Swimming Upstream: The Obstacles of Adapting a Short Story Into A Feature Film

February 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

“’I’m swimming across the county,’ Ned said.
‘Why, I didn’t know one could,’ exclaimed Mrs. Halloran.”

— From John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

By Lars Trodson

It is tempting to begin this column by saying — no, by declaring — that adapting a short story into a feature length film has proved to be a far less successful enterprise than adapting a novel to the same form.

But then, one must admit, that the ratio of failure to success for each medium is not the same. There are more successful novel adaptations only because more famous novels get adapted into movies. How many famous short stories are there anyway?

The question emerged because of the successful screen adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” which was written in 1921 by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is not exactly the poster boy for successful film adaptations.

But this film, directed by the great David Fincher, has garnered 13 Oscar nominations and favorable press. Just three years ago, “Brokeback Mountain” was also deemed a very successful film adaptation of a short story.

But I thought I would take the occasion to consider one of the most ambitious, if less known, short story adaptations that I can think of: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, which was made into a feature of the same name in 1968. “The Swimmer” was never the success of these later films, but it had neither a groundbreaking, controversial subject, or breathtaking special effects, to capture the imagination of audiences. All it had was its own little self.

It is justly famous because Cheever was never better at navigating the emotional and physical terrain of the confused, sullen, angry and successful young men of post-World War II suburbia — the guys who knew how to make money, but never knew how to manage their lives after they got out of the military.

The premise may be uncomplicated but it is hardly simple. The prose is as lovely as anything anyone ever wrote. The plot is this: Neddy Merrill, a card-carrying member of the Greenwich/New Canaan/Westport, Connecticut upper-middle class, is attending a pool party on a Sunday afternoon when he suddenly realizes he could, pool by backyard pool, swim home. That’s it.

By reading the story we’re treated to art. The loveliest thing about literature is that it is available to us anywhere, at any time. If you wanted to look at Picasso’s “Guernica”, you’d have to travel to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to see it. But if you want to be in the company of the great art of a writer, all you need is the book. It can be a photocopy of the story, in a paperback, in hardcover, or a bootleg copy on the internet and it does not matter. If the words are Cheever’s, or any writer’s, for that matter — then you get the actual art, not a facsimile. That is the beauty of literature. The version you have in your hand is the real thing.

The story begins very much like other Cheever stories, with characters lingering over the effects of too much gin:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill. ‘It must have been the wine,’ said Helen Westerhazy. ‘I drank too much of that claret.’

The original New Yorker story was only 13 pages long. But someone thought it would make a movie. Director Frank Perry, and his screenwriter wife, Eleanor Perry, had to thread this dreamlike narrative into more than 90 minutes of cohesive cinema — and then have it distributed by Paramount Pictures to a mass audience.

I don’t think the filmmakers compromised — “The Swimmer” is an odd short story and an even stranger film. Not surprisingly, the results have been argued over. The film is actively disliked, but is championed by some. I think it’s partially great — but part of my affection for it is rooted in the fact that it is very much a film of its time: the girls look as though they all come from southern California and there is too much soft-focus photography. So you can enjoy the film as much as an artifact as you can for its emotions and perceptions. Ultimately, though, I do not think it works. If most of its charms today emanate from its dated cinematic vocabulary, it’s not hard to see why audiences rejected it when these techniques were getting a bit commonplace.

In the film, Ned Merrill is played by Burt Lancaster. In the beginning, Merrill shows up in the only costume he will have the for the next 90 minutes — his bathing suit. Lancaster is amazingly fit — he was 55 when he made the film and had been a star for 20 years — but he just glides right along. Ned stops by the Westerhazys pool. They are all (except Ned) nursing hangovers.

Each of the party guests is given an opportunity to use Cheever’s line about having too much to drink. It is as though Eleanor Perry had to disgorge herself of this ringing thought and move on. It is here at the Westerhazy’s that Ned Merrill looks out over the green Connecticut canopy and decides he should swim home.

Where is Ned’s wife Lucinda in these opening scenes of the film? In the story, she’s the one who claims to have drunk too much claret.

Her appearance at the beginning of the story is a reminder of the kind of cruel conviviality that can exist among small circles of friends. Neddy and Lucinda are estranged or divorced, but by attending a pool party in the story means she could be taunting him, flirting with him, or be indifferent to him. Whatever the interpretation, she’s got enough confidence in her stature among her neighbors to show up at a party that may also be attended by her ex-husband.

In the film, however, she never appears at all. She is more dreamlike, more of a memory. That was a smart choice by the Perrys — film is more literal so you need to take every opportunity to be enigmatic. There are snide remarks and looks askance when Neddy Merrill mentions Lucinda in the movie — reactions we never read about in the story. That’s an example when the filmmakers expertly dramatized some of the internal feelings of Cheever’s characters.

