From Book to Screen: A Conversation with André Aciman & Debra Granik
Is the movie as good as the book? Often, the answer to this perennial question is a flat “No.” But sometimes magic happens, and the moving image complements—even transcends—the words on the page. One recent example of this is Call Me by Your Name, the story of a love affair between the teenage Elio and grad student Oliver. The book, by André Aciman, had a small cult following when it was first published in 2007, but it became an international phenomenon in 2017, when the film version starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet was released. Another runaway hit based on a book was Winter’s Bone, a 2010 film directed by Debra Granik, adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell. The film portrayed life in the impoverished isolated Missouri Ozark Mountains—and launched the career of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Granik’s follow-up 2018 film, Leave No Trace—a staple of critics’ best films of 2018 lists—was based on My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, and tells the story of a military veteran and his daughter who live off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. Moment brought Aciman and Granik together earlier this year to discuss the process of turning great books into great movies at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest literary evening in New York City. The conversation was moderated by Deputy Editor Sarah Breger.
Sarah Breger: André, in a recent Vanity Fair article, you described visiting the set of Call Me by Your Name for the first time, and coming to the realization that writer and filmmaker do more than speak two different languages. You write, “What I do is chisel a statue down to its finest, most elusive details. What a film director does is make the statue move.” What did you mean by that?
Aciman: As a writer, you are focused on the language and the details that you want to convey to the reader. But fundamentally you’re stationary, whereas a film director can’t go into the heads of people, because there’s absolutely no way of doing that unless you’re doing voiceover, which nobody wants to do any longer. In the movie Call Me by Your Name, there were many new things that they had to do in order to capture the emotional content of the novel, but that were not necessarily there in the novel.
Debra, does that resonate with you as a film director?
Granik: As filmmakers, our task is show, don’t tell. Our job is to go to these locations and find the tangible objects that the characters are touching, the processes they have to do to affect the world around them, how the world around them puts obstacles in their way and how they surmount those obstacles. It’s the action more than the language. There are filmmakers who love dialogue and are dialogue-intensive. There was a big discussion in the 1940s: Are we filming plays or are we making a different kind of art form? That has sparked fiery dialogue in the creation of moving-image stories since then.
Debra, when you’re adapting a book into a film, what obligation do you feel to the source text?
Granik: With period pieces and historical work, I don’t encounter the pressure from the lived world. With contemporary work, I feel that the story itself is a road map, a template, a creation that brought me to the coordinates. But then when I get to the coordinates, the life of that area is going to inject itself into the story, and the story is going to be augmented by whatever place on the globe that story is set. I feel that I have to make an agreement early on with the author that the story most likely will be altered significantly by the location and the lived world around the story.
Do you ever receive pushback from the author?
Granik: No. Authors frequently know your prior work and won’t say yes to making the film unless they feel they can see something in your work that might enzymatically go well with what they’ve imagined. They’ve imagined the world, and then I imagine the world from reading their book and reading the words and seeing the movie in my head from the words, and we compare notes. I ask things I don’t understand like, “Where did that come from? I wasn’t expecting that.” We talk about it. And then I try to be very frank about the parts that I can’t grasp. In this last film, Leave No Trace, the author said, “Try a draft with the way you’re imagining it. You owe it to the process of your own conjuring to play that out and see where it takes you.”
André, being on the other side of the equation, what obligation do you think the film director has to stick to the source text?
Aciman: None. It took about five years to find a director who was going to stay with the film and the actors. The actors kept changing, the directors kept changing, the script got written quite a few times. I said, “It’s great you want to make a movie, do what you need to do, I don’t care.” I’ve done my part, which was write the book. In fact, there are some stunning changes. I had written a book about a house on the beach, and the beach was extremely important because they go swimming. It cast a particular kind of inflection on the story to have a house with a beach right at the foot of the cliff. Production told me, “We looked for houses by the beach, we couldn’t find any or those we liked were not available for filming.” They went from Northern Italy on the West Coast to Sicily to Puglia, and eventually they gave up. They said, “We’re going to do it in a place that’s fundamentally landlocked.” There’s absolutely no sea, no water, nothing, and it’s a beautiful house which I think worked. It makes absolutely no difference. I was extremely flexible. I said, “You want to do what you want to do, you’re the boss. What am I going to do? Compete with James Ivory and tell him what I think?” I did tell him what I thought at one point, and this is the only time I intervened, and they said, “Yes, you’re right, you’re totally right,” and that was it.
Can you tell us what that was?
Aciman: The father gives a fantastic speech at the very end of the film. They took the speech as it is in the book, and they put it in the film script. I got some kind of gratification from that. But the son is absolutely not expecting that speech. He’s actually hoping that the father is not going to open up about his relationship with Oliver. The father surprises him by saying, “You guys had more than just a nice friendship.” What’s also powerful is that the audience has absolutely no idea where the father is going to go with the speech and doesn’t even know that the father knows or suspects that the two boys were having a relationship. What was happening in the original script is that the parents are having a discussion, “Do you think they’re actually having a relationship?” “Yeah, I think they are.” “There’s that new disease going around and do you think it’s happening?” “Well, I don’t know.” “Do you think we should talk about it to them?” I said, “That’s absolutely not the right thing.” First of all, it’s not in the book, but that doesn’t matter. What I didn’t want was for them to steal the surprise and the suspense that happens when the father says, “You had more than just a friendship.” I wanted that to stand out by itself. In fact, the mother does not know at all, and as she’s driving her son back home, she sees him weeping but she doesn’t say anything. It allows him to suspect that she doesn’t know. By the way, there’s a whole chapter in the book that takes place in Rome. The two boys go to Rome for three days and they have a great deal of fun. The director said to me, “We’re going to shorten the scene of Rome.” I said, “That’s fine, I don’t mind.” “Actually, we’re going to shorten it significantly.” I said, “You do what you want to do.” “Actually, we’re going to eliminate it altogether.” I said, “It’s fine with me, stop apologizing.”
