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.
Well, here we are. The end. Before I started this series, ASF editor Jill Meyers and I talked about what adaptations I would want to review. We both agreed that Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go fit right in. In fact, Everything Must Go is really the film that got me thinking about adaptations, as I mentioned in the footnote of my first entry, so I feel it’s fitting that it’s the focus of my last entry.
In that first entry, I may have alluded to the fact that I don’t really like Denis Johnson, whom Tobias Wolff compared to Raymond Carver. Well, here are some more controversial confessions: I don’t really like Raymond Carver. And I don’t really like Will Ferrell. (I also don’t like kittens, chocolate, or Paul Rudd. Just kidding! I love all those things, just like everyone else in the world.) But for some reason, I thought that the pairing of Carver and Ferrell might really work for me. And, in the end, it didn’t really work for me—but it sort of did.
In one of my English classes as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my professor assigned us several stories from Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral. The assignment included both “The Bath” (from WWTA) and “A Small, Good Thing” (from Cathedral), which is essentially a longer, less heavily edited version of the former. My professor pointed out a major difference in the stories: “The Bath” ends ambiguously; “A Small, Good Thing” ends more optimistically. He attributed this change to Carver’s eventually victorious battle with alcoholism, and applied it to the writer’s career in general. Where once Carver’s stories ended in bleak loneliness, in misunderstanding, they later ended in profound connection, in moments of transcendence. Or, as I called it in that class, “schmaltz.”
I don’t think it’s as easy as this: “He wrote depressing stories when he drank, and then he stopped doing both.” But I do think that on this simplified spectrum, “Why Don’t You Dance?” would fall on the bleak loneliness end, and Everything Must Go on the schmaltzy transcendent one.
Dan Rush said that the idea for Everything Must Go came when he reread Carver as an adult, and he couldn’t rid his mind of the image of a man’s bedroom on the front lawn. It is indeed an intriguing and cinematic image, but it’s also one that comes in the first sentence of a very short story—“Why Don’t You Dance?” clocks in at only 1,620 words. Obviously Rush, who adapted the screenplay himself, had to fill in some gaps, or he’d walk away with a twenty-minute film. (As it is, Everything Must Go has a pretty short running time—hardly over an hour and a half.) So where in “Why Don’t You Dance?” we see a despondent, drunk man with his belongings on the porch and later wonder, as the woman he encounters that evening wonders, why, in Everything Must Go, we know.
Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his job and his wife on the same day, and due to the same problem: an unspecified (for most of the film) incident that occurred on a business trip during which he relapsed into alcoholism. His estranged wife throws all his stuff on their front lawn and changes the locks, and over the course of the film’s five days, Nick comes to terms with his new life’s circumstances with the help of a neighborhood kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace), Nick’s AA sponsor (Michael Pena), and a new (and pregnant) neighbor (Rebecca Hall).
It’s a pleasant and heartwarming—though not saccharine—journey, with several uncomfortable and touching moments along the way. I enjoyed watching it. But if I didn’t have to write this piece, I probably would have never thought about it again. Why would I need to? It leaves nothing unsaid.
“Why Don’t You Dance?,” on the other hand, leaves most things unsaid. We don’t know why the main character has arranged his bedroom on his front lawn. We don’t know where his wife is, and we don’t know if she’s coming back. We don’t know much about the young couple who stumble upon his house and assume he’s holding a yard sale. We don’t know, though we may assume we do, what the young woman is thinking when she dances with the man in his driveway and says, “You must be desperate or something.” We don’t know much of anything by the end of it, and the last two paragraphs have stuck with me since the first time I read it, about five years ago:
Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. and all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
Haven’t we all had an ineffable experience that we’ve tried in vain to explain? Don’t we all know the unquiet desperation of trying and failing to make ourselves understood—not just to others, but to ourselves?
Well, the characters in Everything Must Go haven’t. They wade through their sea of problems and emerge dry-legged, triumphant, and holding hands. It’s a nice movie full of nice people who make mistakes and then correct them. They’re all believable, thanks in no small part to the actors who portray them. Will Ferrell, especially, is great. As an alcoholic who (spoiler alert) may or may not have assaulted a woman, he walks a fine line between honesty and likeability, and somehow he remains both honest and likable. His face is heartbreaking and familiar. And Laura Dern, queen of the adaptations, is just lovely in a very small role as an old high school acquaintance. But as a whole, the movie was (like Dern’s scene in particular), a little too neat. A little too “talked out.”
And, in the end, so am I.
- Is there a name for those precocious but innocent child characters who enlighten cynical and narrow-minded adult protagonists? Like Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but in child form. What should we call it? Seymour Glass Syndrome? (Why do I like it so much when Salinger does it and so little when anyone else does?)
- Will Ferrell should make more dramas.
- The story about Carver’s change in tone and style is really more interesting and complicated than I made it sound up there. For starters, check out Frank Kovarik’s piece on The Millions about Carver’s posthumously released manuscript Beginners.
- Most importantly, I want to thank everyone for reading these blog posts. I had a great time writing them. Extra special thanks to Jill, for giving me the opportunity to do so. Now, unfortunately, summer’s over. Get back to work!
- But if you need some cinematic distractions after work, check out these other famous films and their literary counterparts: 2001: A Space Odyssey (“The Sentinel,” Arthur C. Clark); The Swimmer (“The Swimmer,” John Cheever); Freaks (“Spurs,” Tod Robbins); Rear Window (“It Had to Be Murder,” Cornell Woolrich); The Killers (“The Killers,” Ernest Hemingway); The Last Time I Saw Paris (“Babylon Revisited,” F. Scott Fitzgerald).