An Unfinished Life
A novel by Mark Spragg
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole
The question that bugged me as I read Mark Spragg’s novel, AN UNFINISHED LIFE; Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, was which came first, the screenplay or the novel? The novel’s publish date was September 5th, the film version of the story, as written on the back of my reviewer’s copy is billed as, “Soon to be a major motion picture (Miramax, December, 2004)”. For a movie to be released in December it would have to be in the can by June, and quickly in the editing room for the weeks or months post-production takes. But before production there would have to have been pre-production; location scouts, costume people put in place, a director of cinematography and so on, and before that a director and talent had to be brought on board, and, with some back and forth, producers to produce the money. But way back even before any of that there had to be a screenplay. Okay, maybe someone got their hands on the manuscript and ran with the idea of pushing a film project before a screenplay was written, but you see where I am going.
Where exactly am I going? Partly, I’m going to the point that the book felt like a movie when I read it. The obvious scene by scene-ness of it, the way characters were gone into just enough to make me keep turning pages, but not enough to complicate the situation so if, say, the characters were going to show up in a movie, the transition wouldn’t be all that hard to make. It turns out Lasse Hallstrom directed the movie, “An Unfinished Life”. Hallstrom has made at least one great film, “My Life as a Dog”; he also made “Chocolat,” which I cannot comment on having not seen it. I did see the movie Hallstrom made of E. Annie Proulx’s novel, THE SHIPPING NEWS, which was a fine book, but an inferior movie in my estimation, though the visuals were astonishing, and, like the book, made me want to go to Newfoundland to see the blue icebergs. Kevin Spacey was miscast as Quoyle and the novel was butchered; it almost had to be butchered to make a movie out of it at all. Annie Proulx is on record as having been satisfied that the spirit of her book was kept reasonably in tact in the film version, but I have the cheek to disagree. Leaving aside Proulx’s occasional drop dead incredible prose, I disagree precisely because the characters were written to be read. They are human and their progress toward a greater version of themselves takes time and more than just dialogue, and the shorthand characters that are usually written for films (“major motion pictures”, anyway) are robbed of half their blood. Movies, for one, are hard pressed to present an internal life. If a book is all about plot or sentiment, no problem, but if a book involves complex characters in complex situations, where some sort of personal denouement occurs that is dramatic on a level further along than the obvious or superficial, which good books tend to be, the action cannot break down into a simple situation of conflict, resolution and tidy climax in the space of ninety minutes; the bread and butter time frame of most movies. I mean, we are not talking about John Cassavetes’ idea of film characters here.
So, reading the character Einar Gilkyson (played by Robert Redford in the film) in Spragg’s novel, I felt I was mostly getting the surface of the old guy, a Wyoming rancher who lost his only son in a car crash and who blames the death on his sexy daughter-in-law Jean (played by Jennifer Lopez). There is a kid in the book (I don’t know who is playing her) that Einar doesn’t know exists until she and her mom show up one day, ten years after the car crash, fleeing the clutches of a violent loser mom had taken up with. The kid is named Griff, after her dad, and we are told that her mother has been with a string of abuser boyfriends and that she hates her for it, and the poor girl sounds wise beyond her years. The book gives each major character a shot at their own POV in a sort of over the shoulder third person narrative, which means less likelihood of an omniscient voice probing too deeply into their unconscious motivations, which translates into things being conveniently spelled out. Morgan Freeman plays another old guy, Mitch, who has worked at Einar’s ranch since they served together in the Korean War. Mitch hadn’t much of a life before he and Einar became battle buddies and he is reasonably content living in the bunkhouse except that the ranch is not functioning anymore because Einar’s too old, his son is dead, and Mitch was mauled by a bear and is seriously mangled as a result, plus he’s hooked on daily shots of morphine, administered by Einar, to manage the pain. I don’t know who is playing the louse, the nasty boyfriend Roy, in the movie, but he gets a shot at a voice too. The inside of Roy’s head is actually pretty funny, if one-dimensional, bigoted and predictable. “…Roy blinks against the flash of headlights. He knows damn well there isn’t a woman in the world who can keep her mouth shut long enough, not through a man’s whole lifetime, where she won’t need to get smacked at least once. And he knows you wouldn’t have to if you didn’t love them. That’s just a law of nature.” There is an old dog in the book too, Karl, who is also predictable as a device.
