Fife, Bell, and Keck may be fitting names for monosyllabic GIs, but in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line the ordinary soldiers of Charlie Company are outwardly grunts, yet inwardly something quite different. ”Maybe all men got one big soul [that] everybody’s a part of — all faces of the same man,” we hear Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt think to himself after the platoon’s baptismal battle at Guadalcanal. You won’t find ruminations like that even from the omniscient narrator of James Jones’ 1962 novel; the soldiers’ interior monologues are Malick’s creation. Yet, together with his unironic eye for the beauty of the war zone, the director’s ear for unarticulated thought honors Jones’ wonder and outrage at what combat does to mortal lives. Malick found what no recapitulation of the plot could express — its uncinematic soul — and, against the odds, filmed it. Response was mixed (critics claimed it was plotless and ponderous, while appreciating its Zen approach), but following Saving Private Ryan, which Line faced at the Oscars, it isn’t surprising that audiences looking to root for the heroes were disappointed.
Malick’s approach seems bold because he added so much to the old-fashioned war story Jones provided. Metaphorically speaking, ripping out pages is more often the case when it comes to hard-to-film adaptations — a sacrificing of the body to save the spirit. (Anthony Minghella all but junked an espionage subplot to slim The English Patient, and still it was over 2 1/2 hours long.) Malick threw out whole characters and important skirmishes before departing from the text altogether.
Sometimes all a director can do is hope what’s novel about the novel comes across in the action. That’s what Jean-Jacques Annaud did with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The 1983 theological thriller made disquisitions on Aristotle seem urgent as it rode the best-seller lists. One can imagine the struggle by the four credited screenwriters to arrive at what’s essentially a Latin-laced whodunit, but that doesn’t make Rose an adaptive failure. Seizing upon the murders at the story’s core, Annaud gives us a 14th-century Sherlock Holmes, the Franciscan brother William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), and his apprentice, the narrator Adso (Christian Slater), who arrive at an abbey in northern Italy where monks are being killed for what appear to be sins of the flesh. Eco spends pages pondering the essence of evil; Annaud has William following footprints in the snow, seeking the agent of that evil. The solution to the crimes may be accompanied by flashbacks right out of an Agatha Christie mystery, yet Annaud was right to jettison Eco and let the action carry the day.
One of the most successful examples of a film that caught its source book’s unfilmable feel is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on Milan Kundera’s charming and challenging novel set during 1968’s Prague Spring. Going with the loose-limbed narrative flow, director Philip Kaufman and coscreenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere found equivalents for Kundera’s mosaic of journalism, worldly musings, and imagery as they presented the lives of three passionate, too-comfortable Czechs: Tomas, a womanizing, apolitical surgeon played with catlike smugness by Daniel Day-Lewis; his young wife, Tereza (Juliette Binoche); and his bohemian mistress, Sabina (Lena Olin). Putting Kundera’s mix of hope and cynicism into the mouths of these self-deluding characters put the story’s tone in its proper context, while the realization of the author’s cafe romanticism — the evocative music, the sex play — makes the Soviet crackdown, when it comes, an emotional as well as a physical blow. Kaufman overdoes it only when trying to capture the novel’s dream images. In all other respects, watching Being is remarkably like living the book.
It could be said that with The Thin Red Line, the man who gave us Badlands and Days of Heaven made the only movie he knows how to make, that the contemplative voice-overs and casual natural splendor are inevitable Malick elements. No argument here. Yet while ignoring the specifics of Jones’ busy novel, the film is faithful, in its way. Nick Nolte’s Lieut. Colonel Tall is every inch the blustery hard-ass he is on the page; Sean Penn’s Sergeant Welsh is the cynical company commander who eschews bravery; and Elias Koteas’ Captain Staros (Stein in the book) elicits sympathy as a leader unprepared to deal with casualties. And Malick more than makes up for his dismissal of the linear narrative: A glimpse of a couple nuzzling by a window tells us more about why a soldier is trying to survive than anything in Jones’ prose. Alas, the stream of consciousness goes on too long and could have been dropped once the battles begin. Still, a by-the-book adaptation of Line would have had no more impact than a rusted grenade.
The Thin Red Line: B+
The Name of the Rose: B-
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A