Good Book, _______ Movie

Wringing your hands about a film adaptation of your favorite book is a little tired, amirite? Listen: we’ve all been there. We’ve all been disappointed in the adaptation of our favorite books. When Faulkner died, did he know his unpublished manuscript Black Sheep would be adapted for the big screen? Probably not—but it was, and David Spade may not have done everything, but he did his best.

We are well aware that films cannot accurately convey what prose can; that the act of reading is a far more personal, participatory, one-on-one experience than the passive act of viewing a film (burn in hell, portable DVD players). We don’t need to talk about this.

OKAY FINE, let’s talk about this.

But, yeah, we’ve been over this.

Since the moment I finished Franzen’s intricately woven family narrative and snapped its back cover shut with a satisfied sigh, I’ve had the idea that any 21st-century reader is likely to have after finishing a book they like: “This would make a great movie.” We are, for better or for worse, living in the era of adaptations, remakes, and homages, and Franzen’s subject matter—the family Lambert determined to have One Last Christmas as their world deteriorates around them—seemed ripe for the scripting.

Since Marnie wrote that, HBO has also looked into developing Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding as miniseries. Because, apparently, HBO’s developmental team cribs their new series ideas from the “Bestsellers” rack at your local indie bookstore.

And now news has come down that Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot has been bought by Scott Rudin (with his own dollar-dollar bills) just a month after the book’s release. There are the customary questions: Will this movie ever even happen? How much will Mitchell’s journey to India resemble Eat, Pray, Love? How will Rudin work with Eugenides’ interspersed time-lining, a strategy seemingly more suitable for a book than a movie? Where does Alan Alda fit in? Will people start talking about how Eugenides resembles a more urban Louis C.K.? (Oh, people are already talking about that. Drats.)

If it happens, I’m confident it’ll be a hit. Eugenides’ book is already a book club favorite — a fact I’m having trouble understanding, given how much is worked in The Marriage Plot about revolutionary studies in English during the 1980s. Will it be a good movie? Probably. The ending sure left me with that over-sweet, vanilla, romcom taste in my mouth. The Marriage Plot‘s is the sort of cutesy ending far better suited for the screen than the page.

Fiction-to-the-screen and nonfiction-to-the-screen are two different animals, however. Case in point: Moneyball. Last month, I wrote a little bit about how Lewis approached his subject with an appropriate understanding of his strengths as a writer and the story at hand; Moneyball is an economics book with just enough heart to make it more palpable to the mainstream.

So Lewis wrote a story that has more to do with his own acumen than baseball: economics and storytelling. Each of Lewis’ chapters tells a story: Jeremy Brown and his assumption that he’d never be looked at by a Major League team; Mike Magnante being released four days before earning his pension; Scott Hatteberg fielding ground balls hit by his wife in the pouring rain. But the broader narrative is much simpler: market undervalues On-Base Percentage (OBP); A’s notice this; Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta exploit this.

In the theater, much of this was retained. Peter Brand (Paul DePodsesta’s fat stand-in) is a fairly dry, incredibly knowledgeable, refreshingly unconventional guy in a front office. Scott Hatteberg’s career — and livelihood—being on the line is also done well. And Mike Magnante’s release from the Athletics is also present, although the ramifications of his pension and his family are not talked about.

What’s really grating, however, is the movie’s handling of Jeremy Brown. In the book, Brown and the rest of Oakland’s 2002 draft class is exhaustively chronicled. Brown becomes the poster child for the group, even though future big-leaguers Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen, and Joe Blanton were also taken by the A’s in 2002. Brown is a rather extreme example of Oakland’s clever cost-cutting measures: rather than draft a more capable, expensive player at the end of the first round, Oakland decided to spend the pick on a guy considered to have a “bad body,” a doughy catcher from Texas named Jeremy Brown. Billy Beane and the rest of Oakland’s front office viewed it as a worthwhile risk: draft picks are crapshoots, even in the first round, so let’s save some money and see what we get.

Brown wound up being an unspectacular player, hitting .268/.370/.439 over six minor league seasons (aside: slash stats are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), respectable numbers for a catcher, except when you account for his piss-poor defense and the fact that he played in some very hitter-friendly circuits, like the Texas League (AA) and the Pacific Coast League (AAA). He retired before the 2008 season.

What’s central to Brown’s depiction in the book is that he’s not actually fat: he’s a little unathletic, but more stout than anything else. The whole point is that any scouting report more focused on a guy’s waistline than his batting line is not seeing what’s important; a body can change, batting skills are more difficult to teach.

But the movie obscures this point. As Beane decides whether or not to flee Oakland for the greener (heh, heh, money puns; Green Monster puns) grass in Boston, Brand shows him a video of “Jeremy Brown” making an embarrassing gaffe in a minor league game, tripping over first base after a hard hit ball, only coming to find out that he actually hit a long home run. It’s a moment that actually happened—just not on video. So the movie producers filmed their own version.

This alternate version is problematic, though. Brown was 5’8″, 215 lbs. The movie “Brown” is a towering, obese man, probably checking in around 6’1″ 350. Perhaps it’s quibbling, but it’s disappointing to see a prominent character from the book not only glossed over but also misrepresented—especially a guy whose reputation for never having “met a pizza he didn’t like” often hurt both his and his mother’s feelings, as Moneyball author Michael Lewis’ 2003 Sports Illustrated story makes clear. It seems gratuitously cruel.

Three months earlier, just after the June draft, [Brown had] arrived in Vancouver to play for the A’s rookie ball team. Waiting for him there was a seemingly endless number of jokes at his expense. The most widely read magazine in the locker room, Baseball America, kept writing all these rude things about his appearance, quoting unnamed scouts from other teams saying things like, “He never met a pizza he didn’t like.” Back in Hueytown, his mother read all of it, and every time someone made fun of the shape of her son, she got upset all over again. His dad just laughed.

What I’m getting at here is something that’s neither original nor really all that thoughtful, an argument that’s been posed and re-posed time and time again: text and film are on different ends of the media spectrum. Film is often less open to interpretation—unless you’re one of those film school assholes—than text, which is at the most rudimentary level all about one’s relation to the narrative—from book-clubby conversations about characters being likable all the way to graduate school seminars meant to take all that’s good and enjoyable and pure out of the everyday reading experience. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but what would you rather objectively review: a book or a film?

Again, this is nothing new. It’s only remarkable because Moneyball was, otherwise, a very good movie. It’s been praised, rightly, for being  brave enough to betray sports movie tropes and be a little more honest about the day-to-day, unexciting bullshit that happens in Major League clubhouses during an 180-day season. (To wit: Beane’s uninspiring, clunky speech to the team.) But the film loses some credibility when, for no particular reason, a character is deliberately misrepresented. Why?

So here’s to an honest, Eugenides-pleasing film version of The Marriage Plot. Leave out neither the Semiotics nor the did-that-actually-happen? sexual encounter between Mitchell and Larry—leave the discomfort in, since leaving it alone is no longer an option.

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