Adaptation

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I stood in the gates of the small fortress next to the Terezin Ghetto north of Prague. I traveled there with my colleague Arnost Lustig, who had been interned there with his family from when he was about fourteen to seventeen, shortly before being sent to Auschwitz, and a few years before he wrote himself into literary history with more than a dozen bestsellers, some made into movies. I’ve written about the burly author before for Ilanot Journal in the work, “I Knew Two Men.”

This isn’t about him; it’s about a friend of his.

On that particular day in 2000 Arnost needed to talk to his good friend Milos Forman, who wanted to make a movie based upon Arnost’s book The Unloved. Milos, who just passed away last week, made beautiful movies like One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest, Man on the Moon, Heartburn, and others including my favorite, Amadeus.
At some point on that cool afternoon between conversations about the horrific ghetto museum of Terezin and the prison for anti-Nazi protesters, the Small Fortress, I ended up having a conversation with Milos about adaptation. He discovered that subject matter to be the focus of my lectures at the university.

“So we agree then,” he said to me. He was much younger than Arnost with the same controlling conversational style.
“Yes,” I said, “Of course. It is always frustrating when people say how much more they like the book, or do any form of comparison at all. They are completely separate art forms.”
“Exactly!” he said, gesturing with his fist. “I can’t film all of a book!”
We talked further about our common concern on the subject of movies based upon a novel or play, and we reiterated the inability of people to see movies and books they are based upon as separate. Yet we also agreed on the difficult task of expecting anything else of the average person at a movie on a Saturday afternoon.

Eventually, of course, the talk turned to his work.

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve taught both “Cockoo’s Nest” as well as Amadeus, and I did read Kesey’s book as well as Shaffer’s play, which I first saw when I was in college.”
“Well?”
“Both times you nailed it. From Kesey’s novel you kept the major themes which worked and consolidated what needed to be. In Amadeus you made music the central theme of the movie instead of the ridiculous “mystery” between Mozart and Salieri. I still enjoy watching both films and teaching them. Oh, and Amadeus has the BEST cut in movies, when Mozart is in bed and Salieri finally hands him the completed “Requiem,” and Mozart says, “Okay, from the beginning,” and we hear an entire orchestra for the first time as his wife’s horse and carriage come into view. Love that scene.”
Milos indicated it was hard to miss with such material and brilliant film editors, but I appealed. He was a great director.

Then he mentioned Ragtime.

When I was young my father bought me E.L Doctorow’s book. I loved it and read if several times. I loved how it swept across decades and included some major historical figures such as Houdini. But I never could picture it as a movie; even if one could save the major themes, it simply is too complicated to pull off as a traditional narrative with the proper conflicts clarified.

Then I saw the movie and I didn’t like it all that much. I even watched it again after I learned a few things about adaptation at Penn State, and it still, for me, didn’t work. I even left behind my memory of the book and focused solely on the new art form, trying the best I could to not include the literature in my analysis.
“What about Ragtime,” Milos said.
I thought about saying, That was really some casting they did for “Cockoo’s Nest,” wasn’t it? But I could tell he was enjoying our conversation. I looked at his Czech copy of The Unloved in his hands. It was bookmarked and folded and noted in dozens of places. He clearly learned the book as if it were his own, like his films each became his own, not Kesey’s or Shaffer’s and definitely not Doctorow’s. 

“It seemed too complicated to capture,” I said. 
“Yes,” he agreed, reflectively. “It never did convey the themes well. Or at least the way I wanted to.”
“It seemed more of a vehicle for Cagney seeing as it was his last film.” I was feeling ballsy now in the conversation.
“You’re probably right. He got more attention than the film. Will you discuss these films tomorrow in your class?”
“No. I’m moving on to Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains. He smiled. Milos was a fan and friend of Hrabal’s. The Prague art community is not very big.

I told him I was going to talk about how adaptation of one art form into another involves both deciding what essential elements must make the transition and which ones very specifically needed to be left behind.

Arnost returned, always sharp, always ready for what’s next. I stared at this man’s eyes and thought about how much he went through. The Nazi’s disrupted his life, caged him for three years as a workhorse, forced him to build a railroad from Terezin to the mainline on the way to Auschwitz, killed his family, and still he escaped. And still he went on to not only live his life, but live it fully as a writer. He knew what to take with him after the war and he knew what he need not address ever again.

It is not easy, adapting, saving the best of what exists, our strengths, and leaving behind the weaknesses, the parts we wish we could do over given the chance.

And this week I found my copies of Arnost’s work when I packed up my office and brought everything home. I sat in the small room at the college scouring stacks of books I’d collected in nearly three decades. I decided which ones to leave on a table somewhere for students to take, which ones to give to certain people, and which ones to bring home to pull out from time to time as I make my transition into a new way of life. Arnost’s work is a keeper; he is as strong a writer as he is a person. I also found my notes and thesis from Penn State. I flipped through my work about adaptation; meanwhile, on the radio the news anchor announced Milos’ death.

And I left the college. I didn’t throw a water fountain through some bars and escape across a field, and I didn’t end up in an asylum as the Patron Saint of Mediocrity. No, I simply packed my belongings and brought them home, and hopefully I’ve kept the basic theme of my life alive. Now I must try to set it to new music.

RIP Milos. Ragtime was fine. But I liked the book better.

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