Scorsese’s novel adaptation

Rodrigo Prieto was nominated for an Academy Award for his cinematography on Martin Scorsese’s Silence. His work ought to be seen on the largest screen possible, because it is a beautiful and stunning piece of art. I saw Silence in a theatre just as it was dying a slow death at the box office. In the end the movie was a flop in terms of revenue – a disappointing business end to a long creative journey for Scorsese, who worked for decades just to be able to make it. His quest was best summarized by Paul Elie in a New York Times profile: in 1989 Scorsese read Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan and immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for film. After years of delays Silence was finally released on December 23, 2016.

The movie itself got good reviews – and a few bad ones. A negative review appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, for example, filed by Adam Mars-Jones. This review is notable because Scorsese responded to it, writing in part:

Mr Mars-Jones contends that ‘even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration’, and that the ‘transposition’ from novel to film ‘can only amount to a distortion’. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form.

Scorsese is, of course, correct. To their credit the TLS asked the director if he’d like to write an essay on the subject, in order to expand on the points in his letter. Scorsese agreed. It’s always interesting to hear or read him on the topic of movies and moviemaking. His short TLS essay doesn’t disappoint. At the end of the piece, in addressing the possible approaches to novel-to-film adaptation, Scorsese writes that, sometimes:

…the idea is to take elements of a novel and craft a separate work from it (as Hitchcock did with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). Or, to take the cinematic elements of a novel and create a film from them (I suppose that this was the case with certain adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novels). And some filmmakers really do attempt to translate a novel into sounds and images, to create an equivalent artistic experience. In general, I would say that most of us respond to what we’ve read and in the process try to create something that has its own life apart from the source novel.

Scorsese did that with Silence, certainly, but his was a fairly literal adaptation of the source novel. I’d go further. I think Scorsese actually improved on Endō’s book in very specific ways. I wasn’t as enthralled as Scorsese and many other readers are with the book. It is a good novel, not a great one, and I doubted it could be adapted for the screen. For me a major issue in Endō’s book is the Japanese Christian peasant characters. They felt distant, unknowable, and unhuman. Their belief was not believable and the sympathy I might have had, as a reader, for their plight and suffering was diminished for these reasons. Scorsese fixes this in his film, and it’s an example in which a movie does for a particular story what the source material could not or did not do.

Scorsese’s achievement was a matter of casting, I think, which is perhaps a filmmaker’s primary task, as well as direction. The actors who play the Japanese Christian peasants in Silence are so convincing in their depiction of faith that the film is given a power that the novel, in my opinion, does not have. In fact, in the movie, the Jesuits and their faith seem small or misdirected by comparison. Without giving too much way, the collective portrayal of faith by the peasants also allows the apostasy of Father Sebastião Rodrigues to make greater sense, because a Jesuit-like fervency has been transferred in the film version to the peasants, where it better serves the story. The book gives the sense that the peasants believe without reason or meaning. Not so in the movie. Scorsese’s improvements also allow for the actions of the Judas figure in the story, Kichijiro, to sharpen, and for his betrayals to bolster the dramatic crux of the picture. In the book Kichijiro is simply irritating; in the movie version, he’s also an annoying presence but he has a greater purpose to the story.

The novel ends on a very down note. On the face of it that might seem perfect for Scorsese, whose protagonists almost always get what’s coming to them. But in his film’s final moment, Scorsese allowed for one of the very few significant changes he made to Endō’s story and thus the movie concludes with an uncharacteristic (for Scorsese) moment of hope. It works because of changes to narrative and characterization which were inserted along the way by Scorsese during the filmmaking process. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

I’d encourage everyone and anyone to see Silence. It is an important movie by one of America’s great directors. My own view is that one day we’ll look back on Silence and see it as Scorsese’s masterpiece.

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