Jill Ciment’s bittersweet comic novel Heroic Measures – just published for the first time in the UK – tells the story of an elderly Jewish couple in the midst of a bidding war over their prime Brooklyn apartment as their beloved dachshund lies sick in a hospital cage on the other side of town. The recent film adaptation delivered some surprising twists. I throw out some questions to her about the difficulties of transferring a novel to screen.
MR: How do you feel about Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman displacing the Cohens – and Tanner the Border terrier standing in for Dorothy the dachshund – in the film adaptation?
JC: I was far more thrown by a terrier playing my dachshund than by six-foot-two Morgan Freeman playing my five-foot-three Jewish husband. The Cohens may seem like the nice old couple you run into in the stairwell of your apartment building, but they had a wild past. They were socialists at the height of the cold war – the FBI kept an 800-page file on them. An interracial couple, married at a time when it was illegal in half the USA, seemed like a smart way to visually telegraph a past that was risky and unconventional.
Why do you suppose the title had to change (to 5 Flights Up in the US and Ruth & Alex internationally)?
I begged and pleaded to keep the title, Heroic Measures, but the producers believed that the word ‘heroic’ would make the audience think they were going to see an action film.
Which modifications, if any, do you most regret?
Is sentimentality a modification? I think it is. The film is softer, less edgy than the novel.
How pleased are you with the final film on a scale of 1 to 10, and why?
I am the last person who can tell if this film is good, bad or mediocre.
Can you think of other film adaptations where unexpected changes have served the original text for the better – or worse?
There are two film versions of Henry James’ Washington Square. The Heiress (1949) – directed by William Wyler with Olivia de Havilland as the timid old maid and Montgomery Clift as the handsome gigolo – is a brilliant adaptation. Without the interiority of James’ prose, the viewer must extrapolate motivation from the subtle, nuanced performances. The film has a psychological ambiguity that is as complex as the novel’s psychological clarity. The second version of Washington Square with Jennifer Jason Leigh as the timid older maiden is laughable. Ms Leigh is young and gorgeous and therefore not in need of a gigolo. To make her less attractive, the screenwriter has her pee in her pants.
Why did you want to get more involved in the adaptation of your next novel Act of God?
So that one of the characters wouldn’t pee in their pants. One of the inspirations for Act of God was 1950 classic horror films – The Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids. And contemporary films, like the very humorous Korean horror film The Host. I want to fight to retain a certain kind of humor.
I started out as a filmmaker. I love film, but I didn’t want to spend my life raising money. It is naive for a novelist to believe she can have any control.”
What are the most difficult hurdles to overcome in distilling a novel into 90 minutes of screen time?
Back story – revealing a character’s past without clunky flashbacks or ponderous dialogue is the toughest part.
How far down the line is the production of the second film, and do you know if the title of the novel will be retained?
Films have gestation periods that last decades. And yes, I will fight once again for my title.
Do you expect to have a role to play on the set this time?
The question is, do I want to? I started out as a filmmaker. I love film, but I didn’t want to spend my life raising money. It is naive for a novelist to believe she can have any control, unless she puts up the money, and then also writes the script, directs, acts all the parts, and composes the music. That pretty much describes what a novelist does, and it doesn’t cost a penny to write. Nor will you earn a penny by writing.
What links the two novels thematically?
They were written to be a pairing – one takes place in winter, one in summer – and both address the fears of our times. Novels and polemics are lousy lovers. But how can you capture this particular moment in history without those fears rumbling under the narrative?
What are you writing now?
A novel about two jurors who fall in love while they are sequestered for a murder trial.
Jill Ciment is the author of the collection of short stories and novellas Small Claims, the novels The Law of Falling Bodies, Teeth of the Dog, The Tattoo Artist, Heroic Measures and Act of God, and the memoir Half a Life. A professor at the University of Florida, she was born in Montreal and lives with her husband Arnold Mesches in Gainesville, Florida and Brooklyn. Heroic Measures is out now from Pushkin Press, who will publish Act of God in 2016.
Author portrait © Arnold Mesches
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
Ruth & Alex is out on DVD on 28 September. Watch the trailer: