WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2020) LANGUISHES AT THE PERILOUS BORDER BETWEEN FILMS AND NOVELS

Waiting for the Barbarians, Ciro Guerra's new adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's novel, reinforces one of my core (though hardly original) beliefs as both a bibliophile and a cinephile: Great movies are rarely made from great books. It is far more common, in fact, for a director to make a great movie from poor or mediocre source materials  (e.g., The Graduate, The Godfather, Jaws). Meanwhile, cinematic history is littered with terrible or middling films adapted from great novels (The Brothers Karamazov, The Scarlet Letter, and every version ever attempted of The Great Gatsby).

There are exceptions to my rule, of course—To Kill a Mockingbird is an easy example that leaps to mind—but in general these endeavors are doomed from inception for one very simple reason: Greatness in one medium, almost by definition, cannot easily be translated to another. Jonathan Demme's Beloved (1998) was a fair attempt by very talented people to faithfully realize Toni Morrison's 1987 novel on-screen. But the very qualities that made that book one of the artistic pinnacles of its art form—the anger-fueled beauty of Morrison's voice; the haunting, evocative ambiguity of its narrative—were things that could only be done in prose. However honorable its intentions, the movie was always doomed to be, at best, a curiously reductive footnote in the novel's towering and timeless legacy.

And literary adaptations constitute one of the few genres in which exceptions to the rule actually do prove the rule. In the rare instances when a great film is made from a great novel, it is almost always because the director and screenwriter understand that film and literature are wildly incompatible art forms. The triumph of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca, for example, is in its voice: The novel is a masterclass in first-person narration, as the very syntax of the unnamed protagonist's story drips with the heroine's overwhelming insecurity and dread. Adapting the novel to the screen in 1940, however, Alfred Hitchcock chose to jettison all but the famous first lines of the heroine's narration. He relied on his camera—and, to a lesser extent, Joan Fontaine's performance—to convey to the viewer how every stone and shadow in Manderly's halls threaten to smother the timid spirits of the second Mrs. de Winter. It worked because Hitchcock used the language of cinema, not the language of literature.

For an even starker example, read Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, and then watch Jack Clayton's fantastic adaptation The Innocents (1961). The novella seems like the very definition of an unfilmable book: Rendered in James' labyrinthine, surgically precise prose, its unanswerable central mystery—Are there actual ghosts, or is the governess going mad?—lives entirely in the almost imperceptible subtleties of its ambiguous narration. Yet Clayton (working from a sharp screenplay by Truman Capote) filmed this unfilmable story brilliantly, with no voice-over narration and a bare minimum of expository dialogue. He stripped the story of James' impossible text, yet delivered a surprisingly faithful adaptation in which elegant camerawork achieves the effects of elegant prose.

Would Henry James have appreciated The Innocents? I doubt it very much, but that's just the point: It's the rare artist who even appreciates, let alone understands, both art forms. It's no surprise that some of the greatest literary adaptations have disappointed, or even angered, the authors of the books adapted. Ken Kesey was so furious that Milos Forman's movie of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest dropped Chief Bromden's narration that he supposedly never even watched the finished film. Vladimir Nabokov wrote a 400-page screenplay for Lolita that Stanley Kubrick rejected as unfilmable. Nabokov eventually appreciated what Kubrick did with his bookbut other writers never did: Anthony Burgess came to hate Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, just as Stephen King has never stopped grumbling about Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. 

Kubrick, wisely, never cared: He was making great movies, not staged readings of novels. (Clockwork star Malcolm McDowell says he once asked Kubrick if he had met with Burgess to discuss the adaptation. "Oh good God, no!” Kubrick replied. “Why would I want to do that?”)

