"Hard it as may be, I know you should be with me"
This might come as a shock, but I had never really seen Luchino Visconti's 1971 Death in Venice, based, obviously, on Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Der Tod in Venedig. I spent the last academic year working with Mann's story, going so far, after having done some work on it for a class, to arrange an independent study. My work focused on Gustav von Aschenbach's classicizing rhetoric and its implications vis-à-vis Friedrich Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie. This really isn't the place to unpack my argument, nor am I really hot about doing so tonight. I will say, however, that Mann did some really very subtle things in Der Tod.
Visconti's film, however, is notable, also, for its heavy use of Gustav Mahler's music (the 3rd and the Adagietto from the 5th). It seemed appropriate, since I have a few days (quite literally) before class starts up again, that I should take an evening and watch the movie. Perhaps it was being overfamiliar with Mann's novella, but I really was left with mixed feelings at the end of the film. So many important themes and subtexts are lost in the movie that one feels almost compelled to go through it with a copy of Mann's book and say, "When Dirk Bogarde is looking pained there, it's because Aschenbach is thinking about this (or that or what-have-you)." The movie, to function in the same way as Mann's original, requires a lot of knowledge of that latter work. Otherwise, it's a little mysterious.
Indeed, when it comes to Aschenbach's motivations, the movie deviates wildly, coming 'round the other side, so to speak. You have the ongoing debates between Aschenbach and his friend about beauty - is it created or merely expressed and the like - which really don't appear in the book. The idealization of beauty does appear in Mann, but it doesn't work in quite the same way as in the movie. Indeed, it is Aschenbach's intellectualization of beauty that sets up some of the major problems of the novella (in addition to setting up the fundamental Nietzschean conflict, though that's reversed by the end of the story). Visconti, in other words, has made a very compelling film based, more or less structurally, on Thomas Mann's novella, but let's call a spade a spade - it's a loose adaptation in many ways.
That is, I suppose, the problem posed by a book as tightly packed with symbolism and omniscient narration as Der Tod in Venedig. Maintaining absolute fidelity to Mann's text would probably create a very long very dense movie. At the same time, Visconti's movie has a sort of languor and mystery that Mann's novella never has. With some outside knowledge, there is a very clear and precise internal logic to Der Tod. Nothing just "happens," at least in the way that it does with Visconti's movie. Indeed, missing such crucial structural elements such as the swamp scene at the beginning, the two Phaedrus scenes, the "other God" ["Der fremde Gott!"] scene, and the specific characterization of the old fop and Aschenbach's later transformation (a connection that is left to the viewer) as it does, Visconti's film introduces a lot of ambiguity where Thomas Mann left clues to the reader. To put it another way, some of the clear themes of Mann's novella are considerably less clear in the film.
I also have to take particular umbrage with the clumsy half-completed interpolation of a scene from Doktor Faustus (where Leverkühn is led to a disorderly house, plays some music from Freischütz, and runs out after Esmeralda touches him) into the life of Gustav von Aschenbach. Recasting the latter as a composer, clearly modeled on Gustav Mahler (an allusion Mann disavowed beyond the physical make up of the recently ennobled author of Maya), I suppose makes the leap from Aschenbach to Leverkühn superficially facile; it is, of course, highly inappropriate given the differing thematic content of the two works. In other words, Visconti, with this little alteration, was merely sloppy.
Now, this criticism should be taken with a grain of salt - someone who has spent a lot of time with (some might say obsessing over) Der Tod is necessarily going to have easily disappointed expectations for the movie. At the same time, however, it isn't like Visconti only discarded the least essential components of the novella. No. Some major themes were pretty much cut out and themes that had pretty clear subtexts and secondary meanings were taken at face value. This highlights, though, an issue that most filmed adaptations of works of literature face: how close does one play to the literary basis for the work?
It would be pretty hard to find a blow-for-blow adaptation of a novel. Some works cry out for it, while others don't seem to need it. For example, Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film, Barry Lyndon, which I have contended for a while and still contend is his greatest movie, follows the Thackeray book with some license. Indeed, Kubrick (like he did later with Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, which you really should read) made a movie, which happened to be based on the Thackeray novel. That is to say that Kubrick's movie, which stands on its own merits, is actually better than Thackeray's book. Making a 2001-like jump-cut from the particular to the general, then, it is safe to say that adaptations that can stand on their own need not be scrupulous with regard to the source material. Indeed, such scrupulosity can hobble a director's vision; Kubrick's was such that hobbling it would have been (1) likely impossible and (2) a bigger crime than any textual infidelities that might have crept in to the movies.
The question, then, is whether Visconti's vision was sufficient to create a movie that stands on its own. My answer is "Probably not." What I didn't mention is that Kubrick, even when improvising on the source material, always kept the feel of the text in his film. Watch Barry Lyndon, and tell me that it isn't entirely in keeping with Thackeray's tone and feel. You'll find that a tall order, at best. Visconti, in discarding what he did and redirecting the emphasis, lost the feel (intellectually speaking, of course) of Der Tod. Mann's book is, of course, so dense and tightly argued - so to speak - that it would be difficult to rearrange much without losing the feel. There would have been, on the other hand, ways to do it. Introducing Mann's all-important narrator would go a long way to preserving the feel of the book.
There is, I understand, the chance that in preserving the feel of the book one will make a boring, didactic, and ultimately unenjoyable movie. So I admit that my position more or less creates either a very narrow tightrope or a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't Morton's Fork for the director, but that's why a good director is a good director. That, then, is my conclusion on the matter: only the best directors should be in the business of making adaptations of books, and, even then, they should have an understanding of which books cry out for adaptation.
Visconti, for whatever reason (and this could, admittedly, be a function of my overfamiliarity with Der Tod), seems to have either misjudged Mann's book or his own talent.