Leave No Trace actually also differs greatly from the ending of the novel, My Abandonment, that it’s based on. Debra, what led you to that decision?
Granik: I tried a lot of drafts that were much closer to the novel, and I didn’t understand the manner in which the father met his demise in the novel. When I asked the author Peter Rock about it, he said, “Well, that is related to some previous storylines that I’ve carried through my novels.” I pitched my idea and he said, “You should try that. Do a draft in which the father stays alive and the parting that they face has to come through different means.” It’s a big departure from the second half of the novel, but he saw that it was an organic process, that his novel was the launching of a story that then took a different path. I commend him for being open. When some authors option their book—and the option is a legal document that says you have no obligation to the novel—they take a deep breath and say, “I’ve done my beautiful work. I told my story; it lives as a complete work.” Some even may be curious, “What’s the next incarnation? Let me see.” Or they’ve also conjured characters and now they’re embodied by certain actors. With Winter’s Bone, the author said, “I was in suspense. I’ve lived with this young woman and this man in my head for years. I think I know what they look like.” For him, that was almost suspenseful to see them walking and looking different than he had imagined.
Aciman: One of the things that happened to me, and I’m sure that happened to that author, is that once you see the characters on screen, the characters that you had in your head as an author disappear. So now whenever I think of the character I see Armie Hammer. And I see Timothée Chalamet. I can’t even remember, in my novel does Elio have blond hair or brown hair? It’s all gone. That’s what you guys do.
Debra, when you read My Abandonment and Winter’s Bone, what made you want to turn them into film?
Granik: In both those novels, the setting was extremely layered and described with a lot of passion. Both authors were from the regions they were writing about. In Winter’s Bone and the Ozarks, Daniel Woodrell plucks contemporary details and uses dialect from his mom’s era. He’s a lover of the dialect of Southern Missouri. That’s very different from the American English I speak. The difference, the methods of survival that he was describing, everything was different from my urban East Coast life. As a visual anthropologist, I’m drawn to how you make your way to what I don’t know. It was very similar with Peter’s novel in the Pacific Northwest. At first, I was nervous, “How do you film in these grand forests and not have your film look like a National Geographic special?” Nature can beguile you because if it’s too pretty, your film is sitting on just the eye candy of prettiness. But this forest is inclement as well as grand and gorgeous. I also love the unusual circumstances in which both authors put their characters. They’re scrappy, resilient characters, which I’m attracted to. For a filmmaker, there’s a lot for them to do. They have to get somewhere; they have to survive. That means there’s existential suspense, which I gravitate toward.
André, did you see Call Me by Your Name as a possible movie when you were writing the novel?
Aciman: No, I didn’t, I just never thought that it could be filmed. In retrospect, it was totally interior and how do you film that? There are certain scenes, particularly sexual scenes, that I thought nobody’s ever going to film. When I got a call from someone saying, “I’d like to produce this film.” I said “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” I thought the movie was going to be okay, would do fine, then it would disappear and be found on DVD. I didn’t expect anything like what happened. People write to me and they keep saying the one sentence everybody says: “It changed my life.” I always ask, “How did it change your life?” And nobody can ever answer that question. They just have the sense that the movie has done something to them.
Is there a risk today in writing or directing outside of your own experience? And have you faced any pushback from that?
Aciman: The risk is minor, but the pushback is sometimes there. People say to me “You’re married, you have kids, you’re straight,” and I am. They ask, “But why are you writing a gay story?” It’s almost this whole thing of appropriation, and I say, “What gives you the right to access my imagination?” and I won’t even debate it because it’s pointless. There are some people who have complained, but I would say 99 percent of people have never questioned it.
Debra, have you received any pushback?
Granik: I think I impose it on myself. People say, “Okay, if you’re going to make films that deal with working-class life and you’re a totally bougie person, what basis are you working from?” In filmmaking in general, it’s very much of an issue. I think with writing, it’s not debatable. This is my imagination, this occurred in my mind, I want to be able to put into words what I imagined. I’m not sure why that’s so different in film, but it is. I have admiration for all the people who do reflective filmmaking that’s autobiographical or comes out of their experience. It’s never been something I find easy to do. It’s like the desire to ask what I don’t know feels stronger than trying to do a decent depiction of what I do know. I think it’s kind of like A and B personality types.
Are people sometimes afraid to pursue a certain project either in writing or in film because they’re nervous someone’s going to say, “This isn’t what you know”?
Granik: I think that’s happening in film.
Aciman: Yes, but think of Shakespeare. I’m sure he never went to Venice, certainly he never went to Denmark. He never killed a woman. People insist they want some kind of verification that what you’re doing is right. But if it’s credible enough, if it’s persuasive, you’ve done your job—not necessarily through research, there’s something authentic that the act of writing can produce. That’s good enough, so don’t go and use a litmus test to see the truth factor. It really annoys me when people do that.
Granik: But our world did change, so in terms of Shakespeare, Shylock might want to say, “Hey, that’s not how all Jews are, I want to show some other things…” It is not that any storyteller can’t do a good job by depicting what they don’t know, but where does the person experiencing it get a chance to tell it the way they see it? We are now making room for that. But I think change is uncomfortable. At the same time, I don’t want us to get into a place where you feel like you can’t move. Because I don’t want to write only about what I know firsthand; I am interested in other experiences besides my own.