J. M. Coetzee is one of the world's greatest living novelists, a white South African (now emigrated to Australia) who rose to literary prominence at the height of apartheid. As one might expect, his work deals—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely—with what he has called "power and the torsions of power," but his real field is how systemic oppression damages the minds and souls of oppressed and oppressor alike. As he said when he accepted the Jerusalem Prize in 1987:

"The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life […] I make this observation with due deliberation, and in the fullest awareness that it applies to myself and my own writing as much as to anyone else." 1

The key phrase here, for our purposes, is "inner life." Whether writing in first-person or third-, Coetzee is a master of representing consciousness in prose. His stories unfold through POV characters (usually male, and almost always white), and the events narrated are ultimately less important than the way they are narrated, than what the narration itself reveals about how those characters see the world and their place within it. Coetzee is a subtle cartographer of the inner life of flawed and limited people, revealing how pathways of objectification and empathy form in the minds of the privileged class in oppressive societies.

His third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is the book that first launched Coetzee into international fame. It is a slim novel, and the story it tells is simple to the point of being a parable. It is narrated by an unnamed Magistrate, a civil servant serving an unnamed colonial Empire on the frontier of an unnamed country. There are rumors of an impending attack by the nomadic indigenous people—"the barbarians"—but the Magistrate's life is simple, peaceful, and comfortable. But his world—and his understanding of his own place within it—change dramatically with the arrival of a vicious state police official named Colonel Joll. After witnessing the inhuman cruelty of Colonel Joll's methods—and after growing close to one of his torture victims, a captured young "barbarian" woman—the Magistrate finds himself increasingly horrified with the dehumanizing effects of colonialism. His awakened conscience and empathy lead him to protest and rebel in small ways, which quickly mark him as an enemy of the state.

At this moment in history—as white supremacy moves, in this country and others, to defend and solidify its power through totalitarian methods—it is easy to see why Columbian director Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) might have thought the time was ripe for a cinematic adaptation of Coetzee's allegorical tale. In its deceptively simple narrative, Waiting for the Barbarians encapsulates a lot of important and timely themes. It is about the demonizing of "the other," and how authoritarian states use racist fears as a politically expedient means of expanding power. It is about the awakening of conscience in the formerly complicit privileged class. And, perhaps most importantly, it is about the realization that, in an unjust society, there are really only two sides to choose between: One is either an oppressor or one of the oppressed. There is, as the Magistrate discovers, no comfortable middle-ground on which to stand.

But in bringing Waiting for the Barbarians to screen, Guerra has made a mistake that Forman, Kubrick, and other directors have been careful to avoid: He has enlisted the author to adapt his own novel. Coetzee's screenplay (his first), is, as one might expect, faithful to a fault: Nearly every word of dialogue in the film is lifted directly from the book, with precious little accommodation to the fact that hearing words spoken aloud is a very different experience from reading them. ("I will be quite content to pass quietly away, and merit no more than three lines in the Imperial Gazette," the Magistrate [Mark Rylance] says here, summarizing his very modest ambitions in life. The sentiment is lifted almost verbatim from narration in the novel, but it takes on a different meaning—and a much more awkward cadence—when forced into expository dialogue.)

The larger problem is that there is scarcely a line or scene in the movie that is not in the book: Coetzee lays out the simple story of Waiting for the Barbarians plainly, without embellishment or extrapolation, and Guerra shoots it just as literally. The result is a film that grinds slowly from scene to scene, faithfully dramatizing the external events of the novel in stately fashion, but without ever finding any way to dramatize the internal changes that had made the story interesting in the first place. On the page, understood from within, the Magistrate is a fascinating and frustrating character, at turns self-satisfied and self-loathing, aware of many of his own flaws while remaining maddeningly, stubbornly blind to others. We follow him on an imperfect journey towards an incomplete awakening. On the screen, however, viewed from without, the Magistrate appears a clueless, almost clownish sort of man, so morally insubstantial that he seems to barely have any self-awareness at all. (When the film eventually flirts with making him almost Christ-like in his awakening of conscience, it comes across as simplistic, and even painfully naive.) Too many complexities and contradictions have been lost from the novel, and with them go much of the character's humanity, and almost all of the interest he holds for us.

(Rylance is a brilliant actor, with a subtle, inwardly-directed style of acting that must have seemed perfect for embodying the inner conflicts of this character. But, ironically, this very quality is what sabotages the performance. The screenplay gives Rylance far too little to internalize, and far too little to express, and so his Magistrate sinks so far past subtlety that he seems barely to exist at all.)

And the problems with Coetzee's screenplay for Waiting for the Barbarians are amplified even further with the character known only as "The Girl" (Gana Bayarsaikhan). The middle act of the film is given over to the Magistrate's ethically catalytic relationship with this nomad woman, who has been tortured until she is nearly crippled and nearly blind. In the novel, we see this woman through the Magistrate's eyes, and can chart the evolution of his conscience in part through how he sees her—or, more crucially, fails to see her. It is part of the point of the novel that she is, and remains throughout, mostly an object in the Magistrate's mind: at turns an object of sympathy, of fascination, of lust, of fear, of fascination. But it is one thing for us to understand, in the novel's narration, that our view of her is limited by the Magistrate's colonialist perception; it is something altogether different to have Guerra's camera treat her the same way. Bayarsaikhan gives a fine performance, but The Girl never becomes any more human to us than she is to the Magistrate. This, one might argue, is the point, but the effect from the voyeuristic perspective of the film viewer is far more problematic. It doesn't feel like the film is making a point (as the novel did) about objectification in the colonial mind: It just feels like the part of The Girl is criminally underwritten, turning this suffering woman into a convenient and reductive symbol, not a sympathetic character.

A similar problem plagues the performance of a badly miscast Johnny Depp, as the cruel Colonel Joll. Joll is a villain, in both the novel and the screenplay of Waiting for the Barbarians, and he comes to personify all the evils of colonialism for the Magistrate. But Depp plays him, and Guerra shoots him, as if Joll knows he's the villain, striding onto the scene like Darth Vader in search of the stolen Death Star blueprints. It is a one-note, cartoonish portrayal that belongs in another kind of film than Waiting for the Barbarians aspires to be, and one that jars fatally beside the tiny dollops of performance that Rylance is offering. Depp is such a demonic figure, in fact, that we are not charged to consider—as we should consider—the functional similarities between Joll and the Magistrate. Like Bayarsaikhan, Depp needed more humanity to play than Coetzee and Guerra have given him, which would in turn have reflected and complicated Rylance's central figure. (A late, glorified cameo by Robert Pattinson—as one of Joll's lesser but equally cruel associates—strikes a far more believable and interesting note. Pattinson, in his disappointingly brief appearance, actually creates a character who seems both human and insidious: We can only regret that Guerra didn't ask him to play the meatier role of Colonel Joll.)

I am aware that it is poor form to review a film this way, in constant comparison to its source material. Ideally, films should stand on their own, and they should be treated critically as independent works of art. But that's just the problem: I do not know what someone who had not read the novel would make of Waiting for the Barbarians, but I doubt they would make very much of it. It is not a terrible film—it is, for one thing, beautifully shot—but it is, in the end, a terribly dull one, which serves only to underline the perils (and even pointlessness?) of many literary adaptations. (It suffers, in fact, from the very same problems that made Steve Jacobs' 2008 adaptation of Coetzee's best novel, Disgrace, such a forgettable movie.) Exploration of human consciousness is Coetzee's subject and strength, and that is the domain of novels, not of films. The plot of Coetzee's novel was deliberately simple and allegorical, because it provided a skeleton on which he could hang the fascinating, shifting consciousness of his narrator. Coetzee's screenplay, however, leaves just the skeleton standing bare, and Guerra never finds—or even tries to find—the cinematic language that might have brought it to a different form of life. The result is a disappointingly literal and lethargic film.

Notes

  1. J.M. Coetzee, “Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987),” in Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 98.

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on Linkdin
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *