Coetzee and Cinema

Hermann Wittenberg ed., JM Coetzee: Two Screenplays

University of Cape Town Press, 120pp, £13.95, ISBN 9781775820802

reviewed by Marc Farrant

JM Coetzee’s sole publication of 2014, JM Coetzee: Two Screenplays, comprises two self-authored screenplay adaptations of the early novels In the Heart of the Country (1977) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). The screenplays might be considered audacious formal experiments; new textual ground from one of the key figures of World Literature. However, written respectively in 1981 and 1995, they equally testify to a verbal range and aesthetic dexterity that has been a largely overlooked aspect of his wider oeuvre.

Coetzee’s status as the exemplary 21st-century novelist is confirmed by the numerous accolades, laudations, and prizes, including the Nobel (in 2003) and two Man Booker awards – he was the first author to win the award twice – and, perhaps most significantly, the disdain of Martin Amis (‘his whole style is predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure’).

Nonetheless, Coetzee’s ongoing canonisation risks ignoring significant aspects of his singular contribution. His style is characterised perhaps above all by a tantalising opacity, which is often reflected in Coetzee’s own critical voice. (Describing himself in an interview he stops short and equivocates as to his own self-determination: ‘For a novelist [pause]; for a writer working in the medium of the novel.’) Unlike arguably his most significant literary forbear, Samuel Beckett, Coetzee appears to be a writer most at home in prose – specifically the novel, the (quasi-fictional) memoir and the essay. This should not, however, lead us to ignore the breadth and wealth of Coetzee’s non-fictional, political, ethical and academic engagements, and his belief, expounded in a Swedish cultural supplement shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, that: ‘the history of the arts is a history of unceasing cross-fertilisation across fences and boundaries.’

The screenplay adaptations actualise this cross-pollinating inclination, drawing on a sustained and formative interest in cinema and cinematographic techniques. This edition, comprehensively edited and introduced by the South African critic Hermann Wittenberg, sets out both the intellectual terrain of Coetzee’s long-established interest in cinema, and his troubled relations with the mercurial reality of the film industry. In the memoir Youth (2002) we learn of a young Coetzee escaping the banality of everyday life in early 1960s London (working as a computer programmer for IBM) through the immersion in Antonioni, Godard, and the ‘dominating presence’ of Ingmar Bergman. Weekly pilgrimages to the Everyman in Hampstead that provide, for the young South African, a taste of ‘Angst’: ‘Angst seems to be a European, a properly European, thing; it has yet to find its way to England, to say nothing of England’s colonies.’

As Wittenberg details, despite Coetzee’s ‘eminently filmable’ novels, only two current adaptations have succeeded to the big screen, 2008’s Disgrace (directed by Steve Jacobs and starring John Malkovich as disgraced academic David Lurie), and 1985’s Dust (by the Belgian film-maker Marion Hänsel). This relative paucity is explained in terms of authorial integrity and the disingenuous power-plays of show-business. The pre-production tale of the latter film, Dust, a variant of In the Heart of the Country (although not of the script contained in the present volume), exhibits numerous contestations. Despite being, as Wittenberg suggests, Coetzee’s ‘most cinematic novel’, the transition to silver screen appears to have been thwarted at every conceivable stage, with differing screenplays working their way through the hands of various directors.

One particular site of discord involved Coetzee’s preference for the use of voiceover narration. Influenced by avant-garde film-makers, notably Chris Marker and Andrzej Munk, films such as Marker’s La Jetée provided a model particularly in tune with Coetzee’s interest in the estranging effects achieved by separating voice and image, producing: ‘a remarkable intensity of vision (because the eye searches the still image in a way that it cannot search the moving image) together with a great economy of narration.’

However, this preference was to beleaguer multiple attempts to produce a film version. Before Hänsel’s eventual adaptation, the director Clive Levinson, initially appeased with the self-conceited idea of the film serving as a South African counterpart to Terence Malick’s Day of Heaven (the commercial and critical success of which demonstrated the viability of voiceover) eventually rejected Coetzee’s ‘over-long, “poetic” speeches’, favouring the addition of more humour and folksy elements. Coetzee’s curt reply in a letter serves as a summary of the problem afflicting the numerous attempted adaptations: ‘The book succeeded not because of the story-line but because of a certain energy in the language.’ And, in a further letter to Hänsel: ‘As regards the script, you have been taking it further and further away from the original in an effort, as you say, to make it less “literary”, though in fact the strength of the book lies not in the plot but in its literary qualities.’

Hänsel’s mantra in reply to Coetzee – a version of TS Eliot’s objective correlative – that films use voice over ‘when they don’t know how to show’ hints at a pragmatic problem of filmic storytelling. As Michael Wood discusses in a recent review of the film Gone Girl in the London Review of Books: ‘nothing so far has solved the problem of first-person narration in film. Whatever subjective-looking angles the image adopts, the filmed person is not the one holding the camera.’ Indeed, the use of subjective first-person narration in the novel of In the Heart of the Country creates a disorienting effect that refuses the neat distinction between reality and fantasy in Magda’s consciousness. As such, the novel’s filmic roots (including a montage-like construction of numbered paragraphs) correspond more to an idea of film as a modernist avant-garde assault on the complacency of narrative realism. The novel’s non-linear, anti-realist, repetitive jump-cut narrations appear more cinematic than the actual screenplay: cross-fertilisation gone full-circle.

The subsequent screenplay for Waiting for the Barbarians contains no voiceover sequences whatsoever, miming Coetzee’s forlorn conclusion that: ‘Any words on the sound track besides lip-synchronised dialogue are branded as “literary” and therefore old-fashioned.’ This adaptation is immediately marked by an appeal to a ‘big-budget production with commercial appeal’, as opposed to the modernist cinematography envisaged for the former. Ditching the novel’s in media res beginning (Colonel Joll’s sunglasses) and inventing wholly new scenes, Coetzee’s screenplay culminates a decade of previous interest and, ultimately, unsuccessful attempts to turn the book into a film. The list of directors and actors involved (or hypothetically involved) is both intriguing and impressive: John Hurt, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones.

But when, in 1995, Tommy Lee Jones withdrew from the project of producer Michael Fitzgerald (the project for which this screenplay was eventually written), the financial prospects of the film collapsed. Fitzgerald (who had previously worked with Sean Penn to produce the critically acclaimed The Pledge) is noted by Wittenberg as a key influence on the notable commercial viability of the screenplay, and their numerous meetings testify to Coetzee’s interest and commitment to see his work realised on screen.

One final debacle is of interest: in 2005 Fitzgerald, having exhausting Western funding opportunities, flew to Kazakhstan, a natural choice of location for the novel’s steppe-like, timeless, central Asian mise-en-scene, and pitched the film as a chance to promote Kazakh culture and tourism. Awash with oil and gas money, hopes of finding support and a suitable location were high. Wittenberg documents the US State Department’s interest in the project, quoting from a confidential Almaty embassy cable, since made public by Wikileaks:

‘Fitzgerald has been offered financial support form Kazakhstani sources and, therefore, plans to make his next film in Kazakhstan. Based on the novel, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ by South African writer JM Coetzee, the film venture will engender US-Kazakhstani cooperation’

And, as recently as 2010, the local Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper was reporting on a forthcoming film entitled ‘In Expectation of Barbarians’...

Given the novel’s staging of the violent absurdity, contingency and permanency of Empire, the US embassy document is a remarkably ironic testament to a conflation of the accidental and perilous; a conflation that has frequently crossed between the realms of reality and fiction in the Coetzeean world. A similar encounter in Youth tells the tale of John, who finds himself unwittingly caught in the middle of the imperial struggle of the Cold War. Transferred to Aldermaston, site of Britain’s nuclear weapons facility, to assist the programming of the Atlas computer, the third-person narrator recounts that: ‘by passing through these gates, by breathing the air here, he has aided the arms race, become an accomplice in the Cold War, and on the wrong side too.’ A little earlier: ‘other people could have done the job, but other people did not.’

Thirty years have passed since the publication of Waiting for the Barbarians, and the likelihood of the novel’s adaptation to the big screen looks as haphazard and insecure as ever. On the evidence of JM Coetzee: Two Screenplays, we are the worse for this. These screenplays unveil the strength and passion of Coetzee’s cinematic imagination, shedding considerable light back onto the original works. Similarly, the theoretical problem of adaptation in general seems acutely manifest in Coetzee’s fraught ambition to adapt his works for cinema. On a macro level, Wittenberg’s volume reveals how the ground for the ineluctable cross-fertilising formation of the arts seems tempered by both a paradigm and paradox of artistic singularity, as applicable to Coetzee as it is to Beckett (writing in 1936, during a visit to Germany): ‘I used never to be happy with a picture till it was literature, but now that need is gone.’
Marc Farrant is a senior editor at Review 31.