What they can never do is dramatize Cheever’s prose. This is not a criticism. Very, very few filmmakers have successfully translated the fluidity of a writer’s thoughts onto the screen, no matter the audacity, the budget, or the imagination of the director or cinematographer. Even Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was willing to go as far as any “mainstream” filmmaker in terms of graphic depictions — pornographers have nothing on him — could never quite capture the irredeemable cruelty of the Marquis De Sade when Pasolini made “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma.

Pasolini may have come close, but Frank Perry was no Pasolini. Perry was too careful as a director, too precise — a little too squarely…intellectual; no successful director should ever be too much of any of those. Perry was the director of “Mommie Dearest” (1981) and that was all veneer. There was too much shampoo and floor wax in that picture to make it the horror movie it should have been. Pasolini could have made a great version of that story.

In “The Swimmer”, as in his other other pictures, Perry took more care in casting the women than the men — the women in the film actually look and speak like bored, rich, New York wives. The men all look too old, too out of place, too boorish, too flaccid to be captains of industry. The only who is not any of these is Lancaster, but he’s still a mistake.

Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, gave good credit where credit is due when he reviewed the movie (an added in his appreciation for Cheever’s story) in the May 16, 1968 edition of the paper:

“The result is an uneven, patchy kind of movie, occasionally gross and mawkish, and one that I happened to like very much. I like the Perrys for having liked [the story], and I like Burt Lancaster, who is essentially miscast in the title role, for having wanted to do it. Without his interest, the film probably would never have been made.”

Even here, Canby is implicitly acknowledging the obstacles of adapting a short story into film. Part of the joy of reading a short story is the idea that you have received just enough information: that the writer knew not to stretch the story or the characters any further. Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” would be excruciating if it were any longer. So to expand it may be self-defeating.

Here is how Cheever described Ned Merrill, who is no longer young:

He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one…

Here is how Vincent Canby of The New York Times describes Lancaster as Merrill:

“He does have the physique of the aging athlete who has kept his form, if not the youthful texture of his skin.”

Lancaster — the human being, the actor — is in excellent physical shape in the movie (he moves like the trapeze artist he once was). But Lancaster was not a subtle actor, to say the least. Canby has one of the best descriptions of Lancaster I’ve ever read. This is from the review:

“However, try as he might, [Lancaster] simply can’t project Neddy Merrill’s vulnerability as a foolish, ridiculous WASP. When Lancaster, who has the dignity of a peasant, attempts manic intensity, it comes across as vigor.”

Even though the filmmakers understood Lancaster’s appeal, it was obvious even they did not quite believe audiences would believe him as a kid who summered in the Hamptons. A long sequence in the movie has Neddy Merill meet up (at poolside) with Julie (Janet Landgard), a young woman who used to be his children’s babysitter. Merrill invites her on his improbable journey, during which they share secrets. Julie asks Ned where he met his wife. Neddy tells her that he met Lucinda on a boat, while he was in “steerage.” It’s a stupid detail because it denies the origins of Cheever’s story. The people he’s writing about in “The Swimmer” didn’t travel in steerage. But the filmmakers had to overcompensate for the fact that everyone knew Lancaster wasn’t born on Fifth Avenue (in fact he was born in Harlem).

So the Perrys have an actor who is incapable of projecting inner turmoil or mystery. But this is what the role required most – in a medium unable to capture the minutiae of thought that can be caught by the written word. Put these two together and the obstacles of adapting the short story begin to mount.

Here’s how Cheever describes Ned diving into a pool:

He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb — he never used the ladder — and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home.

In the movie, all Ned does is dive into the pool and swim. It’s a nice, shallow dive, but it tells us nothing about his character, whereas Cheever offers us his entire life in a paragraph.

What is less detailed are Ned’s troubles. This is exactly what should be less explicit in short story such as this. They’re only whispered, hinted at. Sometimes, when the mood is right, the lack of detail in a story makes it easier for us readers to project our own anxieties onto the character. Is what is bothering Ned the same thing that is bothering me? Some indiscretion at the office? Some financial impropriety? Has a friend not called back? What is it that is bothering him? By not knowing, sometimes the anxiety can grow. Here is how Cheever shades Ned’s life when he goes swimming at the home of a couple that likes to swim nude:

He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam this stretch. As he was pulling himself out of the water he heard Mrs. Halloran say, “We’ve been terribly sorry to bear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”

“My misfortunes?” Ned asked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why, we heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children . . . “

“I don’t recall having sold the house,” Ned said, “and the girls are at home.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Halloran sighed. “Yes . . . “

Ned’s troubles are much more explicit in the film. That is the burden of filling out 90 minutes – a timeframe the writer never intended to fulfill. From the beginning of the movie there is the hint that Ned’s a fantasist, a narcissist. But as he begins his journey home, portaging from pool to pool, the surrealism of the story takes on the timbre of a dark, more explicit adult fairy tale. He has that disturbing encounter with a young woman who used to babysit his children. A dry pool that requires no more than a few lines in the story now becomes a mythological, allegorical encounter with a little boy who is all alone. Neither of these characters are in the story – and what this means is that the Perrys begin to physicalize Ned’s turmoil. They also have him speak too much plot and faux poetry.

It is in these moments when the seams of the movie begin to stretch and burst.

But in one interesting way the film successfully dramatizes what Cheever only sketches. In both the film and the story the weather seems to indicate that more time than simply an afternoon has passed. It is a symptom of Ned’s madness in both pieces. From the story:

The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.

And:

Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this time of year?

In the film, the characters remark on the changing weather. At one point, Ned looks at a denuded tree and wonders what happened. He hugs himself to keep the cold at bay. The leaves begin to blow. The skins of rain that fall are cold and shivery. The change of weather feels as mysterious and unexplainable as the zodiac itself.

One other thing that the film does extremely well is chart the difference in Ned’s relationships. As the weather changes, so do his relationships. People are warn and sunny at first “Neddy!” they cry — “How nice to see you!” But the terrain shifts; the people Ned meets over time become indifferent, and then hostile. The people mirror the weather, and it is one thing I like very much about the film.

And of course it all must end. The crucial difference between a short story and a feature film is that 85 minutes worth of cinematic drama must end in a climax — particularly in 1968 when studios were not yet so inclined toward the ambiguous ending. A story can end much more sublimely.

Therefore everything that was even hinted at in the story must become more explicit in the movie to wrench some sort of emotional response.

In the story, Ned walks into the pool owned by Shirley Abbott, who may have been his lover at one point. Cheever cuts right through it:

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I’m swimming across the county.”

“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”

The same exchange occurs in the movie, but yet there is so much more. There is grappling and disrobing in the pool. There is Ned beseeching the heavens. There is Shirley (played by Janice Rule) shrieking that any passion she expressed during their affair was a lie! Lie! There is talk, yelling and more talk. It is during these scenes that Canby’s observations about Lancaster are especially true: the actor doesn’t seem so much anguished as he does putting on his game face for a marathon.

And we realize that it is futile to try to yank this surreal fable into the realm of the real.

The reason we feel anything after reading the story is because of our delicate empathy: we understood why Ned felt like doing something irrational. We understood why he wanted to deny anything terrible that had ever happened. We understood the impulse to run away, to hide. We know what it is like to get old, to be beat up, to have the summer end, and to return to a place where no one wants you. At the end of the story, Ned is home. It would be foolish to quote too much:

The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home?

All that has come before yields fluidly to the end. Thank you, John Cheever.

At this point in the film, however, the location photography suddenly yields to flat, painfully obvious studio shots. As Ned walks up to his house, the foliage looks fake. The lighting unreal. Just as everything before was too consciously literary for us to enjoy as a movie, the conclusion was too cinematic for us to us to suspend disbelief. In the end, “The Swimmer” failed to spark the audience’s imagination in the way Cheever managed to do in 13 pages.

Film has never been very good at expressing inner emotions — and that is probably because perceptive actors and perceptive scripts rarely converge. I think of Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night”; of Charlie Chaplin at the end of “City Lights”; of Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” — sometimes, in the movies, you can really see the whole person.

And its even harder to see the real person in a film when the writer of the story the movie is based on never intended you to do so in the first place.

Maybe the filmmakers of the first movie we mentioned, “Benjamin Button”, weren’t really interested in showing the deepest thoughts of the title character. Maybe someone realized that the miracle of today’s special effects would make the movie possible – even exciting, in a digital way. They could put Brad Pitt’s head, swarthed in makeup, on top of another person’s body and no one would notice. I bet, deep in the bowels of Hollywood, that was what motivated the financing of “Benjamin Button.” Not the need to explore the journey of this curious man.

I do know the water in “The Swimmer” was real, and so was the desire of the filmmakers to produce something that audiences would think was real. The Perrys, in all of their films, tried to convey something true. That they often didn’t achieve their goals had more to do with the limitations of their talent and the medium they chose for their art rather than their source material.

Their choice of material was often impeccable, as it was in “The Swimmer.”

Cheever’s story, after all, glides through the imagination like a silverfish. But the Perrys movie is like a bad uncle. He’s the guy who, having had too much too drink last night, decides to do a cannonball in the kid’s end of the pool. You’ll be sure to notice it — you may even appreciate how audacious the move is — but you’ll also realize immediately that it probably wasn’t a good idea.

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