Author plays leading role in fiction-to-film conference
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"The Virtues of Fidelity," a conference by the film studies department at the University of Pittsburgh on Friday, had the earmarks of a promising inquiry into the complicated process that turns literary fiction into compelling movies.Cillian Murphy stars as Patrick in "Breakfast on Pluto," one of Patrick McCabe's novels that were made into movies. McCabe took part in a conference on how literary fictional works become films at the University of Pittsburgh.
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Adding to that promise was the reading Thursday by Irish novelist Patrick McCabe in the university's contemporary writers series. Two of McCabe's books, "The Butcher Boy" and "Breakfast on Pluto," were adapted by director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") for film versions.
Plus, McCabe had recently won the Irish Novel of the Year award for his newest, "Winterwood."
McCabe did not disappoint. The daylong conference was another matter, an ultimately stultifying academic performance that was akin to watching all eight hours of Andy Warhol's "Empire," but with sound.
To be fair, the conference was not something you'd find on the E! cable network -- it was aimed strictly at scholars.
McCabe, called the finest practitioner of "bog Gothic" in Ireland by critics and "the most original Irish writer of his generation" in his introduction by literature and film scholar Colin MacCabe (no relation), read rather than discussed his work.
Despite his pleasant lilting accent, McCabe focused on the macabre and the mad in his selections from "The Butcher Boy" and "Winterwood."
In the character of slaughterhouse worker Francie, who lands in an asylum after the bloody killing of a neighbor, we're given the slightest hint how a "regular" guy slips into mental deterioration.
More chilling were the "Winterwood" passages, glimpses of an evil underbelly beneath the surface of a postcard-pretty Irish village threatened by suburban development.
"Film Adaptation as Literary Truth" was the agenda for the movie side of the conference. Four highly praised stars of film scholarship -- University of Chicago's Tom Gunning, Indiana University's James Naremore, Yale's Dudley Andrew and the University of Birbeck (England's) Laura Mulvey -- offered historical, not contemporary, commentary.
An expert on early cinema, Gunning pointed out that true literary adaptation was not technically possible on film until the end of the first decade of the 20th century. However, his example, the 1913 Danish movie, "Atlantis," is not something you'd get on Netflix.
More promising was Naremore's subject, "Heart of Darkness: Welles and Conrad," his view of Orson Welles' 1939 project to film Joseph Conrad's well-known novella. His efforts were canceled in favor of another film, "Citizen Kane."
Despite Naremore's obvious familiarity with Welles' film history, the professor failed to acknowledge the most obvious reason for his subject's plans -- entertainment.
Magician, master of disguise, lover of special effects, Welles was a showman quite willing to relegate Conrad's literary concerns to the editing floor in favor of razzle-dazzle.
"Heart of Darkness" was never made. Welles' other adaptation, "The Magnificent Ambersons," was, but it also was badly re-edited by the studio. More fertile ground for the conference agenda was overlooked there.
Andrew, the concluding speaker, indulged his passion for the French cineaste, Andre Bazin, major influence for the "New Wave" cinema of the 1950s and '60s. Today, it's a movement even the French have forgotten, replaced by the garden-gnome school in the "Amelie" tradition.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 28, 2007) Alan Parker directed the film "The Commitments." This story as originally published Mar. 27, 2007 about making movies from novels named the wrong director.
First Published March 27, 2007 12:00 am