All the elements are in place for a big feature film: A date night; popcorn, Kleenex for the Kleenex moments (there are at least two), and the Wyoming landscape will doubtless be spectacular to watch. The lights go down, Robert Redford surveys his once glorious ranch, he’ll milk his one remaining cow and feed his old horse, then he’ll go give Mitch his dope and we will leave the landscape and enter into the brisk, pithy dialogue of two long time friends, one of whom is dying, and the other who feels already dead. Or does he feel dead inside? That would be Einar, the hard bitten, decent guy who lost first the mother of his child, then the grown up child. Einar is off the bottle and Mitch is on the opiates. Cut to Griff waking up in a ratty, tin trailer home somewhere in Iowa. Every morning she packs her bag in case she and her mother have to hit the road. Her mother’s been smacked around again (picture J. Lo with a shiner and a make believe sock on the jaw), and Roy feels so bad that she made him do it, again. Mom works in a dry cleaners (now picture J. LO in her synthetic dry cleaner uniform, never mind), it’s just another dead end job in a nowhere town, another trailer park and another low life boyfriend. A problem for me was the abuse. Roy comes right out of a case study, but Jean had a real lover in her husband, Griffin, and there is no suggestion in the book about prior abuse, yet Jean is a serial victim. But she’s not a victim. Oh, make up my mind. She struck me as self-indulgent, confusing sexual appetite with a sedative (okay, there is that sedative element to sex), but she’s independent minded and fairly feisty, too. While I’m at it, Einar never bothered to check out the accident, never even knew his daughter-in-law was pregnant at the funeral. Mitch knew. No, he knew Jean was not to blame, not about the unborn kid. The dramatic tension mounts when Einar and Jean confront, and then there is the bear who shows up again, and there’s Roy, and the race card even gets a little play and the book is entertaining as hell and so full of holes as literature that I pretty much concluded the screenplay (written by Spragg and his wife, Virginia) came before the novel.
What I can’t understand, given the abysmal state of fiction literacy today, why would Knopf bother to publish a book with the movie coming out two months later? Maybe there was a publishing deal in place before either was penned. The book is alright. I read it in record time; it’s a perfectly serviceable read. The human condition isn’t intensified or made clearer, I don’t think I learned anything and there are no turns of sentence or nuanced language that really soar. Spragg’s book is like reading Cormack McCarthy without the big descriptions or quite the high flown melodrama. The writing is direct, clean. Here’s Jean when she first sees the mangled Mitch (she’d known him before his meet up with the bear), “She steps in smiling without even breaking her stride. She stares at the mutilated side of his face as she sets the plate on the workbench. Her eyes don’t flicker and her smile doesn’t wilt.” And here is nine year old Griff when she first sees Mitch (also delivering a tray of food), “She walks out of the glare and stops, wincing at the sight of him as though she’s been slapped. She stares down at the tray, and he leans back in his chair. He saw the flash of panic in her eyes and imagines her counting the objects on the tray, the glasses, plates, the paper napkins, counting them twice, wishing there were more things to count. He asks, ‘Are you feeling dizzy?’” Simple, direct, as I said, entertaining.
I’m seriously guessing the screenplay came first. Mark Spragg wrote at least one other, “Everything That Rises,” for TNT, with Dennis Quaid, who also directed. I don’t suppose it matters much either way which came first. I wonder about anyone attempting to make movies out of literature, though. THE ENGLISH PATIENT, for example, a good book, not Ondaatje’s best writing, not his most brilliant (for that see, COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER, or, IN THE SKIN OF A LION). The movie version is fine, there was enough to extrapolate from the book to make an interesting film, but most of the novel is lost in the adventure/love story that the movie became. All the stuff Michael Ondaatje has to say, the thoughts and ideas are not in the movie, and they couldn’t be. The genres are not at all alike. They tell stories completely differently. One uses actors/dialogue and visuals and sound (music usually), the other uses the imagination of the reader to see what is described, and dialogue is almost extra icing on top of the characters and ideas and the internals of a book. Maybe short stories better lend themselves movies, or lighter weight novels like, AN UNFINISHED LIFE.
– Copyright J. Stefan Cole