In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.
At the 74th Academy Awards, two Best Adapted Screenplay nominees used short stories as their source material: Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, based on the 1979 short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus. Neither won, but 2001 marked the first year since 1954 that short story adaptations composed 40 percent of that category’s nominations.
Although In the Bedroom and Memento are both outstanding adaptations, they couldn’t differ more in tone or style. Content-wise, they’re surprisingly similar: murder revenge stories.
In the Bedroom and “Killings” focus on Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek in the film), a middle-aged New England couple devastated by the murder of their son Frank (Nick Stahl). When Frank is killed by Richard Strout (William Mapother), the estranged husband of Frank’s girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), Matt and Ruth try to cope but are haunted by Richard’s presence around town. Frank takes the law into his own hands: he lures Richard into the woods and shoots him.
Ah, sex, murder, and shallow graves: sounds exciting! Well, it’s not. It’s sad and slow and violent but not in a fun way. “Killings” and In the Bedroom are heartbreaking and realistic enough that they hurt to read/watch. They differ in small ways (characters’ names, ages, and occupations) and in large ones (the disintegration of Matt and Ruth’s relationship), but they succeed in much the same way: as quiet portrayals of grief and of the ways in which tragedy transforms us.
“Killings” opens in media res, at Frank Fowler’s funeral. It stays there for a couple of pages before returning to the circumstances around Frank’s death: his affair with a married woman, and her husband’s sudden homicide. The bulk of the story, however, concerns Matt’s vengeance. What’s the point of telling a straightforward story in such a meandering manner?
“It seemed to Matt that from the time Mary Ann called weeping to tell him until now, a Saturday night in September, sitting in the car with Willis, parked beside Strout’s car, waiting for the bar to close, that he had not so much moved through life as wandered through it, his spirit like a dazed body bumping into furniture and corners.”
And so Dubus dazes us; we too wander around in the same clouded atmosphere as Matt. The story’s greatest strength is Matt’s internal monologue—which is fortunate, since we go through paragraphs upon paragraphs of Matt’s thoughts. Even when Matt is pointing a gun at Richard’s head, he’s thinking of other things. Dubus articulates Matt’s fear and despair in bare, penetrating prose:
“So he and his children had survived their childhood, and he only worried about them when he knew they were driving a long distance, and then he lost Frank in a way no father expected to lose his son, and he felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea.”
And then there’s the brevity with which Dubus establishes relationships. Dubus never has to tell us, “Matt and Ruth had a generally happy marriage, but it was not without its problems, like the occasional but understandable lack of communication that results in never knowing anyone, even the love of your life, completely.” Instead, we understand their relationship perfectly with a line like this: “[Matt] felt vaguely annoyed and isolated: living with her for thirty-one years and still not knowing what she talked about with her friends.”
So how does one translate those decidedly literary strengths to film? Um, very quietly. Seriously. In the Bedroom is such a quiet movie. Mostly unscored, the movie plods along with long speechless stretches replete with the sounds of birds or lawnmowers or The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn or whatever non-human entities inhabit space with its characters. I understand that some people would call this “boring,” but it’s not boring at all. It’s tense and evocative, thanks hugely to the strength of the actors who feature so prominently in Field’s many reaction shots.
As a longtime snob proponent of source material over adaptations, I hate it when a line I loved in literature doesn’t make it to the screen intact (see Jesus’ Son). So I was pleased and impressed that In the Bedroom uses the dialogue from “Killings” verbatim. Furthermore, Field isn’t afraid to show us these characters at their most mundane, like when they’re trimming a tree or talking about acronyms. Sometimes I felt like this movie was just one handheld camera and a pair of skinny jeans away from mumblecore.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that In the Bedroom is a perfect movie. It’s not my favorite movie, or the greatest movie ever. I just can’t find much wrong with it. Field’s shots are emotionally unrelenting and beautifully framed, while the film’s muted, earthy colors evoke a poignant nostalgia. The actors really inhabit their roles, and the script follows three-act structure perfectly. It’s tense, genuinely surprising, and resonant.
Every once in a while comes a story or a movie that may not say anything new about life but illuminates it perfectly anyway. It allows a reader or a viewer to connect with other people—even if they are fictional. As quiet as these works of art often are, they’re important, because they make us both more empathetic and more understood. One more way in which literature and film differ is that while many hail Andre Dubus as one of the greatest authors of his generation, hardly anyone has heard of Todd Field. Their loss.
- Todd Field and Andre Dubus were good friends, and Dubus advised Field on the screenplay before he passed away on Field’s birthday in 1999 (sad coincidence). Field dedicated the film to Dubus wrote the preface to the posthumously released collection In the Bedroom.
- Akiva Goldsman (winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) is a pretty prolific Hollywood screenwriter. His credits, in addition to A Beautiful Mind, include Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. I’m not saying that the 2001 Oscars were a travesty, but Shrek did beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature, too.
- OK, so the one thing that made me roll my eyes in the movie was that Ruth is a choir teacher. It makes for some very melodramatic moments, that’s for sure.
- The film diverges from the story significantly in its take on Matt and Ruth’s relationship, but its tone is so faithful that it feels like the straightest adaptation I’ve seen so far.