How David Cronenberg’s and Samuel Fuller’s New Novels Help Us Better Understand Their Cinematic Visions
With David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl opening Friday, the often fraught relationship between narrative cinema and written fiction is in the air, and has already produced an onslaught of comparison pieces between the book and the film. A filmmaker’s relationship to an author’s vision is a tricky one that is rarely assuaged by the author’s presence in the filmmaking process – difficult-to-navigate medium-specific capacities make difficult hurdles for even the most “cinematic” novels.
But what happens when this process is inverted? And no, I’m not talking about novelizations, but the relatively rare instances in which established film directors publish novels independent of their cinematic output. No doubt, their cinematic output frames any readings of these books and – like the process of adapting a book to film – almost forces the reader ask about the artistic correspondence across medium. Sometimes, the intent in jumping across form is clear, as with Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration with Chuck Hogan for The Strain in hopes of turning that series of novels into a television show. Occasionally, a novel is a passion project of its own eventually adapted to the medium of the author’s origins, like Ethan Hawke’s novel and subsequent film of The Hottest State. But rarer still is the work of a filmmaker-turned-novelist without the plans of taking the work in reverse – the novel meant simply to exist as a novel.
Two directors have seen recent releases of written work seemingly intended to never make it off the page: David Cronenberg’s newly released debut novel “Consumed” and the late Samuel Fuller’s crime novel “Brainquake,” the latter making its English language debut this year after having been published in French and Japanese decades ago. But how can we better understand the work of these iconic directors through their novels?
While Cronenberg’s contributions to cinema have been of a starkly visual nature – recall, for instance, James Woods’ video signal-induced hallucination of a chest vagina in Videodrome, Jeff Goldblum’s violent transformation in The Fly, or the Russian bathhouse fight scene in Eastern Promises – he has repeatedly referenced his love of literature as the major source of his cinematic influence, namely the work of Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs – two novelists who, in very different ways, explore the boundaries of morality and the irrational desires of the id.
Burroughs’s adaptations of novels have taken a shared clinical approach to their subject matter, often by articulating themes about the limits of what it means to be human. His adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” and Don DeLillo’s “Cosmopolis” are, decidedly, his coldest material, satires exploring the places where humanity works in service of machinery, be that of Fordism or capital in general. His adaptation of Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” is almost an object lesson in how to unfaithfully adapt a novel in order to reproduce its essence in conversation with a filmmaker’s sensibility – the result is an interesting but curious artifact, a film that seeks to surprise but all the while realizes its inability to do so in contrast to its source material. And Videodrome, arguably Cronenberg’s magnum opus, is something of an unofficial adaptation of Marshall McLuhan’s landmark academic text “Understanding Media,” demonstrating literally technology’s ability to transform into extensions of the human body.
It should come as little surprise, then, that “Consumed” is similarly clinical, a quality first suggested by enigmatic teaser trailers for the book that showed up earlier this year. Here’s an excerpt from its opening:
“Naomi was in the screen. Or, more exactly, she was in the apartment in the QuickTime window in the screen, the small, shabby, scholarly apartment of Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy. She was there, sitting across from them as they sat side by side on an old couch – was it burgundy? was it corduroy? – talking to an off-camera interviewer. And with the white plastic earbuds in her ears, she was acoustically in the Arosteguy home as well. She felt the depth of the room and the three-dimensionality of the heads of this couple, sagacious heads with sensual faces, a matched pair, like brother and sister. She could smell the books jammed into the bookshelves behind them, feel the furious intellectual heat emanating from them. Everything in the frame was in focus – video did that, those small CCD or CMOS sensors; the nature of the medium.”
The novel uses intertwining narratives following a mosaic of characters that follow a dark rabbit hole while chasing freelance digital media coverage of a murdered socialite. Deliberately confusing and confounding the digital screens and sensory technologies between which characters interact, Cronenberg uses the visual ambiguity of fiction writing in order to explore the slippery notion of “presence” within a socially mediated society – this in contrast to film, a medium that Cronenberg has shown an explicit preference to show things as concretely as he can.
Not unlike his son Brandon Cronenberg’s film Antiviral and his upcoming Maps to the Stars, “Consumed” is partly concerned with our digital experience of 21st century celebrity, though it does explore so much more, including organ trafficking and 3D printed penises. But the novel also functions as the third entry in an unofficial trilogy that began with Videodrome and continued with eXistenZ, an updated exploration of technology’s obfuscations of reality and humanity, an exploration of our lives through and within media.
While it’s a worthwhile journey into cerebral horror for any Cronenberg fan, perhaps the problem with “Consumed” is that it’s too easy to see as a Cronenberg film, but purely on the surface level. While many of his films have a cold, distant quality to them, there’s typically something in Cronenberg’s visual work – his composition, his staging, his use of performances, his shocking representations of violence and sexuality – that frames an ever-compelling, if occasionally academic, quality to the events and provides thematic depth that works well alongside his clinical, matter-of-fact representation. Without his searing camera, Cronenberg’s novel leaves us with the presentation of events from a perspective that is always (if decidedly) distant, far flung from the complex, fascinatingly ambivalent proximity we often get from his cinematic work.
Samuel Fuller’s “Brainquake,” the belated release of the “lost novel” by the director of Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor, shows an altogether different approach. Fuller wrote pulp novels during the early days of his screenwriting career, including “The Dark Page”, a noir that he published five years before directing his first feature. He wrote “Brainquake” later his career, while taking residence in Europe amongst those who appreciated his films most, which explains the delay in publishing it in its original English.
“Brainquake, which f”ollows a criminal underground’s perfectly professional bagman lose his game and succumb to a terrible brain disorder with the introduction of a femme fatale, has a playfully and confidently exaggerated dime novel quality that, yes, echoes the sensibility of Fuller’s work, but still distinguishes itself from it. Fuller plays with the unique capacities and poetics of language in often surprising and even beautiful ways amidst the stunning grit of his subject matter. Consider, for instance, this confrontational yet elegant opening excerpt:
“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park. Sparrow-weight with bulging jugular, the balloon peddler shuffled past the man sitting on the bench near the path bend, saw nothing to remember in Paul’s thirty-year-old cipher face. Paul was half-hidden behind a book of poems. Reading and re-reading Emily Dickinson’s If I can ease one life the aching, Paul re-lived the ten-year-old Paul suffocating his mother with a pillow. She didn’t struggle. He lifted the pillow. She weighed 97 pounds dead.
A leaf fell gently on the poem.”
It perhaps shouldn’t surprise that Fuller has an approach to fiction writing that resembles his cinematic work but stands more distinctly from it. He was a published novelist before he ever directed a feature, and it’s quite easy to imagine that his career could have journeyed more directly in the realm of fiction had he not received opportunities to make movies. And while “Brainquake” is consistently “Fuller,” it’s very difficult to imagine the work as a film, or at least a Sam Fuller film with the limited resources those productions had available. Within the unlimited budget of the written word, Fuller produces something bigger, something more subjective, and something too tonally varied to have made it onto a Sam Fuller film. “Brainquake” is a book that uses the capacities of its medium toward producing an artistic sensibility differently from the utilities that film allows.
In an era of rapid convergence, it becomes ever more difficult to make arguments about medium specificity. Film directors have found multifaceted avenues to express themselves differently, from Steven Soderbergh’s web-based cinematic mash-ups and re-edits to David Lynch’s digital filmmaking experiments to last year’s Cronenberg-themed sensory exhibit to a film produced out of a conversation on a podcast. But there’s a certain degree to which working in a given medium produces particular possibilities and structures unique limitations, and watching a familiar filmmaker move from one medium to another can be a rare but rich opportunity to see how creative minds function in different parameters, especially when they move to a form of expression where the images are taken away.