for best picture earned by Midnight Cowboy (1969). In the mid-seventies, however, the pornography industry aggressively appropriated the rating, and most "main-stream" theaters refused to show films tagged with the X label. Interestingly, Hollywood's attempt to relegitimize sexually explicit movies started with 1990's Henry and June, a film based on Anais Nin's account of her relationship with Miller and his second wife. "Money Shot" refers to a visible male sexual climax.
(16) Predictably, Thorsen's film was seized upon its appearance in the United States, although it ultimately was cleared in Federal court. Paramount, which invested heavily in Strick's Tropic of Cancer, would no doubt have pressured the director to remain within the bounds of "community standards."
(17) Thomas Elsaesser, for instance, writes that "The subjective perception--what the characters themselves see and how they experience it--is integrated with an objective presentation of these individual points of view and what they signify inside the same narrative movement and the continuous action" (1973, 61). The camera "eye," according to this line of reasoning, cannot adequately represent the first-person or third-person point of view of a character who appears on the screen since the subjectivity lies, in McFarland's words, "outside the total discourse of the film" within the director and camera operator (1996, 18). Thus, McFarland continues, "There is, in film, no ... instantly apparent, instantly available commentary on the action unfolding as the novel's narrating prose habitually offers" (18).
(18) Thorsen chooses to reflect Henry's central status by superimposing words onto the screen. These words attempt to represent Henry's interior monologue and comment silently on the action that Henry witnesses.
(19) Of course, Strick may be consciously parodying Miller's braggadocio, as his emphasis on the book's humor might suggest.
(20) One random example of this phenomenon occurs as Henry contemplates a walk through the gray, icy environs of Dijon: "a promenade through the Danzig Corridor, all deckle-edged, crannied, nerve-ridden. A lane of dead bones, of crooked, cringing figures buried in shrouds. Spines made of sardine bones" (1961, 282).
(21) Mary V. Dearborn reports that the budget was over two million dollars, making Tropic of Cancer "a major production" for the era (1991, 283).
(22) The publicity packet encouraged theater owners to hold community debates on the novel's literary merits: "One of the things that you can do to heighten [the] controversy, thereby bringing attention to your engagement, would be to screen the film for a number of local dignitaries, judges, lawyers, college professors, and students and let them debate on their pro and con feelings" (Paramount 1970).
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James M. Decker is associate professor at Illinois Central College. He is the author of Ideology (2003) and Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity (2005). He also edits Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal.
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|Author:||Decker, James M.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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