Is the movie as good as the book? Often, the answer to this perennial question is a flat "No." But sometimes magic happens, and the moving image complements--even transcends--the words on the page. One recent example of this is Call Me by Your Name, the story of a love affair between the teenage Elio and grad student Oliver. The book, by Andre Aciman, had a small cult following when it was first published in 2007, but it became an international phenomenon in 2017, when the film version starring Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet was released. Another runaway hit based on a book was Winter's Bone, a 2010 film directed by Debra Granik, adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The film portrayed life in the impoverished isolated Missouri Ozark Mountains--and launched the career of actor Jennifer Lawrence. Granik's follow-up 2018 film, Leave No Trace--a staple of critics' best films of 2018 lists--was based on My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, and tells the story of a military veteran and his daughter who live off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. Moment brought Aciman and Granik together earlier this year to discuss the process of turning great books into great movies at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest literary evening in New York City. The conversation was moderated by Deputy Editor Sarah Breger.
Sarah Breger: Andre, in a recent Vanity Fair article, you described visiting the set of Call Me by Your Name for the first time, and coming to the realization that writer and filmmaker do more than speak two different languages. You write, "What I do is chisel a statue down to its finest, most elusive details. What a film director does is make the statue move." What did you mean by that?
Aciman: As a writer, you are focused on the language and the details that you want to convey to the reader. But fundamentally you're stationary, whereas a film director can't go into the heads of people, because there's absolutely no way of doing that unless you're doing voiceover, which nobody wants to do any longer. In the movie Call Me by Your Name, there were many new things that they had to do in order to capture the emotional content of the novel, but that were not necessarily there in the novel.
Debra, does that resonate with you as a film director?
Granik: As filmmakers, our task is show, don't tell. Our job is to go to these locations and find the tangible objects that the characters are touching, the processes they have to do to affect the world around them, how the world around them puts obstacles in their way and how they surmount those obstacles. It's the action more than the language. There are filmmakers who love dialogue and are dialogue-intensive. There was a big discussion in the 1940s: Are we filming plays or are we making a different kind of art form? That has sparked fiery dialogue in the creation of moving-image stories since then.
Debra, when you're adapting a book into a film, what obligation do you feel to the source text?
Granik: With period pieces and historical...