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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Reading the Screen
Hector Babenco’s film Ironweed (1987), recently released for the first time on DVD, is an extremely faithful adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1983 novel.
The novel, part of the author’s acclaimed Albany Cycle, is set in Kennedy’s hometown of Albany, New York, in 1938. Francis Phelan has returned to town after a self-imposed 22-year exile; he left after accidentally dropping and killing his infant son. Francis’ life has been punctuated by other deaths, too: there’s Aldo Campione, the horse thief Francis couldn’t quite lift onto a moving train; Harold Allen, the scab who was going to take Francis’ job; and Rowdy Dick, the bum who wanted to take Francis’ shoes. The dead men wander through Francis’ life, engaging him in conversation. They are in the movie, too, dressed in shiny white suits—the only shiny thing about the movie—ghostly apparitions that only Francis and the audience can see.
Francis, splendidly played by Jack Nicholson, is a good man who has lived a bad life, a big-league baseball player and family man who, after a single tragic accident, became a bum. The film opens with a long shot of a pile of garbage resting against a brick wall, and as the camera dollies in, the garbage moves, unfolds, and Francis Phelan climbs out of it. That single image defines the movie and captures the book’s theme, too: Francis is a man climbing out of the trash. He has returned to Albany to reconnect with his wife and children, to see if it’s possible for a man so close to death to reclaim his place among the living. Nicholson received an Academy Award nomination for his subtle and emotionally harrowing performance.
The book traces a thin, almost imperceptible line that divides the living and the dead. Ghosts like Rowdy Dick and Harold Allen are as real to Francis, and to the reader, as Francis’s friend, Rudy, dying of stomach cancer, or Francis’ longtime companion, Helen, with her “tumorous belly.” Rudy is played in the film by Tom Waits, the singer-songwriter who has also appeared in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Fisher King, and Down by Law. In a heartbreaking performance, we know from the moment we meet him that he will not survive the movie.
Helen is played by Meryl Streep, almost unrecognizable here with pale skin, sunken eyes, rotten teeth, and a voice that sounds like every word is sheer agony. Compare her to the Streep of Mama Mia! or The Devil Wears Prada, and you’ll have a hard time believing they’re all the same person. Her portrayal of a woman at the tail end of a miserable life, a woman who’s given up even trying to pretend she has something to live for, is one you won’t soon forget. She, too, was nominated for an Academy Award.
But the real stars of the movie are its screenwriter, William Kennedy, and its director, Hector Babenco. In a famous but probably apocryphal story, when John Huston sat down to adapt Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon more than 60 years ago, he simply typed up the book in a screenplay format. This is what Kennedy appears to have done with his script for Ironweed. Entire passages of the book’s dialogue are repeated almost verbatim in the film, and other changes are minimal: an early scene with Sandra, a doomed street person, is dropped; small bits of dialogue have been moved from one character to another (at one point in the film, Francis says a line spoken by Ruby in the novel). This is one of those rare cases where watching the movie really is like reading the book.
Babenco had two years earlier directed Kiss of the Spider Woman, another adaptation of a novel. It, like Ironweed, was almost entirely character driven, with little in the way of a traditional plot. It, too, was nominated for several Academy Awards (William Hurt won for best actor), and it, like Ironweed, re-created the feel of its source material on the screen.
Ironweed is a gritty movie. Its painstakingly realistic set design and costumes, the dirt in the air and the shadows on the haunted faces, make us feel as though we are actually visiting 1938. Several key scenes are exteriors shot at night, in the cold, and you can feel the discomfort of the actors, bundled up in their shabby clothes, their breath misting. If, reading the book, you can imagine the exhaustion and misery of the characters, watching the movie, you can see it. (Contrast this with the glossy, Technicolor look and feel of The Sting, set at roughly the same time.)
Ironweed, with its blurred distinction between life and death, its characters barely clinging to life, and its overall tone of inevitable catastrophe, is a moving, haunting novel. Its film adaptation, thanks to its script, its performances, and the sure hand of its director, is as good an example of translating words into pictures as you are ever likely to see.
Ironweed. 2009. 143min. Lionsgate, DVD, $14.98.
Ironweed. By William Kennedy. 1983. Penguin, paper, $15 (9780140070200).
David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to his reviews for Booklist, he writes a monthly column on paperbacks for the Winnipeg Free Press and occasionally reviews for the Halifax Herald.
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