I like to think I’m enough of a cinephile / film bore to understand that adapting a book for the screen isn’t simply a case of summarising the key bits of character, plot and action for a handy 110 minute run-time. Two of my favourite books are The Road and Cloud Atlas; both generally considered unfilmable (including by me) until John Hilcoat made a very decent stab at the former, staying true to the book’s core. Then the Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer took on David Mitchell’s sprawling, complex novel and made (by all accounts, I’ve not seen it yet) a noble failure / flawed but heroic effort.
I was pretty excited when I started reading Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook. The blurb promised good things, and I knew a lot about the basic plot from hearing many good reviews of the film adaptation, directed by David O Russell and starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The story sounded interesting, and I was keen to see the much-lauded and awarded film.
I really like the book. I love the narrative voice of Pat Peoples. I love the way his history is revealed slowly as his memories return and his denial of earlier events recedes. I love how we only gradually and partially learn about other characters, through his own limited cognitive and social skills. I love that we know more than he does through the way he describes other characters’ behaviour. It’s funny, touching and often subtle. It can be pretty dark, the family dynamics are complex and not always/often tinged with the titular Silver Linings. And the ending, while it could class as a Silver Lining, is only because of the clouds that still threaten and swirl above…
I also understand that reading a book and then seeing a film requires some sort of critical distancing: judge the book as a book, and the film as a film. And I like to think I can usually achieve this; but not this time. I Reckon Mr ‘O Russell’ has made a whole raft of choices about his adaptation, and virtually none of them work. Worse, I Reckon that most of them weren’t even necessary.
This post contains detailed plot spoilers to both the film and novel of The Silver Linings Playbook.
If you intend to read the book, don’t read the rest of this post. If you intend to see the film, I recommend you read the book instead…
8 months is nothing like more than 4 years…
Pat Peoples, the narrator of the novel of The Silver Linings Playbook, has been away. He’s been recovering from an intially unnamed breakdown, and it’s soon apparent he has been away for more than 4 years. The Philadelphia Eagles have an entirely new stadium, friends have got married and had children. At the start of the film, Bradley Cooper is plucked from the hospital by his mother, after (just) 8 months. This huge difference changes all sorts of dynamics in the relationships between characters; most specifically his wife Nikki, who is clearly still a target for Film Pat, and seems almost a possibility. But Novel-Pat later learns that Nikki has divorced him and remarried already… Clearly David O Russell and the studio didn’t want to make his goal seem quite so delusional, because that would, you know, be a real downer for the audience. So they made some shit up.
Who IS that man pretending to be Patrick Peoples Senior?
In the novel, Pat Peoples Snr is a tactiturn, withdrawn man. We learn he has mental health problems of his own, albeit possibly undiagnosed or at least untreated. He often retreats from his family to the solitude of his study. He offers little or no physical affection to his wife or children and is utterly self-absorbed in himself and the fortunes of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, whose results influence his entire state of mind.
I can only assume that DOR had Robert De Niro in mind, or somehow Mr De Niro got involved to shape the character, or the money men did, or something…! Film-Pat Snr is not Patrick Peoples, but Patrick Sollitano. You’ve got De Niro, you might as well make his character Italian-American… he’s not sullen and withdrawn, he’s a massive presence in the household, talking 13-to-the-dozen whenever he’s on screen. As I say, you’ve got De Niro… He hugs his children frequently, he offers fatherly advice to Pat. The extent of his own mental issues seem to stretch not much further than a mild OCD about remote controls. He has plans to open a restaurant, he’s a bookie. WHAT?
Ahhhhhhhhhh… E! A! G! L! E! S!
American Football and the Philadelphia Eagles play a massive part in the novel, with repeated detailed descriptions of game days, the games themselves, and especially Pat’s favourite players. Pat Snr’s entire state of being seems influenced by the results, which in turn influences the whole family. Pat Jnr is able to harness his love of The Eagles with his family to start ‘becoming normal’, and there are frequent tailgating parties. I Reckon about 70% of this is missing in the film, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but what’s also missing are the beers. When they tailgate at the stadium, or even when they’re at home, a lot of beers are drunk. Apparently the NFL weren’t happy about what was in the film, with its depiction of beer-swilling couch potatoes or tribal fans spoiling for a fight. Another artistic decision taken with an accountant’s pen…
Are you dancing?
Just as the (almost wholly masculine, beer-fuelled) Football sequences are largely excised from the screenplay, so the dance competition is blown out of all proportion. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Much more appealing to women, shows the characters growing and developing, feel-good action, glitzy location, costumes, extras, soundtrack, it proves the climax and focus for the 2nd half of the film in a way that’s utterly unlike the novel. There is a competition in the book, but it’s actually a very small event for people recovering from mental health problems. There’s no real prizes, almost no real stakes in it (except Pat takes the training seriously). It’s not a vehicle for his relationship with Tiffany, it’s not a metaphor for his recovery, at least not like in the film. It’s a part of something much more complex and human. But DOR and the film don’t do complex. They think they do, but they don’t. Novel-Pat even offers DOR a solution for treating the dancing, in that he devotes a chapter to describing their preparation in the form of a film montage. He actually narrates how different scenes could merge and be juxtaposed, showing their training, the ups and downs. For some reason, DOR ignores it.
I could go on…
There are many more details (and more significant issues), for example…
- The ‘incident’ that causes Pat to be incarcerated is kept secret in the novel until quite near the end. We know it must be Something Bad, and has something to do with Nikki, but we’re never sure. It comes as quite a shock when the details are revealed and does make us reassess our reactions to Pat. The film chooses to blurt this out in the first Act, which then clouds our judgement for the rest of the film. We’re afraid of Pat’s temper, but he’s definitely a wronged hero.
- The book never describes or diagnoses Pat’s condition. But upfront the film declares him to be ‘bipolar’, perhaps an “accessible” mental health problem for the audience that enables DOR to bypass any more nuanced depiction of Pat’s state of mind, and for Bradley Cooper to display all the standard tropes of manic energy (relentless jogging) and occasional downers. Sheesh.
- Much of the ‘interactions’ between Tiffany and Pat while jogging takes place in silence. She ‘appears’ when he’s out running, runs behind him in silence, then disappears. Of course this isn’t exactly cinematic. but the rat-a-tat dialogue that DOR inserts is just out of character. So many words saying so little… (like this blog, I hear you thinking to yourself!)
- Novel-Pat has a bad reaction to Kenny G. I know the feeling. Did Mr G complain? What did poor old Stevie Wonder do to deserve singling out as the wedding song that now triggers Pat’s episodes?
I loved David O Russell’s film Three Kings; it’s a brutal, original depiction of the conflict in Iraq. This film is a pale shadow of that earlier work. Despite an excellent performance from Jennifer Lawrence who deservedly won awards for her layered depiction of the damaged Tiffany, this film diminishes its source material in ways I Reckon are completely unnecessary. Critics praised the film for its presentation of mental health issues; but I Reckon if this is the best Hollywood can do, that’s a very poor show. Read the novel, please. It’s more subtle, more human, more profound.